Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
The French government has designated 700 urban neighborhoods as “Sensitive Urban Areas” (ZUS) that include 4.5 million people struggling with a broad array of socio-economic challenges. Over the past decades, these neighborhoods have typically attracted new immigrants because of a high density of social housing and affordable rent prices. The neighborhoods also have been a priority policy area with massive public investment in building rehabilitation, literacy and employment programs (23 billion euro between 2004 and 2012), and the cradle for many citizen sector organizations. However, since the 1970s and in spite of these efforts, second and third generations of immigrants have been struggling to lift themselves out of poverty and out of these neighborhoods. A recent evaluation of the National Urban Policy of the past decade points out that there has been no significant social and economic progress of ZUS inhabitants .
The lack of role models and new perspectives inside the districts translates into a strong feeling of powerlessness and exclusion from mainstream society. Because they often feel unsafe and insecure, a person who lives in such a neighborhood only steps twice a day outside of their homes on average, versus the national average of four times a day. This disempowerment is tied to a deep cultural, social and economic difficulties: 36% of people live under the poverty line (vs. an average of 12% in urban areas); 14% are illiterate (vs. a national average of 8%); 30% do not have access to the internet (vs. 10%); and certain neighborhoods contain citizens from more than 80 different countries where as many languages are spoken. As such, an estimated 30% of inhabitants are ostracized , left without the ability or the confidence to navigate information about social services and public utilities, to ask for special programs or tariffs that have been designed for them, or to undertake efforts to engage in community life.
This vicious cycle of poverty and powerlessness renders even the most carefully designed policies and programs useless if they do not reach the people whom they are meant for. When few people engage in the community, it creates a continuously stagnant atmosphere that does not encourage citizens to act to improve their situation. There exists a need to empower inhabitants to connect with the numerous efforts of public institutions, utility companies and citizen sector organizations to trigger a virtuous cycle of empowerment and a positive dynamic of community engagement. However, in order to be effective, such an approach has to take into consideration the geographic, social and cultural circumstances of local populations.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
In order to facilitate freedom from the feeling of powerlessness and disengagement of many inhabitants stuck in low-income areas, Anne Charpy has created a virtuous cycle that mobilizes local public and private institutions, leaders and inhabitants to engage in their community while reinvigorating economic and social value chains.
Targeting marginalized urban districts, Anne employs through her nonprofit organization VoisinMalin local citizens, called “Neighbors,” who have been identified for their leadership skills and desire to engage in their community. These “Neighbors” go door-to-door in these marginalized communities to provide educational information, gather insight into daily challenges, and connect citizens to relevant rights and services they are eligible for. The targeted marginalized populations are typically poor users of public and social services because they fail to navigate them and do not trust the institutions that carry them out. In order to have the legitimacy to carry these messages and to fund her outreach system, Anne identifies public utility companies and local government institutions who have a strong need to connect with excluded inhabitants in order to fulfill their missions and convinces them to use a unique door-to-door approach.
The role of Neighbors extends much beyond their assignments on behalf of institutions; they become trust- and bridge-builders within their community. Indeed, they often are the only points of contact between citizens of underserved communities and the outside world. Many residents of these communities recently immigrated, are unemployed, cannot communicate with neighbors who speak different languages (up to 80 in a single neighborhood), and/or are afraid of the local climate of insecurity, leading to self-isolation in their homes. The Neighbors’ outreach allows citizens to connect with society, renders them some self-worth and provides them with useful information that they can easily use. Additionally, Neighbors make sure to link them with other inhabitants and with opportunities to break their isolation, as residents who wish to do so are invited to become “Friends,” or volunteers who take concrete action in their community through the organization of community events and participation in local activities.
Anne’s model is simple yet unique. After only two years, it is expanding at a rapid pace and currently operating in four of the most marginalized neighborhoods around Paris, where it has reached over 10,000 people. It is building sustainable bridges among inhabitants and between inhabitants and institutions, allowing for the emergence of local leaders and triggering a positive dynamic towards people’s empowerment. Through her model, Anne is changing the way citizens define themselves and their own agency in relation to their neighbors, their communities and society at large.
Anne sees community empowerment as a step-by-step process. Her neighborhood network helps each person they meet move one step closer to becoming a full citizen by participating fully in the community. Those who are most isolated benefit from tools to claim their rights and reconnect to the broader community and its services; while those who have the potential to become local leaders are invited to join Anne’s organization as "Friendly Neighbors", volunteers who take part in concrete community activities.
This system is made possible by innovative partnerships that Anne forms with public utility companies and local authorities. They are invited to build new relationships with inhabitants who traditionally are considered their most difficult customers by delaying or defaulting on payments, using aggressive behaviors in communication, or underusing public services. By targeting specific services, rights or behaviors that are of common interest for partner organizations and community inhabitants, the “Voisins” are able to create a structured peer-to-peer dialogue about improving neighborhoods. Partner institutions - typically social housing projects, water, energy or waste management companies, local governments or transportation authorities – not only benefit from better use of their services, but also receive valuable feedback to adapt their services and communication to inhabitants of marginalized, isolated or low-income communities.