Wearing gloves and armed with branch cutters on a wet Saturday morning, Ralph Shoub and about a dozen of his neighbors are chopping and removing bushes in the backyard of his Oakwood home. Later the neighbors will also help Shoub replace his home’s rotting windowsills and paint its exterior.
Shoub and his neighbors are working in partnership with Building Blocks of Kalamazoo, a nonprofit organization that recruits and organizes neighbors to work together as teams on home improvement projects in their low- to moderate-income neighborhoods. By working together, neighbors create solidarity, which can lead to their becoming more involved in their neighborhoods, says Carrie Drake, the organization’s executive director.
“What we’re really looking for is that neighbor connectivity — breaking down walls between people and beginning to build a more trusting network of neighbors on the street,” Drake says.
Building Blocks of Kalamazoo works in the Northside, Eastside, Edison, Vine, Oakwood, Stuart and Douglas neighborhoods. To participate, the neighborhood association of each area applies for a grant from Building Blocks, identifying sites within the neighborhood that need exterior home improvement work. Drake says the organization generally has 30 to 55 households per site that are worked on between May and September each year. Building Blocks provides $5,500 for each site for exterior repairs and its yearly budget is supported by fundraising and donations from businesses and foundations.
Building Blocks began in 1995 when then-Kalamazoo College sociology and anthropology professor Kim Cummings and three of his students began working on home improvement projects in the Vine and Eastside neighborhoods. Cummings says the projects’ success was affirmed by the excitement of the people involved.
“I realized how much students like working outside of the classroom,” Cummings says. “When we finished the first pilot projects, everyone loved it — the students, the residents and the neighborhood associations.”
The following year Building Blocks became part of a course offered at Kalamazoo College. Cummings’ and Building Blocks’ objective then was to provide students with field experience in community organizations. Over the years, however, Building Blocks evolved to focus more on facilitating leadership and engagement among neighborhood residents. That transition led to the hiring of Drake a year ago as Building Blocks’ first executive director. In her role, Drake meets with other community organizations, community members and the Building Blocks board of directors to decide upon upcoming projects.
Students, however, are still essential to Building Blocks projects. Since 2011, Western Michigan University has offered a social work course each summer in conjunction with the organization that allows students to become community organizers for the semester.
The class sessions, led by Cummings, look more like corporate board meetings than traditional lectures. Four connecting tables form a large square, and Cummings talks with the students about communication styles, time management and leadership. Such skills prepare the students to go door-to-door to recruit residents, informing them about Building Blocks and encouraging them to attend meetings. These meetings, also managed by the students, begin the process of breaking down economic and cultural barriers among neighbors — residents agree on how to allocate funds, decide which repairs they will work on and develop estimates for the needed materials.
“They may decide a particular home needs a new porch. Another home may need new roofing, or a sidewalk needs new gravel,” Drake says.
Participating residents of each site split into groups, and two or three homes are worked on simultaneously. Instead of parting ways at the conclusion of a project, resident groups sometimes continue to work together. Drake says in 2013 one group of Vine neighbors was so unified that after their project was completed they worked to shut down a house in their neighborhood that had “illegal activity going on.”
“Public Safety became aware of the house through this group and increased their presence in the area,” Drake says. “The group had the confidence that they could make a difference, and they demonstrated that they had more influence as a group than as individuals.”
Once projects are done, Building Blocks of Kalamazoo asks participating residents to complete surveys to assess changes in attitudes about their neighborhood and neighbors. Drake says the results usually show increased trust among residents, increased pride in their street and increased awareness of available resources provided by the neighborhood association.
“The surveys indicate that many connections were made where connections previously did not exist,” Drake says. “This demonstrates that the impact of Building Blocks on residents is transformative and has the potential to influence the culture of resident involvement with each other and with their neighborhood.”
Shoub is a good example of the impact Building Blocks can have. He remembers growing up in a Grand Rapids neighborhood where everyone knew one another, but the self-described introvert says that for the first 15 years after he bought his home in Kalamazoo’s Oakwood neighborhood, he didn’t make many friends there.
“I didn’t know them before Building Blocks,” Shoub says. “The problem is that society has made us so individualistic in our pursuit of wealth. But Building Blocks of Kalamazoo has helped me build relationships with my neighbors.”
And that kind of relationship building helps to stabilize neighborhoods, Drake says. “Once there were a couple of homeowners in the Vine neighborhood that were going to move out,” she says. “But after Building Blocks came through, they decided to stay.”