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Resilience and Rebuilding for Low-Income Communities: Research to Inform Policy and Practice - Keynote Remarks

Washington, DC
April 11, 2013

Sudhir Venkatesh
William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology and member, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University

Thank you for a lovely introduction. "Network debt, finding assets, and leveraging creativity"—I have no idea what that means (laughter). That's my attempt to impress you, the rest is downhill.

I am going to talk to you for about the next 20 to 30 minutes about some work that I think is germane to what we're all doing, which is trying to figure out how to help communities help themselves. One of the conversations I just had outside of the room gave me some encouragement, because I think it is a statement that's not said often enough, which is that, "what doesn't matter in community development; what is not supposed to be part of community development." And I want to use that sentiment to stretch us a little bit in thinking about where we might go as policymakers, as advocates, as researchers, whoever we are in the room, in thinking about what might help communities.

I just returned back from Columbia University. I spent the last two, two and a half years in the FBI as an adviser to the office of the director and had an amazing time being in Washington. Happy to talk a little bit about that, and I'm going to share some data that I gathered while a part of the appointment in a second.

Let me actually begin, if I could, by telling you...I'm supposed to tell stories, so here's my first story. This is by someone named Josiah who is an entrepreneur in Chicago and this is a statement that he makes that I find quite poignant for the kind of points that I wanted to make today. "Business in the ghetto is like a fish tank," he says to me. He's run social service organizations; he's a minister; he lends money; he borrows money. "You have all kinds of fish and they get crumbs from outside that they fight for, but only a few get them, so some die. Big fish eat small fish. Once in while you get a big fish who says, 'Man, I'm going to see what life is like outside the tank.' So he jumps outside the tank thinking he'll make it, but he finds that no one cares about him and he says, 'Man, I sure had it good back in the ghetto,' and he dies. In his last statement, ‘Don't forget you can't be who you are unless you've got small fish to eat, if we all eat each other, we'll be fine.'"

I can't tell you how many times I have heard this sentiment among, not unsuccessful entrepreneurs, but successful entrepreneurs, about the nervousness of leaving their communities behind. Josiah routinely (as I have on the screen) turns down these opportunities to leave his neighborhood whether it's a cleaning contract in a school or service contract outside in another area. He prefers to borrow from loan sharks at a 25 percent interest rate; in fact, 10 loan sharks in the neighborhood that I've studied report that about 60 percent of their business comes from lending to small business and to entrepreneurs who prefer them to financial institutions. So why is it; what is it that Josiah gets out of this? Why is he nervous about leaving this community? What's happening here? What scares him about success, or what scares him, more importantly, about mobility? And that's really the subject of the talk today. What motivates and what could motivate creative risk taking in urban neighborhoods, or in any neighborhood for that matter, but I'll be focusing on urban neighborhoods.

What factors propel people to accept risk to do these things, and these are the things that I have studied and that I will focus on, which is either buying a house, or taking a loan, or the subject of my talk today is conducting a violence prevention [program]. And what I want to suggest is that these things may look very different, these social systems, whether it is credit, it's an "off the books" economy or public housing, or policing in criminal justice, but, in fact, I would hold that they're all similar in the following respect (and this is the only concept that I think I would like to introduce today and then go right into some of the material), which is this idea that in these neighborhoods individuals live in networked debt, that they're embedded in social relations of debt such that the decision to accept a risk, to consider a risk, and pursue mobility are perceived in networked terms. Not "Can I do well?" not "How can I fare so well or poorly?" but "What's going to happen to those around me?"

Mobility is a rational evaluation, I would argue, for them based on two things. First is this future trap. Not "Can I be successful?" but "What happens if I fail?" And second, this idea of a network trap, "Whose debt can I use to recover?" Meaning: I have to have somebody that owes me something if I'm going to be successful, because if I'm not I'll need to get back on my feet. The logic of that argument is, I think, vital to take into account when we are trying to help individuals help themselves, because individuals don't always necessarily see themselves as individuals who are becoming mobile, etc. And that's what I would like to play with a little bit today and at this moment just take us away from banking, away from finance, to a completely different area of social life in that spirit of trying to think about what community development could mean.

I want to look at various kinds of exchange events—transactional moments that reveal the assets in the neighborhood. It could be, again, taking a loan or buying a home, choosing which neighborhood you'd like to live in, or (as the focus of my talk today is) solving crime in your neighborhood. Why do you decide to get involved in your neighborhood? And these are the transactions that I want to look at, specifically around mediation. If you think about a family as a centerpiece of an exchange event we have people on the outside of them. So we have street gangs or youth who might be engaged in shooting, we have police who are trying to help them; we have what I'll call a whole set of mediators or brokers from clergy to an assistant principal, etc. that come in and try to respond to the crime in some way. So I want to think about each instance of somebody responding as a transactional event. Here's my first instance, so back to a little bit of a story for you.

In this neighborhood, and I'll get to the neighborhood in a second in Chicago, there's a young man named Johnny and he shoots William, shoots him over an altercation, they're both teenagers. So what happens after this shooting? Johnny's family decides that they need some help. They're nervous because Johnny and William don't know each other. In fact, the parents of Johnny don't know the parents of William, they don't know William, so they contact a school teacher and they say, "Can you help figure out, since these two people are probably in your school, how we can get them together or solve this problem? We have a shooting." The school teacher says, "Well, I can only do some part of it, but I might need some help," and so she calls this Pastor Wilson who says, "I probably could help you as well, let's bring the two groups together."

Johnny says he won't come until his street gang leader, whose name is Tito, allows him to enter a meeting of mediation. Tito says, "I have to come along." OK, so he has to come along. So William says, "Well, my leader has to come along." So a gangster disciple gang that William is a part of, that leader comes to the meeting as well. So now it's [the] pastor, it's the teacher, it's Johnny, it's William, and these two street gang leaders talking about what happened in the shooting.

This is in 2008, and the thing that I wanted to draw your attention to is who is not at that meeting in this particular year, and that is this big red dot on the outside, and that is this police officer. Something happened this year and that's my story for today. Something happened that reveals, just in this little instant of this police officer not attending that meeting. Doing everything else—following up on the shooting, arresting who had to be arrested, but in this mediation event the police officer not happening tells us a lot about this community, and let me build up to that if I could, because we see a change in Year One (I going to compare two years with my data). The first year, you would hear statements such as, "We need the police and it's just nice to see them even if they don't always get it right." A kind of an empathetic portrait. Year Two, after 2008, Year Two is 2011, the statement is, "It's not safe to call the police anymore, I'm afraid someone will hurt my child if I call, so I don't call." How is it that the views could go from "We're empathetic with the police, even if we don't think they are effective," to "Don't call the police, it's the last thing you want to do"?

Why don't people call the police? That's a basic question scholars want to know, and law school sociologists, and there are sorts of explanations, ecological explanations. They lack collective efficacy; they don't trust each other; they don't trust institutions; legal cynicism; they don't trust the police, etc.—all sorts of explanations for why they don't call the police. What I think we have to do is reframe the question because they called somebody. There was somebody who had an asset in their neighborhood to facilitate this transaction.

My question today is, "What styles of community and mediation exist in this neighborhood—Rosewood—how do they change over time, and how do the changes impact the involvement of local law enforcement because police are involved?" So where do we go to find out what happens in neighborhoods? So often we define them by their absence. They don't have a good history of credit; they don't have a two-parent marriage, they don't have mainstream, normative marriage structures, family structures; they don't have people employed, etc. You can't define a whole community in absentia. So what do they do in this particular instance? Yes, they don't call the police, but what are they doing?

Here's the data that I'm going to show you. On the left in black is Year One. There were 41 youth-to-youth shootings of the Johnny and William kind in this particular neighborhood. This is all Chicago police department data that I happened to obtain the last couple of years. A hundred six total shootings in this neighborhood in one month; 41 just among youth. Look at the graph on the right. In Year Two there are 134, that's 2011. So from 2005 to 2011 in the month of July you go from 41 to 134 shootings—that is an extraordinary amount of violence to be having in your neighborhood. So the rational question is, "What the heck do people do; how do they respond; could they respond?" And I want to argue that as I show you their responses we can learn a little bit about what community structure looks like in their neighborhood.

Here's a classic case of 2005.What happens? Jeremiah shoots Tino and their families are concerned. What happens? Their family calls the police—rational response. The police have to engage a formal process of finding out, conducting an investigation, etc., but he also decides that he is going to call a clergy member and that clergy member is going to come in and start meeting with the two young people. The clergy member says, after meeting with the two young people, finding out how hostile they are, that he calls the four gun traders that he knows in the neighborhood—the gun brokers—who sell guns in the informal market and he tells them, "I don't want you selling anymore to either Jeremiah or Tino for the next 30 days because I need to talk to them; I need to quiet them down." But there are more gun brokers in the neighborhood. So he calls somebody who used to work with the Chicago Transportation Authority who's retired who knows the other gun brokers in the neighborhood, and that person calls two other folks, and says, "OK, guys, don't sell to Jeremiah and Tino." This is resolution. It looks like madness perhaps, but this is an attempt at mediation in this neighborhood.

So what I tried to do is work with the Chicago Police Department data to go after every single incident and find out how do people do this. Who called whom? What did they do? What was an outcome? So classic ethnography would go in and not count, so I like to go in and count because I believe you have to count at some point to figure out what the heck is going on. If you take those 106 or 41 youth shootings, what you see is that there is a portrait in the community that emerges like this in 2005. On the left, 40 percent of the time, how do people respond? The police lead, but they bring in a mediator with them—a clergy member, an assistant principal—to bring the youth together to find some kind of mediation. On the right, you have scenario B, which is that the mediator comes in first—the clergy member, the principal—and brings in the police. So they act as a team, very low degree of familiarity among youth. When you look at these incidences this creates a lot of vulnerabilities for families, and the families are willing to negotiate directly with the police even though they distrust them because there's a broker in place. The broker is what is really important here. And what's a resolution is removing the gun, reducing violence, and the police officer says, "If that happens, there's no gun involved, then he or she won't arrest the people involved." So the mediators work with the police to show that they can do something useful.

Three things: notice what the definition of the situation is. The police has to be present for this mediation to be legitimate. So the same people who say that the police don't work that well nevertheless are observing the police working in their neighborhood in some way. Outcome: de-escalation. Get these two people who don't know each other to just step away from each other. We don't need to resolve their spat, just get them away from each other, that's the goal. Eliminate access to the guns and separate the youth. Look at these third-party brokers who are involved—six churches act as brokers, block club presidents, community-based organization directors, two social workers, a teacher, an assistant principal. It's a closed system. These are the people the police say, "If they call us we'll come in and we'll support what they do because the most important thing is to bring the violence down in this neighborhood." These transactional events help restore working relations and keep the trust of this police.

There's quid pro quo, so you can exchange. For example, if the kids give up their guns they get to participate in a midnight basketball league; if they return their guns they'll get a part-time job at a local business. The police, the mediators are finding all of this. Again, this is that map. That's on the left; that's the picture.

Now what happens when you look at 2011 on your right when it goes crazy; when violence starts really erupting in this neighborhood? You have two entirely different kinds of scenarios taking place. On the left you have a mediator that comes in and tells the family, "Don't work with the police, it's not good for you." And here's a quote from one of the mediators that says, "At some point the family just starts to see the police can't do anything for them. I don't need to tell them that. They don't see cops anymore in the neighborhood, they just see kids in need of help. I say let's take care of our own." Have you seen the movie The Interrupters? You know this organization CeaseFire? Right, these are the very, very powerful mediators who say, "We can't wait for the police, it's gotten too crazy. We have to come in and help these kids resolve this." So this is an example of shutting the door, keeping the cops out.

On the right side you have the reaction by the police, which is that the police cordons off the family in just the opposite way so that no mediators can come in. The police officer who does this says, "Our strategy is simple. We make sure that everyone understands 'No guns.' We're not in a position to wait. We worry about the thugs who control these young kids. Once they arrive, it's dangerous so we prevent them from reaching the kids; a kind of a prophylactic measure." But notice, all of a sudden, mediators and police are starting to be separated; they're not in the same room anymore.

So if you look at the definition of the situation in this particular case—what happens? Well, these youth tend to know each other. Violence could be rekindled, so there has to be a different kind of outcome. We need mediators who can negotiate the conflict, not just separate the young people because they could find each other again. We just need more than de-escalation.

So these brokers start to become splintered. People walk into the home during an episode and they tell families, "I can resolve it for you. Let's do it ourselves. Let's keep it out of the hands of the police." Another group says, "No, don't do that. Call the police; it's very important." So you start seeing a dual system of networked indebtedness in the sense that the broker you call is the person that is going to help you the next time with your kid, so you better pay attention to what that person says. You owe that person something. So the use of brokers places you in non-overlapping social networks of people who can use brokers, and remember these brokers can get you access to particular jobs, or they can get you access to a midnight basketball league, or whatever it is. So you start splintering off, and the community starts splintering off from one another. And that's the picture that starts to happen when this place gets completely overwhelmed.

So if you think about these kinds of changes that occur, right? Think about it from a data standpoint. What would you do with this kind of information? What is it telling you about assets or strengths, or the kinds of things that happen in a neighborhood, who you would draw upon? I guarantee you none of these brokers would ever be called by the UN to be able to solve problems, but that is what they do every day. An enormous amount of skill at de-escalating conflict, etc.

And, again, just taking it in a little bit of a linear fashion you start with, what I call, the "collaborative state" in which the police presence is working inside this ring here in which everyone is involved—the police are involved, the clergy are involved, the mediators are involved. They're all coming into the family, working with the family. This is what, according to sociologist William Julius Wilson, there's low social isolation in the sense that we have mainstream institutions that are part and parcel of what's happening in this neighborhood. The mediator legitimates the police's role in this neighborhood, links with social service providers; it's an integrative model of service delivery here. Everyone is working toward a similar end, all off the books. This is all kind of an underground world.

So as the community starts getting overwhelmed, you start to see what Wilson would call "the social isolation of the state," in that it starts to create a situation in which the police start to not be involved and it splinters the community. So it creates a cleavage in the social service agency world. If you're starting to do this kind of informal work and the police are not involved, you know what, you're just contributing to this community taking the law into their own hands. Don't do it. And so people start to become nervous about...because what is that message.… We're not interested, necessarily, in helping this community take the law into their own hands, that's not what we are about. So is this useful? Well, it solves conflicts. But is this useful in the long run? Well, we're not sure because the police are not involved. So what kind of world do we want to live in? How much is informality really useful for us in this world?

So, lastly, we have these dueling visions of justice, is what I would say, in which you create these splinters because the community gets overwhelmed, they don't have arrests, they don't have enough resources, the rate of arrests in the community increases, and the choices start appearing mutually exclusive for any particular family, which is that someone shows up at their door and they don't feel as though they are just making a choice to help their kid get out of a particular situation at that moment in time. They feel like they're making a choice about all of the things that that broker could do for them. So it's a much bigger choice. This is the world of criminal justice.

Let me just take you to public housing. A very, very different world, but looking at the same situation (and this is the only slide I'm going to show you). You have a household on the top, you have the Chicago Housing Authority, and you have community-based organizations all involved in a grand experiment (Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore): tear down the housing developments, relocate families. Right? Hope VI. A wonderful community development initiative in theory.

How does it actually work when you watch what families do in terms of...that's the ideal. What happens in practice? There are three different ways in which families start to experience the system. The first (the one in purple, on the left) is that a broker starts to become a seller of services to a household. "I'll find you the house, the landlord; I'll make sure that you get services for your kids; I'll get you into the school. Contact me if you want anything from the housing authority." They might charge them, they might just want to know that they can include them in their power base, it could be an elected tenant leader, etc., but that broker starts to intervene between the family and the government.

In the middle, in some cases, there's nobody. The household just has to interact with these agencies by themselves, but it is a very small percentage. And on the right, the broker actually goes to the government agency. I can't tell you the number of times where I've watched the brokers and mediators and tenant leaders, etc. go into the Chicago Housing Authority and say, "Give me 15 people and I'll make sure they move into the neighborhoods that you want them to move, but I'm on your payroll now. So if you want good outcomes for the mayor, you get me a part-time job."

So all of this work is brokered, but it also then starts to reveal exactly how families think about the world they live in; how they think about what's right, what's wrong, what they can do, and they start to become indebted to the people that they are helping. We could do this for the credit networks I have, for street gangs, it doesn't really matter what it is.

So I wanted to take you away a little bit from the world of finance only because I wanted to think about these as systems that have properties. A sociologist would look at these as systems that have properties of social relationships that are very similar. So my approach to ethnography and why I think it's useful is that I am not really interested in qualitative or quantitative data. I could care less if it is a story or if it's a number, it doesn't matter to me, both I think are incredibly useful. Let the research be your guide.

I'm particularly interested in trying to understand systems and what they look like—what are the people in power; who has authority; who do you need to go to, to get information to your constituents—and I think the answers come in stages. So in this particular case, the question that all policymakers want to know in this field is, "Why don't they call the police?" Well, that's a very different way of treating people—"Why don't you do something"—than asking them, "What do you do; how do you use the police?" It's a far more respectful question to ask them, "What are you doing everyday about work?" rather than, "Why aren't you working?"

And then we can get to the scripts that determine what they do with policing, etc. All of this work is done by trained residents of neighborhoods. They're the ones gathering this data, not me. They are the ones who are going out and learning the skills, working with the police officers or housing authorities, etc. My particular feeling is that all life is brokered, especially research. These are the people that are brokers for me.

So just to conclude a couple of things, first is: I do think that social capital in these neighborhoods that we're talking about—urban poor neighborhoods, low-income neighborhoods—tend to appear as closed systems, which is both their drawback and both the source of survival and capacity for people who are living there. And it's organized, for me particularly, around this idea of debt—that all life is a transaction that brings people in from outside of their home. And it's debt is a basis of a tie that produces both exchange for resources and for information. You trust who owes you, even if it's a resource to find out what bodega is lending money on the corner, etc. And these brokers start to help families cross these network gaps because they're isolated; they're restricted in their own networks; they need somebody else who can serve as what sociologists would call "a weak tie." So essentially that's what happened in a manageable way in that story of 2005 where a broker could call the police because you were too nervous to call the police, and so they could keep up with the level of crime and violence in the neighborhood.

The challenge in my perspective is not to dismantle these broker networks, but to find a way to use that informality of a community in our favor as policymakers. So I leave you back with that idea of the title, which is that this is a network form of debt in this community, and what are the ways in which we might be able to think of this, not as a problem necessarily, but as revealing kinds of assets that we otherwise wouldn't be able to see. In what instance is it that we would be able to use these brokers, which we all probably do in our respective worlds—how could we find out; how could we diagnose; how could we find out where they are, what they're doing—and use them to leverage particular kinds of social change and to help communities expand their reach from where they are now.