Being a fellow at Code for America has allowed me to discover all of the amazing “new school” ways that people are getting involved in their local governments. However, as powerful as web 2.0 technology is for building communities, sometimes, nothing beats a good ‘ol block party.
National Night Out is the official, nation-wide night designated for organized neighborhoods or neighborhood watch groups to showcase their neighborhood pride with a block party. Typically, local cities will help out by taking care of permitting issues and having local officials make a guest visit to parties. Oakland went a step further and offered “National Night Out” kits including balloons and caution tape to help block off the street.
This year, I helped organize, together with our Neighborhood Watch coordinator Lory, a block party for the neighborhood watch group I’m a member of in Oakland, CA. Lucky for us, the entertainment agenda for the party was the first issue to be settled – just in our small three block Neighborhood Watch group, we have several professional musicians.
First to perform was robert temple on guitar and vocals, and rapper/ producer 5 Star General Rowe, in a duet entitled “election year paint.” After a few more songs by robert, the mics got a break while electronic music accompanied people chowing down on a variety of food from tamales to pumpkin pie. But soon enough, it was time for another singer and guitarist, Jennifer Lee, to grace our impromptu stage, with her Brazilian bossa-nova style. For the block party, Jennifer wowed the crowd with a perfectly sung Portuguese piece entitled “Amor Certinho / S’wonderful.”
During the entire set of musical performances, neighbors mingled and learned more about each other, encouraged in part by a “Discover Your Neighbors” game. The game involved filling out a game sheet with the names of neighbors you spoke to who had certain jobs or hobbies (e.g. Name a neighbor who is a teacher). The two players with the most unique set of names won a $10 gift certificate to a nearby cafe. The prizes were generously donated by one of the neighbors.
The best part of the block party was seeing all of the neighbors out of their house and talking to each other – bonding, and realizing that there is momentum in our neighborhood to clean the streets, stop the dumping, and stop crime. Before all of the activities began, one of the block captains was busy sweeping broken glass off the sidewalk, trimming overgrowth on the public land area, and picking up garbage.
In these tough economic times, it’s sometimes too easy for people to grow skeptical of the change that one community can bring to a nation of problems. But if the National Night Out was any indication as to what we can accomplish when we reach out to each other and take pride in our communities, then indeed we have good reason to be hopeful and optimistic.