Welcome to the conversation!

Welcome to the conversation!

Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811-1896) best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), made her the most famous American woman of the 19th century and galvanized the abolition movement before the Civil War.

The Stowe Center is a 21st-century museum and program center using Stowe's story to inspire social justice and positive change.

The Salons at Stowe programs are a forum to connect the challenging issues (race, gender and class) that impelled Stowe to write and act with the contemporary face of those same issues. The Salon format is based on a robust level of audience participation, with the explicit goal of promoting civic engagement. Recent topics included: Teaching Acceptance; Is Prison the New Slavery; Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North; Creativity and Change; Race, Gender and Politics Today; How to be an Advocate

This blog will expand the reach of these community conversations to the online audience. Add your posts and comments to keep the conversation going! Commit to action by clicking HERE to stay up to date on Salon and social justice news.

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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Event Recap: Hartford's Asylum Hill: 2013 and Beyond (9.26.13 Salon)

Salons at Stowe
September 26, 2013
During the past few months, United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut and The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation have engaged people throughout Asylum Hill in a series of conversations and held in-depth interviews with community leaders. Together, they have shared rich perspectives and thoughtful suggestions about living in Asylum Hill. The Harwood Institute and United Way will discuss and reflect on insights gained through these conversations, including the strong desire for a safe and more connected community; the challenges and underlying conditions that stand in the way of moving forward for positive change; and will invite sharing ideas for stepping forward to achieve the aspirations for living and working in Asylum Hill.

Wayne Rawlins, Board Chair, United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut
Tony Mein, Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association
Diane Cantello, VP of Corporate Social Responsibility, The Hartford
Bill Booth, The Harwood Institute
Richard Harwood, Founder and President of The Harwood Institute 

Each featured guest gave opening remarks and an introduction to their organization, expressing the need and value of the Creating a Safer, More Connected Asylum Hill: How to Accelerate and Deepen Meaningful Conversations and Collaborative Efforts report.

Richard Harwood, Founder and President of The Harwood Institute, explained the purpose of the report and introduce it to the group. He explained that the research was an effort to understand ourselves as a society. At the current juncture, we are having a difficult time determining how to get the community to move forward, rather than placing blame and bickering. Communities are common enterprises and only work when we come together; work is shared challenges and aspirations.The report is not about sophisticated plans but rather talking about what a community is, and is a good step forward towards having a conversation; it is meant to be a beginning, not the end. The back of the report does not have report, but asks for recommendations - how can we understand each other without conversation? Talents, time and wisdom are as important as our money. It is clear that there is a lot of good work going on in Asylum Hill and the report intends to help build on whats already been done.

The report is based on conversations with 140 community members, 75% residents of whom are Asylum Hill residents, as well as The Hartford employees, and 18 civic leaders; the conversations were about solutions rather than the problems themselves; starting with problems devolves into complaining and finding more things that are wrong. 

Every conversation started with: What is your aspiration for your community? Whatever people say is rooted in their reality, and they have things in common with people they would not normally imagine, the shared aspirations leading to a desire to get involved.
Richard shared the three core messages of the report:
  1. People who live and work in Asylum Hill want a safer, more connected community. They want to be able to go out from their homes and workplaces to meet, socialize and work with others in the neighborhood. This all has to do with getting crime off the streets, creating safe places for interaction, and building trust – key ingredients for nurturing the kind of community they want. 
  2. Crime – or the threat of it – drives people's concerns about the neighborhood. It undermines people's ability to come out from their homes, and it can make those who work in the neighborhood fearful of engaging. All this serves to block people's ability to come together and create the kind of neighborhood they want.
  3. Trust in "change efforts" is key to residents. Residents want to know that activities that seek to strengthen the neighborhood reflect their everyday challenges, and that the efforts are long-lasting and not sporadic (here today, gone tomorrow).

Audience question: What are the boundaries of Asylum Hill? 1) What are boundaries defined by city hall? Not the ones that people live in, we go by a mental map.
  • Audience member: People have very different ideas from very different circumstances. 
  • Audience member: One thing we may want to do is discuss what those boundaries may be. 
  • Audience member: Good conversation to engage people in, it means that people are co-producers of something. This is a good place to start. 
Audience question: Has been living in Asylum Hill for 38 years and finally decided to dig up front yard and plant a garden. She’s met more people by having them stop by and talking about it. People watch out for each other. BUT you can go around the block and not feel that way.

Audience question: There were recent crimes of cars being broken into, raising the question "what’s our place here?" Surprised that people had had laptops stolen out of unlocked cars, things that are very basic to us. 
  • Audience comment: It is difficult to create a safer feeling community when you see these things, drives people back into their homes. 
  • Audience comment: Crime drives people back into their homes, providing for more crime because the opportunity (outside) is then there. It is a vicious cycle. 
Audience question: How do you change the dynamic? There is a difference between night and day activities: at night you can hear dealers knocking on doors yet leaders saying "We've solved the problem of crime during the day" - that has not solved the problem, you cannot ignore the fact that crime is still going on at night. At the same time, the concern over drug use prevents residents from doing what they want to do, police often perceiving groups of people as loiterers. It is all connected with the fact that people want to be outside, visibly, to reclaim the neighborhood. Police are trying to keep peace but are actually breaking this up. 
  • Audience comments: Sometimes police are too rough and will disperse people, not ask questions and diminish relationships, which effects trust in communities. This shows we need to draw stronger connections between police and neighbors, and build a better partnership to figure out effective ways to rid community of crime. 
Audience question: How did you know you had cross-section of community?
  • Richard: Formed relationships with groups already on the ground, such as churches and Habitat for Humanity. Researchers looked for well-roundedness and ways to interpret responses by looking for patterns. The way things enter the conversation is when they establish those patterns. In these conversations, there were a set of questions that were intentionally open ended. 
  • Audience comment: If communities are common enterprises, the only way to know what we’re thinking is to talk to one another. Found that surveying was not a productive use of resources, because patterns held.
Richard: Having trust in change efforts is essential to residents in Asylum Hill. It may sound obvious, but it is the missing ingredient; reality and perception is essential in communities. People don’t see efforts in community that are impacting their lives. If you live in a place like Asylum Hill and don’t feel safe/connected, what matters is whether or not efforts of community meet you where you are. Instead, residents perceive efforts are for the benefit of organizations and not their lives.

Audience question: A member of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, attendee has seen a Renaissance in the neighborhood with lots of outreach. What would be the definition of impacting their lives?
  • Richard: It may not be influencing their lives; they overlook it. When residents were asked which organizations they trusted in neighborhood, none were held in common. The old adage of “give you benefit of doubt” has changed to “until you prove your relevant, I assume your not of worth”
Audience question: Which organizations did people trust in the past?
  • RichardLocal churches, United Way, local pantries, arts groups. Research showed that residents want to know whose interest the organizations are working for; they feel organizations are working on their own interests. Residents want to know that you will be there when they need you (not only when it’s in your interest) and that you are accountable. Are you reflecting issues relating to our community, or just what you know? 
Audience comment: Volunteers can only go so far, at some point you need paid employees to drive change forward.

Audience comment: Attendee's organization struggles not with the operations of the organization, but that in the midst of wanting to take part in neighborhood change you still have mission of the organization to keep in mind. If you hear things you don’t like, you can hear it with humble heart or with sense of humiliation. It's not intended to be offensive or undermine what is being done, but as a means of finding ways to move forward. 

Audience comments: There are many outsiders in Asylum Hill who are sporadically engaged, (ie. mayors come in when they want votes, and then leave). This fact is important because leads to the consistency residents are looking seeking. What constitutes a relationship in your own personal life? Someone who will be there when you call them, all rooted in consistency. It raises the issue of quality efforts in the community - perhaps there need to be fewer, but more consistent, efforts. 

Audience comments: Asylum Hill is not hopeful - residents want to be but expectations are low. People come and go and efforts are started, but groups disperse and there is a communication gap which is a large obstacle. People don’t have time to invest in seeing change happen; they want to believe in themselves and their community, but do not have that faith now. 

Audience comments: There are many renters who don’t have the same desires and drive as the homeowners around them. They do not have as much of a vested interest which is understandable but is a large obstacle. 

Richard: The question is what dynamic needs to be created. Good work happening in Asylum Hill, so here’s one frame to use: most strategies are geared toward last 2 stages of the report, when funding is available to implement ideas. Asylum Hill is in the very early catalytic stage in that when you visit the community you find out pockets of change occurring but they are not connected. People touched in the smaller pockets recognize this and are likely to name those nearby organizations as groups that are making change. However, unless they are directly touched by such organizations, they don’t know about them. For the 80- 90% who haven’t been effected, they’re still living in the ‘status quo’, the other part of the story. It's not that they don’t care, they just don’t know. This is the dilemma and why residents have such responses. How do you more forward in this situation?
1.      For communities in this stage, people come in looking for a vision to change the community. These efforts don’t work in early catalytic stages because there is not enough trust. The most important thing to do is strengthen the pockets of change that exist. 
2.     Create new pockets so more people can see the change and positive effects; not after impact, but after visibility to prove that groups are getting things done.
3.       Don’t focus on creating the most sophisticated program, focus on visibility in the community. 
4.       As you’re doing this work, imagine a Venn diagram: on the left is the issue you are trying to change, and on the right are the conditions in the community. The key to moving forward is working in the middle section so the community is aware of what you are doing. 

Why are some efforts moving forward and others not? Hidden factor is the communities narrative: positive and negative stories/accounts drive attitudes, and there needs to be a change from a negative narrative to a ‘can-do’ narrative. Stories have a quality of a parable. All good parables don’t have an ending, but implicate that ‘you can do this to’ and emphasize the common enterprise. When enough stories are created, it creates a narrative. If people don’t feel it, they won’t talk about it. 

Read the Creating a Safer, More Connected Asylum Hill: How to Accelerate and Deepen Meaningful Conversations and Collaborative Efforts report below!

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