Why We Need to Build Trust in Our Neighborhoods
At the heart of any healthy relationship is trust.
We instinctively understand this fact. Yet, we sometimes allow our own insecurities, weaknesses, and selfishness to rob us of trust which, in turn, robs us of the joy and peace we could be experiencing with other people.
There are resources available designed to help us strengthen personal relationships and to deal with broken relationships. In both instances, almost all of those resources place an emphasis on building or rebuilding trust.
My question is whether we can take what we know about trust in personal relationships and apply it more broadly. For example, how does trust, and a lack of trust, affect a neighborhood?
The importance of societal trust can be traced back to French sociologist Émile Durkheim who published his doctoral dissertation, The Division of Labor in Society, in 1893. As I understand it, he argued that primitive societies are characterized by mechanical solidarity or sameness. In such a society, everyone has the same type of job and, therefore, they function as a collective and share similar beliefs.[i] This type of society is, perhaps, best exemplified by an agrarian culture where everyone is a farmer.
He also argued that as society becomes more advanced, there is a need for different jobs and responsibilities. Hence the division of labor. In the mechanical solidarity society, the members build trust through similar values. However, in the advanced society where members from different backgrounds, beliefs, and jobs co-mingle, trust is harder to build since there are fewer commonly held beliefs or experiences.[ii] He further argued that distrust among individuals resulted in the deterioration and social instability necessary for a healthy, safe, and sustainable society.[iii]
It is this idea that requires further consideration: how does distrust erode our societies, hurt our neighborhoods, and undermine our values?
Regardless of whether societies are organized around mechanical solidarity or advanced diversities, we need a society built upon a mutual belief in the integrity of other people. When a neighborhood is characterized by disorder and disharmony, we become more fearful for our safety and our community. In turn, our fear drives our ability to trust downward.[iv]
A few things which contribute to the downward reduction of trust include: 1) a history of traumatic experiences; 2) discrimination against minorities; and 3) income and education disparity.[v]
As a result of these root causes, instead of coming together to improve a neighborhood, fear drives people to withdraw from community life and avoid social interactions. As fear grows in general, the fear of crime also grows resulting in the suspicion of our neighbors and distrust among residents.[vi]
As the fear of our neighbors grips our neighborhoods, one result is a growing distrust of the police. When people experience adversity, discrimination, poverty, and racism within their communities, and begin to fear for themselves and their families, they come to believe the police as being less responsive and unwilling to help with their problems. Consequently, people turn to other means in order to protect themselves and settle their disputes.[vii]
Fear creates a vicious cycle of distrust that is often self-perpetuating and self-defeating.
We can see how a lack of trust amongst different groups of people affects the ability of the police to effectively “protect and serve.” For example, people of color, people under the age of 35, and people who identify as liberal all report having less confidence in the police than whites, people over the age of 35, and people who identify as conservative.[viii]
And just like that, distrust begins to build.
Correcting this phenomenon, especially as it deals with trusting the police, requires at least three things:[ix]
- Police departments must work with institutions within the community, (e.g., churches, schools, and community organizations) in order to enhance relationships, increase visibility, and boost availability which, in turn, helps improve police-citizen encounters, satisfaction, and confidence;
- Conditions that increase fear (e.g., trauma, discrimination, and inequities) must be directly targeted in order to rebuild the trust and societal connections within a community; and,
- Residents must form an increased attachment to their neighborhood through the promotion of similar values and approaches to social problems as a way to build trust.
All three of these ideas require being trauma informed and we know that being trauma informed is the first step to healing broken relationships and broken communities.
It is easy to look around us today and think that we are just one bad day away from civil war – figuratively or literally.
As we’ve discussed, fear creeps into our psyche and we start finding reasons to distrust our fellow neighbors. Maybe their values are different. Maybe their race is different. Maybe their income is different. Regardless, when we are afraid we find fault with others.
It’s this fear that leads to distrust and dystopia within our personal, professional, and communal relationships. We become convinced that what is broken can never be repaired.
However, neither broken relationships nor broken trust are irreparable.
While it may be true that trust has been broken and relationships are eroding, the good news is that once we shift our mindset, once we shift our paradigms, once we focus on the root causes and not the symptoms, we can begin to heal the hurt and start rebuilding the foundation of a healthy neighborhood.
Former FBI Director James Comey often said, "It's hard to hate up close." He’s right. When we are willing to sit down with a person who may not look, think, and act like us, it’s much easier to start building a relationship and building trust.
An increase in trust is a decrease in fear and a decrease in fear leads to a increase in healthy and resilient neighbors and neighborhoods.
[iii]Jonathan Intravia, Eric A. Stewart, Patricia Y. Warren, Kevin T. Wolff, “Neighborhood disorder and generalized trust: A multilevel mediation examination of social mechanisms,” Journal of Criminal Justice 46 (2016) 148–158.
[v]Alberto Alesina, Eliana La Ferrara, “Who trusts others?” Journal of Public Economics 85 (2002) 207–234.
[vi]Jonathan Intravia, et al.
[viii]Nathan James, et. al., “Public Trust and Law Enforcement— A Discussion for Policymakers,” Congressional Research Service, R43904, July 13, 2020, 1-32.
[ix] Jonathan Intravia, et al.