Collective Efficacy: Who’s in the Collective?
Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on May 22, 2008
Kari Lydersen’s post on the challenges of mixed-income communities yesterday reminded me of some things I’d wanted to bring up regarding the conversation Alice was starting on collective efficacy.
I do think the end goal of mixed-income communities is a good one. I don’t think of it as a “setting a good example” thing, but as a making sure poorer folk have access to the better amenities (from schools to better paved roads to stores carrying fresh produce) that tend to follow residents of somewhat higher income. (And I, for one, think the middle-income folks would probably be better off if the cheap diner and the hardware store and the newsstand were able to stay next to the Starbucks that move in. How to do that is a question for another time though.) Also, cross-pollination of social networks, if it actually happens, is good for everyone.
But mixed-income areas, especially in the tenuous state they tend to exist now, do raise questions about this idea of collective efficacy. The idea that the willingness of neighbors to step up and be involved and intervene can make a difference between a pleasant, safe, yet poor neighborhood and one in more distress is a powerful one (given the caveats about it not being enough in the most devastated areas), and one that makes sense to me.
But I wonder, ironically, if doesn’t work better in neighborhoods that are homogeneous by class and race, i.e., in solidly poor communities than mixed-income ones. As Kari points out, we have a long way to go to learn to live side by side across those lines.
I’ve struggled with this in my own neighborhood here in Albany (which I love). It is mixed along both race and class lines and fairly stable and friendly in that mix as neighborhoods go (we’re not particularly gentrifying, at least not yet). And yet, the race and class divide is still strongly present when it comes to neighborhood organizing. Despite the efforts of organizers, neighborhood watch and cleanup efforts tend to be white and middle class, and have exactly the kind of creepy tone Kari mentioned: “Call the police if there’s more than four teens [of color] on the corner!” “Don’t let the pizza joint stay open an hour later! It might attract noisy people!”
It becomes clear that without crossing that social gulf, and dealing with the distrust, it’s going to be hard to cultivate behaviors that contribute to collective efficacy, or at least to cultivate them in a non-selective enough fashion to have the desired effect.
Meanwhile, the police who are supposed to be supporting the neighborhood watch explicitly discourage collective efficacy, saying not to confront anyone and always to call them.
I’m curious if anyone knows of anywhere that has addressed this kind of thing head on? What kind of block- or neighborhood-level organizing works best for building ties within a mixed-income community? How does a neighborhood encourage eyes on the street and responding to actual incidents of crime or problems like abandonment without pitting residents whose cultural norms are likely to come closer to those of the authorities against their neighbors?
These are tough, yet touchy-feely questions, but if they were answered, I think they may lead to a broader constituency for anti-gentrification measures, as well as less tension, making lower income residents feel like they don’t belong. Which implies that answering these questions may be part of the answer to creating the kind of stable mixed-income communities that so far seem so rare.
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Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.