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How to Start a Neighborhood Association

Some neighborhood associations muster around particular issues, like cleaning up Superfund sites, food security, housing, education or over-policing. Others handle more general community concerns, like development and beautification. Mutual aid and community emergency response are also frequently built into neighborhood associations. Whatever the issue, this work has been done somewhere before; devising a neighborhood association is, in part, a matter of shaping an existing blueprint (for example, the organizing guide published by the Citizens Committee) to your needs.

When considering how members of your neighborhood association will stay in touch, it’s helpful to look to networks that already exist. Communication lines that have been built up in response to the pandemic — Slack hubs or WhatsApp threads offering mutual aid, for example — likely have robust presences. Bed-Stuy Strong, a mutual aid group founded in March with upward of 3,500 members, recently published tips for creating a neighborhood-wide Slack (search for “How To Make A Slack Neighborhood Hub During COVID-19”). “When I pictured a WhatsApp group with a few thousand people on it, it just seemed so unbearably noisy. People’s needs might get lost,” said Sarah Thankam Mathews, the group’s organizer. Slack is easy to use and allows members to organize separate channels around specific issues or locations. “Bed-Stuy is a really big neighborhood; it’s allowed for a little bit of segmentation,” Ms. Mathews said.

But some members of your network might not have access to or be fluent in email or text; for that reason, having multiple methods of keeping in touch, and enacting a plan for who will keep everyone in the loop and how, can be helpful. “How do you reach the elderly and the homebound?” said Healy Chait, one of the organizers of the mutual aid group Invisible Hands. “It’s important not to forget you’re dealing with real people on the other end.”

You might consider clearly outlining purposes, boundaries and etiquette for your group chats — since ListServs sometimes go awry and the Best of Nextdoor Twitter account has become notorious.

Now that you’ve whittled down your agenda to a few shared priorities, it’s time to take it back out to the community to solicit additional feedback, which ensures people’s concerns are addressed and keeps the process transparent. While social distancing is in place, this can take the form of flyers and emails, or even safely going door-to-door. And, as recommended by the Idaho-based nonprofit PocatelloWorks, you might also consider how your neighborhood association fits into its wider region or into a network of other neighborhood associations. In Bed-Stuy, for example, the Bed-Stuy Works Alliance is a coalition of block associations throughout the neighborhood; in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the nonprofit Resilient Red Hook works with other organizations in the community to advocate for emergency and climate change preparedness.

After amassing contact information for the lower half of his road, Mr. Kahn-Harris consolidated his WhatsApp group with that of the upper half of the road, making a street-wide chat. Then, someone else set up a WhatsApp group with representatives from each of a cluster of such street groups. “It built up pretty organically,” he said.

The Citizens Committee has recommended “as little structure as possible — just enough to get the work done”; too much deliberating about structure can detract from actually accomplishing anything. Whatever it looks like, be deliberate about your leadership structure instead of allowing people to simply fall into roles. Otherwise, Mr. Ullah explained, the neighborhood association risks unintentionally replicating external power structures it intends to avoid.

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