10/26/2012 10:26 am ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Reclaiming Halloween to Reclaim a City Block

Halloween happens in a few days. Each year, my daughter picks a costume that is nearly impossible to reproduce, or identify. My favorite was the year we turned her into Hedwig the white owl from the Harry Potter books and at almost every door someone said, "Oh, look, an angel with a beak!" Wish me luck as we attempt to figure out how people will know she's the 'real Maid Marion.'

There's someone else trying to make much more important Halloween magic this year. I hope you'll wish her luck, too. Her name is Megan Dickerson and she lives in Roxbury, MA, in a neighborhood called Grove Hall. Megan has received a grant from a neighborhood trust to revitalize her block for trick-or-treating. She and her neighbors are working together to create a long line of houses inviting and welcoming to kids, culminating in an outdoor showing of a classic scary movie projected against the side of one of the homes. They are working together, and doing the whole thing with a grant of $600.

This is a small project, on a small scale, involving small dollars. Why on earth would I ask people all over the country to give it their karmic blessing? Because I think it's a really big idea.

Let's start with some truth in advertising. Boston Rising, the organization I run, helped launch the neighborhood trust that's funding Megan's initiative. We think it's a pretty big idea, too. The Grove Hall Trust is a neighborhood trust seeded with $250,000 from Boston Rising, but built, governed and run entirely by residents of Boston's Grove Hall neighborhood in Roxbury.

Understand that Grove Hall is 99 percent non-white with 33 percent of its population living below the poverty line and one of the highest crime rates of any neighborhood in Boston. Pretty much, that's what Grove Hall is known for today, and what residents are used to being known for. But they are and have so much more than that. The Grove Hall Trust was a way to demonstrate it, by showing that residents there can and will volunteer to build something great, and then will wisely and consistently make great decisions supporting small projects in their own neighborhood that build community and positive outcomes.

Enter Megan Dickerson. She is one of the Grove Hall Trust's first grantees. They didn't support her idea because they like Halloween -- although I'm pretty sure they do. They supported it because it has all kinds of leverage. In one, simple idea Megan is accomplishing at least five goals that neighborhood revitalization organizations attempt to achieve all the time, and usually at greater expense and without relying entirely on volunteers.

  1. She's increasing the perceived safety of the block for its kids. We all know that the ability to trick-or-treat on your block has significant psychic impact for a kid. If you can't even knock next door dressed up like a witch (or an angel with a beak), what does that tell you about where you live?
  2. She's creating a network of people kids can reach out to if they need help. Remember when you were a child and your mom left you home alone for the first time? The idea that you could knock on your neighbor's door in case of an emergency was huge. But you wouldn't if you'd never met, talked to or been to your neighbor's house before.
  3. She's increasing the social capital among the residents of the entire block. It gives them a sense of common cause and shared identity that spills over into other activities. They are developing patterns of teamwork, identifying informal leadership, collaborating on a project and creating shared expectations of results.
  4. She's making joy and fun. Those things really matter. Where we live shapes us deeply. If it is a place where we want to be outside, we want to chat with our neighbors, and we go to relax, have fun and enjoy our lives, we feel secure and at peace. That's what anyone wants to come home to, no matter where you live.
  5. And lastly, she's changing the narrative about her neighborhood. Several Boston media outlets already have covered what she and her block are doing. Yvonne Abraham, a prominent columnist with the Boston Globe, even wrote a column about it.

Megan didn't set out to do all this. She set out to recapture Halloween for the kids and families on her street. She's doing it all nonetheless. The Grove Hall Trust knew that. That's why they invested in it. Indeed, they built themselves, their grant criteria and their application process specifically to attract just this kind of thinking and innovation. Because they knew it was in Grove Hall all along.

Good luck to you, Megan, and to your whole block. And if one of the girls on your block shows up at your door dressed pretty much exactly like Robin Hood, be sure to say, "Oh look, it's the real Maid Marion."