Social Connectedness / 2013
The South Bay Center for Community Development (SBCC) aims to develop tools and solutions that can be owned and operated by community residents themselves. If programs addressing social concerns like economic development, early education, and community safety are like a kind of “social software,” then SBCC's approach differs from the standard practice of installing off-the-shelf products on every system (i.e., neighborhood). We see ourselves instead as open source developers, creating a basic framework for innovation (a project or initiative), then offering training and support in that framework to independent developers (community residents) operating on their own to solve their own unique problems.
Given this philosophy of change, our idea is not a surprising one, but one that we believe has the capacity to improve lives, families, and whole communities. Building on the power of networked relationships to “crowd-source” solutions to seemingly intractable social challenges, we will identify 10 key communities across Los Angeles County that we believe are primed to enter a positive feedback loop of relationship-driven social capital-building, creating a neighborhood infrastructure that amplifies and intensifies the potentials and resources already present in the community to support wellness, safety, and further connectedness. This feedback loop can be broken down into three phases:
* Phase 1: Connect to Plan
* Phase 2: Plan to Act
* Phase 3: Act to Connect
It is in the final phase—Act to Connect—that the core innovation of our approach takes place. Having built a network of community relationships in order expand the possibilities for effective action, having planned an action in collaboration with neighbors, and having successfully carried out that action, a neighborhood group finds itself in a strengthened network of relationships. This intensified network is both an end in itself (effective, supportive social relationships are a primary indicator of overall quality of life within the emerging methods of measuring the “wellness index” of a place or community), and a means to further, more effective and larger-scale action. We believe that this “feedback” stage is the critical, and too-often overlooked, component in any agenda for lasting social change. For this reason, we have adopted it as the name of our overall initiative, which we call Act2Connect.
Crucial to achieving effective feedback is a long-term investment in neighborhood relationships themselves, which SBCC has been making for more than 5 years in communities across L.A. County, working with neighborhood groups to establish a solid network of relationships, habits of trust, and expectations of mutual support. Many of the low-income communities in which we work are characterized by highly transient populations, large numbers of recent immigrants without their own social support and kinship networks, and the high “opportunity costs” associated with underdeveloped social capital: underutilization of supportive resources, overpayment for basic financial and consumer services, lack of access to job and economic opportunities, etc. Thus, helping individuals and families in these communities navigate a path to social connectedness is a valuable end in itself.
In 10 communities selected for high levels of development among these resident groups, and for a self-identified focus on issues of community safety and violence prevention, SBCC will deploy the resources of an LA 2050 grant to take the next crucial step in this process. Residents in each community will leverage their network of relationships to plan a project focused on community safety and/or violence prevention, carry that plan into action at a neighborhood level with the assistance of leadership development coaches and community organizers, and use the base of participants in the project to expand overall participation in the community network.
The choice of community safety and violence prevention is not an arbitrary one. Unsafe and violent communities, streets, and homes are problems that grow in the context of social isolation. By collaborating to establish community safety teams, collective commitments to non-violent streets, and trusted neighbor-listeners to help move families suffering from abuse out of the shadows, these projects will achieve two key objectives:
* Contribute to safer communities, thus increasing another crucial element of the neighborhood's “well-being index,”
* Build more extensive, more effective social networks, leading to expanded trust, higher levels of civic participation and engagement, increased community-wide knowledge of and access to resources and public forums for action, and a greater sense of investment in the community leading to lower levels of transience and the building of durable neighborhood traditions and resident-controlled institutions
What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?
SBCC has achieved significant community-level and countywide impacts in areas including:
Economic Development: For nearly 20 years, SBCC's career training and placement programs have opened up access to living-wage employment for residents of low-income communities. Over the past 5 or more years, these programs have provided training and placement assistance to more than 150 individuals per year in employment sectors including energy, renewables, digital arts and media, film and video production, and K-12 teaching. Placement rates exceed 75%, and 24-month community college completion and transfer rates have been as high as 90% (as compared to statewide, 6-year rates of less than 30%).
SBCC has adapted this approach to youth entrepreneurship with our innovative Streetcraft LA project, which supports at-risk youth as they develop and market their own lines of apparel and accessories. Additional projects in community-based agriculture, food service, and neighborhood financial services are currently in development.
Finally, SBCC has used our community organizing project's extensive reach into low-income, immigrant-dense communities to launch a highly successful Deferred Action initiative, placing young adults on the path toward legal residency and full participation in the legitimate economy.
Healthy Childhood and Early Education: SBCC's Community Doula program mobilizes community advocates for women during pregnancy, birthing, and in the post-partum months. These doulas help new mothers navigate the medical system, form healthy attachments with their infants, promote good nutrition and breastfeeding, and engage from birth onwards in activities that support children's cognitive, social and emotional development. The program has proven effective at eliminating infant mortality, significantly increasing rates of breastfeeding, and significantly reducing numbers of low-weight births.
Our Preschool Without Walls program works with families in these communities to address critical gaps in early learning and preschool resources. PWW brings early learning experiences to more than 500 parents and children in community institutions and locations that serve as learning and development resources. In homes and neighborhoods, parks, libraries, and community centers, the program engages parents and children in a shared early learning experience leading to improved child development and school readiness through supporting parents' role as their children's primary educators.
In all of our work, our primary commitment is to develop community capacity to address education, economic development, and other issues in an ongoing way. Provision of high-quality direct services is necessary, but does not go far enough: what is needed is the growth of leadership and ownership within communities themselves to carry these initiatives forward on a self-sufficient, sustainable basis.
Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.
The only collaborating partner identified in advance for the full scope of the project (i.e., participating across all 10 neighborhoods) is the evaluation team identified above. Individual neighborhood collaborators may include schools, community centers, faith organizations, local social service nonprofits, regional offices of County of City of Los Angeles public agencies, and law enforcement agencies. Determination of these partnerships will be one of the planning goals of the project development phase outlined in our program plan above, and will vary with each individual neighborhood group.
Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?
SBCC will work with independent evaluators, Dr. Todd Franke and Dr. Jorja Leap of UCLA, both of whom have extensive experience evaluating the impact of community-based social networking, capacity-building, and relationship development initiatives for clients including First 5 LA, the LA County Department of Children and Family Services, and The California Wellness Foundation.
Evaluators will design survey, interview, and focus group evaluation instruments based on Dr. Franke's existing “Protective Factors Survey.” These instruments will measure from baselines established when the organizing initiative began in the targeted communities, and will re-measure at or near the start of Act2Connect project planning, and at 6-month and 12-month intervals, for five individual, family and community “protective factors” which provide indicators of neighborhood well-being. These assessments will be conducted with participants in the Act2Connect action groups, community members participating in their actions and projects, and family members and peer network members not directly involved in the project. These factors are:
* Social connections: Number and intensity of supportive relationships to other individuals and families in the community.
* Access to and utilization of concrete support in times of need: Families need to meet their basic needs (shelter, food, clothing, health care) in order to ensure their own stability and the healthy development of children. This factor is linked to social connection, as families with active networks and community relationships tend to access more resources.
* Parental resilience: Capacity to creatively problem-solve parenting challenges. This factor is strongly linked to optimism and belief in self- efficacy, which are in turn linked to social connections.
* Knowledge of parenting and child development: Ability to create nurturing and healthy family environments; strongly linked to involvement with resilient, parenting peers.
* Social and emotional competence of children: Children's ability to interact positively with others, self-regulate their behavior and effectively communicate their feelings. This factor is strongly linked to parental resilience which (as indicated above) is in turn linked to social connection.
We hope to establish through this evaluation that overall levels of social connectedness in the community:
* increase over the one-year Act2Connect project cycle
* increase for participants as well as for the broader community
* are linked in time to key project milestones (completion of project planning, and completion of project);
* increase following the project; and
* are sustained for several months beyond project completion
How will your project benefit Los Angeles?
Our project is anticipated to have short-term, measurable impacts on levels of violence and features conducive to community safety (traffic planning, street lighting, etc.) in the neighborhoods we target. Increased rates of early disclosure and assistance for domestic violence and child abuse—among populations that are often extremely difficult for more traditional social-services approaches to reach effectively—may be another key beneficial outcome.
However, while these outcomes are worthwhile on their own, we believe that the most significant neighborhood-level change (and one that could provide a template for a broader, L.A. County-wide set of practices) will be found in increased levels of social connection in neighborhoods often characterized by precisely the opposite: transient populations, physically dense but largely anonymous living and housing patterns, very low rates of voting and civic engagement, low rates of volunteerism, and pronounced disengagement between generations. By mobilizing a core group of resident volunteer leaders, setting in motion and supporting a project development approach in which they themselves develop and intensity a network of social relationships in the community, and tying this network to a series of safety outcomes explicitly related to neighbor-to-neighbor trust and support, and to engagement with public institutions and systems, we hope to establish a self-sustaining, growing movement toward connection in each of our 10 targeted neighborhoods.
We know from data and evaluation (both our own, and a growing research literature) that networks of effective and supportive social relationships are the “keystone” factor among a group of characteristics variously called “protective factors,” “well-being indicators,” or “components of resiliency.” The presence of these characteristics are what sets successful communities apart from others, even in cases where more traditional indicators of community vitality (wealth and income, levels of educational attainment, etc.) are low. To put it simply, even economically “poor” neighborhoods may be experienced by their residents as desirable places to live and interact if these other factors are present in high levels.
Demonstrating the effectiveness of an approach to promote these connectedness-related factors at the neighborhood level could have far-reaching impacts in L.A. County. Approaches to community safety, economic development, and civic engagement rooted in enforcement, job training, and formal education will always have their place. However, addressing and moving beyond the limits of these approaches—and thus producing real and lasting change in some of the most intractable issue areas facing our under-resourced communities—becomes possible only through reliance on strategies mobilizing resident-to-resident networks of trust and mutual support. These small-scale, resident-led institutions are the future of a safe, vibrant, healthy, and just Los Angeles County.
What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?
Thirty-seven years from today, the children of Act2Connect participants will be nearing fifty. Many will be parents themselves. Some will be grandparents. Three generations of active, engaged, invested community members will have sustained and deepened the strategies and community-led institutions developed in the project. Neighborhoods will continue to face many of today's challenges. But these neighborhoods' capacity to address and productively answer these challenges will have undergone a complete transformation:
* At the neighborhood middle school, a fight breaks out between students. Teachers convene a meeting of the school's Student Justice Team, which provides a mediated resolution of the conflict and restitution of injuries. This community service involves the previous adversaries in the activities of:
* The Neighborhood Co-operative Economic Council, whose projects include a network of community gardens whose produce is distributed through a CSA box service. Subscribers can pay cash, or use a local scrip currency accepted throughout the:
* Local Trading Network, a barter-based system of consumer economics designed to allow for full participation by those employed in the wage economy as well as those who for various reasons (stay-at-home parenthood, undocumented immigration status) do not conduct all of their economic activities on a monetary basis. Clothing, food, household repairs, bulk-purchased staple commodities and more are available, along with many of the services of:
* Community worker-owned co-ops, providing employment opportunities beyond traditional job development programs, and equally accessible to the documented and undocumented. Services include landscaping and gardening, baking and catering, financial services, and:
* A neighborhood childcare co-op, informed by current best practices in child development and making full use of the neighborhoods public spaces and buildings. These public spaces are accessible through:
* A robust network of bike and pedestrian lanes which converge on a neighborhood “core” incorporating a creative arts block, youth development programs, and community entertainment and convening spaces. Travel to and from events in these spaces is made safe by:
* A community volunteer Street Team, trained in conflict de-escalation and connected to restorative justice councils in the neighborhood as well as a:
* Domestic violence and abuse prevention drop-in center, providing a safe space staffed with trusted neighborhood members in which community residents can seek referrals for help, shelter, mediation and legal services, all before involving:
* The public child welfare system, which, like other public institutions, now coordinates its work with resident volunteer organizations in the neighborhood, learning from them, leveraging their local knowledge-base and trust relationships, and responding quickly to the resident concerns that they raise.