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Neoghborhoods

Wherever you live, take a moment and look around. Whether it’s in a gated community, a neighborhood plagued by gang violence, a large urban center where the only broad divides are those between “the haves“ and “the have-nots,“ or a small, tight-knit rural village where neighbors know each other by name, consider the influence the “environment“ within your neighborhood has had on your development and the development of others in your community.

Now imagine taking the unlikely position that none of that has anything to do with how you and your neighbours view yourselves and the world around you-no impact on the choices you are likely to make, nor any effect on the major outcomes in your life.

That’s exactly what David Sloan Wilson thinks too many social scientists and researchers from across the disciplines have been doing studiously divorcing their subjects from their social environment and relentlessly focusing on individuals, stripped of their communal context.

Wilson is a distinguished professor of biological sciences with a joint appointment in anthropology at Binghamton University and founder of EvoS, the University’s unique interdisciplinary Evolutionary Studies program. His latest project, which aims to understand and improve the quality of life in the city of Binghamton on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, will emphasize the value of understanding people in the broader context of their communities. It’s an all-too-obvious point, he says, but one that unfortunately still has to be made.

“You can’t just study people, you have to study people in their social environments,“ Wilson said. “These are such basic insights; it’s a scandal that they would need to be pointed out and that still a very small fraction of research is of this sort.“

Wilson’s project teams Binghamton University faculty members with city school district officials and Binghamton residents, with the goal of measuring variables that influence quality of life in the community, so that where needed, appropriate interventions can be designed with neighborhood leaders.

Working in collaboration with Search Institute, an independent nonprofit organization devoted to promoting healthy children, youth and communities, Binghamton researchers are collecting data on “developmental assets“ that Search Institute has identified as requisite to the development of young people who are healthy, caring and responsible. Included among these qualities are “external assets,“ such as caring neighborhood and school climates and family involvement and support, and “internal assets,“ such as reading for pleasure, honesty and motivation to achieve.

Binghamton City School District Superintendent Peggy Wozniak said the idea of developmental assets isn’t a new one. Educators know that relationships with children are important. Though the district works with the University on a variety of initiatives, and Wozniak has worked with Search Institute for years, the district has never before brought this sort of neighborhood focus to the issue, she said.

“There’s a lot that goes into students achieving,“ Wozniak said. “When you look at students in poverty it’s this idea of resiliency. Why do some kids make it and some kids don’t when they come from these challenging environments? The difference can be relationships with adults. Relationships in the bigger picture is community, not just school.“

About 2,000 children in sixth through 12th grades in the Binghamton schools took a survey in May 2006. On a scale of 1 (not at all or rarely) to 4 (almost always or extremely), they responded to statements such as “I take responsibility for what I do,“ “I feel good about the future“ and “I have adults who are good role models for me.“

The questions were divided into five categories representing the contexts of a child’s life: personal, social, family, school and community. A single score was calculated for each context. There was substantial variation among individuals as well as among neighborhoods when the data was plotted in terms of the students’ residential locations.

While Search Institute collaborates with many communities, the Binghamton Neighborhood Project is the first to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to visualize and study variations in developmental assets on a neighborhood basis. GIS is a collection of computer hardware and software for capturing, managing, analyzing and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. A method known as kriging extrapolates among the data points to produce a continuous surface of hills and valleys representing variation in the developmental assets.

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