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 ofcommunity 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?
FOOD AND FUN
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.