SAFE-16 Winter Safety Conference offers forum to examine trends in community organizing

by Joe Narkin

(Plain Press, March 2011) Gathered under a theme of “Good Neighbors Make Good Neighborhoods,” 80 residents of the Cudell, Edgewater, and West Boulevard neighborhoods in Ward 16 attended the Safe-16 Winter Safety Conference at the West Side Community House on February 8 to engage in a discussion of trends in community organizing.

“While most of Cleveland has declined, this neighborhood (Ward 16) has remained relatively stable, but, with the growth of the African American and Hispanic communities, the population has become more diverse,” said Blaine Griffin, Director of the Community Relations Department of the City of Cleveland, analyzing census data comparing population and other demographic trends during the decade spanning 1990 to 2000.

While data from the recently completed national census for the year 2010 has not yet been made available, as of the year 2000, the City of Cleveland has rated the Edgewater neighborhood as stable and the Cudell and West Boulevard neighborhoods as rating in a range between transitional and stable. In their neighborhood typology scale, the City of Cleveland rates neighborhoods as stable, transitional, fragile, or distressed.

“It is the community that basically dictates how safe it is,” said Griffin. “Your best ability is your availability; getting your community to work with you requires time, energy, imagination, understanding your environment, ability to adapt, and patience,” he said.

Effective community organizing in the 21st Century also requires a community to utilize the latest trends in technology and social media outlets, according to Griffin, who noted that President Barack Obama issues two to three twitters per week to inform citizens regarding issues. He also noted that the public call for regime change in Egypt was largely successful due to its effective use of social media in organizing rallies and protests.

Griffin, who worked as a community organizer in Cleveland prior to going to work for the administration of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, said that there are two basic types of community organizing: “organizing through crisis and proactive organizing.” Proactive organizing allows communities to make necessary changes, utilize community strengths, and, thereby, prevent problems and crisis, said Griffin.

“Organize around your strengths; this will make it easier to organize around conflict,” said Griffin. In order to be successful, community organizers should “make sure that all streets and areas are involved and that you expand your outreach to go deeper than the usual suspects; you want to engage people who have never been to a meeting before,” he said.

But effective community organizing should involve more than just work and effort to address problems. “Nobody wants to go to a meeting just to hear complaints and mouth rhetoric; celebrate sometimes,” advises Griffin.

“Good citizens make a good democracy,” said Mark Chupp, a community organizing expert and a professor with the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. “The muscle of our democracy is failing; we are not doing what we should, so we rely on government to do more,” said Chupp, comparing the democratic process to a muscle that can atrophy due to lack of use.

In addition to traditional forms of organizing, which center on the address of specific problems or on regular meetings of block clubs and neighborhood organizations, Chupp recommends a more informal, “network-centered approach” to community organizing through which “relationships are the building blocks of good neighborhoods” and neighbors gather together as a social unit with the goal of “reweaving the fabric of relationships in our neighborhoods.”

The network-centered approach to community organizing recommended by Chupp involves “community circles” such as those being formed in Cleveland Heights. Under this model, neighborhood unity is enhanced through a series of three dinner gatherings of 10 to 12 neighbors with the majority of participants unknown to each other. During these meetings, the focus should be on relationships, not problems.

Traditional neighborhood relationships have changed rapidly over the past several decades due to increased diversity, increased mobility, a global economy, and advanced information technology, according to Chupp.

The network-centered approach to community organizing adjusts to these social trends by creating a more organic way of neighborhood communication that it is effective by virtue of the fact that it is “opportunity and choice based, rather than based upon obligation,” said Chupp. The important thing to remember in the network-centered approach is that, “if it is not something that you would bring your family and friends to, it will not work,” he said.

Safe-16 is a project of Cleveland City Councilperson Jay Westbrook, Cudell Improvement, Inc., and WIRE-Net.

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