SALT LAKE CITY — On the night of May 31, Sierra Rothberg, 45, posted a call to action in a Facebook group she runs called Clean Up Boston.
Following protests, Massachusetts’s capital city was littered with evidence of people’s outrage over the death of George Floyd. Boston Common and its surrounding areas were sullied with smashed windows, graffiti, trash and toppled street signs.
As a protester herself, Rothberg, saw cleaning as another opportunity to help the Black Lives Matter movement and bring people together. The project was not an effort to erase the pain expressed by protesters the night before, but an attempt to get more people involved in the cause, said Rothberg, who is white. The next day, nearly 100 people of diverse races joined her in scrubbing and sweeping parts of downtown. Some came prepared with water, masks, gloves and rags, while others jumped in to help after passing by.
“The goal of Clean Up Boston isn’t necessarily just to host or organize cleanups but seeing how people communicate with each other, and that they’re sharing ideas and sharing issues,” said Rothberg, who owns a small business that does event planning and design. “The cleanups made me feel connected.”
Rothberg’s experience echoes findings from researchers like Mary L. Ohmer, associate professor and chairwoman of the community, organization, and social action program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. Ohmer’s research shows that volunteering increases people’s sense of community and ability to work together to solve problems. She believes community service can help heal some of the world’s social ills, including racism.
“People build a lot of skills when they are working on projects and volunteering,” said Ohmer. “It’s a way to strengthen relationships, the common values people share, and also their own ability to address the things they care about.”
According to Booker Hodges, assistant commissioner of law enforcement for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, volunteering is especially important for police officers. Hodges specifically looked for people with a history of community service when he was hiring people to work for the Ramsey County Sheriff Office.
“We want people to volunteer and be active members of the community because it really helps with neighborhood relations, but it’s also just the right thing to do,” he said.
Hodges said when police are actively involved in the communities they serve, it changes their perception of the people there. Some cops develop a negative view of a whole community because they spend most of their time interacting with the segment of the population that is breaking the law. As a black man, Hodges has seen firsthand how misunderstanding can lead to racist acts.
“When you are volunteering in your community, you see everybody, and you’re not viewing them through a fence post,” said Hodges. “We really have to get back to focusing on our humanity.”
Ultimately, Hodges said, problems with policing are indicative of the broader issue of racism in our society.
“Racism, specifically with the African American community has never been fully addressed in our country,” said Hodges. “Until we address it, we will continue to have these problems.”
The benefits of volunteering
Shannon Kerwin, associate professor in the department of sport management at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, is another researcher who has studied the connection between volunteering and a sense of community.
Kerwin surveyed volunteers at a large national sporting event and found that in order for a sense of community to be maximized, there needs to be a physical space where volunteers can interact with and get to know each other. Bonding over a common interest (in this case a sport) is also essential to forming a sense of cohesion in a group, Kerwin said.
According to Kerwin, recent protests against racial injustice have many of the same core elements as volunteer projects, and therefore can effectively bring people together.
“You’re seeing people volunteering their time to go out and protest for example, and they are creating that common space,” said Kerwin. “We’re visibly seeing all of these people that have a common interest in creating equity and reducing racial injustice come together. These are some of the elements that, if effectively managed, will build a sense of community.”
Some law enforcement officers across the country have tried to build trust with community members by showing support for peaceful public demonstrations. The Denver, Colorado, police chief marched arm in arm with protesters. Officers in Fort Worth offered hugs and handshakes, and in St. Paul, Minnesota, police knelt with protesters in solidarity.
While some have criticized stories like these for drawing attention away from examples of police violence, and others have called the moves mere PR stunts, certain acts of goodwill have helped defuse mounting tension between crowds and law enforcement.
For a research study in Atlanta, Georgia, Ohmer brought diverse youth and adults together with law enforcement and other community resources to participate in a volunteer violence prevention program. Ultimately, the group worked together to renovate a vacant lot, identified as a source of blight and crime, with art and landscaping. According to Ohmer, the project helped change the community members’ views of law enforcement as well as the officers’ views of the community members.
“They saw them differently. It wasn’t ‘we have to make sure these kids don’t get into trouble,’ It was, ‘these kids are actually doing something pretty cool,’” said Ohmer. “The police aren’t coming in and having all the solutions. Instead, they are actually engaging and building community capacity to be partners with police and bring their own expertise and skills to the table.”
Hodges said when police officers volunteer, everyone in a community benefits. Examples he’s seen include police officers making care kits for homeless people, participating in regular street clean-ups, reading to kids and coaching youth sports. As part of the Ramsey County Sheriff Office, Hodges helped host an event called “Hot Dog with a Deputy,” which involved a food truck and games for kids.
“We don’t want to be the Disney police department, where we come in, do stuff and then leave, and we’re not really building relationships,” said Hodges. “Popsicles and hot dogs are nice, but if you are not truly invested and living in your community, it’s hard to establish the trust you need.”
Hodges is a big proponent of police officers living in the cities they serve to increase their level of understanding. According to data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Census Bureau, among the 75 U.S. cities with the largest police forces, 60% of police officers lived outside the city limits in 2014. USA Today reported that no recent research shows that residency requirements for cops make a difference when it comes to community relations.
Amid cries to defund the police, or dissolve certain police stations, some advocates are calling for an increased focus on community-based policing. According to Matt Bostrom, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford with more than 34 years of law enforcement experience including as Ramsey County sheriff in Minnesota, community based policing is when law enforcement listens to a community’s concerns and tries to implement the suggestions. It’s a strategy that has proven effective, while other initiatives such as implicit bias trainings, which help cops recognize unconscious racism, have not demonstrated long-term results.
“You have to ask, what are the community priorities? What are their values? If people tell us what they think makes a good cop, and then we exhibit those behaviors in our performance, we become easy to trust,” said Bostrom.
Through community focus groups in Minnesota, Bostrom and his colleagues found that citizens wanted police departments to focus more on hiring people of character who were truthful, respectful and responsible at all times. Later as county sheriff, Bostrom worked with Hodges to overhaul the hiring process. They began looking at volunteering as a key indicator of positive traits and performance.
“What I noticed was the people who were involved in volunteer activities had more citizen commendations, they also had a very strong profile for being respectful,” said Bostrom. “And because they were patient with the community, they tended to get more compliments. And when they got compliments and encouragement from their boss, they wanted to do more of that. So it was an upward spiral.”
Rothberg doesn’t know of any police officers who came to help with the clean-up after the protests in Boston, although that doesn’t mean there weren’t any.
“More than anything, it’s seeing police officers actually engage in the community. It’s not about coming to a clean up necessarily and getting a pat on the back, it’s about all the work in between, and having real relationships with community members and business owners,” said Rothberg. “I would love to see police officers coming to a clean up. I would love for anyone to come out. But there’s more that they need to do.”