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From Being For Neighbors to Being With Neighbors

I asked my wife recently if she would rather me be “for” her or “with” her? She thought about it for a second, and told me hands down, one hundred percent that she would rather have me be “with” her.

When We Love Long Beach launched in 2008, we set out on a mission to host a free breakfast in all nine districts in Long Beach, Calif. We went from Belmont Shore’s Livingston Park to North Long Beach’s Houghton Park with the intention of neighbors around the city to get to know one another, build trust, and possibly take the torch from us, and continue the free breakfasts after we left. We as an organization wanted to be a spark in the neighborhoods we visited that could potentially ignite a flame of neighborliness wherever we went.

  What would it look like if neighbors took the initiative, responsibility and ownership of their block “with” their neighbors to seek together the block and neighborhood they long for?
   

After hosting 25 free breakfasts to over 5,000 residents in all nine districts, in five years we were not celebratory or joyful. Instead we were left exhausted, disappointed, and scratching our heads. Out of the 25 neighborhood locations we hosted breakfast at, there was zero, that’s right zero evidence that we helped create any positive neighborhood footprint.

We felt like there was no difference between what we attempted compared to a Long Beach resident attending their friend’s birthday party or a fun wedding. You can expect to show up at one of those events like our neighborhood breakfasts, get some free food, maybe introduce yourself to a few people and leave anytime you want.

With no evidence of neighborhood retention or sustainability we felt like we had failed at what we set out to do — to help people rediscover the power and beauty of neighborliness through the simple acts of getting to know neighbors.

After about one year off we came to understand why our free breakfasts didn’t work. We were doing the 25 breakfasts “for” the neighbors. The approach to doing breakfast “for” neighbors was not only exhausting it was not sustainable. The strategy of doing breakfast “for” neighbors was a mindset of service that though we meant well, it was never going to be a strategy that would bring the trust, safety, health, and well being to all neighbors in the eighty plus neighborhoods in Long Beach.

The reason the “for” model doesn’t work is because the neighbors that attend the events have no ownership or buy in. The expectation we had of neighbors is to just show up, and we will serve you. As if some magical gas was going to fall on them at the event, and now they were ready to be neighborly. We learned events don’t change people. Not one event, not one thousand events. This is why the “for” model doesn’t work. This is why most nonprofits, religious groups, service organizations like we were are exhausted, and have seen very little transformation from their clients or members. We get it because we lived it!

Was there an alternative to “for” that was more sustainable? Was there a way to practice neighborliness that did not leave us defeated and exhausted? If there was a different way of moving from service to care we would take it.

 
(Photo: We Love Long Beach Facebook page)  

After a years worth of defeat, reading and thought the light bulb went off. We got it! We discovered a more sustainable way of practicing neighborliness, we finally had our epiphany moment, and it was well worth it.

What would it look like for We Love Long Beach to position itself as an organization to work “with” neighbors in Long Beach, versus “for” them?  What would it look like to move from a three letter preposition, “for” to a four letter preposition, “with”? What would it look like if neighbors took the initiative, responsibility and ownership of their block “with” their neighbors to seek together the block and neighborhood they long for? What if neighbors started to get to know neighbors on their own, because they realized that they were fully capable of bringing the safety, health, and education to their families and their blocks? What might happen? Quite possibly they could start a revolution of neighborliness! This is exactly what We Love Long Beach always wanted! This is why we existed, to inspire and equip neighbors for the good and the flourishing of all neighborhoods in Long Beach. Was it really as easy as shifting from a mindset of working “for” neighbors to working “with” neighbors? Is that all it took? You better believe it!

In the Summer of 2014 we launched our first annual Citywide Ice Cream Social. We invited Long Beach neighbors to host the ice cream event on their block with their neighbors for the purpose of getting to know their immediate neighbors. One of We Love Long Beach’s responsibilities was to create a flyer for the event that the host would use to go door to door to invite their neighbors, and to ask them to bring some ice cream with them to share. The other thing we did was create Citywide Ice Cream Social yard signs, that hosts placed on the corners of their block to further promote the event. Our first Citywide Ice Cream Social had 31 locations around the city participate “with” us. In just one Citywide Ice Cream Social there were more locations that day in June than we had combined in the five years prior with the 25 free breakfasts. We were definitely onto something.

We have since added a Citywide Pumpkin Party in the fall, a Citywide Breakfast in the winter, and a Citywide BBQ in the spring. That is four events to match the four season of the year, with the purpose of neighbors practicing being “with” one another. That’s it.

In the 2014-2015 year We Love Long Beach inspired and equipped 155 Citywide events “with” 131 residents as hosts on their blocks. The model of “with” allows us to have 30 Citywide Breakfast locations at once -- or 30,000. The “with” model is not only scalable it is also sustainable, because it is about neighbors taking ownership and responsibility for their blocks, and not an outside service agency doing it “for” them. We believe that the “with” model of neighborliness is the future of how sustainable events are done in Long Beach, the Unites States, and the world. If “with” is what my wife wants most from me not “for”, then it might be safe to say that “with” is what neighbors want from one another too. They just might need some help recognizing it, and that’s where you, neighbor, come into the equation.

Please join in “with” us and your next-door neighbors as we bring more safety, health, and relationships to this beautiful city one block at a time. We call this withness!

Related Story:

A ‘Revolution’ of Neighbourliness Spreading in Long Beach

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Scott M. Jones was born and raised in Long Beach, Calif. He is a Co-Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit organization We Love Long Beach. Scott worked with Americorps focusing on Community Development from 2009-2011 and was voted Person of the Year by the Long Beach Post in 2010.