The right question(s) to ask about communities

Earlier this week I was walking around a part of the city that I don’t spend much time in, and as I was meandering down a side street, a building caught my eye because of some of the graffiti on it. As I got closer to the building, I saw that one of the windows was broken and the glass was still on the sidewalk. Getting closer still, close enough to put my hand through the hole in the window, I saw a “to rent” sign in front of the building. A Google search tells me the building used to house a small business selling t-shirts with local flare. (It looks like the business is still in operation, just online and in “pop up” stores and at festivals rather than a brick-and-mortar store.)

Anytime I see a broken window in a neighborhood, I think of “broken windows theory”, which I learned about in a criminal justice class in the early 90s. The theory was interesting to me then, because it seemed so beautifully simple. (This was around the time I was also learning about Occam’s Razor so it makes sense that the simplicity of the theory was appealing to me.)

If you are unfamiliar with the theory, it is basically the idea that when signs of deterioration or decay in neighborhoods (like broken windows) are left unaddressed, it can be interpreted as a sign that no one cares about the neighborhood. This signal of disinvestment would, according to the theory, lead to even more crime and disorder.

The theory emerged in the early to mid 1980s (based on research from the 1960s) and in the 1990s it became the guiding framework for zero-tolerance policing, including the problematic “stop and frisk” policies of the NYPD. While the theory was being implemented in ways not envisioned by academics, politicians touted its success. However, it wasn’t too many years before there were indications that broken-windows policing wasn’t actually the reason that crime was declining. There is also evidence indicating the discriminatory impact and racial bias inherent in this type of policing. Another criticism of broken windows theory applied in this manner is that it is reactive, and isn’t addressing root issues in a community, particularly poverty.

Albert Einstein once said, in response to a question, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” I share this quote with classes sometimes, as a way of emphasizing the importance of a good assessment process, whether on a micro level or macro level. When I give students an assignment to do a neighborhood visit as part of a community project, I give them some guiding questions to ask. I have tweaked these questions over the years from various sources, primarily the Asset Based Community Development Institute and the section on community assessment from the Community Tool Box

  • What individual strengths do you see on display in the community?
  • What collective strengths or assets do you see present in the community?
  • What groups do you see represented? How are they represented?
  • What signs of transition do you see?
  • What signs of hope do you see?
  • Who do you see “out and about” in the community?
  • Where are people spending time? (Where are the green spaces? The public spaces?)

I think these types of questions help us understand a community more than the presence of shattered glass on a sidewalk. Every community has strength, whether broken windows are present or not.

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