Each day, people like you have ideas on how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put their ideas into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling budding social entrepreneurs who are tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.
In 2011, a series of sexual assaults occurred in Brooklyn’s Park Slope and surrounding neighborhoods. Sensing a general feeling of vulnerability and disillusionment, a group of neighbors stepped up to create a safety alternative.
“I just felt like something more had to be done,” says Jessica Silk. “Having the police on every block isn’t going to help. It’s a community long-term effort that is going to make the community safer.”
Safe Slope was thus born. In addition to escorting female and LGBTQ-identified locals home at night, the all-volunteer group promotes anti-violence education and advocacy, as well as partners with local organizations and coalitions such as New Yorkers for Safer Transit. “Getting people to be aware and feel they can take action is our big picture goal,” Jessica says.
Jessica’s first step was to ask around the community to gauge interest. After hosting a meeting to get the ball rolling, Jessica spoke to the executive director of RightRides, who happened to live in the neighborhood. She had volunteered with RightRides previously and knew that although the focus was driving people home rather than walking, it was a model the group could learn from.
Armed with good advice and knowledge about everything from dispatch systems to volunteer vests, Jessica and her neighbors started getting more of the community on board. Still, they encountered challenges:
Obstacle: Volunteer burnout
Solution: A lot of volunteers signed up at first in the spirit of helping neighbors, but then the number declined. Jessica thinks a big reason for this was because volunteers had to stay up late waiting for a call, which often didn’t come. A longer-term solution they created was a reservation system where people can call in advance so volunteers know if they are expected ahead of time.
Obstacle: Ensuring safety for everyone
Solution: The initial screening process weeds out potentially violent vigilantes and/or disrespectful volunteers through extensive essay questions. The volunteers also walk in pairs, and the group is working on obtaining a grant that would give volunteers money for a cab home at the end of the night.
Obstacle: Establishing legitimacy
Solution: People hesitated calling because they were unsure of how the system worked, and collaborators were leery about engaging with such a grassroots group. Wanting to advertise their program and build general anti-violence awareness, they organized a neighborhood rally that thousands of people attended. It garnered Safe Slope widespread media attention but more importantly, embedded them at a local level. “We were able to meet some people who were doing anti-violence work for a long time,” says Jessica. “It was good to be connected to a larger movement but also to realize that there are already so many people doing amazing things in our community.”
Obstacle: Fear of being culturally insensitive
Solution: With a large percentage of the Park Slope area Spanish-speaking, the group translated the materials into Spanish for the rally, which is one reason Jessica thinks the event had such diverse attendance. Post-rally, however, they realized they didn’t have the capacity to attend to the full community on a longer-term basis. Currently they are working on recruiting more Spanish-speaking volunteers in addition to the two they have, and continually take into account the varying perspectives on police involvement from culture to culture. Safe Slope also just recently expanded to the Sunset Park area, which means recruiting Mandarin-speaking volunteers, and are hoping to leverage their existing partnerships to counter violence affecting communities of color, such as stop-and-frisk practices by police.
Since Safe Slope has been in existence, attacks have declined and neighbors are constantly on the lookout for one another. The group continues to evolve and always keeps in mind the the most important lesson they learned when first starting out.
“Part of why we were successful is that we were willing to take the risk to do something. We were willing to fail,” Jessica says. “We went in with the attitude that if this is not what the community wants, we won’t do it.”
Besides getting community buy-in, here’s how Jessica thinks you can move forward on your idea:
- Do your research.
- Identify the gaps.
- Partner with others.
- Honor the legacy of what went before you.
“Be bold. Allow yourself to be the person to start something,” Jessica finally says. “Even if it doesn’t work out, at least you tried.”
Interested in starting a similar program in your community? Feel free to reach out to Jessica for advice: firstname.lastname@example.org.