Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Social Capital in the Lower Highlands

Before you read this post -- especially if you're associated with a neighborhood group -- I want to steer you towards two websites:, and They both deal with the decline of social capital in America over the past several decades and ways that neighborhood and other groups are working to reverse that trend.

Last night at the UML discussion series, Taya Dixon Mullane of the Lower Highlands Neighborhood Group spoke about the challenges associated with establishing and building an neighborhood group that can break down cultural barriers, raise overall levels of neighborhood trust, and generally improve quality-of-life for residents -- in short, how something like LHNG can help improve the overall level of social capital in its backyard.

Of course, there are many challenges associated with the collective-action problem of getting people to volunteer precious commodities like time and money to an organization that they don't understand, or may even feel wary towards (based on some rocky history between certain residents and an older version of LHNG that was disbanded earlier this decade).

Some of the ideas presented were as simple as raising awareness of the group among residents by flyering and word-of-mouth. The critical mass problem that groups like LHNG face is that they need higher levels of membership and activity to gain more clout in the city, which would in turn lead to more members and activity, which would in turn lead to more clout, and so on.

The best ideas presented all had this in common -- they appealed to people's self-interest.

The first such idea was one thrown out by a student (sorry, don't have names) regarding the fact that many teenagers already have community service requirements associated with group memberships (like JROTC) or for college applications. For community events like neighborhood clean-up days, the group can quickly mobilize a lot of young people by dangling out the "this will count towards your requirement" carrot. This might bring out their siblings, their parents, and their peers. Teenagers, probably more than any other group, are highly susceptible to peer influence (I hesitate to say 'pressure' here, because 'please help rake this yard' doesn't sound as ominous as 'try inhaling this, it won't hurt'). For ANY group of people, though, social proof is simply one of the most powerful forces on the human psyche. If 50 million Elvis fans can't be wrong, then 50 teenagers in bright t-shirts cleaning up trash must be onto something, too. Impressionable younger siblings see it, want to participate, and potential lifelong LHNGers are made.

The second idea was thrown out by the student from Chicago with the yellow shirt who works at Starbucks (I'll try to get names next time!) It also involves the use of a group with a strong self-interest in the neighborhood, not to mention TONS of pre-existing, built-in social capital -- religious organizations. Within that neighborhood alone, you've got Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist religious sites with influential leaders. These leaders stand to benefit from heightened neighborhood organization involvement, and they can quickly mobilize people by encouraging them to get involved. No one is likely to mistake reaching out to these leaders as endorsing any one particular religion, but the obvious symbiotic relationship here is that a religious center (or at least any good one, that is) is always looking to reach out to more souls. It's a great place for the group to reach out to, in turn, because a religious service is one of the biggest concentrations of neighborhood people that already takes place on a regular basis. Letting a group like LHNG make a five-minute announcement during a service helps all the parties involved.

The third idea, introduced by Steve Hattan of the Belvidere Neighborhood Group, involves targeting the local businesses. Again, here you've got a clear case of great mutual benefit -- a local pizzeria that agrees to show up at a meeting, listen to the neighborhood's issues, and offer up some free grub for the locals gets the benefit of some great PR and advertising for a low price. Think about it -- bringing their product for folks to enjoy is not only (probably) cheaper than making a financial donation, but it's WAY more impactful for the target customers. If someone showed up at LDNA meeting, for instance, with some good-tasting food, I'm going to remember it every time I walk past the store. What might've cost them a few bucks initially could literally mean hundreds, or, for the more ravenous among us, thousands of dollars down the line. Also, just like property owners, business owners are natural stakeholders, maybe even more so. Find ways to get them involved, because as the neighborhood goes, so will they. The Lower Highlands seems like an ideal test-bed for something like this, too, because of the existing cultural barriers between many of the businesses (and their owners) and some of the residents -- for them to meet on common ground like an LHNG meeting could mean a lot more revenue for some, and a lot more exposure to foods they never knew existed for others.

A fourth idea was thrown out by too many people to point the credit in any one direction -- let people have fun. Asking people to give up their evening time with families just to attend a meeting may be too tall an order for some, but events like block parties, outdoor concerts, and public fair sorts of things bring out a much wider range of people. Stephen Greene from LDNA wrapped this strategy up succinctly: "Break bread, not heads." You can let things take off from there -- plenty of anecdotal evidence was brought up to support the idea that good old-fashioned fun is probably the best way to get people to learn their neighbors' names and build bridges from there.

To summarize, all the best ideas offered for groups to promote themselves went way beyond exhortations to neighbors to *just get involved* and tapped into the idea that great things can happen when parties who can both benefit work together towards a common aim. And again, for a lot of great examples of neighborhood social capital building, check out the Bowling Alone and Better Together sites -- those guys are the real pros.

The final chapter in this series is going to be next Tuesday (7 p.m., Room 205 at Coburn Hall), and the topic is homelessness.


Marianne said...

Thanks for the wrap-up of the meeting - I've been wanting to go to them but have a regular Tuesday night engagement. This topic is of special interest to me and it's great to hear your take on it.

KMM said...

Thanks so much!

The New Englander said...


Glad you guys liked the wrap-up...I've had a lot of fun covering these..