How Crumbling Communities Heal
In this successful model, the police focus on law enforcement while neighborhoods solve their own issues
Communities in the U.S. are still feeling the sting of scrutiny after protests over police shootings brought waves of violence into neighborhoods already dealing with crime. The shooting of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge left those sworn to protect the public reeling in shock.
Now, more than ever, communities need healing.
In a nationally televised press conference, Dallas Police Chief David Brown — who lost his own son to a police shooting — said the public was expecting too much of police officers. The police have traditionally been tasked with keeping the peace and providing protection, but often, they’re also expected to provide mental health services, solve drug addiction, deal with poverty’s fallout, and rescue failing schools.
“Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve,” Brown told the press. “Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women — let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
One model for easing unrest, violence, and crime is already popular in many communities. It calls community members forward and challenges them to communicate better, solve problems, and create meaningful change.
The Self-Healing Community Model first came to public attention 15 years ago, in Cowlitz County, Washington. Developed by Laura Porter and colleagues, the model encouraged a county coordinator to investigate why the label of “unsafe” had plagued her neighborhood — an area that logged the most police 911 calls yearly. Noticing the streets were dark, Porter began going door-to-door, asking inhabitants for their opinions.
Cowlitz County saw teen pregnancy rates drop 63 percent and infant mortality go down by 43 percent.
Most people agreed the neighborhood was unsafe — and didn’t want to venture outside after dark. For that reason, and because many people lacked funds for extra light bulbs to light their yards and porches, the community had become an even safer place for criminals to operate.
With a little creativity, and a donation of light bulbs from a local hardware store, a “Light Up the Night” picnic drew the community members into a conversation.
By empowering a community to address its own unique challenges, this model encourages:
1.) leadership expansion from within,
2.) understanding the community’s values and each other,
3.) allowing the group to learn via experimenting, and
4.) measuring results.
The results were startling. Cowlitz County saw teen pregnancy rates drop 63 percent, infant mortality go down by 43 percent, youth arrests for violent crimes drop 53 percent, and dropout rates decrease by 47 percent. The suicide rate among youth dropped an astonishing 98 percent.
The Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe tribe in northern Wisconsin adopted the model, recognizing it had to create its own solution to poor health and drug use in its community. The tribe switched its focus to discovering the root cause of negative behaviors.
It was the beginning of an initiative. Tribe elders were activated into teaching positions; crumbling health clinics and gyms were rebuilt; parks and playgrounds were renovated; new classes promoting healthy living were offered; and a residential treatment facility for recovering addicts was built.
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The tribe’s changes reaped rewards. Graduation rates were at 43 percent in 2010 — by 2014, they were at 81 percent.
The keystone of the Self-Healing Community Model consists of one word: empathy. Not surprisingly, the approach is expanding into schools.
Jessie Klein, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at New York’s Adelphi University and author of “The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools,” said empathy is the way to create a “culture of caring” in schools and communities.
Today’s fast-paced education style rewards students for being highly competitive. Already disconnected by technology and remote learning styles, many children are isolated. Teachers are pressured as well. They may not have the time or inclination to get to know students and their backgrounds. The similarity to many communities is obvious.
“Since the 1980s, social isolation has tripled and depression and anxiety have multiplied 10 times,” Klein told LifeZette. “Depression and anxiety affect youth at much younger ages and empathy has plummeted. My work aims to help young people move away from the destructive, often hurtful competition for popularity, and instead develop relationships that are caring and trusting.”
The goal is to help students develop resilience and healthy ways of relating, the very same things the Self-Healing Community Model seeks in communities. The approach teaches positive conflict resolution and emphasizes creating positive experiences within the community.
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In a culture where human connection seems to be waning and problems are often handed off to police or bureaucrats, Klein believes it’s all about relationship.
“When communities and schools actively work to create healthier and kinder environments, where people are recognized for supporting each other, warmer relationships develop. Every community and school needs to make building healthy relationships a priority.”
Chief Brown went as far as urging demonstrators to become part of Dallas’ community healing
“Become a part of the solution. Serve your community. Don’t be a part of the problem … we’re hiring. Get off that protest line and put an application in. We’ll put you in your neighborhood — we will help you resolve some of the problems you are protesting about.”
Pat Barone, MCC, is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating, who helps clients heal food addictions.