How many kids do you know by name in your neighborhood?
In early August of this year, in the Dorchester area of Boston, 4 young women sitting in a parked car were shot. Three of them died. At a funeral for one of the victims, Sharrice Perkins, Bishop John Borders of Morning Star church said this.."Violent Criminals are not afraid of police, of politicians, of jail. They are afraid of only one thing..the light. We have to expose the darkness. We must call names!"
The "light" that Bishop Borders refers to is about more than reporting criminals to authorities. It is about a community acting like a community.
Adults who know each other and each others kids. Adults who act like adults and watch out for each other and each other's kids. Communities that - while they cant stop violence and crime completely- act intolerant of it, intolerant of disorder, intolerant of neglect.
When you ask people, which I have, all over the country, what "community" means to them, there is an iconic, universal story that gets repeated over and over again in one form or another...and it goes something like this;
"Well, when I was a kid and I was off with my friends in the neighborhood, and we would get into mischief, there was always somebody, old Mr. so and so, or Mrs. so and so, who would call our names -- "I know that's you young man..." They'd yell at us and run us off. And the worst part is by the time I got home, my father would already know and we would catch hell again."
This is a curious story and a powerful one that tells us a lot about what makes a community a "community." These are adults explaining "community" through their adolescent eyes, and situation that at the time, they hated. They hated that kind of scrutiny. At least on the outside it turns out. But deep down, these same teenagers were understanding and getting comfort from the knowledge that "the adults are in charge here - thank GOD someone is in charge here."
Of course today, community...place-based community/as opposed to virtual community...requires a level of attention and vigilance that is increasingly hard to adults to deliver on. But that doesn't change the fact that it is needed. All of our attempts over the years of re-inventing community and trying to find the magic bullet to re-building community - these are all proxies for something fundamental that is missing...that not enough people know each other well enough to have even the rudimentary connectivity needed to functionally share space.
It may be that the secret to community building is much much simpler than we have understood. That the secret is the more people know each other -- as irritating as that can be to young people and as awkward and even threatening that that can feel to adults -- the more the community can inoculate itself to dysfunction, disorder and neglect. The litmus test for whether a community is truly a community may be equally simple....such as..."how many people do you know by name on your block? Or ...how many of the neighborhood kids do you know by name on your street?"
The "light" that Bishop Borders called for can only emanate from one place - and that is not an agency, or a program, or a foundation, or a city councilor. The only source is the bold choice by regular people, neighbors, to connect to one another.
The Lesson of Broken Windows
In the early 1980's, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling introduced a theory of crime prevention which became known as the "Broken Windows" theory and which subsequently served as the basis of the modern "community policing" approach practiced now in cities across the country. Here is an exerpt from a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article...
"Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars."
As a young new CDC Executive Director in Lowell MA at the time, working with neighbors to improve community safety, I had the chance to bring George Kelling to Lowell to meet with our leadership group. I remember him showing us data that tracked "fear" levels in various communities along side actual crime statistics. He showed us that even as serious crime statistics dropped in communities, the 'fear index' remained high or sometimes even increased in areas where petty crimes, vandalism and the like, remained constant. That kind of data he said, pushed him and his colleague to look closer at what made for safe communities.
Broken Windows is based on a simple idea....'if we take care of the simple stuff, relentlessly and in real time, we can create an environment where people have confidence, occupy public space and innoculate us against larger more serious dysfunction taking root.' In other words our focus needs to be FIRST on creating and maintaining an ordered environment which invites and encourages stewardship of all kinds. if we do this we (the collective community "we") have a greater chance of stemming serious crime and dysfunction.
This theory has always been compelling to me and I have witnessed and be part of enough "broken windows" practice over the years to be convinced of its effectiveness. This thinking is also at the core of our practice here at Trusted Space, where we believe that our principal role as community builders is to shape safe spaces for people to act on their own and the collective aspirations. What Broke Windows tells us is that if we are relentless about some simple things ...ie fixing the window immediately when it is broken...then we can maintain a foundation of safety that induces other good things to happen. In this case - people continue to occupy the space with positive and productive uses - as opposed to conceding the space to negative and dangerous uses.
At Trusted Space we believe that the equivalent of the Broken Window in neighbor to neighbor relationships is "I dont know you." Following, the equivalent of fixing of the Broken Window is "I have gotten to know you." I have introduced myself. I've met your kids. I know their name. I say hi on the street. When I see you out of context downtown I DONT pretend not to know you. When I see your kid on the corner I call him or her by name. Perhaps I've even been in your house or you in mine. Imagine your neighborhood where the net amount of this kind of connectivity were increased by even 200% or 300%? Imagine the increase in attention and vigilance and how this could signal to young people...'maybe the adults do actually know what the heck they are doing...someone is in charge here.'
Simple. Not easy. But we do know how to do this. Trusted Space focuses - through a project called NeighborUP America, and through creating 21st century "neighboring" devices and approaches - on ways to make this simple stuff easier to do and easier to scale up through expanding networks.
Trusted Space Partners is a team of experienced community developers and designers who are supporting collaborative community change initiatives all over the United States.