New Yorkers are serving their communities in several ways. They are checking in on their elderly neighbors; serving in their local churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples; coaching pee wee soccer; and fundraising for their parent teacher associations. However, when you look at the national data on volunteerism, New York City (NYC) ranks among the lowest in the country.
To test our hypothesis that New Yorkers are connecting in meaningful ways that may not be captured in Census data, Public Agenda worked on behalf of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Service and the Community Affairs Unit to conduct an engagement scan in Norwood, a neighborhood in the Bronx which has some of the lowest volunteerism rates in the city. The scan explored how community members in Norwood are mobilizing around shared issues and concerns, the structures and supports that can catalyze engagement, as well as volunteering, organizing, and advocacy activities. In June 2016, our public engagement team conducted on-the-street interviews with randomly selected Norwood residents in the centrally-located Williamsbridge Oval park, and in December 2020, we returned to park to see how perceptions have changed especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What We Learned
Civic Engagement Opportunities
We interviewed residents to learn about their knowledge of the NYC government’s processes for engaging residents including the community board, the local appointed community advisory group and participatory budgeting (PB), a process helping New Yorkers determine how the city spends discretionary capital funds. When we interviewed residents in 2016, 15% of the people we spoke to said they knew about the community board. When we returned in the fall of 2020, although 40% of residents were familiar with the community board, none of the residents had ever attended a meeting. Both times we interviewed residents they had not heard of the participatory budgeting process.
Sources of Information
In 2016, residents told us that they received their news from neighborhood-level news sources like the Norwood News and News 12 Bronx. However, in 2020, residents reported that they received their news from a more diverse range of sources including word of mouth, school, Google, social media sources like Instagram and Facebook, and News 2, 4, 5, 7, and 12.
Civic Engagement During COVID
Most residents of Norwood said they have not become more involved in their community since COVID-19. The barriers they told us they faced when connecting with their neighbors may provide insights into why they have not become more involved in their communities. Residents shared with us that during the pandemic they have been stuck at home, they are less able to recognize people due to masks, they have limited contact with people, and in some cases they live alone and work at home, so are on their own.
In the midst of all of the barriers residents are facing when trying to connect with their neighbors, their needs have changed. They told us that since the pandemic they are facing food insecurity, difficulty getting medical attention, the stress of online schooling when you are poor and do not have access to wifi, and isolation from working at home and not interacting with people.
Based on what we heard from residents there is a desire to connect more with their neighbors and leaders; however, there are barriers especially in light of COVID-19. Norwood residents are more aware of community boards, one of the city’s primary methods of addressing resident’s needs; however, they haven’t participated in any of the meetings. Residents are more involved in their communities since COVID-19; however, there are more barriers to connecting with their neighbors and their daily needs are more pressing.
There is a civic infrastructure in Norwood where the residents can and do connect, but they could benefit from sustained ways to engage with their leaders and fellow residents. Public Agenda’s engagement efforts can build upon what we heard from the residents by working with them to design fun, equitable and inclusive processes of sustained engagement.