During the day, classrooms at Weller Elementary School in Springfield, Mo., are filled with students, teachers and the usual abundance of youthful energy and enthusiasm. But on Tuesday and Friday nights, a different kind of energy fuels the hopeful ambiance.
On those nights, local pastors, school nurses, small-business owners, PTA volunteers, and retired community members meet to discuss their vision for the Weller neighborhood and solutions to the economic challenges it faces. The group tackles questions like "Why do we have economic challenges in our neighborhood?" and "How do we reduce poverty in order to reach our vision?."
The answer may be "civic health."
The meetings are part of the Neighbor for Neighbor project, coordinated by Missouri State University and the Community Partnership of the Ozarks in an effort to foster what the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) calls "civic health."
David Smith, the executive director of the NCoC, describes civic health as a measure of community participation in activities like volunteering and voting and the level of trust and interaction between neighbors. The NCoC believes that the concept could be a key factor in turning the struggling U.S. economy around.
For communities like Weller, where Neighbor for Neighbor has calculated the unemployment rate to be nearly double the national average, improving civic health could be a critical first step towards recovery.
Last week, before convening for the 67th Annual National Conference on Citizenship in Philadelphia, the NCoC released a report to highlight the importance of civic health when considering a community's ability to fight unemployment. The report, entitled "Civic Health and Unemployment II: The Case Builds," is a continuation of research that began in 2011.
The report "identifies two aspects of civic health that matter most in preventing unemployment: the presence of a significant nonprofit sector, defined as the number of nonprofits per capita in each community; and social cohesion, the level at which citizens trust, talk to and help neighbors, and socialize with family and friends," the NCoC said in a press release.
According to the report, civic health can be a major factor in reducing unemployment. The NCoC advises community leaders to do several things based on the results of the study, Smith said.
First, leaders and planners must not overlook the impact of civic health on all aspects of community life. Civic health considerations should figure prominently even in economic planning. Second, local governments should encourage and facilitate a welcoming environment for certain types of NPOs that the study found predict resistance to unemployment. Finally, local leaders should include in any civic plan public halls, community auditoriums, arenas, parks, gyms, promenades and other spaces where citizens can congregate and interact.
The investment made in such initiatives will earn significant financial returns for the community, in addition to producing a more connected populace, Smith said. "The more connected people are, the more likely they are to invest in one another. It's a virtuous cycle we're encouraging … that leads to greater employment and financial capital within the community."
Smith hopes the information will also help guide individual behavior and assist unemployed Americans in the job search. Though Smith understands that there are many factors that can contribute to a person being unemployed, community engagement may provide crucial support, he said.
"When people become unemployed, they pull back from the community," Smith said. "What our findings are saying is: don't pull back. Now is the time to become more engaged in your church, your mosque, or your synagogue, or a social club, Rotary club, or Elks club… By engaging with [community members], they are more likely to be able to help you get employed, or provide opportunities to build skills that make you more employable."
An engaged community and strong civic health are likely part of why Springfield as a whole has been able to weather the recession so well despite struggles in neighborhoods like Weller, according to Dr. Michael Stout. A sociology professor at Missouri State University, Stout is also a coordinator of the Ozarks Regional Social Capital Study (ORSCS), and a co-coordinator of the Neighbor for Neighbor program. Programs like Neighbor for Neighbor are designed to provide a boost in civic health to pockets that aren't keeping up with the rest of Springfield.
"The NCoC study reinforces what we've been finding on the ground," Stout said. "We've actively been targeting our resources towards programming that develops social capital. We're concerned with how connected people are to each other."
Stout believes that it's important to have the ideas come from community residents. Local government should respond to the needs of the community and help facilitate their efforts, he said. "What we're really trying to show is that you need to have the connections and collaboration at both the leadership level and the community level for resources and tools," Stout said. "Empower people at the grassroots to be positive agents of change, while ensuring there is a base of support from leadership."
Local schools and businesses are already seeing results. Janet Dankert, one of the coordinators of Neighbor for Neighbor, said the Weller Elementary principal told her that the school has seen "new folks volunteer at the school who were involved in Neighbor for Neighbor, who had never been active with the school before."
In one Neighbor for Neighbor "action team," community members brokered consumer discounts with local vendors. A local landscaping company agreed to give discounts if residents found enough people in the neighborhood to commit their business to the vendor.
Springfield resident Leah Dingman King, who runs her own business coordinating 10-car haulers, helped organize the Neighbor for Neighbor locations for the city. King believes that the plan has a lot of potential but will need a concentrated effort to make a lasting change.
"It's an everyday thing. It's something where if you don't take a step forward everyday, you will go backwards," King says. "The TV and the internet have put a lot of people in their homes, and they're afraid to come out. But we've got a lot of good things happening and the neighbors are slowly coming off of their porches."