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Neighborhood Development, Moving at the Speed of Trust

Here at Notre Dame, dedicated students and professors seek opportunities to serve communities across the world, but this past summer, I discovered that you do not need to go far to feel worlds away. In the neighborhoods of South Bend, I encountered people that have never left the city alongside neighbors that immigrated three weeks prior. I watched residents coming together to plant beautiful gardens, and I also witnessed their outpouring of support for two girls orphaned after a tragic accident. For my project team, it became commonplace to see a door open with a wall of skepticism barring us from a neighbor; however, our encouragement came in perceiving that wall melt with words of welcome and assurance. At Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem (BCe2), our leaders like to say “progress moves at the speed of trust.”

BCe2 started in the southeast neighborhood of South Bend with the goal to improve the Bowman Creek tributary of the St. Joseph River. Yet the scope of projects grew as it became clear that residents aspired to remedy several other pain points in their neighborhood. At its inception, BCe2 consisted of a couple project teams that strove to be community partners and work with established local organizations, city government, and residents of South Bend. Now, BCe2 boasts thirty interns and countless mentors and community partners. This internship stands out because it takes teams with multi-dimensional diversity and challenges them to solve open-ended problems in real-world scenarios.

I had the privilege of beginning in a portion of South Bend’s West Side, using the same BCe2 model. My team consisted of five full-time and two part-time interns. We came from different academic backgrounds, and our ages ranged from 16 to 42. Together, we endeavored to learn more about the neighborhood as it was, and as it wanted to be.

Before we could make effective outreach to residents, my team needed to identify who we were. Speeding up this process, the BCe2 model gave us ideas for both names and types of initial projects. As a new educational ecosystem on Western Ave, my team and I became the inaugural cohort of Western Educational Ecosystem (We2). With a name and plethora of ideas, We2 went door to door starting conversations with our new neighbors. 

We hoped to find out what residents thought about their neighborhood. Furthermore, we identified leaders, or “gatekeepers.” Locating such residents came with conversation about their heavy involvement in the area, and these gatekeepers were the locals who knew the neighborhood and offered to make introductions for us. Our goal was to find a foothold amongst those most involved. With their help, we could progress by leaps and bounds because their networks were established and vast.

During multiple weeks of conversations and encounters, we analyzed several integral perceptions of the area. Residents disliked the trash in alleyways and vacant lots, as one could expect of any neighborhood, but a more elucidating phenomenon emerged. Neighbors praised the area for its peace and quiet, yet they did not feel that their neighborhood was safe beyond a couple blocks. In the same vein, we noted that people knew their immediate neighbors, but no further. From these contradictory perceptions and a telling nuance, we gleaned that communication was the chief problem. Gone were the days of knowing all the families in your neighborhood. In an area full of transient populations, people no longer knew most of their neighbors.

Taking this knowledge into account, We2 began to adapt to serve the needs of our local ecosystem. We planned a community clean-up and picnic, both addressing cleanliness concerns and working to get neighbors talking. Working with Code Enforcement, we proposed a date and boundaries so that we could utilize their trucks and manpower, and then we sought out resident volunteers. In our area, three community partners loomed large: St. Adalbert’s, La Casa, and Sabor Latino (the Latinx radio station). We focused on recruiting with these organizations and found success with radio broadcasts and the youth group at St. Adalbert’s. When the day came, we had a great turnout of volunteers despite inclement weather, and the food fueled more than the volunteers' bodies. It fed the conversation as residents broke bread together.

 In this way, We2 found our place in the neighborhood. Our presence facilitates conversation through community-engaged improvement projects. The future promises to bring about changes that residents want as We2 works with them to raise awareness of resources and to change the perception of safety on the West Side of South Bend. We2 will inevitably expand and adapt to the needs of neighborhoods that have varied concerns and changing circumstances, and the educational ecosystem model will allow for further civic innovation with the residents of South Bend.

 

Christian Dennis is a junior studying civil engineering with a concentration in structural design. Through his internship with BCe2, he hoped to learn more about being an engineer at the municipal level. 

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