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 Serving Neighborhoods: NeighborCircles

With neighborhoods no longer the tight-knit communities of yesteryear, it’s become increasingly difficult for city residents to identify and address issues in their neighborhoods.  In Lowell, “NeighborCircles”, a new initiative by Coalition for a Better Acre, is bringing neighbors together to build relationships and take action.

Heddi Nieuwsma has always tried to be a good neighbor. She is friendly, takes care of her property, and is helpful if someone needs a hand. But over the past year, Heddi has realized that being a good neighbor means a great deal more.

 “I realized that the majority of neighbors on my street didn’t really know each other, perhaps only just enough to wave and say, ‘hello’”, says Heddi, a resident of Canton Street in the Lower Highlands section of Lowell. “However, we have a strong bond that ties us together. We are all concerned about issues that threaten the quality, safety and beauty of our neighborhood.”

Heddi has joined with Coalition for a Better Acre for “NeighborCircles”, an initiative launched in 2010 to help Heddi and her fellow Canton and Wilder Street residents come together to address these issues. In a NeighborCircle, hosts open their homes for three facilitated dinners, inviting eight to 10 neighbors for a meal and shared conversation, which leads to identifying and addressing neighborhood issues

NeighborCircles are a way to break down barriers and get conversations started, with a goal to help neighbors get to know each other, build relationships and trust, and use that foundation to identify and develop solutions for neighborhood issues.

NeighborCircles supports CBA’s mission of resident empowerment and leadership development, helping residents to take action, learn to work with the government system and process, and take on leadership roles. The facilitator’s role is to help residents identify and prioritize the issues facing the neighborhood, and then develop an action plan to address the top one or two issues.  At that point, CBA empowers the residents to take the lead, moving forward on their action plan, with CBA available for support as needed.

For example, neighbors may help reduce car break-ins by joining together to keep porch lights on overnight, or improve street signage by learning to work with the appropriate government agencies responsible for them, Robyn said.

“It is such an important first step in addressing all the other issues,” Heddi says. “Unless we have open communication about what is happening right next door, we can’t work together to find solutions.”

CBA’s NeighborCircle initiative was inspired by successful programs in Lawrence and Chelsea. CBA is focusing their efforts on the Lower Highlands and Acre neighborhoods, but plan to expand the program to other city neighborhoods.

CBA – which as a city Community Development Corporation serves all neighborhoods in the city – has been working closely with the Lower Highlands neighborhood, as well as other neighborhood groups, helping residents become effective leaders.

“CBA provides opportunities and training for residents because they are uniquely positioned to build a positive future for their neighborhood and the city,” says CBA Executive Director Emily Rosenbaum. “CBA believes that neighborhoods improve when residents are engaged and committed to their neighborhoods.  If people who live, work and worship in tough neighborhoods believe that they can make effective community change, then change can happen.”

 Heddi and Taya Dixon Mullane, co-leaders of the Lower Highlands Neighborhood Group, are thrilled at CBA’s investment in their neighborhood, including the NeighborCircles initiative.

“They have the experience and reputation of improving neighborhoods and helping residents take action,” says Taya, who was recently invited to join CBA’s Board of Directors. “Those are tremendous resources for a group of neighborhood volunteers wanting to help make a better community.”