When my husband and I moved to Shawnee, I knew that -- Lord willin' and the creek don't rise -- we were committed to this community for the long run. As in, I'm-in-my-30s-and-we'll-probably-die-here long run.
As our long term home, I wanted to be intentional about how I spent my time in Shawnee. I could do a lot of good in those 50 years, but I also knew that good would have to fit with raising kids, working full time, living, and loving.
Two things happened as I thought about our move. First, I read a book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg describes a “keystone habit.” A keystone habit is one that -- once implemented -- impacts everything else. He talks about a manufacturing company who made its keystone habit to be the safest place to work. When the CEO announced this, investors starting pulling out. Was he crazy?
Those investors didn’t anticipate that the safety habit would ensure their workers had the best training, the best equipment, the best management, and the best lines of communication. Their bottom dollar, employee retention, and -- yes -- safety ratings went through the roof.
Second, I listened to a lecture from a superintendent in an Oklahoma City southside school district, an under-resourced area of the community. He said that he wanted to make his school district the best place for a student to get an education.
My brain started connecting dots, running down the list of things you think about with “best place for a student.” Of course, that’s academics, truancy, drop-out rates, and literacy. But it’s also gun violence, gang violence, racism, ableism, sexism, incarceration rates, hiring practices, teacher morale.
Making sure the school is the best place for a student also means making sure home is the best place for a student. If a kid’s been verbally abused that morning, it’ll take their hormones levels several hours to get back to normal, making attempts to teach them math or social studies moot. It ensures not only parent involvement in the student’s work but care for the parent.
The superintendent finished his lecture and asked for questions or comments. “It’s a keystone habit,” I said. “It impacts everything.”
That day, I wrote in my journal, “How do we make Shawnee the best place to raise a kid in the United States?”
Not that I'm particularly fond of kids. I'm a one or two at a time kind of kid person.
But as I chewed more and more on the superintendent’s intention, I found it to be a keystone habit for a community, too. It means our best schools, yes. It also means safe neighborhoods, stable jobs, and community involvement. Pick an issue and this question addresses it: homelessness, addiction, trafficking, hunger, foster care, domestic violence.
I’d found my problem to solve and set a deadline: “Help make Shawnee the best place to raise a kid in the United States by 2068.” That was fifty years down the road and the year I turned 80. It felt reasonable enough.
Getting to Shawnee, I kept an eye out for organizations whose work would have the most impact on my mission, an organization already doing the thing, and I could hop on board.
Meanwhile, I threw an ice-cream party to meet the neighbors and bring together the folks we’d already met around town. My husband heard about an organization in town that would give you money if you were having neighbor parties.
Our school debt ever-present and me kicking off my “writing career,” I gave them a call and asked about money for the party. Apparently, that wasn’t exactly what the organization did, but they did have a free lunch for me if I wanted to hear their pitch.
Sitting in a conference room with 25 other community members, I heard about Community Renewal -- a neighboring movement that helps neighbors restore community through intentional relationships. They talked about how societies are built on a foundation of relationships. They talked about the 32 civilizations we can study and how they’ve all collapsed after relationships started to crumble. They told us that if we can build relationships across our community, neighbor-by-neighbor, block-by-block, we can create the safe, caring world we all want.
And then, the pièce de résistance.
Community Renewal started in Shreveport, Louisiana, 25 years ago in a neighborhood called Allendale. Allendale was so rough that police had to escort ambulances and fire trucks into the neighborhoods, because people would shoot at them and steal stuff off their trucks.
Gradually, though, the police noticed they weren’t being called out as often, and they began tracking Allendale’s major crimes. Sitting in that conference room, they told me that after 25 years of neighbors building relationships, major crime went down in Allendale 62% and so far that year there had been zero drug arrests.
Zero drug arrests. Zero.
It wasn’t gentrification. It’s not now brimming with hipsters and artisan pizza. It’s not even an anomaly: they’ve seen a 50% average decrease in major crimes in their five under-resourced neighborhoods.
It was the neighbors, born and raised there, restoring community through intentional relationships.
Being true to my tale, I’ll say that I’m a Jesus follower, and my first thought at hearing that was, “Jesus was right.”
My second thought was, “This is it.” It wasn’t that the decrease in crime was so impressive, though it clearly was. It's because the decrease in crime was an unintended consequence of the simple act of neighbors getting to know each other.
I’ve worked with Community Renewal for four years now, my first year as a block leader and the last three on staff. All the research I read, over and over again, continues to point to building social capital (aka healthy relationships), particularly in neighborhoods, being the solution. Take a peek at some of these quotes:
Relationship capital had surpassed financial capital as the scarce, crucial resource that now dictates whether societies either advance or regress.
Robert Hall, This Land of Strangers
Also, since our minds are shaped by our social communication, the mind can be seen as a relational process as much as it is one dependent on our body’s nervous system, including the brain.
Dr. Dan J Seigel, Parenting from the Inside Out
In a meta-analysis of studies on loneliness, researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B Smith, and J Bradley Layton found the following: Living with air pollution increases your odds of dying early by 5 percent. Living with obesity, 20 percent. Excessive drinking, 30 percent. And living with loneliness? It increases our odds of dying early by 45 percent.
Dr. Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness
Here’s a slew from Robert D Putnam’s foundational work on social capital Bowling Alone:
"States with more social capital have proportionately fewer murders. This inverse relationship is astonishingly strong -- as close to perfect as one might find between any two social phenomena.
Across the various Kids Count indicators, social capital is second only to poverty in the breadth and depth of its effects on children's lives.
… our analysis suggests that for some outcomes - particularly SAT scores - the impact of race, poverty, and adult education levels is only indirect. These factors seem to influence the level of social capital in a state, and social capital - not poverty or demographic characteristics per se - drives test scores.
Community psychologists have long noted that child abuse rates are higher where neighborhood cohesion is lower. For example, in a widely cited study of two neighborhoods, one with a high child maltreatment rate and the other with a low rate, social capital turned out to be the main factor that distinguished the two communities. These neighborhoods had similar income levels and similar rates of working women and single-parent households. However, in the high-risk neighborhoods, residents were far more reluctant to ask for help from a neighbor. Parents in the high-abuse area were also far less likely to report exchanging childcare with a neighbor or allowing their kids to play with others in the neighborhoods… Informal social networks help shield children from their parents worst moments."
Strong Neighborhood Relationships Vital for Societal Health
The evidence is overwhelming. Stronger neighborhood relationships may not be the only answer for the systemic issues in our community, but it’s my answer. Connected to dozens of other non-profits serving individuals and families in Shawnee, Community Renewal block leaders connect neighbors to the relationships and resources that they need to thrive.
I had a vision while walking through Walmart just after being hired as block leader coordinator. We ask block leaders to pick 5-15 homes to build relationships with by being visible, interacting, and gathering (BIG). It will take 900 block leaders in Shawnee for every 15 homes to have someone looking out for it, and 1000 block leaders in greater Pottawatomie County.
As I watched people going about their grocery shopping, I started to tear up, thinking that one day every person I could see would have at least one person looking out for them in their neighborhood. No one would be alone.
But we need you. The block leaders need you, those 15 neighbors need you, our community needs you. Together, neighbor to neighbor, block to block, we can make Shawnee the best place to raise a kid in the United States by 2068, just by stepping outside our front doors.