‘About Six Neighbors Is All I Can Trust.’

When it comes to civic engagement and building trust, economically strapped neighborhoods don’t always fare so well. But one Springfield neighborhood is challenging that notion one step at a time.

story by Zach Crizer / photos by Sarah Elms
published September 6, 2012

Two Missouri State University sociology professors are sitting in Mudlounge on Walnut Street in downtown Springfield, talking about the rather abstract concept of social capital [1]. The reason for such a conversation is that the professors, Mike Stout and John Harms — along with their colleague Tim Knapp — recently completed a study on social capital and civic engagement in the Ozarks.

In one of the highlighted passages in their report, they explain that “social capital exists when members of a community have networks of trusting mutual relationships with others.” And once you get past the definitions, the theory is pretty clear:

  • Communities with more social capital should see more civic engagement.
  • More civic engagement usually leads citizens to improve their communities.
  • Increasing social capital — the networks of trusting relationships — will make communities better.

It’s an idea that makes sense and doesn’t necessarily seem as though it’d warrant the extensive study undertaken by the professors. It seems like a fairly simple, straightforward concept. However, in Greene County, it’s not that simple. What the professors found when they were conducting a similar 2008 study was that the theory didn’t fit here. Greene County didn’t follow the pattern. The area has levels of social capital above the national average. But its civic participation doesn’t follow suit. And many neighborhoods in Springfield are struggling.

Right here, in the Mudlounge, Stout says, the top leaders of Springfield society meet informally each week. That group of people forms an extraordinary strength for the area — leaders from across the business, non-profit and government sectors are working together and communicating freely. They trust one another.

“There’s lots of connecting happening across the sectors of Springfield’s society at the top, but it’s not so much at the bottom,” Stout says. “And that was one of the main findings we had: Civic participation and trust and everything have increased for people with the highest levels of education and income, but it’s basically remained flat for people with lower education and income.”

It’s an issue that’s not gone unnoticed here in Springfield. It’s the reason that in the past several years, the city has asked its residents for their opinions — to tell their city what they’d like to see changed. It’s the reason that studies such as this one are being undertaken — and that they’ve been reaching the right ears. And it’s the reason that on Aug. 24, the people of the Robberson community came together and started to talk.

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On August 24, the Robberson neighborhood took part in the National Night Out event, a nationwide initiative aimed at preventing crime and drug use.

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In the Robberson neighborhood on the north side of town, the problem Stout describes is evident in the most basic of measurements, like how many of their neighbors residents feel they can trust. It’s something that’s best expressed when Donna Walter unfolds her hands, lifts them out of her lap, stares at her slowly unclenching fists and then looks up.

“About six neighbors is all I can trust.” [2]

Walter’s family is firmly entrenched in Robberson, to say the least. She’s sitting in a row of chairs at Robberson’s National Night Out — part of the larger nationwide event that seeks to prevent crime and drug prevention. [3] She is in the middle seat. To her left are her mother and grandmother. To her right, her daughter and granddaughter. All five generations — from age 9 to 94 — live in the neighborhood, and at least one member of the family has called Robberson home since 1947.

But even for as familiar a place as it is, the community is not without its faults. When her granddaughter, Stormy, is at her house, Walter doesn’t let her play outside without supervision. “I don’t know who’s walking up and down the streets,” she says. “Kids can’t play out like they could when I was little. I’m more leery.”

This event, hopefully, is a step toward changing that.

Having identified a reason neighborhoods like Robberson may be struggling in terms of civic health, the professors are also involved in several attempts to solve the problem.

“The key is to get them to have a venue, to have opportunities, to interact with each other,” Stout says.

So tonight, in the parking lot of Pathways United Methodist Church, there is a large group of children swirling around in a group. There is a Springfield Police officer here to build goodwill. He opens the event with a prayer spoken through the loudspeakers on his cruiser. Then he lets the kids play in the cruiser. Two men are standing on a trailer near the church, grilling hot dogs and passing them to women in brightly colored T-shirts.

The events, held throughout Springfield — and across the nation— are designed to help neighbors get to know one another, as well as others who frequent the neighborhood, like police officers. In Robberson, warding off crime was the major topic of conversation. Walter’s mother, Dixie Aleshire, recently had the pink flamingos stolen out of her yard — even though they were made of cement. Rick Miller lives around the corner, and he says he has repeatedly had home improvement equipment and other items stolen from his home.

The Robberson Neighborhood Association’s increasing efforts are evident. Even from this parking lot, neighborhood watch signs are visible. But they’re not the typical notice signs by the road. They hang on fences and sit in yards. They depict a pair of eyes on a bright yellow background. They’re hard to miss.

It seems that everyone here is beginning to take notice of the neighborhood association and the improvement efforts taking hold in Robberson, including changes at the local elementary school.

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Dolly Vranka, Robberson Neighborhood Association Treasurer, says the neighborhood’s always going to have its good and bad elements. However, it’s just as important to keep those perceptions from defining how neighbors view one another.

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Of course, the whole neighborhood isn’t here. Still, the turnout, according to neighborhood association treasurer Dolly Vranka, exceeds expectations. The event is in full swing, and after an hour or so of running around organizing the volunteers, Vranka has settled into a post near the end of the food line.

She is holding a sleeve of cups that rests on the plastic table where coolers of lemonade and water wait for thirsty residents. There are no cups to be found anywhere else. Vranka knows this. She watches as each person wanders over to the coolers and scours the spread of utensils and napkins and plates.

“Need a cup?”

If it’s a child, she makes sure they say “please” and “thank you.” If it’s an adult, she will thank them for coming. Everyone is going to talk to Dolly Vranka. Everyone is going to meet another neighbor tonight.

In a neighborhood where crime has left many residents skeptical of the people who live around them, asking neighbors to work together to improve the neighborhood isn’t a simple task.

“This is delicate,” Vranka says. “Everybody’s so different. I’m learning not to judge people based on what they look like.”

Part of the strategy for moving this neighborhood forward, according to the Missouri State professors, is increasing “bridging social capital.” In layman’s terms, that means creating bonds between diverse groups of people — whether the diversity be racial, socioeconomic or otherwise. It’s about showing people their neighbors are in this with them, no matter their background.

“They get to learn what they have in common rather than what their differences are as a result of being able to sit down and have conversations with each other,” Stout says.

“It seems like a ‘duh,’” Harms interjects. “But in most communities it doesn’t happen.”

“It seems like that’s the way things should work, but they don’t,” Stout continues. “Because we tend in our society, especially for the last 30 years, to focus more on the things that divide us than on the things that unite us. And there are very powerful interests that have a stake in making sure that’s the way that things work, because they get to benefit off of that. We can’t continue living in a society where a small number of people are benefiting off of everybody competing with each other when the majority of people would benefit from collaborating with each other.”

The Neighbor for Neighbor program is attempting to foster collaboration. The program is supported by local leaders and powerful organizations, but Stout — one of the program’s organizers — says it is run completely at the grassroots level.

“It’s trying to get people from low-[socioeconomic status] neighborhoods to come together and collaborate on a project together — a project that they designed,” Harms says. “It isn’t coming from up above; it’s bubbling up from below.”

The goal of the program is to organize residents into small groups, where they talk about problems and issues affecting the community and then devise possible initiatives that could improve their neighborhood. After that, the participants organize action groups to begin turning their vision into a reality, with the support of the backing groups. Still, no government leaders or non-profit presidents are coming up with the ideas. The proposals come directly from the residents. The plan was originally devised by Everyday Democracy, a group based in Connecticut.

It’s currently a pilot program being tested in Robberson and Weller. In the future, it could expand to the rest of Springfield. The professors believe the project has the opportunity to unify neighbors into a neighborhood.

“And so what you want to do is you want to provide a context where you bring different people together around a shared issue,” Harms says. “In this community, the shared issue right now is childhood. And I mean, that’s a no-brainer, right? Everybody cares about kids. That’s not a partisan kind of thing. And then when people start telling their own stories, of why they’re there, that’s the key thing.

“Then it breaks down those categories that divide people. All of a sudden — ‘Yeah, you’re different than I am, but we both care about kids’ — and you start telling your stories about why you care about kids and what your interests are and why you’re here.”

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Springfield’s Robberson neighborhood is looking to the Neighbor for Neighbor program as a means of fostering community discussion and driving initiatives to improve the neighborhood.

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Nikohl McKee is sitting at the edge of the church parking lot, her back to Dale Street, applying pressure to a young boy’s stick-on tattoo. When she thinks of Robberson, she thinks of the kids.

She moved here with her husband 10 years ago, to raise their kids in the same neighborhood where her husband grew up. Wanting to be involved in the activities of her three school-aged children, McKee found herself involved in Robberson, and hasn’t looked back. She’s a PTA officer. She leads a Girl Scout troop. The neighborhood, she says, has changed her life.

“It has made me realize who I really am. I have embraced our neighborhood,” she says of meeting all of the other children and families in the area. “They come from all different backgrounds, and I love them all the same.”

Being involved has also given her a strong idea of what could be improved in Robberson. Like most parents at the National Night Out, she says there needs to be a place kids can play outside safely. But she has more detailed reasons why that doesn’t exist: lack of green space, unruly traffic, parent engagement levels.

McKee is a participant in the Neighbor for Neighbor project. Her group is looking to work out deals with business owned by Robberson residents that would offer incentives for other neighbors to use those locally owned establishments. It’s a small step, but it can help encourage more interaction.

While she says most people she’s met are willing to get involved, many have to be asked first.

In the church parking lot, it’s not hard to notice that the children are playing together in packs. Parents and other adults are mostly keeping to themselves, or standing in small groups. McKee wants secure futures for her children and the rest of the children in this neighborhood — she is enrolled to get an elementary education degree — but she knows that accomplishing that will require the adults in this neighborhood to act a little bit more like the children.

Children don’t cast suspicious glares out their windows at their peers, she says. They want to go out and play. Over the past 10 years, McKee says more and more neighbors have been doing the same — coming out to talk to one another. “The hardest part is trying to get them to understand they want to be a part of a group,” McKee says.

Her block, she explains, still finds itself together mostly in extreme circumstances — after the loss of a loved one, or during severe weather — but also in some good moments. When there is a rainbow, she says, everyone comes out to see it.

Near the McKee’s house is a basketball hoop that many of the neighborhood’s kids play around. She watches her children when they are outside, and sometimes other parents join her. The parents who meet her are likely to find out McKee can direct them to an abundance of resources, whether it be child care or local businesses or area school information. While that information is being more formally packaged into welcome baskets for new residents by another Neighbor For Neighbor group, Stout and Harms would call the basketball hoop outside McKee’s home a venue.

It’s a place where Robberson residents can talk. It’s a place where a sense of trust can be built. Maybe someday, someday soon, the kids can play without all the parents present. And everyone will look out for everyone else.

Handing out cups to a line of neighbors who are complete strangers, Vranka has a hard time seeing a day where trust is the norm in this neighborhood. [4] There will always be good and bad, she says. But Stout and Harms aren’t envisioning neighborhoods devoid of problems. They envision neighborhoods — even in economically strapped communities — where everyone comes together to solve the problems.

“One of the things that happens when people don’t have a lot of resources is they feel like they’re always competing with everybody else for what they need,” Stout says. “So if you take a bunch of people who are not earning a lot of money and throw rolls of quarters on the ground, they’re all going to dive and fight each other for those rolls of quarters.

“But the key is, if those same people had relationships with each other, they would figure out the best way to get those quarters and distribute them in a more efficient way.”