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Building Community Cohesion

Community intervention brings families together to knit a neighborhood

family around picnic table with food

Something as seemingly simple as a meal can have a profound effect on a community.

That’s what Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) Associate Professor Daniel Brisson is finding as he implements the Your Family, Your Neighborhood intervention in two low-income Denver neighborhoods.

One component of the program is a weekly family dinner with neighbors. “For families living in poverty, time is a valuable resource that is stretched,” Brisson says. “Once a week we want them to sit together and relax without the stress of cooking, costs, cleaning up. We want them to just sit with their neighbors and talk.”

Families talk about the challenges of parenting, living in poverty, dealing with issues at school. They champion one another (one mother enrolled in community college with encouragement from neighbors) and problem-solve together (another parent discovered she could advocate effectively for her child’s education plan).

Although it starts with a weekly meal and a conversation, Your Family, Your Neighborhood provides much more for children (ages 7–12) and their parents living in low-income neighborhoods. The program fosters academic success and family health and well-being through a unique dual-generation model that addresses three key aspects of the social ecology: 1) promoting bonds between children and parents, 2) developing stronger attachments to schools and academic success, and 3) building neighborhood social cohesion.

“We know many neighborhoods where low-income families live don’t receive the same investments as more affluent neighborhoods. This disinvestment can be felt by families, and they may not want to stay in their neighborhood long term,” says Brisson, who works on the project with coinvestigator Stephanie Lechuga-Peña, PhD ’16, an assistant professor at the Arizona State University School of Social Work. “The formal means to facilitate these connections are critical. When someone lives in a neighborhood where they can trust and value neighbors, they experience more well-being.”

Once a week for 10 weeks, six to 10 families in Denver’s Sun Valley and Montbello neighborhoods meet for two hours. Following a meal together, they break into adult and child groups to discuss topics such as academic expectations and health. Then the kids rejoin their parents to share what they learned, and they all leave with some homework.

At the end of the 10-week session, the cohort has the opportunity, with a small budget, to practice the leadership skills they learned by planning a community activity or event. In Montbello, Brisson says, participants hosted an appreciation event for teachers at their children’s school.

Now in the program’s fourth year, Brisson and Lechuga-Peña are in the midst of intervention testing, which includes qualitative interviews as well as pretest and posttest surveys to measure participant outcomes against the experiences of adjacent neighborhood comparison groups. So far, Brisson says, the neighborhood cohesion and attachments have increased and are stronger in treatment-group families as compared to control group families. Attachment to schools and parent engagement have improved as well. “Parents participate more and more often,” Brisson says, noting that families also report improvement in feelings of self-efficacy.

Next, the researchers will analyze the data to see how the program’s quasi-experimental design worked. Ultimately, they’ll need more participants and a randomized study to determine whether Your Family, Your Neighborhood is truly effective and can be scaled up.

“We don’t expect to transform families or neighborhoods in 10 weeks, but we’re providing resources into a neighborhood where there aren’t resources,” Brisson says. “The most innovative piece is focusing on affordable and subsidized housing and providing residents with a program that not only looks at what’s happening in their family, but also their neighborhood.

“Building trusting relationships — neighborhood cohesion — is important for health and well-being, and this program provides evidence that we can build trusting relationships in a place,” Brisson adds. “These neighborhoods need investment, and relationships can serve as capital.”

Your Family, Your Neighborhood is supported by the Bureau of Justice Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant and Denver Human Services, in addition to the University of Denver Latino Center, DU-IRISE, PROF Grant Award, Faculty Research Fund, the Bridge Project and Arizona State University.

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