An open letter from Bill Berkowitz of Community Tool Box Re: “Taking Action in Your Neighborhood”

I got this note from UMass Professor Emeritus Bill Berkowitz earlier this week, and with his permission have posted it here so you can share your own thoughts and suggestions. Dr. Berkowitz is a writer, editor, and core team member of the Community Tool Box, the most extensive web site on community health and development on the planet (which we featured here). His books deal with skills, ideas, personal qualities, and stories relating to community organization and improvement. Bill is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its award for Distinguished Contributions to Practice in Community Psychology.

I’d forwarded this email to some of my contacts in the neighborhoods movement, and with their permission will be posting excerpts from their responses here as well.

Hi, Leo – Thanks very much for your April 12 note. It’s so easy to be impressed by it – both by your statement of purpose and by the people you’ve been gathering around your ideas. I surely hope your work gains momentum, takes off, and soars.

In this note, I’m sending along a concept of our own, titled “Taking Action in Your Neighborhood,” which perhaps you might reflect and comment upon.

In some ways, it’s a variation and extension of Our Blocks. Some differences are that it’s more explicitly action-oriented, and more explicitly participatory. It also structures the content by topic, rather than have the user do it via tagging. And it centralizes and gives a specific focus for much of the needed neighborhood work.

What’s here could be a rather big idea, probably calling for both synthesis of existing content and creation of some new content as well. The potential payoff, though, could be very large.

So take a look if you can, and see what you think; we’ll be very grateful to learn of your own reactions, others’ as well, whatever they may be.

We’re also very comfortable with your sharing any or all of this with your other neighborhood contacts – actually we’d encourage this, since more feedback may both help strengthen this concept, as well as Our Blocks itself, and potentially lead to mutually-beneficial collaborations.

Thanks very much again, Leo, and be talking to you.

~~ Bill

* * * * *

In response to your note and request for feedback, I’m writing to sketch out some neighborhood thoughts, and more specifically around developing a centralized “Taking Action in Your Neighborhood” resource that I’d mentioned before.

We’d certainly be interested in any of your own thoughts you might have on this, especially (if the idea has merit) for moving this idea forward. I’m also copying Jay here, since this relates pretty closely to some work he has done.

Here’s the rationale: There’s a lot of neighborhood-related stuff in print and in cyberspace, which may not be very surprising. Much of what exists is both good and useful. A lot of it can be found on Our Blocks. Some of it is on the Community Tool Box, and I’m sure also on many other sites as well.

But a real downside is that it’s scattered all over the map – so if someone is interested in a particular neighborhood topic or issue, they might find themselves looking in a lot of places, and having to patch together what they need from a bunch of different sources. This is both time-consuming and often not all that effective.


So it might definitely help the neighborhood cause if there were a more centralized place to go, one that could synthesize and organize the best information that already exists.

  • What if there were a go-to, one-stop Web site for Taking Action in Your Neighborhood?
  • What if this was a place where anyone interested in doing neighborhood work could get specific, practical, action-oriented guidance on a wide variety of most-frequently-asked-about neighborhood topics?
  • What if that how-to-do-it guidance was also accompanied by web-based supplements that could enrich the work and give it more local impact?

If it were done right, that could make a positive difference for people and help advance our field – especially if you believe, as I do, that neighborhoods are going to become an increasingly important social institution as public dollars for social programs become tighter.

Here’s one version of how such a site could work in practice:

Suppose we took a sample neighborhood-related topic – let’s say “How to Create a Neighborhood Garden.”

We could develop a dedicated web section for this topic that would walk the user through the basic steps needed to get the garden going – e.g., find other potential gardeners, locate a potential garden space, etc. [In this model, we’d pre-structure and pre-establish the section content for users, rather than having them do it via tags; that should mean less work on their part.] This how-to, step-by-step material might run about two screens, or two printed pages.

The how-to material would also be accompanied by a variety of supplements, such as:

  • Examples of distinctive neighborhood gardens, with photos
  • First-person stories of people who have created distinctive neighborhood gardens
  • YouTube or other video links
  • Neighborhood garden resources
  • Links to more specialized community garden sites
  • An “Ask an Expert” feature, for gardening questions
  • A discussion forum, where anyone could ask neighborhood gardening questions and get responses from those who’ve done the work.

And also, to add to the possibilities:

  • Actionable ideas, checklists, forms, best practices, and lessons learned, all of which you’ve mentioned
  • Blogs, tweets, tags, Facebook pages, and RSS feeds; like you, I don’t consider myself a techie, so I’ll gladly defer here to those with more technical knowledge than I have.
  • And possibly more. (Although this is a plenty long list as it stands!)

The section content would be very practical (grassroots in more ways than one), action-focused, well-organized, friendly and supportive, easy to follow, attractively-designed, and comprehensive without being overwhelming. In other words, the completed section would be a preferred home base for anyone who wanted to learn more about how to make a first-class neighborhood garden happen.

Okay so far? Now suppose we did the same thing for a variety of other neighborhood topics. Just for example:

  • Creating a community mural
  • Cleaning up your block (or park)
  • Slowing down traffic
  • Beautifying your neighborhood space
  • Finding places for neighbors to meet
  • Organizing a block party
  • Making your neighborhood safe
  • Helping seniors live at home
  • Involving neighborhood youth
  • Developing affordable housing
  • Training neighborhood leaders

One could easily expand this list to 50 neighborhood topics, and beyond.

These combined action-oriented modules could be a significant resource for anyone interested in neighborhood life, including local activists, activists learning the ropes, and potential activists, even if they don’t know it yet. And professional staff as well – in all cases, both in doing the work, getting others interested, and training others to do it.

In sum, all of this could make “Taking Action in Your Neighborhood ” a very distinctive and very powerful web site.

There are some beginning examples of this already in place. Just to cite two, one on block cleanups comes from an older Baltimore Neighborhood Self-Help Handbook, a sample of which is at:

Another example, on block parties, which is longer and different in format, comes from Fremont, California, in the East Bay, not far from you:

I think the Fremont example and others at that site were put together by Claudia Albano, a long-time neighborhood organizer who worked there, and more recently for the City of Oakland; she should now be reachable through the School of Social Welfare at UC Berkeley.

The above examples include just the how-to components, without the add-ons. You may of course know of other and better examples. And actually, the how-to part is quite similar to what Jay has written about in his excellent The Great Neighborhood Book. In some ways this would be an online version. The differences here are that the content would in fact be online; and it would be more interactive, more participatory, more easily updateable, and expandable in scope as far as we could go.

* * * * *

All of this is just a beginning sketch, which needs some fleshing out, refining, and revising. I do like the basic concept, and am sure it could be improved by other people’s feedback, most certainly including yours.

Of course, a big question is where one goes from here. To make something like this happen would take some work, probably quite a lot of work. The positives, though, are that there’s plenty of material to draw upon. That is:

  • Some of the basics are already on the Community Tool Box site (though our sections are longer), as well as on Our Blocks. Probably other sites too.
  • It’s also possible to consult with, draw upon, and get involvement from those with specialized knowledge in each area – such as gardening, where I’m hardly an expert. (Though you may be!) It might be possible too to find some devoted person (or Blockhead, or Blockhead-in-Chief) who could take the lead in developing a section on their special interest.
  • And in addition, we start with a fair amount of community knowledge ourselves.

But it’s still work. And more than we ourselves can take on at the moment with our current resources. Outside funding could be a possibility if we knew where to look for it, and were motivated enough to take the time to go after it. Yet if the idea has value, and if there’s enough interest behind it, I believe there’s a way to make it happen.

* * * * *

This as far as I’ve gotten for the moment, so I’m sending it along to you and to Jay for comment, and others if they would like. Clearly, you’ve got plenty of stuff to do, not counting your day job, and we’re not necessarily asking for any particular involvement on your part. Just your comments, and others if they wish, will be very helpful.

And while my Community Tool Box team has interest in this concept, I’m speaking in this case largely for myself. As mentioned, we don’t presently have the time resources to execute it, at least not without putting a whole lot of other things on hold. But at the same time, it would be great to find a way to put this into action.

Thanks very much for your consideration, Leo. I n any case, there should be plenty to collaborate upon going beyond this concept, and I’m quite hopeful that this will continue.

Many thanks again. With much appreciation, and best regards as ever.

* * * * *

This is a reply we got from Diane Dyson (@Diane_Dyson), a board member of Social Planning Toronto, and a member of the Centre for Urban Health Initiatives, the Toronto Neighbourhood Research Network, and the Toronto Community Based Research Network. She’s also the author of Building Strong Communities – Thanks Diane

I am in august company, so thanks for the chance to weigh in here. I have used the Community Tool Box over a long number of years, so am glad to make a connection to its founder.

I have two streams of thought on the Taking Action proposal:

My first reaction is an interest and excitement in the project and a willingness to circulate this more broadly among some Canadian and British folk I know who do this sort of work.

However, on second thought, I am thinking about many of the challenges that a project like this would face, questions worth considering before diving in.

These thoughts that emerge from how the web is evolving as an interactive medium, Web 2.0, etc. (There are many smarter/younger people than me who have explained this dynamic to me, so I have stolen some of their critiques of similar projects, particularly a community mapping project here in Toronto.)

For instance, establishing a webpage and waiting for people to come to it is considered “old school.” It often doesn’t work. New social media technologies, such as Twitter and Facebook and RSS feeds, are effective because they drive the information directly into consumers’ hands, rather than making them go out an look for it. Established websites, such as Bill’s, are large enough that they attract attention, rate high on Google searches and are linked to by others. A new website would have to have a plan how to build to that – or how to drive the information out.

So what are some of the solutions? To deal with the amount of work required and to find a method to make this more Web 2.0?

One of the solutions might be to crowdsource the work involved in this through the creation of a Wiki. Then everyone can get involved. Alternately, we could hook this wagon onto an already established site (like OurBlocks? or some of the other neighbourhood-based webpages already established.). I also do like the proposal that the webpage could be multimedia. Perhaps we are talking about establishing a YouTube channel? These are just a few possible ways to go.

So, to conclude, if I can reference a famous Canadian, our Marshall McCluhan, I think the message is good, but we need to think more about what the medium might look like.

Hope this helps – rather than hinders. This is exciting stuff we do.

: DD

* * * * *

From Julian Dobson (@juliandobson), founding editor of New Start magazine, Fellow of the RSA, voluntary board member at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, and author of Living with Rats. – Thanks Julian

Many thanks for this. It’s a really interesting idea: I think the main issue is likely to be how you resource it so it can be effective and comprehensive.

There have been various attempts to share good practice here in the UK, some more successful than others. The ones that have been best resourced are those that have been supported by government, but the flipside of that is that it’s difficult to keep them going when short-term funding runs out.

But here are some ideas that have been tried here and have had some degree of success.

  • Neighbourhood management (locally managed public services). See the National Association of Neighbourhood Management.
  • Residents of different neighbourhoods sharing expertise. The Guide Neighbourhoods programme was a good example of this and although it is no longer funded by government there are some useful links at the guide neighbourhoods website.
  • The Development Trusts Association supports local community organisations and has amassed a lot of expertise.
  • On a more informal level, Talk About Local brings together a lot of ‘hyperlocal’ or neighbourhood websites/journals.
  • And of course there’s the Transition Towns movement, which you could draw from.

I don’t know how many of these are replicated in the US but obviously the ideas are equally relevant.

I hope that’s helpful.

all the best


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