Human Resilience, Positive Engagement, and Building on the Strengths of a Great City
Marshall H. Becker Collegiate Professor of Public Health, Professor of Health Behavior and Health Education, Professor of Psychology
Photo. A large garden project at Hamady Middle School in Flint, Michigan, co-facilitated by Youth Empowerment Solutions (YES).
Many youth are exposed to risk factors that increase the probability they might do something bad—like drugs or delinquency or violent behavior.
Why do some of those youth end up doing those bad behaviors and others do not?
It can be helpful to focus on the second part of that question—to try understanding what is right in kids’ lives rather than what is wrong.
Youth Empowerment Solutions and Positive Interactions
This focus on positivity led to the development in Flint, Michigan, of the Youth Empowerment Solutions (YES), an after-school program to engage middle-school-age youth in positive community change activities. Through the YES curriculum, youth work with adults to develop critical thinking skills, perform community assessments on the safety of various public spaces, and then come up with ideas to make those spaces and their communities safer and more positive.
We decided that instead of being the focus of the problem, youth needed to be part of the solution.
YES began in 2004, with program ideas coming from Flint community members and University of Michigan researchers. The final curriculum design was the result of collaborations between Flint’s Youth Violence Prevention Center and the Prevention Research Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor. In helping youth develop these skills and understand how to use the resources at their disposal, they become thoughtful decision makers. Ultimately, they become decision makers in their communities.
We decided that instead of being the focus of the problem, youth needed to be part of the solution. A primary goal of YES has always been to help kids see their own strengths and understand their own abilities to create positive change in their lives and their communities. When that happens, and they are supported with the tools to create and implement those changes, then the community improvements can be sustained.
The Many Strengths of Flint
Flint is an urban community with a rich history of community activism. It is, for example, where the United Auto Workers union was born. The people of Flint also face economic challenges that resulted when GM closed all but one of its plants and left the city. These include high rates of poverty, unemployment, and violence. The YES program was designed to address some of these challenges while building on the community’s many assets, and through it, we learned about the many interesting community change projects going on throughout Flint.
Flint residents have designed and installed a variety of murals and gardens across the city. In one community garden, youth built a small wall on which they painted a mural honoring Rosa Parks. The space was named the Rosa Parks Peace Garden as a way to acknowledge the history of the Civil Rights Movement and to lift up the idea of social (in)justice, peaceful demonstrations, the power of building positive interactions among people.
Flint at its peak had a population of nearly 200,000 with one of the highest per capita incomes of the US. Flint had 70,000 jobs with General Motors (GM) alone. When GM left, people left and infrastructure left. Today, fewer than 7,000 GM jobs remain, and the population is under 100,000. With that kind of population attrition, wealth and other resources decline as well. This also results in high vacancy rates. Flint has the highest vacancy rate in the US, with many residential blocks having only half or less of the homes occupied and others unoccupied, boarded-up and, in some instances, falling down and not boarded up at all. Sometimes all that is left is an empty lot with overgrown weeds that becomes a dumping spot for old appliances, construction waste, and tires.
Unchecked, this situation then feeds on itself, with more residents becoming afraid of being outside and in some cases deciding to move out of the neighborhood.
This can communicate a message that nobody cares about these blocks and neighborhoods. And it introduces the possibility of all kinds of nefarious activity to occur because—with fewer residents and fewer police officers patrolling—you have fewer eyes on the streets. Unchecked, this situation then feeds on itself, with more residents becoming afraid of being outside and in some cases deciding to move out of the neighborhood, which just keeps the cycle going.
When we studied crime around the places where youth did YES projects, we found that crime in areas adjacent to these community projects—like the Rosa Park Peace Garden—was slightly lower after than before the project. The study design did not include a comparison condition of no treatment, but it did get us thinking about another more rigorous study to test the effects of community improvement projects
We began working with community partners and studying the effects of greening.
This led us to an area of criminal justice called crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), which was about changing neighborhood physical environments as a way to reduce crime. Changes include things like more lighting, more open sightlines, and fencing and other demarcations of ownership. CPTED also includes cleaning up vacant lots and boarding up abandoned homes in a way that sends the message, “people in this neighborhood care about the place.” We began working with community partners and studying the effects of greening—cleaning up vacant lots and planting gardens—and compared crime in these lots to lots where no greening occurred.
We worked with the Genesee County Land Bank and a community coalition to study greening projects that helped neighborhoods create more open and attractive spaces and reduced the number of neglected places. Importantly, we studied the ability of these projects to engage community partners and residents in all steps of the greening process, from planning to implementation.
Community engagement is the center of the whole enterprise because it distinguishes this community improvement approach from a gentrification process that typically involves outsiders displacing residents to develop properties, often leaving residents out of the real planning from the beginning. We were not interested in gentrification. Rather, we were interested in local people taking back their streets and their neighborhoods and developing a sense of control over their daily living conditions.
Most of our work has been in Flint, and we began the initial inquiries and work with community partners in 1994. But we have also worked with groups in Youngstown, Ohio, and—with colleagues from Rutgers University—in Camden, New Jersey, to test the hypothesis that greening helps send a positive message about a neighborhood that in turn deters crime. This greening hypothesis has been tested by others across the country, and the conclusion is consistent: greening is related to reductions in crime. Our own work in Flint found that crime was reduced by 40 percent in areas that were greened compared to areas that were not greened.
The Busy Streets Theory
People call what happens when one broken and unrepaired window sends a message of neglect that leads to more and more neglect and decay and crime. This has become called “broken windows theory.” Ultimately, so the theory goes, residents and others receive a clear message that nobody cares. And that message is seen as a slippery slope to disorganized neighborhoods, negative behaviors and crime, and eventually fear among residents. Typically, trust among neighbors declines and people avoid social interaction.
In Flint, our team decided to spin things the other way. We considered alternative approaches like greening—taking back those windows and those houses and remaking spaces in Flint—as points of community interaction where people would want to be out on their street. Once you have one space where people want to talk to each other, they start to look around and might begin work together cleaning up another space down the street. Eventually, neighbors begin to work with each other to make their street and eventually their whole neighborhood a more pleasant place to be outside and to have positive social interactions. And local community institutions also begin to take note and things start to turn around.
Instead of seeing that one broken window exponentially turn into an empty street, we saw residents clean up their street, which cumulatively over time made a street busier and more comfortable for everyone who lived there.
As this negative narrative of broken windows got turned on its head, we started referring to it as the “busy streets theory.” This comported with my own experiences traveling in New York City, for example. When you plan a walking route through the city, you think about safety, and you tend to choose busier streets for your route. In Flint, instead of seeing that one broken window exponentially turn into an empty street, we saw residents mow a nearby lot, take care of their own property, and clean up their street, which cumulatively over time made a street busier and more comfortable for everyone who lived there, because they talked to each other and developed social capital among neighbors.
Empowerment and Resilience
How do we empower people to have control of their own lives and communities? Behavioral science actually arrives at very few findings that are consistent across all human communities, but one of the more consistent ones is that people who feel they have more control of their lives lead healthier, happier lives. Having a sense of control—actual or perceived—is important for our psychological well-being. But it is also not just having a sense of control but understanding how things work to create one’s situation and taking action to make that situation the best it can be. The idea is that people need to feel a sense that they can be agents to make their lives what they want it to be, know what to do to be an effective change agent, and then do what is necessary to make that change. Empowerment may look different for different people, but having some control, thinking critically about what it will take to be successful in exerting control, and then taking the action to have that control are vital steps. Often these steps are taken with others in an organized fashion to improve neighborhoods.
The people of Flint have been through a lot in recent decades, and from my perspective, they have absolutely thrived in all of it and taught the rest of us a lot about resilience.
Some have pointed out to us that resilience always comes in contexts of risk, so it’s not that positive. But we all face adversity in life, and I think it is what we do in the face of that adversity and how we pay attention to our positive attributes that determines how we succeed. The people of Flint have been through a lot in recent decades, and from my perspective, they have absolutely thrived in all of it and taught the rest of us a lot about resilience and about the influence that one person or household or street can have on an entire city through the smallest of acts.
These ideas of empowerment and resilience are what has driven all of this work. They provide a conceptual foundation for focusing on what helps people and communities succeed rather than the typical focus on negative things that result in bad outcomes. We are focused on what goes right and how we can replicate that instead of what goes wrong and how we need to fix things. The idea is to enhance the positive aspects of our lives as a way to improve our communities.
About the Author
Marc Zimmerman is Marshall H. Becker Collegiate Professor of Public Health and professor of health behavior and health education in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and also professor of psychology. He is director of the Prevention Research Center and the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center in the School of Public Health and serves as editor of Youth and Society. His research focuses on how positive factors in adolescents’ lives help them overcome risks and on the measurement and analysis of psychological and community empowerment.
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