Throughout Lent, Helms has been keeping a practice of staying within one mile of QC Family Tree for all food, entertainment, and clothing purchases. You can find her reflections posted on the withinonemile blog.
Here’s a recent post:
Dealing with other people’s opinions of my neighborhood
A couple of weeks ago, I received this email message:
I hope you and the Family Tree are doing well. I wanted to invite you to a meeting on March 12th at 7pm at the Bette Rae Thomas Center. The meeting will be to gain feedback around research that stemmed from Enderly Park’s Women’s Safety Audit. Students at UNCC have taken the salient themes identified by residents during the Safety Audit and engaged in deeper research around these themes. The hope of this portion of the Safety Audit is that subcommittees of residents can be formed to work on these topics. Your input is valued and we hope you will consider attending. We appreciate the work that you do and hope to see you there.
If you have any questions, feel free to email me or call our CHARP office
Intrigued, I went to the March 12th meeting. What I witnessed at the meeting was both surprising and disappointing.
Let’s start with a little background. According to the CHARP website, “The Charlotte Action Research Project (CHARP) forges partnerships between the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and marginalized communities in Charlotte. We take our starting point in recognizing a neighborhood’s assets. We consistently and proactively seek to integrate teaching, research, and action to work towards a larger agenda of social justice, enable neighborhoods to advocate for themselves, and create sustainable neighborhood coalitions to implement structural change.”
My first encounter with CHARP was last September when two young white male college students knocked on my door for a survey. They asked me questions like, “Where do you feel unsafe in your neighborhood? Do you feel like you can go out of your house at night? Do you feel like there is enough street lights at night?” I tried to steer the questions toward a more positive outlook of the neighbor. I explained that we take care of each other in our neighborhood and tried to challenge the students to rethink their biased questions.
Fast forward to March: Four UNCC representatives greeted me at the door of the presentation room. They explained that the students had been doing research on the themes that had come from the safety audit results. Small groups of students were set up with table displays, presenting their research and action plans. My role, along with other neighbors, was to hear the students’ presentations and give feedback.
The first presentation I witnessed was on the topic of water quality. The presenting student asked me, “Is the water in this neighborhood dirty?” I was so confused. Perhaps, I thought, he was talking about the creek near the park. I told him that sometimes there is litter in the creek bed. Then, he asked about the quality of the water coming out of our pipes. I explained to him that we receive the same city water as everyone else and that our water was clean and clear. He acted surprised and didn’t know what to say next. Puzzled, I moved on politely to the next booth.
The next presentation was on crime. The student explained to me that she had done research about the levels of crime in our neighborhood. She studied the days that crime happened, looking to see if there was a particular day that more crime occurred. She looked at the times of day to see if crime took place more often at a particular time. She could not identify a trend. So, she said, she tried to think through what causes so much crime in this neighborhood. She explained that she and her partner decided that perhaps because our neighbors have so much idle time, that is why there is crime. Her solution: create programs that occupy people’s time so that they do not have so much idle time to devote to criminal activity. She suggested that perhaps an organization should come in and host after school programs and sporting teams for our neighborhood. I noticed that these activities were geared toward children. I asked her if her research concluded that there was a lot of juvenile criminal activity. She explained that she had also made some suggestions for adult programs and that no, children were not the ones participating in the most criminal activity.
Stunned, I decided to ask some more questions. “I see here that you’ve suggested team sports and afterschool programs will reduce the level of crime in our neighborhood. Have you been able to discover whether these programs already exist in our neighborhood and whether they are helping to reduce crime?” She explained that she had not researched what programs already existed in our neighborhood and that in fact, this night was the first time she had ever stepped foot in our neighborhood. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I gave her my card and told her about the programs that already exist and moved on to the next presentation.
There was a presentation on neighbor interaction with and perspective of the police force. The presenters shared that we need to improve neighborhood opinion of the police. Their suggested solution was for police officers to participate, in uniform, in community outreach events. There was a presentation on housing improvements. The students explained that they drove around the neighborhood and recorded all their observed problems with the houses. They indicated things like: old roofs, broken fences, boarded up houses, trash piled on the street. Their suggested solution was a neighborhood education program to teach folks about how to call 311 to ask for trash pick up.
I stepped outside to talk to the event coordinators. Nervous, because I’m not a professional in their field, I hesitantly asked questions about the program- Had they considered teaching from an asset based model? Had they connected with neighbors to become more informed and engaged? The CHARP representatives assured me that they had coordinated this event with our neighborhood association members and that they taught a whole course on Asset based community development.
I walked away disturbed. I know that they are still learning, but how can it be that our future’s leaders are presenting such narrow minded and ill-informed research and solutions? What positive results could come from such a project?
A friend of ours suggested that I need to write a letter to the department chair of the University to share my concerns. I want to, but I’m nervous about what to say. I know that what I experienced was not right or just, but I don’t know exactly how to explain this to someone else. The Abundant Community book gives some helpful thoughts for reflection:
Some simple principles can guide institutions toward community-friendly positions:
· Understand that people’s gifts are more valuable than their deficiencies and needs. Social services could approach residents as through helping them to manifest their skills, gifts, and capacities were one of the primary functions of each agency.
· Understand that the economy and community each derive their power from maximizing opportunities for all the local residents to use their skills and contribute all their gifts. Government funders and foundations could make their grants to local communities that include marginal residents as productive citizens in their proposals.
· Ask the following questions in the following order: 1) What functions can neighborhood people perform by themselves? 2) What functions can neighbors achieve with some additional help from institutions? 3) What functions must institutions perform on their own?
* Ask yourself: “What can systems and institutions do to help citizens recover the power of their families and neighborhoods? What can systems do, other than trying harder and doing more of what they now do?”