When Margarita heard about a neighborhood watch program starting in her community, she wanted to go. Like many in northwest Aurora, CO, she was concerned about safety. She thought she’d go to the meetings, hear a few crime statistics and go home. “I never thought I’d have a role participating along with the police,” she said.
But this multicultural neighborhood watch is “non-traditional”, according to Jenny Pool Radway, OACIC Program Coordinator at the Aurora Mental Health Center. The nation’s 20,000 neighborhood watch programs and 50,000 informal programs have fallen under a controversial shadow following the acquittal of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case. However, while critics of neighborhood watch programs may point to the risk of creating an ‘us and them’ environment, the Aurora program is about inclusion, engagement, and welcoming.
Program participant Margarita with coordinator Jenny Pool Radway
“Its really hard when you’re a regular community member and you’re constantly seeing officers in blue —wearing their uniform. It’s very intimidating,” said Radway. This is particularly true for a community whose cultural fabric is as diverse as northwest Aurora. 33% of residents of this densely populated neighborhood are foreign born. 50% come from Latin America, but neighborhood watch participants also herald from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sierra Leone—and more. To complicate matters further, many residents are undocumented—adding an additional layer of anxiety to the idea of participating in meetings with the police.
Still, over the last four years, this multicultural neighborhood watch group has blossomed. The group meets regularly, exploring everything from domestic violence to renter’s rights, using a three-pronged approach of socialization, education, and leadership. “Our goal was to bring all the community members together, even if they don’t speak the same language, because they all care about safety,” said Radway. She added that the key was giving them “an opportunity to interact with police department in a positive environment, in a casual environment, where they’re sharing a meal.”
Radway said it quickly became clear that food had an important role to play. Meetings were potluck style. Neighborhood watch participants were invited to bring food to share with the group. Food helped community members from different cultures get to know each other—and for the police to get to know the community. She said it helped community members see the police as “basic human beings who just have that job.” Food humanized them. “Everyone enjoys eating as far as I know,” she laughed. She added that it was also an opportunity for participants to share their cultures. The resulting cross-culinary exploration was enthusiastic—and resulted in newfound appreciations for samosas and chili rellenos.
Margarita’s dishes quickly became popular requests—from fellow participants and the police. Radway said she saw a grizzled police officer clapping at the sight of Margarita’s chili rellenos. Margarita said it made her feel happy to see everyone sit down together to share a meal like a big family. “I had a lot of opportunities to relate to the police officers, and establish a relationship with them,” she explained. She said she now feels comfortable reaching out to them when something happens. And she also feels more connected to her fellow community members. “Before I wouldn’t have noticed them, but now I see them at school.” She said they now say hello and share with one another because of the relationships they created over the potlucks.
Radway says as a result of the program she’s witnessed some unexpected social convergences—like undocumented participants inviting police to come to a birthday party. She added that after last year’s Aurora movie theater shooting, participants cooked a dinner for the police who were first responders to the tragedy.
As Margarita tests out some new dishes with Radway, including a delicious ‘pastel Azteca’, the care she puts into her cooking is obvious. The community may continue to need to meet to wrestle with a range of unsavory topics, from home invasions to DUI’s, but the food on the table will be delicious.
COMING SOON: Margarita’s recipe for Pastel Azteca: