How a School Bus With No Wheels Taught Me to See Past Silos

Posted in: Other Commentary

This is another story about Olneyville, the low-income, predominately Latino neighborhood on the west side of Providence, Rhode Island, that I have been studying for some time in connection with a book I am writing about neighborhood well-being. When I first encountered Olneyville, I had thought my book would be about policing. The Providence Police Department has made the shift that I have long endorsed from a conventional, paramilitary style of policing to place-based, community-led problem-solving. I figured I would talk about the transformation there and a few other places, where the shift has been successful. But the more time I spent in Olneyville, talking with the people who live and work there, the more I realized I was looking at things too narrowly.

One story finally brought it home to me. On weekday mornings, a small group of parents starts walking through the streets of Olneyville. They follow a set route on a specified timetable, stopping at designated spots and street corners before finally reaching the William D’Abate Elementary School. Like every poor, urban neighborhood, Olneyville has more than its share of challenges, and the group walks past vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and derelict houses. At every stop, young children scamper out of their homes and climb aboard a bus with no wheels.

Like any school bus, this one winds its way through the neighborhood, adding more and more kids—and a few additional adults—along the way. But the Walking School Bus is much more than just another car or bus on the road. People recognize it, wave to the kids, and are warmed at the sight of school children chattering and skipping down the sidewalk, oblivious to the rest of the world. The Walking School Bus has become an Olneyville institution.

The idea of the Walking School Bus didn’t start with Olneyville. In fact, there’s a website for maintained by the National Center for Safe Routes to School (itself part of the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina), that describes how to start your very own version.

Yet when I first heard about the Walking School Bus, I dismissed it as just a cute story. What does this have to do with policing? Ain’t no cops on the bus. But then I kept hearing about it. Providence police officers told me about it. So did the leadership team at the Rhode Island Department of Health, which funds the bus. So did the principal at the local elementary school. Again and again, people who had very different connections to the neighborhood brought up the Walking School Bus as a demonstration of something important to their slice of the community. That something varied with the speaker, but it was clear the Walking School Bus was more than a cute story. It mattered a great deal to the people who live and work in Olneyville.

It’s about education, of course. It’s about getting kids to their local elementary school, which matters as much to parents in Olneyville as it does to parents anywhere. In fact, though Olneyville is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Providence, D’Abate has very nearly the highest attendance rate in the city. But isn’t the Walking School Bus also about public safety, since it provides young children safe passage through some hard streets with tough spots? Or is it about public health? The bus meanders as much as two miles through the neighborhood on its way to school, getting the kids much-needed exercise and time outdoors.

Or maybe, in a less obvious way, it’s about employment, since the Walking School Bus gives parents, some of them trying to raise their kids on one income, the freedom (and peace of mind) to get to work without wondering whether their kids will get to school safely and on time. But maybe it’s really about the idea of community itself, with its creative demonstration of communal self-help and intricate relationship-building. Maybe academics have the Walking School Bus in mind when they toss around terms like “collective efficacy,” “social cohesion,” and “social capital.”

Of course, as I finally realized, it’s all these things, which goes to show that neighborhood well-being is never a matter of just one characteristic. After all, a safe neighborhood where people cannot be healthy is no better than a healthy neighborhood where people cannot be safe. In fact, does it really make sense to talk about one without the other? What good is it if you can buy healthful food at the market down the street if getting there means traveling on unsafe streets? What good is it if you have a free clinic a few blocks away where you can get treatment for high blood pressure if the police keep stopping you on the way there and back?

Just as importantly, the Walking School Bus reminds us that the many qualities that combine to create a vibrant, thriving neighborhood are interwoven and mutually dependent, and that a small, inexpensive initiative can have an outsized effect by rippling and compounding through the neighborhood. Yet the arrows can point both ways. Imagine what would happen—to public health, public safety, education, jobs, and the fabric of the community—if the Walking School Bus stopped running. When it comes to neighborhood well-being, it’s all connected, and support for (or neglect of) one affects all the others.

Sadly, too much of the conversation about neighborhood well-being takes place in silos, and as a result, we tend to think of these pieces as separate from one another—public safety as distinct from public health; housing as unconnected to jobs. There are books galore on affordable housing, but in a world of Venn diagrams, this literature does not overlap much with the shelves increasingly weighed down by the many books on the changing face of work, the “knowledge economy,” and the “creative class.” People who write about public health are just beginning to link their field to crime, criminal justice, and policing. And so on.

But once you train your gaze to view a neighborhood through a wider lens, the connections and links come into view. Before long, you start to see them everywhere and can’t understand how you could’ve missed them before. At least, that has been my experience. Consider, for instance, the rippling effects of affordable housing. As I have written elsewhere, there is now an impressive body of research demonstrating that if you live in substandard housing, you’re more apt to get sick. Go figure. Poor housing contributes to higher rates of asthma, lead and other environmental poisoning, as well as mental health problems.

Likewise, when families live in unaffordable housing, they tend to cut corners that need to be square. Another shocker. Families are more likely to go hungry or forgo medical care. One study found that working families paying 30 percent or less of their income on housing costs spent twice as much of their income on health care and insurance than did families paying 50 percent or more of their income for housing. How about education? Unsurprisingly, a child in a safe, stable home tends to get more out of school. The research suggests that high-quality, affordable housing can promote the educational success of low-income children “by supporting family financial stability, reducing mobility, providing safe, nurturing living environments, and providing a platform for community development.”

Then there is the matter of crime. Once again, recent research has shown that housing units subsidized by the federal low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) can lead to significantly lower crime rates. Another study found that LIHTC units led to “significant reductions in violent crime.” This too should not be surprising. After all, LIHTC housing units frequently replace dilapidated buildings and abandoned lots that are a magnet for crime. Combine this with the regulations that require LIHTC units be well maintained and you predictably increase the likelihood of a safe, vibrant neighborhood.

I have resolved in 2018 to embrace the complexity in criminal justice. This requires that I climb out of my silo and see criminal justice for its relationship and connection to other aspects of neighborhood well-being. Policing is part of a much bigger picture, but until we take a holistic and comprehensive view of cause and effect, our solutions will always be piecemeal and inadequate.

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