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Volume 48 Number 1
Edited by Chuck Sepers and Meagan Sweeney
Written by Kristy Shockley (firstname.lastname@example.org), East Pawtucketville Neighborhood Group
University of Massachusetts, Lowell
Recently, I have worked with the East Pawtucketville Neighborhood group (EPNG), a nonprofit group aimed at improving life in East Pawtucketville, home to many University of Massachusetts, Lowell (UML) students. The group developed enhanced relationships between year-round city residents and university students. City residents often blame students for excess noise and trash in the neighborhood and students often feel targeted by city residents who report these activities to law enforcement. While tension may exist between the two groups, it is important to get the groups to work together in a constructive manner to make the neighborhood enjoyable for all. If the quality of the neighborhood is improved, all of the residents may feel a deeper connection to both their neighborhood and their neighbors. The EPNG is tackling how to promote a sense of community among all residing in the neighborhood. The EPNG attempts to promote a sense of community by encouraging power, social action, and collaboration within the group and among residents.
Empowering residents is one of the ways in which the EPNG aims to promote a better sense of community in the neighborhood. One strategy used was the development of Neighborhood Leadership Programs (NLP; Ayón & Lee, 2009). Ayón and Lee (2009) found that leadership programs that focus on harnessing skills, such as team building, fund raising, and public speaking, allow community members to become better at community organizing. Training these skills increased the ability of individuals to act in their community. Teaching these skills to those who are not already leaders may also greatly improve one’s ability to locate resources and take action. The EPNG does not offer formal leadership training for community members; the group provided opportunities for neighbors to improve their community organizing skills during neighbor meetings. Neighbors are encouraged to speak up during meetings about issues related to the community. This helped to train public speaking and problem solving skills. Facilitators did not provide answers to questions people had, but provided opportunities to discuss important issues and brainstorm solutions among group members.
Many themes of the neighborhood meetings included how to effectively utilize community resources. Topics included noise violations and how to address trash in the neighborhood. Solutions included contacting landlords to address noise complaints instead of apartment residents or law enforcement. This strategy was effective because landlords have the ability to make policy changes to limit the number of noise violations. It was decided that the city would be contacted directly to address issues related to trash accumulation shifting responsibility from residents to utility services. Neighbors that attended the group have learned that the best way to solve problems is not to simply complain, but to take action steps towards solving the problem. Other neighbors have e-mailed the group about concerns related to park cleanliness and missing street signs. The leaders of the group make these complaints a part of our meeting agendas and talk with the group about steps to take in order to reach a solution. In these instances solutions could be organizing a park clean-up or contacting the city to replace the missing street sign. While these may seem like simple solutions, it is important that the neighbors take part in the problem solving process so that they know what to do next time a similar problem occurs.
Another way in which residents are able to gain power is through collective efficacy. Collective efficacy concerns whether or not an individual and others trust and believe in their ability to bring about social change in their community (Ohmer & Beck, 2006). Ohmer and Beck (2006) found that collective efficacy was related to whether or not an individual took part in community organizations and activities. Specifically, community members were more likely to become involved in organizations and activities when they had higher levels of trust and belief in the organization’s ability to promote social change. Also, community members had higher levels of trust and belief in their organization when more individuals were a part of the group. This finding illustrates the importance of social capital, or the number of relationships held by the organization (Alaimo, Reischl, & Allen, 2010). Alaimo et al. (2010) found that becoming involved in an organization or event increases an individual’s perception of social capital. The EPNG has been able to retain regular participation by some neighbors in the community, but has struggled to increase their levels of community participation. However, the group has been visible throughout the community through neighborhood events, newspaper articles, and neighborhood meetings in which local officials, law enforcement, and university officials were in attendance.
Lastly, the EPNG encourages a sense of community through collaborations within the group and among residents. Community-university partnerships are one form of collaboration that has been successful for other organizations in communities. For example, Stanford University worked with two communities in order to address youth concerns (Anyon, Gardner, & Fernández, 2007). The collaboration with Stanford University and the communities lead to the successful creation of the Youth Engaged in Leadership and Learning (YELL) program. However, it is important to note that past university collaborations with these communities have failed. Researchers indicated that the reason behind the failures included: the university neglecting to include residents in problem defining, explaining of results of their research and its application to the community, and developing long terms plans. The Stanford University collaboration was successful because they were aware of these challenges and how to overcome them. Silka and colleagues (2008) have highlighted other challenges that community-university partnerships may encounter throughout their collaboration. Such challenges may include loss of financial support, change in interests or objectives for the partnerships, and a change within the organization. The Lowell Project, which included collaboration between many organizations in Lowell including UML, focused on environmental justice issues. The collaboration faced these challenges and was able to succeed over the years because of the ability of partners to reach out to new potential partners, find new creative ways to continue working on similar projects, and make a long term commitment (Silka, et al., 2008). Other researchers also note the benefits of participating in projects that will last over a number of years because of the trust and ties that the partnerships are able to create with time (Savan, 2004). Not only is one of the founders of the EPNG a faculty at UML, but the group has collaborated with UML on projects and concerns in the community. During our Green Day event at the end of September, UML played a big role in providing support in the form of volunteers, musicians, and other participants. The UML Fraternity advisor was present at the event and ensured that fraternity brothers were available to help. Musicians provided entertainment throughout the event. Other participants from UML included clubs that were involved in various tabling activities. Overall, without the support from UML the event may not have been successful. However, as our neighborhood group continues to collaborate with the university it will be important for us to keep the concerns of residents in mind. Many concerns of residents currently surround the level of noise from students in the neighborhoods during the weekends. Our group has attempted to address this issue and let residents know it is a concern to our group as well. We have done this by involving the university staff dean of student affairs in our neighborhood meetings. During our meeting they provide updates to noise complaints and parties that the university has followed up on. The university officials have also kept residents up to date on campus policies that are becoming stricter about off-campus infractions.
My work throughout the semester with the EPNG has allowed me to see many community principles in action while attempting to bridge the relationship between city residents and university students. While the neighborhood group aims to improve these relationships and the quality of the neighborhood, it appears to me that the group is also trying to promote a sense of community among all those in the neighborhood through power, social action, and collaboration. I believe that the group has been somewhat successful in its attempt to promote a better sense of community. However, I think that it will take a lot of time for the group to build credibility in the community and gain the trust of all residents. At the moment, participation from community members is low but has the ability to increase over the years with the more work the group does in the neighborhood. Next semester, I plan to work with the community on organizing a neighborhood festival to honor the community’s French-Canadian history, which will be funded through the Neighborhood Innovation Grant. This will involve working with residents, community members, and organizations to develop a French-Canadian planning committee for the festival. I will act as a guide to the planning committee, but they will be the ones to make decisions about the festival such as type of activities, entertainment, and food. In order to organize the festival I will also have to work with the city to receive permission and permits to host the event in our neighborhood. Overall, this event will extend upon the work that I have done this semester, as well as the neighborhood group’s goal to improve neighborhood quality.
Alaimo, K., Reischl, T. M., & Allen, J. O. (2010). Community gardening, neighborhood meetings, and social capital. Journal of community psychology,38(4), 497-514.
Anyon, Y., & Fernández, M. A. (2007). Realizing the potential of community-university partnerships. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 39(6), 40-45.
Ayón, C., & Lee, C. D. (2009). Building strong communities: An evaluation of a neighborhood leadership program in a diverse urban area. Journal of Community Psychology, 37(8), 975-986.
Ohmer, M., & Beck, E. (2006). Citizen participation in neighborhood organizations in poor communities and its relationship to neighborhood and organizational collective efficacy. J. Soc. & Soc. Welfare, 33, 179.
Savan, B. (2004). Community–university partnerships: Linking research and action for sustainable community development. Community Development Journal, 39(4), 372-384.
Silka, L., Cleghorn, G. D., Grullón, M., & Tellez, T. (2008). Creating community-based participatory research in a diverse community: A case study.