The inner strength of troubled neighbourhoods
From an August 2016 article by David Bornstein
From 1994 to 2012, 53 communities across Washington State, USA set up networks to address youth violence with less than $1 per resident per annum funding from Government. The State helped these groups establish processes to cultivate leadership and broad partnerships, work with local citizens to set priorities and goals, use evidence to make decisions, and continue educating themselves.
Over the years, it also disseminated research about the connections between so-called adverse childhood experiences — prolonged stress on children resulting from abuse, neglect or family dysfunction — and the associated risks for social and health problems, including academic failure, mental and physical illness, substance abuse and violence. [See my previous blog on this research] Awareness about these experiences has proved vital to understanding the need to protect children from chronic adversity or trauma.
Some community networks took off; others didn’t and closed. The ones that took off were far better at reducing “health and safety problems for the entire community population”; those that functioned best even reduced “adverse childhood experiences” in young adults. They found that among a dozen communities where networks were sustained for at least eight years, there were significant reductions in births to teenage mothers, dropouts from high school, youth suicides, and youth arrests for violent crime.
Here is a story of one community. In Cowlitz County:
From 2002 to 2012, births to teen mothers declined by almost two-thirds, and youth arrests for violent crime and high school dropout rates dropped by close to half.and the changes in the Highlands — the poorest part of Cowlitz County, with a poverty rate of 45 percent — have been particularly noteworthy.
To shape a revitalisation plan for the neighbourhood, city officials invoked the community network ethos of “engaging local people to identify and prioritize their own needs” and went door-to-door to speak with residents.
What did residents want changed? At the top of the list was the neighbourhood’s appearance. They wanted porch lights turned on at night, yards maintained, garbage and debris hauled away, and feral dogs rounded up. They asked the city to build a walking and biking trail along the neighbourhood’s south side, an area alongside a flood control ditch and industrial road that was dark and poorly maintained.
Outsiders believed that the people there were dealing drugs and wanted the lights off and the dogs around to keep officials away. It turned out the residents couldn’t afford light bulbs. They said, ‘You guys think we need all this therapy, but we actually need the garbage picked up and the wild dogs cleared out.’
Residents had strong views about the kind of community they wanted to create but they didn’t know how to build it. So the city helped the community win a grant to hire a “community coach” for three years.
The coach started by eliciting leadership from residents. “For the most part, people welcomed me into their homes,” she recalled. “And I started to recognize what a wonderful community it was. We’d just sit and talk. What do you want? How do you want to do it? We started with porch lights. So many people didn’t have them. We had light bulbs donated and we had a big celebration."
This encouragement left residents believing that change might be possible. The city found funding to build the walking and biking trail. The Highland residents purchased and renovated a community centre, set up a community library, created a community garden, and organized a graffiti-removal team, block watches, and scores of neighborhood cleanups.
Initially, residents were reluctant to interact with the police but soon, they and police officers were gathering for monthly “cop chats.” The police set up a Facebook page and asked the community to help solve problems and were overwhelmed by the tips received.
The residents also planned many events, including summer movie nights, free laundry days, a free bike program, school supply giveaways, a Christmas support program. It created a monthly newsletter and a photo book about the neighbourhood. And the city continued to provide workshops in “adverse childhood experiences” and how to strengthen families.
The lesson: When neighbours know one another, and have a conveniently located centre where they learn about health and social services, problems are more likely to be noticed by neighbours, teachers, professionals, or the police before they become crises.
“So many people who are living in poverty don’t believe they are capable of anything,” says the community organiser. “This work is all about helping people to recognise that they are capable of great things, and helping them accomplish them. People can make a difference. The way is to bring people together and make them stronger. That’s what moves mountains.”
If we want to transform our communities, churches are ideally placed to be not only 'community coaches', offer community centres, liaise with other agencies, increase knowledge, etc but also share the gospel and minister to spiritual needs. Could you be the catalyst in a deprived area close to you?
An example of this is given in my blog on 'An agent of reconciliation'
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