Research reveals that neighbors in diverse environments in the US are inclined to avoid social contact (Chaskin and Joseph, 2015; Putnam, 2007). We have developed and implemented a new model for promoting “effective neighboring” in diverse neighborhoods, defined as the process of neighbors from diverse social, economic, and cultural backgrounds establishing a level of familiarity and shared expectations that enable them to live comfortably together (Joseph and Gress, 2013). This paper reports on the early findings of a multi-year Participatory Action Research (PAR) project, in two diverse blocks in Cleveland.
Five resident liaisons were identified to work with the research team in exploring how neighbors could best create diverse meaningful connections. As PAR, we gathered resident liaison input throughout the project, and consulted them to shape strategy and implementation. We conducted a baseline survey of households that captured 59 responses, conducted in-depth interviews with resident liaisons throughout the project, and completed 41 field observations during 12 effective neighboring interventions. These interventions included pop-ups, community brainstorming sessions, and larger one-time events such as a block-wide community breakfast. Interventions featured mechanisms to foster connection across difference, such as discussion questions, visioning activities, and activities that promoted storytelling.
Through quantitative and qualitative data analysis, we learned more about effective neighboring. For example, the baseline degree of neighboring and sense of belonging varied more by age than income or home ownership/rental status. Through a social network analysis, we learned that on one block, although interaction happened across race, the residents who were most connected, and benefitted most from social capital on the street, were White. On another block we found that higher socio-economic status among some facilitated neighboring activity. Fear impeded neighboring across difference, as residents sometimes desired to perpetuate traditional exclusionary practices. Despite this dynamic, resident liaisons demonstrated an increased understanding of, and commitment to, effective neighboring across difference. We found that there is not a shared definition of neighboring across diversity on either block. Each individual resident conceptualizes in their own way who is “different” from them, and what neighboring across difference means.
The facilitation of Effective Neighboring Across Difference was episodic and incremental. We did not see a cumulative effect from the interventions, as was anticipated. The action phase of PAR did not emerge organically, and there was limited self-organizing of neighboring activities. To deepen the application of PAR, rather than beginning with a priori theory of change, future research needs to begin with a problem-posing process that enables the community to define the research agenda. Resident liaisons need to be elevated to true co-investigators who partner in every phase. The action-reflection cycle needs to be more explicit, including organizing training as a component of the process. Consciousness raising also needs to be included to promote dialogue about the role structural racism and exclusion play in neighboring.