Friday, August 30, 2013

Ask an Advisor: Identifying non traditional out reach methods

Ask an Advisor featured question, by Al Ratcliffe

Ask an Advisor is a feature from the Community Tool Box ( in which anyone around the world seeking for advice regarding community work, could find a brief and personalized response. For this week’s post, we feature the following question:

Question: I was wondering if I could have help identifying non traditional out reach methods that I might use in high risk high crime low income family residence

Answer: We can offer only general advice that a good first step would be to try and identify natural neighborhood leaders with whom you can become acquainted and establish your own credibility and trustworthiness over a period of time. Enter being clear about what skills you bring and that you are willing to learn from them what outreach approaches will work best in their neighborhood. Partnering with them over a period of time will bring you in contact with other concerned members of the neighborhood. Coalition-building and goal-setting can evolve from there.

To submit a question about your community-based work to Ask an Advisor, please visit

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Graffiti for Good: Making a Magnet for Trouble into a Symbol for Community Strength

Mural on wall of once-empty lot in Waikiki
This was once a dingy lot.
Every neighborhood’s got them. Some seem to have them everywhere you look. Empty lots, dark alleys, abandoned buildings, dimly lit spaces under overpasses. These are the places that you want to avoid at night. You’re not too enthusiastic about encountering them during the day. They seem like magnets for trouble, and this idea is borne out by research showing that ecological factors can contribute to certain small areas becoming ‘hot spots’ for crime (Felson, 2006) and that crime trends may vary from street to street (Groff, Weisburd, & Yang, 2010).
Most graffiti is uninspiring.

Graffiti often finds its way to these neglected spaces, sometimes bearing offensive text or images, as if sending another message that this is a place you do not want to go near. But graffiti can be a tool for renewal as well. Across the U.S., street art is being used to make once unsavory places beautiful. In the latest edition of The Community Psychologist (Community Ideas column, p. 10-11), I spotlight work that was done by 808 Urban,  a Hawaii-based arts collective that works with youth. This initiative was prompted by one concerned and persistent citizen, and facilitated by a community police force that recognized that recognized patterns of crime centered on a small abandoned lot.

This project, deemed the Kuhio Mini-Park Beautification project, came to my attention because it actually affected me personally. About once a week, I take the bus down to Waikiki after work to visit a friend, and then return in the evening. I used to dread the return wait for the bus, checking the GPS estimates of the bus’s arrival to make sure that I didn’t spend a single minute more at the stop than I had to. The bus stop was in front of an empty space - it seemed too small to call it a lot, but it was a dark empty space, and people tended to lurk there. And drink there. And sleep there. And pee there. And do all kinds of other things there. waited at my fair share of shady bus and subway stops in various cities, but this was one of the more unpleasant ones. It was certainly the most unpleasant one I’d encountered in Hawaii, a place known for its general pleasantness, but not immune to the problems that all other cities face. One day I got out of the bus in front of my friend’s apartment and did a double take. This is what I saw: 

The happiest bust stop in Honolulu

Was I at the right place? I certainly didn’t remember the bus stop looking like that. Moreover, behind the bus stop I saw what looked like a mini park, surrounded on three sides by beautiful murals. I confirmed that I was in the right place, but was taken aback by the change. The full story of how this change came to be is in The Community Psychologist article, but suffice it to say, the place had changed. It has been nearly a year since that happened, and I still smile every time I arrive at that stop. Waiting for the bus home is no longer a dreaded activity, since spotlights shining on the murals serve to brighten up the place, and keep most would-be lurkers away. The change is even bigger for those who live there, who once found this place at best annoying, and at worst disgusting and scary. Instead, the mini-park is now a source of pride.

Youth working with 808 Urban to paint the mini-park
In the wake of controversy over New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, and debates about how crime can be effectively prevented without violating people’s civil rights and unjustly targeting minorities, it’s refreshing to hear about a community policing effort that was based on partnership and mutual respect. Much of the aggressive policing that has dominated law enforcement in places like NYC is based on the “broken-windows theory” that posits a connection between physical disorder and crime. Typically, police forces that subscribe to this theory take a hard-line approach to minor violations such as public drinking or graffiti. However, there are many downsides to this approach. For instance, studies have shown that while physical disorder is associated with fear of crime, so is excessive policing (Hinkle & Weisburd, 2008).

A fascinating project in the South Bronx culminated in community members and researchers projecting statistics regarding excessive use of stop-in-frisk in one neighborhood*. At the end, this message was projected  “We want to feel safe…and we want you here. We deserve fair and just policing.” Community members and police forces are for the most part united in their desire to create safe neighborhoods. Partnerships that lead to urban renewal may be more effective ways of decreasing neighborhood disorder and thereby preventing crime, without relying on aggressive policing.

Gina Cardazone
University of Hawai`i, Mānoa

Felson, M. (2006). Crime and nature. Sage Publications, Inc.

Groff, E. R., Weisburd, D., & Yang, S.-M. (2010). Is it Important to Examine Crime Trends at a Local “Micro” Level?: A Longitudinal Analysis of Street to Street Variability in Crime Trajectories. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 26(1), 7–32.

Hinkle, J. C., & Weisburd, D. (2008). The irony of broken windows policing: A micro-place study of the relationship between disorder, focused police crackdowns and fear of crime. Journal of Criminal Justice, 36(6), 503–512.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Michelle Fine for sharing the above linked video of the Morris Justice Project during her keynote address at this year's SCRA conference. Many thanks to Melody Young, Thomas Foti, and Officer John De Mello for their work on the Kuhio Mini-Park project and for taking the time to speak with me about it.

More information and many more pictures of the Kuhio Mini-Park Beautification Project can be found here: 

Photos and a description of the mini-park dedication (scroll all the way down) can be found here:

Friday, August 16, 2013

Community Psychologists as Community Planners

Community Psychologists as Community Planners
by Bill Berkowitz 

      This post is about community psychology and community planning, and how they should be, but rarely are, related.  Readers may also find at least two possible morals.

       Here’s the prologue: My town has begun what’s called a master planning process, where the planners  who work for the town create a comprehensive written plan that sets forth town-wide goals and is supposed to serve as a blueprint for the town’s future.

       Master plans are not uncommon in local government circles.  One rationale is that they offer an agreed-upon vision and common objectives for the town, based upon resident participation. Such plans can be criticized as feel-good exercises, forgotten as soon as they are finished; yet I’ve also heard claims that master plans have economic value by promoting the community to outsiders and improving a town’s bond rating. 

       If my town’s completed plan will resemble similar plans I’m familiar with, it will focus on local economic development, on the business climate, on housing stock, transportation, open space, zoning, and land use – all important and necessary contributors to the quality of life of any community. It won’t, however, have much to do with the relationships among people living in the community, or with community psychology values, or with community life as it is actually lived. We’ve long known that strong social and community networks yield multiple benefits, ranging from improved physical and emotional well-being, to greater security, better outcomes for children, and increased economic development.  But when it comes to the social as versus the physical infrastructure of a community, most community plans are mute.

       Why is that? My town planners, whom I’ve come to know casually, are caring and competent people, with a genuine commitment to an open process. In fact, they’ve bent over backwards to stimulate participation.  There was a well-publicized community kickoff this past fall (with 150 attending), plus a vigorously-promoted online survey on resident priorities, as well as three public hearings on different days, time, and locations, with more topic-related workshop sessions scheduled this summer.  All of this rates an A for effort. But from what I’ve seen in preliminary accounts so far, social concerns are unlikely to make it to the final or even semi-final cut of the plan. 

       Again, why?  It’s not that our planners lack concern for social issues or oppose inclusion of social goals, even progressive ones.  It seems rather that they just don’t see such goals as part of “planning.”  “Planning” to them is basically physical planning, involving community elements you can touch and rub up against, such as bricks and mortar.  That’s how most planners are trained, and our perceptions are shaped by the disciplines we’ve been trained in.  In community psychology, we are trained to see the community as a network of interrelationships; but planners who make policy typically are not. 

As it happens, residents rate a strong sense of community as among their highest values in the planners’ survey. And when I’ve spoken about social concerns at local hearings, I’ve seen planning staff nodding their heads in agreement; but somehow this doesn’t get translated into plans or actions.  Incorporating community psychology into a local plan won’t transform community life; yet it should surely help if municipal leaders had more of that consciousness.  I must admit, it’s a little frustrating.  

       But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

       Lowell, where I work, offers a different story. Its current and just-published master plan, also involving an extensive public process, is called “Sustainable Lowell 2025,” and can be found at (Please paste link into browser if it does not work directly). It’s worth checking out as a model of what a community plan can be. 

       Many of this plan’s goals are social. Just for example, one of its main goals is Sustainable Neighborhoods, with specific objectives including “Promote Safe and Welcoming Neighborhoods,” and “Foster Neighborhood-Level Camaraderie, Advocacy, and Resource Sharing.”  Each of these objectives is accompanied by multiple specific action steps designed to achieve it. Another primary goal is Sustained Public Engagement, including the objectives “Make Planning and Public Engagement Fun and Enjoyable,” “Diversify Existing Leadership,” and “Cultivate the Next Generation of Local Leaders by Encouraging the Sustained Engagement of Youth in City Life.”  Does this sound like a community you would like to live in? 

       So why then in Lowell, and not in my home town?  It’s not because Lowell as a community is any more enlightened, or ideologically committed to social goals. I think it’s largely because the lead writer for Lowell’s plan was one of our community psychology program graduates, who after graduation was hired by the city as its Neighborhood Planner. Our graduate program is largely applied, with strong community connections; here was an obvious application, and a good fit. 

       Of course, a plan is not action, nor will any plan necessarily lead to action or to community-building accomplishments. The future of Lowell’s plan is presently unknown. But we may agree that it’s a step in the right direction, and that we should take any small win that comes our way.  

       This leads to the first of two possible morals.  Community building, as we use the term, is typically not on the radar screen of local government leaders.  To instill social goals into their thinking often takes much hard work and repeated effort.  Yet this is achievable over time. There are many strategies for so doing, and one worth highlighting is to get people hired from the inside – to make community building an inside job. That is, instead of trying to influence decision makers, to be the decision makers.  And that in turn depends on developing a large cadre of community psychology students and graduates, and encouraging their placement into local decision-making positions as well as into academic life.     

       As for the second moral:  Community psychology is about skills and techniques, but it’s also about finding opportunities to use them.  Becoming a professional community planner is one of many such opportunities. Since our numbers are small, we must be opportunists.  Sometimes the door is wide open, and we can walk right in.  If it’s open just a crack, we can push it open further.  If the door is locked, we can find someone with a key. But what’s even better is to be the keeper of the keys – so that we can open many doors, leverage many opportunities, and be able to walk down many corridors, leading to the wise use of community influence and power. 

Bill Berkowitz 
University of Massachusetts Lowell 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Ask an Advisor: Is it possible to extend Social Programs?

Ask an Advisor featured question, by Nate Israel

            Ask an Advisor is a feature from the Community Tool Box ( in which anyone around the world seeking for advice regarding community work, could find a brief and personalized response. For this week’s post, we feature the following question from Nepal:

            Question: Dear sir Its me Baburam Niraula from kathmandu, Nepal. I would like to work in social sectors. Is it possible to extend to social program in Nepal. thanking you Best regards.

            Answer: This is a very important question—thank you for asking it. Social programs contain parts which can be extended, and parts which must be adapted. The aims of most social programs – to provide people with a voice, meaningful choices, and the power to achieve their goals, can probably be extended to people in nearly any place. However, the ways of achieving these aims likely differ. In each local context one must identify appropriate ways of achieving these aims. Often it is difficult for people to understand why change is happening, even if it is for the better. Old ways of interacting with people, even if they are not helpful to everyone, are often hard to change. For this reason, it is important to understand how one can achieve the aims of a social program while being sensitive to how people will respond to change in your specific environment. There are resources in the Community Toolbox which can help you better understand your local needs and resources, and these may be helpful in identifying what kind of social programs might be helpful and how to extend them in your community. These resources are available at:

To submit a question about your community-based work to Ask an Advisor, please visit

Thursday, August 1, 2013

What if Human Evolution is the Ultimate Clinical Trial?

(It appears that previous version of this article was uploaded incorrectly. We apologize for the inconvenience. Please make sure to read the corrected version below)

What if Human Evolution is the Ultimate Clinical Trial?

Marc B. Goldstein & David G. Blumenkrantz

In contemporary behavioral science, the randomized clinical trial has emerged as the gold standard for evaluating the efficacy of medical and social interventions. Indeed, today, for an intervention to not be "evidence-based" is to be largely shunned from most funding streams. But are there other ways we can judge the viability of potential interventions?  

We would like to pose the following question: What would we be doing as community psychologists as well as educators, youth development specialists and public and mental health practitioners if we believed that human evolution was the ultimate clinical trial? What behavioral forms have stood the test of time and span cultural differences? What archetypal features are consistently found in all human communities that presumably contribute to the survival of our species? If such patterns do exist, should these processes become the touchstone of our efforts to develop interventions intended to improve individual and community life?

The questions regarding the presence of common features across the panorama of cultural practices that exist in our species are the mainstay of anthropological study.   Arnold van Gennep's classic work (1909/1960), The rites of passage, identifies one such commonality: the presence of community-centered rites of passage to mark important life transitions found in nearly all cultures. While the manifestations of these rites of passage (phenotypes) vary across cultures, van Gennep argued that they all contain an underlying process sequence (genotype) of three stages: separation, transition (liminality) and incorporation.

Why is this important?

We believe that many western cultures have weakened or lost their attachment to rite of passage experiences for youth, with a consequent regression in the well-being of youth the greater community and the environment. The manifestations of this are seen in the myriad of destructive behaviors (substance abuse, crime, etc.) in which youth engage. The reasons for the diminishment of such rites are complex, but the consequences of this loss have been discussed by many. For example, Putnam's (2000) Bowling Alone and a substantial literature on social capital point to the consequences of the dissolution of human bonds and obligations, characteristics that are shorn up by rites of passage experiences. Equally important, society (and our profession's) response to these deficits have largely been piecemeal attempts to give youth specific skills, e.g., resisting peer pressure, rather than addressing the more fundamental issue of youth's connection to the greater society.

From phenotype to genotype: What are the common elements of such rites of passage?

Our investigation (Blumenkrantz, 19941) suggests that not only are there common stages to rites of passage as identified by van Gennep (1909), but there are also 20 common elements that form the foundation of such experiences. Indeed, we have argued elsewhere (Blumenkrantz & Goldstein, 2010) that these elements and a rites of passage perspective could be the foundation of much community development work.

We applaud the recent emergence of the field of positive youth development which recognizes the positive elements needed for healthy develop, in particular, the work by the Search Institute with their 40 developmental assets, but feel that a rite of passage framework could provide added coherence to these disparate strengths. In fact a rite of passage framework not only offers coherence to a community’s youth development efforts, they also foster all 40 developmental assets and almost all other orientations, such as; resiliency, character education, academic & social-emotional learning, to name a few.

To return to our question 

So what if evolution is the ultimate clinical trial? What if our millions of years of evolution as a species have led to the development of cultural forms that can help sustain us? We need to learn from that history and recognize the wisdom that is part of our past. This has been addressed previously in response to another question: Why Youth & Community Development through Rites of Passage Now? Please note: we are not condoning the abandonment of modern science and its methods. Humankind has benefitted greatly and will continue to do so from such intellectual endeavors. But our heavy emphasis on "evidence-based" interventions may preclude us from seeing what has evolved from the 2 million year old clinical trial called "human evolution."

Dr. David G. Blumenkrantz is the Executive Director of The Center for the Advancement of Youth, Family & Community Services in Glastonbury, CT (

Dr. Marc B. Goldstein is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, CT ( & Vice President of The Center’s Board of Directors.

Blumenkrantz, D. G. (1994). The rite way: Guiding youth to adulthood and the problem of communitas. Dissertation Abstract International, 57(11), 4645A. (UMI No. AAT 9713085).

Blumenkrantz, D. G., & Goldstein, M. B. (2010). Rites of passage as a framework for community interventions with youth. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 2(1), 1-9. 

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. (Monika B. Vizedom & Gabrielle L. Caffee, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published in 1909)

1A revised version of my dissertation will be released in 2014 entitled: And,how are the children? Rites of passage and the future of all my relations.