*Printed in the Sun-Times Beacon News on Sunday, August 9, 2009
It takes just seven people to start a movement. For example, if I alone were to stop on the street and look up at the sky, those passing by will continue on with nary a thought about what I’m doing. If two more people were to stop and join me staring into the clouds, several people would pause and follow our stares into space but most would keep on their way. However, if seven of us were all standing with our faces transfixed on the sky above us, the majority of people will stop and begin looking as well.
This social dynamic is called critical mass and it is a phenomenon that builds upon slight movement and develops into momentum. When a small number of people know something in a new way, it remains the conscious property of only those people. However, there is a point at which if only one more person tunes in to a new awareness, the new awareness is picked up by everyone. This is also referred to as the “tipping point”. While glaring into the sky is an oversimplified example of critical mass at work, there are far more compelling tales of what humans can accomplish by using this technique.
Having spent several years as a Community Policing Officer, I know the sheer power of passionate people with a driving purpose. I have watched a few concerned citizens recruit their neighbors (many who were complete strangers) and come together to problem-solve around quality of life or crime issues in their neighborhood. When there is a common vision or goal, human beings can be unstoppable and the ideas and problem-solving strategies that are shared through brainstorming and information exchange are far better together than they are individually. The community and the police have a common interest in making neighborhoods a safe and peaceful place to live and once we started to realize that we want the same thing, the movement of partnerships gained momentum.
National Night Out is an event that perpetuates the notion of police and community partnerships. It was developed in 1984 by a resident who started a Town Watch newsletter in his hometown over the years, National Night Out has grown into over 35.5 million participants. The concept at its origin was simple. On the first Tuesday of August each year, residents would simply go outside as a visual metaphor for involvement in their neighborhoods. The concept strives to conquer the realities that so many of us live side by side but rarely speak to one another. Other than the occasional nod while collecting the mail, we don’t engage our neighbors. Because of this, we don’t feel a sense of unity to those with whom we share a community. In other words, we’ve stopped looking out for each other because we close our blinds and retreat into our homes. The consequence is that criminal activity moves into our neighborhoods. Quality of life issues become bigger crime issues. National Night Out serves as the catalyst for connecting with our neighbors to combat apathy.
It began simply with stepping outside but since the inception of National Night Out, residents have gotten very creative and many coordinate block parties and festivals in conjunction with the police department to bring neighbors together. In the midst of the celebrations, the theme of community involvement through partnerships is always prevalent.
Fortunately, we need not wait for an organized event before we begin to change the space we occupy. All we need is one person to care enough to make one small step towards change – one person to start a movement. Apathy is a disease and when we become indifferent, all hope is lost. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Meade said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”