How neighbors going door-to-door cut crime in a Louisiana city
In 2019, the police department in Shreveport, La., reported that crime rates had plunged in four neighborhoods that were so dangerous a few decades ago that it was impossible for residents to hail a taxi or order food to be delivered. What did those four neighborhoods have in common? They had Friendship Houses, opened and operated by Community Renewal International, a local nonprofit organization founded 25 years earlier.
Friendship Houses, which have some resemblance to the Settlement Houses of the early 20th century co-founded by Jane Addams in Chicago, are one of three strategic elements that comprise C.R.I.’s “social technology,” as founder Mack McCarter describes its approach. Their remarkable success led the Opus Prize Foundation to honor Mr. McCarter and C.R.I. as the 2022 laureates, awarding them its annual $1 million prize in recognition of their faith-based social entrepreneurship.
The prize was one of many that Mr. McCarter and C.R.I. have collected over the years in recognition of their recipe for social change, but he rejects the notion that C.R.I. is fundamentally a social service organization. Instead, he has articulated a vision of the movement that is rooted deeply in the soil of the church’s social doctrine, focusing not on external effects but on fundamental human relationships. Today, when staff and volunteers meet, using a Quaker-meeting style of shared discernment, they repeat a call to mission: “Community Renewal International builds and grows positive, caring relationships.” Far from mere sentimentality, this mission statement reflects years of strategic thinking.
There are literally billions of daily caring acts that go unseen, hidden from our imagination by attention-grabbing headlines and stories of pathology.
A key insight that moved Mr. McCarter to launch C.R.I. in 1994 was the recognition that there are literally billions of daily caring acts that go unseen, hidden from our imagination by the attention-grabbing headlines and stories of pathology that populate our newsfeeds. He is fond of quoting the story of the man who was duct-taped to his airline seat after assaulting flight attendants, wryly pointing out that the news story ignores the fact that the same flight passed over millions of people engaged in caring acts. The first step toward a transformed society, he argues, is making visible people’s shared ability to care.
In Shreveport, that has meant slowly building the We Care Team—tens of thousands of people who have signed pledge cards describing the ways that they reach out selflessly to others in small and large ways. These might be as simple as checking on an elderly neighbor during a storm, or as sustained as volunteering at a Friendship House to teach courses for adults seeking a high school diploma. Some team members financially support programs for children and teens from low-income families so they might attend a concert or undertake college visits. Others volunteer at the C.R.I. office, leveraging their various professional skills in marketing, volunteer management or accounting. Many wear lapel pins or put out yard signs that say “We Care”—slowly building a culture of visible caring.
Building the We Care Team was the first strategic move, undertaken immediately after C.R.I.’s launch in Allendale, at the time Shreveport’s most dangerous neighborhood. Mr. McCarter began walking the streets on Saturday mornings (when, he reasoned, bad actors would most likely be asleep), knocking on doors to introduce himself and invite people into friendship.
Mr. McCarter began walking the streets on Saturday mornings (when, he reasoned, bad actors would most likely be asleep), knocking on doors to introduce himself and invite people into friendship.
Within a few months, that strategy yielded familiarity and a growing sense of community. People began opening their doors to greet him, and they looked forward to talking with him on their porches and lawns. At the time, Allendale consisted of rows of rickety shotgun houses built decades before—remnants of what had been a thriving African American community.
The second strategic move was to train and connect a new team, called Haven House leaders—members of communities who reached out to their neighbors within a several-block radius. They went door to door, learning the names of parents, children, grandparents and friends within and outside of the neighborhood. Over time, they learned about jobs, health problems, relationship issues and other factors that affected their lives and their relationships with neighbors.
Today there are hundreds of Haven House leaders throughout Shreveport, in neighborhoods from the very rich to the very poor. Haven House leaders help foster connections across the lines that can separate people, and as a result C.R.I. members have reported growth in the kinds of friendships that one recent study suggests can significantly drive social mobility. Anecdotally, this is already true: C.R.I. members have also noted new friendships leading to beneficial outcomes like professional connections, enhanced access to school support, sharing about health resources and so on.
The third strategic move was the building of Friendship Houses, as noted earlier. These are the most visible evidence of neighborhood change, now that Shreveport has 10 working houses and an 11th under construction. When I spoke to one lifelong resident of Allendale during my first visit to Shreveport in 2019, during due diligence research that led to C.R.I.’s receiving the Catholic Extension Lumen Christi Award, he observed that there had been any number of government programs in Allendale over the years. People would show up, cameras would roll, money would be spent, and nothing changed. But when the Friendship House was being built, he said, that’s when he knew that C.R.I. was there to stay. And with many local people staffing the Friendship Houses—in several cases, people who had grown up in the very neighborhoods they now serve—there is no danger of the kind of gentrification that has driven further wedges between rich and poor populations in other cities.
Friendship Houses have served as a kind of connective tissue within neighborhoods, helping residents to find the resources that could move them from isolation into a supportive community.
Friendship Houses have served as a kind of connective tissue within neighborhoods, helping residents to find the resources that could move them from isolation into a supportive community. In 2003, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recognized that this effort was a model for addressing what are often called social determinants of health (including job opportunities, literacy skills, neighborhood safety, and the prevalence of racism and other kinds of discrimination), and it gave C.R.I. a grant to expand its efforts so that it could facilitate communication between health care providers and the residents they sought to reach. Today, C.R.I. offers community health fairs in their Friendship Houses and has proven invaluable in helping health care leaders understand the needs of the people they seek to serve.
Over its 30 years of work, C.R.I. has attracted hundreds of people who seek to replicate what is happening in Shreveport. They developed the Center for Community Renewal to help leaders discern how to move forward using the resources at their disposal. Replications are underway in a number of places, including Washington, D.C., and as far away as Cameroon, Nigeria and Ethiopia.
It is worth noting that C.R.I.’s spread has been, as it were, viral. It is not a corporation; it does not have a financial stake in seeing replication; its work over the years has been driven by volunteers, a handful of paid staff, donations and grants. I think of its spread as analogous to the three-point seatbelt patent that the car manufacturer Volvo gave away to others for the sake of saving lives. McCarter’s vision and enthusiasm is infectious—but more important, he can point to the many stories of people in his hometown whose lives have been positively changed by virtue of their caring connections to others around their neighborhoods and city.
Caring alone is not enough to heal society; what is necessary is a strategy of connected caring. C.R.I. illustrates what the promise and benefit of lived subsidiarity might be. It is not fundamentally about some vague commitment to small government or arcane economic principles. Rather, it is about the conviction that each human being, because of his or her capacity to care for others in their immediate vicinity, can be part of a network of caring. With help from others who have resources, that network can remake entire neighborhoods and indeed an entire society.