How can a disconnected, unresponsive population be empowered to take responsibility for their community?
This questions is not easy to answer, but is at the heart of any discussion on community governance and justice. In Fall 2009, I decided to pursue the development of a community justice program in the Lehigh Valley through the Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley. My focus through the internship ultimately became the city of Easton, the city that I had called home for nine months out of each year for the past three years.
At the outset, I sought to interview community members that I believed could increase my understanding of Easton as a community. The mayor spoke diplomatically on what was being done to make the city more attractive to consumers and the chief of police pulled out graphs and discussed his personal goals for driving down crime. Non-profit leaders described the array of current programs in the community, and the prison board presented ways in which Northampton County Jail took seriously its commitment to rehabilitate its residents. When asked about the West Ward, a sub-area of Easton that possesses the highest crime rates and lowest household incomes, these individuals and groups all provided similar responses. There is a lot to be done, and changes need to be made. The question of empowering and revitalizing underprivileged areas presents an array of problems—a main one being how exactly one can connect with the people of these areas. From my experience, I think a big misconception is that these people just do not care. They do care. They just have priorities, and not all adults can afford to take off work to participate in community forums and leave the children at dinnertime to attend neighborhood meetings. I think the biggest obstacle to community governance is realizing that while it may be your job to organize and attend community events, community members do not have this luxury.
How then, can this obstacle be overcome? Many of the neighborhood meetings I have attended have consisted of two or three older, childless individuals sitting at a table staring at an excess of pizza. Dinnertime meetings are good; however, there must be free childcare during the event that also provides a meal. There are many volunteer-based afterschool programs for children run by surrounding colleges—why are none of them coordinated with events where parents really need childcare? Similarly, there could be a volunteer babysitting service so adults can afford to spend a night out investing in the local economy. Advertising is also important. Events need to be better advertized in ways that appeal to community members. Perhaps an initial campaign, a call to action, is needed to raise awareness for an organized effort to engage all individuals of the community. And I believe this is needed the most—an organized effort that pools the resources of all sectors with a holistic view of the community and the desire for change.
In the past year, a community activist in Easton, Noël Jones, started a blog titled Neighbors of Easton. The most empowering aspect of her blog is that it encourages individuals to band together and take a stand. She encourages people to put pressure on the City not by joining with local nonprofits and participating in already-designed programs, but by organizing for causes that matter to them. Through the blog, community members can discuss and debate relevant issues in the community and find their voice.
This is the first step to empowering a disconnected, unresponsive population to take responsibility for their community—giving each person a voice, a responsive outlet, and a place to build camaraderie. The blog’s message is that “Real change happens from the ground up”, and I think Noel has started something revolutionary, as the blog has not only been sustained but continues to grow. There are now several community members that dedicate their time to moderating and contributing to the blog. Community governance is a complex concept and comes along with many substantial obstacles to implementation, but I think taking a page out of Noël Jones’ blog is a good place to start.
Alexandra is a senior at Lafayette College [class of 2010], where she is majoring in Government & Law.
(Originally published in the Alliance’s 2010 Directory of Organizations That Promote Sustainable Communities)