Cultivating new hope and healthier lives and living conditions in poverty ravaged inner city neighborhoods depends on the formation of significant, enduring relationships among residents.
In neighborhoods where people know each other life works better.
The concept sounds almost too simple. Yet, a growing body of empirical data and our own experiences here in Dallas confirm this important truth.
One of the tragic deficiencies of poor communities has to do with the disappearance of institutional life. Middle class neighborhoods take many human connections for granted. Active PTAs, organized Crime Watch groups, homeowners associations, service clubs, public schools doubling as community hubs, churches and other organizations remain active in many, if not most, middle class communities.
In most low-income neighborhoods you'll be hard pressed to find any evidence of organized community life. Churches are everywhere in these areas, but most are "drive in" congregations that enjoy little meaningful contact with the people living around them. Local barber shops and beauty salons, once the center of lots of community life, have simply disappeared in many parts of town. The grocery stores are gone.
In many neighborhoods even the pubs have disappeared to be replaced by package stores. Unfortunately, the sort of unorganized "community life" that tends to spring up around these establishments is usually not very desirable.
Social scientists are producing a growing body of evidence that tells us social capital and community connectedness are likely key elements in any community's quest for better health and well-being.
Communities possessing a sense of choice and self-determination report better health outcomes. People living in neighborhoods that are organized and politically engaged enjoy greater feelings of stability, hope, power and progress. Notions of collective efficacy can be powerful psychological forces fueling change and increased involvement in the community at numerous levels.
Connected communities just work better, no matter what their socio-economic status.
Predictably, faith-based approaches to community outreach that focus solely on individuals, with no or little thought of relationships inside target communities, bypass significant opportunities to improve life for everyone. The growing emphasis on the importance of the individual as the primary unit of significance for the church and the nation is a major liability in any quest for community renewal.
To renew communities the focus must shift to the creation and maintenance of dynamic connections among people who live near one another.
Building strong neighborhoods in impoverished areas depends on the rediscovery of the importance of neighborliness.
It really is that simple.
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