Collective Efficacy: Who’s in the Collective?

Kari Lydersen’s post on the challenges of mixed-income communities yesterday reminded me of some things I’d wanted to bring up regarding the conversation Alice was starting on collective efficacy.

I do think the end goal of mixed-income communities is a good one. I don’t think of it as a “setting a good example” thing, but as a making sure poorer folk have access to the better amenities (from schools to better paved roads to stores carrying fresh produce) that tend to follow residents of somewhat higher income. (And I, for one, think the middle-income folks would probably be better off if the cheap diner and the hardware store and the newsstand were able to stay next to the Starbucks that move in. How to do that is a question for another time though.) Also, cross-pollination of social networks, if it actually happens, is good for everyone.

But mixed-income areas, especially in the tenuous state they tend to exist now, do raise questions about this idea of collective efficacy. The idea that the willingness of neighbors to step up and be involved and intervene can make a difference between a pleasant, safe, yet poor neighborhood and one in more distress is a powerful one (given the caveats about it not being enough in the most devastated areas), and one that makes sense to me.

But I wonder, ironically, if doesn’t work better in neighborhoods that are homogeneous by class and race, i.e., in solidly poor communities than mixed-income ones. As Kari points out, we have a long way to go to learn to live side by side across those lines.

I’ve struggled with this in my own neighborhood here in Albany (which I love). It is mixed along both race and class lines and fairly stable and friendly in that mix as neighborhoods go (we’re not particularly gentrifying, at least not yet). And yet, the race and class divide is still strongly present when it comes to neighborhood organizing. Despite the efforts of organizers, neighborhood watch and cleanup efforts tend to be white and middle class, and have exactly the kind of creepy tone Kari mentioned: “Call the police if there’s more than four teens [of color] on the corner!” “Don’t let the pizza joint stay open an hour later! It might attract noisy people!”

It becomes clear that without crossing that social gulf, and dealing with the distrust, it’s going to be hard to cultivate behaviors that contribute to collective efficacy, or at least to cultivate them in a non-selective enough fashion to have the desired effect.

Meanwhile, the police who are supposed to be supporting the neighborhood watch explicitly discourage collective efficacy, saying not to confront anyone and always to call them.

I’m curious if anyone knows of anywhere that has addressed this kind of thing head on? What kind of block- or neighborhood-level organizing works best for building ties within a mixed-income community? How does a neighborhood encourage eyes on the street and responding to actual incidents of crime or problems like abandonment without pitting residents whose cultural norms are likely to come closer to those of the authorities against their neighbors?

These are tough, yet touchy-feely questions, but if they were answered, I think they may lead to a broader constituency for anti-gentrification measures, as well as less tension, making lower income residents feel like they don’t belong. Which implies that answering these questions may be part of the answer to creating the kind of stable mixed-income communities that so far seem so rare.

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


  1. Here in Hawaii we have a lot of experience with cross-cultural community building, starting with the plantation days and moving into the modern suburbs.

    The glue is food, music, comedy, and kids. Hawaii style involves lots of teasing along racial and ethnic stereotypes which horrifies the politically correct Mainlanders, but cracks up the locals, especially when it is their own ethnic group that is getting razzed. Everybody teases everybody else, and gets teased in return, and some of the discomfort with the different stranger gets lanced and dissipated as a result.

    The kids bring everybody together around school events and sports. Soccer and baseball games followed by potlucks result in sharing the food of everybody’s culture, talking story about life stories, and making linkages that carry over into encounters elsewhere in the community.

    A community is more than crime control and property values. It needs to have its celebrations, and moments of laughter and mutual recognition. Those times build the relationships that bring people out on the street to help out in times of disaster and confrontation.

  2. I’m intrigued by Bob Stanfield’s observations about Hawaii. The kinds of traditions — around public events and celebrations involving music, food, kids — that he implies bring people together in Hawaii potentially can happen anywhere. We typically think of urban life as providing that kind of eclectic stew of cultures. That’s the “social capital” that Robert Putnam said Americans are lacking, and that he urged us to rebuild.But Putnam’s latest study — as “I wrote about in one of my recent Rooflines posts — concludes that when communities are composed of an eclectic stew of people, they tend to be even more atomized than those that are homogeneous. I’m still hoping that some of you will weigh in on how progressives should think about the implications of Putnam’s recent work — what’s the antidote to this syndrome?

  3. I think that the answer is that there needs to be an investment of people and money and a realization that creating community events and celebrations is a critical and serious part of building social capital. There is need for staffing to bring people together, recruit volunteers and participants, attract talent, and obtain equipment to make those events happen.
    The sports leagues tend to happen in a more organized way because there is a common experience of participation as youths and there is support from national organizations like AYSO or Little League.
    The cultural celebrations have to spring from the residents but need support and publicity when they emerge. An example of how that can happen is the establishment of a Memorial Day lantern ceremony in Honolulu. The event is an adaptation of a Japanese Buddhist tradition to the American Memorial Day event which has become an occasion to celebrate all of Hawaii’s cultures. See the story at


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