Building Collective Efficacy

"How do we make sure that the neighborhood stays clean?" asked Joe Muroff from the Bronx District Attorney's Office at last Monday's meeting of the community advisory board.

We had been talking about some of Bronx Community Solutions latest initiatives, including graffiti removal, the mural project at the Bronx Zoo, a step streets project and our ongoing community service work around the Bronx courthouse.

These projects are part of our agenda to make community service more meaningful and visible to the Bronx, and it's already paid dividends: enthusiastic feedback from community-based organizations that have hosted our community service crews, as well as great publicity for the project.

Joe's point was a good one, however: while Bronx Community Solutions could paint over graffiti, clean up a step street or pick up trash in a gritty neighborhood, the project wouldn't have much lasting impact if the graffiti, and the trash, returned.

For a neighborhood to turn a corner, and transform itself from an attractive nuisance to a safe, clean space that feels safe to walk around at night, takes more than a single clean-up project. The hard work is leaving behind the capacity to keep the space clean.

It's what social scientists call "collective efficacy" - a measure of neighbors' ability to keep their own community safe, clean and attractive. (Thanks to anonymous for posting a link to an article on collective efficacy in a previous post). The basic idea is the more collective efficacy a neighborhood has, the safer it will be.

There's a long, and sometimes contentious, debate about whether criminal justice agencies help build collective efficacy or depress it by aggressively policing quality-of-life crime. Wherever you stand on the issue, it seems clear that an enforcement-only strategy probably won't work, nor will isolated community self-help efforts that don't tap into governmental resources.

That's the challenge we face - encouraging residents and community-based organizations to take up where our community service crews leave off, through initiatives like "Adopt a Step Street" or by recruiting community-based organizations to sponsor community service projects like cleaning an empty lot that's about to transformed into a community center.

I'm also optimistic about the power of publicity. I've been struck by how cynical most average citizens are about mandated community service. Too many people see it as the urban equivalent of breaking rocks by the side of the highway - make-work that has little community impact and is purposely humiliating.

If we can show, by contrast, that community service can be meaningful and dignified, and tied to ongoing community efforts to reclaim a park or street corner, I think we'll have gone a long way to changing perceptions, both of the court system and neighborhoods where the work itself takes place.

That's where the community advisory board plays an important role - in focusing our community service efforts on neighborhoods that need it the most, identifying community-based organizations who can serve as our partners and helping to publicize our efforts.