Sunday, September 1, 2013

They just won't get involved...

Authentic engagement rarely emerges from community meetings
An email showed up this week from a crime prevention colleague in a far-away city.

“Not sure if it's a sign of the times or just the fast pace, long work hours, and long bus commutes…but it’s a bit of an uphill struggle to get some communities to take ownership of their neighborhood issues.”

It’s a theme I’ve heard over and over - getting residents, shop-owners and locals out of their homes, away from TV to “do” crime prevention. Setting aside their boredom (or their fears) and working together in common cause.

That theme hovers raptor-like over work that depends on building community. Sometimes called capacity building, or in the latest sociological parlance collective efficacy, this is the idea of community engagement.

Engagement is the road kill of community crime prevention, in one moment obvious and in another impossible.

Academics study it, policy wonks insist on it and social workers claim it brings meaning to neighborhood life. Yet none of them tell us exactly how to do it, how to get people outside and “engaged”.

In criminology the grandest experiment in community engagement was the juvenile delinquency work in the famous Chicago Area Project back in the 1930s and 1940s (still going on). Even today strains of that work echo in studies about cutting youth violence with community engagement. 


Police too did their bit during the community policing era with community engagement strategies, though they were usually limited to those monstrosities where cops sat up front in some hall to "engage" the community (sort of) in community meetings.

There were experiments with neighborhood substations, now long gone (closed in the name of funding cuts as expenditures turned instead to fancy computer programs, night-vision goggles and new military equipment). In most cities all that remains is the police/community meeting room (usually adjacent to the front foyer at HQ).

And still none of that tells us anything about the simplest question: How do we get neighborhood dwellers engaged and into the public realm – their street, parks, community halls – where their lives intersect in a real way? 


Then I remembered this lovely, formally adorned, Muslim mother at a SafeGrowth training a few years ago. She came up to me and said quietly, “you know, in the Muslim community engagement in daily life starts with great meals and tasty food. Celebration starts in the stomach.” Actually, I thought, it does for everyone! Potlucks, barbeques, corn and hotdog roasts, lemonade stands!  

Interesting, isn’t it! It is the fun and joyful things of community life like food, music, and play that draw people out. It's those times when they meet and share in each others lives in a gradual and ‘smell-the-roses’ kind of way. Less community organizer and more community jester.

Kinetic sculpture race down the street - bath tub boats on steroids

4 Replies so far - Add your comment

  1. So true.

    The communities around me that are vibrant and residents get quite involved have street dances, barbecues, kid events, meetings and updates for residents from council members always attached to some good eating. They also have a voluntary but vibrant local resident association.

    A good example of this is a long standing association within the City of Kawartha Lakes called the Sturgeon Point Association. Very little crime in the area and there is a significant level of economical diversity among the residents yet there is a huge sense of community. There is no single individual driving this but they have a voice that is recognized due to their solidarity.

    Again, as your article so aptly put it the social event is the glue to start the interpersonal conversations.

    Churches/religious groups figured this out centuries ago.

    Greg Mills

  2. Great examples, Greg, of how the "sense" of community inoculates against crime. True also, some religious groups - as well as other cultural groups like social clubs, recreational activities, and active neighbourhood associations, have already figured this out.

    Now we must rediscover those specific best practices and learn how to apply them to the down and out places where they have so little of the good stuff and far too much of the bad!

    Thanks for the observation.

  3. You're spot on Greg. We have one substation left, but mine closed. And yes, we built a beautiful new police station -- with a community meeting room right off the lobby.

  4. Very much enjoyed your article on community meetings and crime prevention.

    My own perspective from my task force work was that so often the department casts to wide a net and announces a “community” meeting in some god forsaken hall while failing to break down or personalize the community- targeting a huge rather than a narrow segment to address particular and unique issues and truly engage.

    PR efforts gone bad.



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