Community organizing has been a constant from the start of Washington Park Partners (WPP), the lead agency for the Building Sustainable Communities initiative in Milwaukee’s Washington Park neighborhood.
The West Side community on has high rates of crime and poverty compared to the rest of the city. But its assets include a historic, 124-acre park, dozens of new businesses, and high levels of community involvement.
Engaging with local residents in 2004 built Washington Park’s first quality-of-life plan for the community. That plan has guided improvements from community gardens to new affordable housing.
In 2010, WPP turned out nearly 100 residents for an intense brainstorming session to update the priorities for the neighborhood.
“We went door to door; we put up yard signs advertising the event. We worked with partners like the local youth agency, the cultural center, a local ecology center. We talked with the constituents we work with,” says Matt Melendes, the sustainable communities coordinator at WPP.
Last year, the Milwaukee Police Department won a federal Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation (BCJI) Grant, which supports comprehensive community responses to high crime—one of seven priority issues for Washington Park that were identified in the visioning event. Washington Park Partners and Safe & Sound, a local organization with significant resources and expertise in community organizing, are part of the BCJI leadership team.
Clearly, engaging the community was the logical place to start the BCJI work.
“We have action committees that meet monthly on each of the priority areas,” Melendes says. “Community safety wasn’t necessarily the most active committee for a while. Our work to engage the community with the BCJI grant has helped change that.” Here’s his experience in building resident energy around public safety.
Learn what residents know and care about. Working with Kimberly Hassell, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, WPP held 10 focus groups in the spring with people who live on or near high-crime blocks in Washington Park.
Questions ranged from what are the biggest problems in the immediate area to whether local nonprofits and community groups are helpful around issues of public safety. In the end, the process worked well enough that many participants asked how they could continue to be involved in the work.
Be tenacious. To get folks to join the focus groups, Melendes’ team identified who they hoped would be involved, then wrote invitations and made phone calls. They kept meticulous records of who had been contacted when.
“It usually took three or four ‘touches’ to get someone to come to the focus group,” Melendes says. “To build participation, we knew we had to put in the time and effort.”
Washington Park residents in a training on how to approach public safety in the community.
Use trainings to build support and investment. Once local residents became involved, WPP worked to get them information and details on important issues. That both increased buy-in and helped make neighbors more effective in the work.
For example, after a lively discussion of dealing with troubled properties, WPP brought in staff from the City of Milwaukee to talk through the nuisance ordinance, emphasizing the importance of resident participation to drive the process.
Hold “hyperlocal” events to build relationships. The Washington Park public safety plan focuses tightly on 35 of the 135 blocks in the community where crime is concentrated. WPP is prioritizing building relationships, trust and involvement among the residents on or near those blocks.
To get started, the group is holding its own block parties and piggybacking at other local events, like an annual back-to-school cookout. Although local police officers are invited—so seeds for those relationships can also be planted—the main thrust isn’t to talk about public safety: Even at their own get-together, WPP will have food, arts and crafts for the kids, and yard games.
“Our aim is to start to get people on the blocks to know each other, and we’ll see where we go. Four of these could have four different outcomes—they could share phone numbers, they could do a block watch, they could join our committee,” Melendes says.
“If we have more people connected to each other and nonprofits and the police, they’re more likely to be involved in community efforts and to report what they see.”
Listen and respond to feedback. If a resident is going to stay involved with a long-term effort like a public safety campaign, she will need to know that her input is valued. There’s a fence around a new playground at the park, for instance, that Melendes says was installed because residents asked for it.
WPP is also working to help bridge the communication gap between city agencies, which can be overwhelmed by the volume of calls on something like a code violation, and the local residents who wonder what happened to their complaint.
“If someone trusts you enough to say, ‘This is what is happening on my block,’ they need to know that is helping to make a difference, that you will take that information and react to it,” he says.