Neighborhood Networks

Below is a story to illustrate a bundle of intentional practices we used to spark and build new neighborhood networks.  A more detailed description of these practices, with some additional illustrations, follows the story.  Let us know if you have success or failure in trying out any of these in your local neighborhood. Consider posting in the blog or offering a comment to another blog post.  We all need to keep learning from each other.

Story:  Sparking New Networks to Improve Rental Housing

Even though 60% of Silver Spring’s residents live in older, market-owned rental housing, the vast majority of renters do not know a single neighbor, nor do they feel welcome to initiate a project where they live, much less participate in broader civic life.  One a repeated basis, our local government will form a task force to address big social issues present in these apartment complexes like youth gangs, domestic violence, under-employment, health care for the uninsured etc., but rarely is there a renter present or actively participating in the deliberations.

In 2007, three young women, all in their late twenties and of diverse backgrounds, teamed up as colleagues in the IMPACT network to change the community environment for renters in three targeted neighborhoods in Silver Spring.

  • Monica Buitrago, raised in Queens as a Latino immigrant, found herself lonely and isolated as a new renter in a small brick apartment building in Silver Spring, even though many of her neighbors were Latino.
  • Winta Teferi, a youth organizer in the Ethiopian community, witnessed time and time again the conflicts which arose because of the extreme diversity in large apartment communities where everyone is afraid to speak to each other.
  • Megan Moriarty, the product of a white, homeowner family in Montgomery County, recognized how different it is to live in a apartment complex not connected by a natural network of relationships to all the services and amenities available to her family.

In partnership with others inside the IMPACT Network, they experimented with a wide range of renter engagement strategies, including door to door conversations, giving out donuts and coffee in parking lots as people left for work, holding small information sessions in laundry rooms and basketball courts, hosting kitchen table meetings for a two or three neighbors, sponsoring clothing swap meets in the lobby and partnering with property managers to help them deliver important fliers and services.

Each time they mounted a new recruitment campaign, they- and IMPACT – offered a nine month leadership program for interested renters to join and promised to support these renters in forming a small team to accomplish at least one concrete improvement to their apartment community by the end of the nine months.  The list of successful projects is long and varied and includes the creation of a on-going after school program, the development of an evacuation plan for a senior building, monthly pot luck meetings for new residents in a large complex, creation of English language circles, a quality of life covenant with the management company and regular walk-around tours for government officials and school principals.

At the same time and on a parallel track, this team organized monthly luncheons for property managers in the three targeted neighborhoods, creating a comfortable space for these people to raise concerns and ask for help. These luncheons also kept the managers informed about the renter leadership initiative and open to the many partnership requests arising from the participants.

A Mini-Tool Book: Building Neighborhood Networks

After twelve years and twelve thousand door knocks, it is clear that people really do care about their neighborhoods and when asked in the right way, are eager to come together to support each other and to contribute their ideas for a better community.

Our Approach:

  • Pick a topic or context of immediate interest to some, like the achievement gap.
  • Provide an opportunity for people to learn/share within this context.
  • Be creative, persistent and culturally aware in how you invite them.
  • Provide a fun, welcoming and participatory environment.
  • Ensure everyone contributes and takes away something of value.
  • Create follow up opportunities for continued, reciprocal exchange. 

Success Stories:

Diverse Parents Involved in Schools –  In 2004, we went door to door asking parents of color and immigrant backgrounds if they knew about the achievement gap in our schools.  By 2009, over 350 parents from three primary backgrounds – Latino, East African and African American – had come together for seven week sessions called the Parent Training Institute in 7 different schools.   Over 77% reported increased ability to support their child’s education and 55% demonstrated improved communications with school staff. This network of diverse parents went on to create a nine month parent leadership program that partners immigrant parents with teachers for mutual learning and to birth a model for changing the internal culture of local schools currently led and dominated by white parents.

Renters Form Teams to Improve Apartments – In 2007, we knocked on doors to ask renters, who comprise 60% of Silver Spring, to ask: who has a simple idea for how to make life better in your apartment community?  We spent the next three years supporting 42 teams in 28 different properties, helping them to accomplish concrete community improvement projects like sponsoring a regular clothing swap meet, starting a children’s art club or seeking better lighting for the parking lot. This new network of renters continues to thrive and has been tapped into by many groups and institutions seeking renter involvement.

Families in Crisis Forming Circles of Mutual Support and Job Skills – When the economic crisis hit in 2009, we recruited over 200 volunteer door knockers from 35 different countries of origin to knock on over 12,000 doors in three lower income neighborhoods – Wheaton, Gaithersburg and Long Branch, all in partnership with local government. We asked: do you need emergency services? can you help support your neighbors?  Since the start of the Neighbors Campaign, over 4,000 residents of all backgrounds answered yes to the question about neighbor support and participated in hundreds of neighbor nights and neighbor circles held in these communities, as a follow up to the initial door knock. Each week, you will find a circle of 30 to 40 residents in each neighborhood meeting over dinner and providing each other with tangible exchanges of support ranging from leads on possible jobs, offers to provide childcare and transportation and tips on accessing a range of formal/informal services.

Youth and Parents Find Common Ground on Athletic Field –  We recently took on operation of a nonprofit formed to provide athletic opportunities to low income youth. After running the program for just six months, we have already witnessed the convening power of sports to leverage greater parent involvement and to build new understanding across deep cultural divides among youth, parents and community workers. 

Detailed Description of Tools and Strategies:

Door Knocking:  A ten minute conversation with another person to genuinely check in with them and make a connection of mutual benefit.

  • The conversation is most effective when you take the extraordinary step to come to a person’s home and knock on their door.
  • A “door knock” can occur while sitting at a table in a festival or standing in front of a school or a local store.

Illustrative Uses:

  1. We partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services to knock on 10,000 doors during the economic crisis to link residents to emergency services and to invite them to participate in new neighborhood networks of mutual support.
  1. After a local school resisted our efforts to build bridges between immigrant parents and school staff, we partnered with an after school program for lower income children and knocked on the doors of the parents of participating students. The door knocks led to relationships and informal parent groups and eventually sparked a long term bridge building process inside the school.
  1. At a later date, the staff and parents in this same school knocked on doors in two large apartment complexes to invite parents to learn more about the testing process inside the school and to welcome one neighborhood into the school district.
  1. To help spark resident engagement in large apartment buildings, we “knocked on doors” in parking lots to invite residents to neighbors exchanges on concrete topics like finances, health care and tenant rights.

Practical Tips:

→       MOST IMPORTANT: Approach people with a genuine smile and genuine curiosity. Ask open ended questions, Be calm. Pause, Offer information about yourself.

→       Go out in pairs and try to have diversity of cultures and language represented in the pairs.

→       Always try to get residents from the neighborhood or complex to become part of the door knocking team.

→       Make the door knocking process feel like a party – with t-shirts, food and drink, pictures etc….even when it is pouring down rain outside. When knocking on doors inside an apartment building, work to get permission of the management company first.

→       Create a mini-training process for door knockers; best if you can hold a training session before door knocking but you can also do the training in the parking lot.

→       Even though you will want to keep good records and use clipboards, never let people write things down in front of the resident (except contact information).

→       Always have something to invite them to or a specific follow up step and then make sure you do follow up.  

Neighbors Exchanges:  A relaxed but intentional gathering of 30 to 40 neighbors over a simple dinner to facilitate introductions and exchange of valuable information.

  • This tool is often used to pull residents in a specific neighborhood together for the very first time.
  • Four key strategies are essential to get people into the room the first time:
    1. Free dinner, transportation, childcare and translation (i.e. remove all logistical burdens)
    2. Fun, welcoming environment; the opposite of a meeting.
    3. Concrete and valuable information about highly relevant topics such as health care, finances, social services
    4. Use “participatory circles” to ensure  that everyone gets to ask and seek an answer for at least one key question.

Illustrative Uses:

  • We first used Neighbors Exchanges to gather residents in large apartment complexes. In addition to helping participants meet their nearby neighbors, we brought along resource people with expertise in financial credit and housing issues. We supported those who attended in taking a wide range of follow up steps. We also used this night to begin building relationships with two or three people who seemed interested in participating in our Neighborhood IMPACT program, a nine month leadership program for rental residents.
  • During our two year door knocking campaign to connect people to emergency services and to each other, we used Neighbors Exchanges as the event to invite those we talked to at the door. In recruiting residents, we made it clear that those who attended would walk away knowing a few neighbors and answering at least one pressing question or concern they had in one of four areas: emergency services, finances, housing or health care.
  • We are now in the process of adapting this type of gathering for multiple purposes.  For example, we recently supported a group of immigrant parents in a local school in sponsoring a neighbors exchange around issues of immigration.

Practical Tips:

  • The process of the gathering is ALWAYS more important than the content. This means the organizers should pay much  more attention to things like food, room set up, music; it should feel more like a party than a meeting.
  • The resource people should be carefully vetted and trained to understand that they are not coming to make a presentation but to sit as a peer in a circle and contribute as the circle supports a person around a particular issue.
  • In certain settings, it helps to have one large circle process to connect and help people get to know each other and then to divide into rotating circles grouped around different topics. For example, there may be four circles on different topics but only two rotations. As a participant, you choose to go to two of the four circles.
  • Make sure you are looking for signs of positive engagement and make clear contact with these residents and follow up with them in no more than a week with a next step.

Neighbor Nights :  A relaxed but intentional gathering of 30 to 40 neighbors HELD EVERY WEEK over a simple dinner to facilitate on-going mutual support and to spark collective action.

  • As was true with the Neighbors Exchanges, two key strategies are (1) Free dinner, convenient location, childcare and translation (i.e. remove all logistical burdens) and (2) A fun, welcoming environment; the opposite of a meeting.
  • Two other very important components are (a) holding the gathering every week, no matter what and (b) using a session format that is repeated over and over so facilitation can rotate among both staff and participants.
  • One interesting and flexible feature is to support small groups in pealing off at a natural midpoint in the meeting or convening a small group after the large group meeting (e.g. ESOL circles, Ad Hoc Action Teams etc.

Illustrative Uses:

  • We first started holding neighbor nights after an exhaustive year of sponsoring almost ten neighbors exchanges in theWheatonarea of our community. (See above). We decided to experiment with holding a simplified version of a neighbors exchange in one convenient location every week. We developed an easy format and gave ourselves lots of permission to make mistakes….but we did not give ourselves permission to miss a single week. In a matter of weeks, news of the weekly gathering began spreading throughout word of mouth. The following smaller groups have evolved out of this weekly gathering:Jobs Circle,ESOL Circle,Fields Apartment ESOL Circle, Section 8 Preservation Team,  Picnic and Party Planning Team.
  • At a similar moment inGaithersburg, a community team decided to replace their action team format with weekly neighbor nights. They too experienced a steady success, with most of the participants coming through word of mouth.
  • In both of these examples above, we have many stories of regular neighbors helping their neighbors solve big and little problems, while also having a moment of fun and joy each week. See the stories on the blog – http://www.neighborhoodscampaign,

Practical Tips:

  • Here is the session format that we’ve used over and over again with success:
  • Informall Mingling over Simple Dinner
  • Hello Circle – greet everyone in the circle
  • “One Good Thing” Sharing (Name, Neighborhood and One Good Thing That Happened to Me This Week)
  • Breakout – some people go into smaller circles to support each other around jobs search or learning English.
  • MutualSupport Circle– everyone else re-configures the circle and uses the mutual support tool (see page ____)
  • Closing Picture – group gathers for a picture
  • Be intentional about translation at every step; even though it can feel laborious, it ends up providing a great common cause for the group and facilitates everyone trying out the other’s language. 

Neighbor Circles:  A resident decides to host one to three informal dinners over a three week period in their home for 8 to 10 neighbors (they typically partner with a staff person or an active network member in planning and executing the circles).

  • The primary purpose of the gathering is to begin building relationships with some people who live close to you.
  • These gatherings work best when the host and their partner use a structured format to facilitate story telling among the participants.
  • IMPACT’s sister organization Lawrence Community Works has developed an excellent format centered around a Map Exercise which prompts people to share their life journey’s using laminated maps of the country, world and neighborhood)

Illustrative Uses:

After door knocking and holding a couple of Neighbors Exchange in a particular apartment complex, there are always one or two residents who express interest in helping expand the IMPACT network to their community and getting to know others who live near by. Hosting a neighbor circle is a great next step to take, without having to over commitment or start a project or new group. One particularly successful neighbor circle was hosted by a resident from Togo in West Africa who was having trouble connecting with the many Central Americans who live on his hallway. After a few meals in his apartment, they started working together on a community garden project and on some issues of public safety.

To illustrate all of the variations on the neighbor circle, another example was the Friday night pizza gatherings held by a group of Latino and East African mothers who lived in two apartment buildings. They met for pizza almost every Friday night for nine months and provided substantial mutual support to each other and eventually they helped IMPACT birth a new initiative called the Parent Training Institute.

Practical Tips:

  • One very important aspect of neighbor circles is to be clear that the sessions are not about issues and action planning; the circles can lead to the formation of ad hoc action teams, but the goal of the time together over a meal is to focus on relationships and not action.
  • Provide a stipend to pay the resident for the cost of buying and preparing for the meals.
  • Create and train a cadre of resident and staff facilitators who can co-host the circles with the residents.
  • Ensure that the two hosts meet and plan each session carefully; even though the session will feel informal and fluid to the residents attending, it is important to review and have covered all of the little details involved.

Youth Sports Teams:  A staff member or neighborhood network guide works with children and youth in a particular apartment community or neighborhood to form a team in one of several local recreational leagues.

  • One key ingredient is to find a volunteer coach who lives in the same apartment community.
  • The organization provides organizational support and pays for registration and equipment fees.
  • There is a clear expectation at every step of the way that parents are needed to make the teams work and should play a leadership role in shaping the teams.
  • Staff and network members use every moment in the process to connect parents to one another, to the existing neighborhood network and to encourage them to use the team structure to access other resources for their children and families.
  • They also link each team to a home school and work closely with school officials to use the team experience to encourage active participation in the school environment.

Illustrative Uses:

In one very large, low income apartment community with a large Latino population, various organizations recruited youth to be on soccer teams, but no one involved the parents or others who live in the complex. IMPACT decided to try organizing the teams in this complex in a different way. As a result of a door knocking campaign, IMPACT met an older Latino man who used to run community soccer academies many years ago in El Salvador and can relate to many of the parents in the community. They recruited the older man to form a team and after a short period of time, he organized a growing network of parents who regularly attend the games and assume responsibility for many of the logistics. There are now more teams and the weekly practices have created a huge buzz in the community and offer people a welcoming place to hang out, watch soccer and connect with one another.

The Vice-Principal in one of the local elementary schools took a personal interest in these neighborhood-based teams and worked with the coaches and organizers to connect weekly practices to an after school program. Now that there are a growing number of parents involved in the running of the teams, the Principal and the parents are going to re-design the after school program so that it better serves the needs of the children and the parents.

Practical Tips:

  • To create a robust network of parents, it is very important for volunteer coaches and organizers to be constantly in touch with them with weekly check in calls etc. Repeated and frequently contact makes a big difference.
  • Do not assume that lower income immigrant parents do not have the time to help out; Take the time to ask them to help and provide clear and specific requests.
  • The ball field or the basket ball courts are very comfortable environments and are great at attracting fathers as well as mothers. This comfortable environment can be a spring board to asking parents and youth about other issues in their life and to invite them to participate in the wider neighborhood network.

Clothing Swap Meets:  A small team of residents organizes a clothing swap meet in a free public space or in the lobby of an apartment building or the parking lot.

  • To participate in the meet, you must bring a bag of clothes to give away.
  • You can take as much as you can carry with you.
  • Flyers are distributed to notify neighbors and to recruit volunteers.
  • If desired, you can provide tools and materials for “crafty” people to modify and personalize their “new” clothes.
  • Volunteers help set up and sort clothes into major categories.
  • Train volunteers to be proactive at welcoming people, giving out name tags and facilitating people helping each other choose clothes or modify them.

Illustrative Uses:

One resident named Monica lived on a street of small apartment complexes.  Because of the way the units and the parking were configured, people did not bump into each other and for the most part, no one knew their neighbors.  Monica decided to host a clothing swap meet and circulated a flyer. Several people responded that they wanted to volunteer. One young woman had lots of crafty supplies to donate and was so grateful to get to know some others; she had a brand new baby and knew no one. One person eventually became a close friend of Monica’s and was in her wedding several years later. A third person eventually got involved with Monica in a project to organize other apartment buildings.

IMPACT staff and network guides had been working in several apartment buildings and local schools in one neighborhood, and they wanted to try to link their two growing networks together. They were also looking for an event that could mix people together across class and culture. They found a church willing to let them use the fellowship hall for a clothing swap meet and recruited a large team of the residents in these two networks to help out. The swap meet was a huge success, with lots of music and food enjoyed by those who came.  It became a tradition in the network and was repeated on several occasions.

Practical Tips:

  • Make sure people understand that the clothing is free.
  • Do not provide mirrors for people to use; encourage them to talk to others to get a review on how the clothing looks.
  • Begin advertising two to three weeks ahead of time and do it multiple times.
  • Consider asking the landlord of a vacant space (e.g. a recently closed down restaurant) for permission to use the space one day, as a community service.
  • Donate the clothes left over at the end to a local shelter or nonprofit.

Family Game Nights: Designate one night a month as Family Game Night and hold it in a convenient and easy location.

  • Invite network members to bring a game and a favorite snack.
  • Provide good tables to use and music.
  • Encourage people to bring their families and friends.
  • Ask a few volunteers to serve as the catalysts in getting a game going.
  • Make sure you have games that are easy to learn and play.

Illustrative Uses:

IMPACT hosted regular game nights inside their offices. It provided a time for any and all to come. Staff and network members found it a good way to do something cheap and easy for their families. It provided a time for people to informally meet and get to know each other, with lots of informal exchanges. No one was worried about any program goals, but lots of good stuff happened while playing games. It also provided a safe and welcoming environment for newcomers who were very curious about the IMPACT network.

Practical Tips:

  • Get the word out as widely as possible to encourage all kinds of random and new connections.
  • Get good at knowing the kinds of games that people can jump into easily, especially across language barriers.
  • Consider setting up a Wii or Game Boy area to include the youth and make them feel welcome.
  • Get lots of easy to eat snacks (cheap kind).
  • Have fun music always playing in the background.

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