Safety, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness

shoot3Matthew Henry Smith, ’16

“I almost felt unsafe,” said Father Shanley, recounting his tale of coming upon this year’s Golf Party and having to weave his vehicle into a nervous caravan of cars winding through a sea of pastel students up the Eaton Street hill. He told this story yesterday to the 65th PC Student Congress in response to a question about student safety concerns in the neighborhood.

What are we doing to address safety problems in the neighborhood?

On Sunday night my fella, Allen, and I were talking via Google Hangout. He recently left the east coast for Law School in Chicago. During our conversation he looked at me and said, “I thought of you when I received this,” and he showed me a pamphlet from his orientation program. Titled Living in the City, the pamphlet’s cover showed two hip-looking white guys posed like they were headed out for adventure. It looked, perhaps, like an instruction manual for urban living, as if it would tell you how to get to the nearest IKEA, where to find the best Thai food and who the hottest underground bands were.

But that’s not what the pamphlet contained. Inside were the numbers to the campus police, the shuttle service, the safety escort program and so forth. Largely, it was information about how to stay safe, insulated, defensive, and where to go to react to crime. It told a very specific story about how to live in the city, in his new community. Allen asked me, “So, what do you think I should do to engage my new community?”

He asked me this because it’s what I study here at PC and, just a week before this conversation, I had been invited to speak with my brother, John, for a group of high school seniors about community engagement. The Lincoln School is an independent, Quaker secondary school for young women on the East Side of Providence, and the group of students in the seminar were about to begin applying to colleges. Like Allen, they wanted to know how to become involved in the communities at their new schools. I asked them how they had engaged in their communities in the past:

“I worked in a food pantry,” said one.

“I volunteered at a hospital,” said another.

“I organized a clothing drive,” said a third.

I told the Students at Lincoln School what I told Allen: they best way to engage a new community is to live there. Really live there. Traditional service to your community is a noble endeavor but you can’t adequately serve a community until you’ve experienced what it has to offer. If we isolate ourselves in new places we invite misunderstanding. Plus, there’s lots of different ways to support a community once you’ve gotten to know it and one important way is to spend money in it.

What does this have to do with PC? We do quite a bit to report crimes in communities and seek criminal justice, but we often don’t do as much work to network with our communities before crimes happen. At Providence College we don’t pass out pamphlets like they do at Allen’s school, but we still have some of our own inadequate practices for teaching students how to engage the community, just like any college that the young women of Lincoln School will attend will have some of their own.

We have a knack for showing our newest brothers and sisters only the amenities that will appeal to traditional upper-class sensibilities. In the orientation program this year we offered first year students the opportunity to go for a walk in the community, but this was an option to choose versus a trip to Providence Place Mall or Thayer Street. Pitching a walk in the community was a hard sell because PC has only just begun to think about Smith Hill differently.

There has been tremendous administrative leadership on this front, as well as the leadership of some students, but most new students are still interpreting the message as “Okay, this is the neighborhood where you ‘do service’” and separately “This is the neighborhood you spend money and have fun.”

This is a damaging dichotomy.

One way to decrease violence is to increase prosperity. But if we live beside Smith Hill and spend all of our money at La Salle Bakery, Thayer Street, Federal Hill, and the mall, we are not helping to sustain the very local economy. When we spend outside of our communities they weaken.

When Fr. Shanley was speaking to Student Congress, his took a question about student safety concerns and turned it into a challenge for our student body. Safety problems in the neighborhood are a two way street and our President gets that. But do are students? I’m not saying that our traditions – like Golf Party – need to be left behind, but we should think about how we execute them. Father Shanley’s anecdote posits the question, “Have we considered how intimidating we may be to our neighbors?”

And if you’re not up for a community-motivated metanoia, just remember:

Yes, you are a resident of Providence and not just this neighborhood, but every time you go to Thayer Street as a Providence College Student you are borrowing the hangouts of Brown and RISD students. They will never be our own. Douglas Avenue is one of the last commercial spaces in Providence to develop, and it is developing right now while maintaining all of the historic charm and architectural integrity that makes this city so attractive. You could have Thayer Street amenities with a Smith Hill twist if you’re willing to spend more time and money here than there.

Friars, you are experiencing the four year process of becoming a “local” yourself. You can vote here, and that should matter to you. So compost with the community at Frey Florist. Pray with the community at St. Pat’s or the Pentacostal Churches or the Baptist Churches. Break bread with the community at the Common Grounds Café.

We are more than liquor stores and crime alerts. I believe that. Our administration believes that, and that’s why they’ve helped to create Common Grounds and partnered with the Smith Hill CDC. If you’re ready for a safer, more economically developed community then it’s time to make these connections.

Friends, we need to meet our neighbors where there’s common ground and start putting our money where our off campus houses are.

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