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Building Local Social Capital: Interview with Joseph Porcelli

Written by: Bill Sherman on Friday, 12 September 2008, 12:35 PM

Recently, I spoke with Joseph Porcelli about his efforts to develop social capital within neighborhood communities. Joseph combines a zeal for social capital with an amazing sense of humor.

In his day-job, Joseph works as a civilian coordinator for the Boston Police Department’s Neighborhood Watch Unit. He currently incorporates community-building and new-technology initiatives into the program.

In August of 2004, Joseph founded Neighbors for Neighbors (NFN) in response to crime in his neighborhood in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Four years later, NFN has grown into an organization that engages thousands of neighbors at Neighborhood Socials and Community Organizing Expos and created over 70 community groups that serve to keep neighbors together.

Joseph has gained international recognition for the Nametag Project and the Mug Project.

BS: You say that “everybody can make a difference.” What does that mean to you, and can you provide a few examples you’ve seen in NFN where that’s been especially true?

JP: Absolutely. Everybody can make a difference!  We all have the capacity, and we want to contribute. What I’ve learned from my work leading Neighbors for Neighbors is that when you give people a chance to connect, they become interested. If you provide them with simple actionable steps, they will (more often than not) take them.

BS: You’ve told me that your interest in local social capital began with a class project. Tell me a little bit about that project and the impact it had on you.

JP: In 2004, a class required me to create a gift to the community as a reflection of a value that inspired us. At that point, two of my neighbors had been violently assaulted. I made my project about connecting and empowering my neighbors. Our community felt frightened and helpless. I handed out 500 flyers at the T station: informing my neighbors of the problem; explaining  what they could do about; inviting them to a community meeting. From these efforts, people felt informed and empowered.

Additionally, the course taught me to facilitate new possibilities for the community. So, I constantly asked, “what should we do next?” and “what’s missing?” People said, “we should do a neighborhood social next . . . so we can meet the rest of our neighbors.” After the social they said, “we should have an organizing meeting where we should create groups so we can stay together.” Then, they said “we should build a website to support our efforts.”

I had no idea what the heck I was doing. I just kept asking “what next” questions. So essentially the community led, and I facilitated. Cool huh!

BS: In 2004, you started Neighbors for Neighbors, which began connecting  your neighbors through neighborhood socials and helping them create community projects that kept them together. How have online social networking tools sustained your organization and its growth?

JP: What Neighbors for Neighbors is committed to, and the resources we have available to us, are very different and not even close to what we need. We are all volunteers, and we operate on a budget of about $2,000 a year funded by people getting a $121 discount at Mike’s Fitness when they donate $15 to us.  Ideally, we’d like a paid, event director, program manager, and admin.

So in place of monetary and human capital, we leverage technology to create the best systems we can. In other words, our members invest their time and passion into our network. Then, network cranks out multiples of everyone’s efforts. Online social networking tools allow myself and our communication board chair to “get out of the way.” Before these tools, everything had to flow through one of us. We nearly killed ourselves trying to keep up with all of the announcements. We were the bottleneck.

Now, we’re out of the way and the technology is in place. Everyone has become much happier, and the organization now runs itself online.

BS: You’ve been involved in many fun, unconventional projects-such as the Nametag Project and the Mug Project. How do see unconventional humor and ice breaking fitting with community building?

JP: I’m a really busy guy. These projects are on-top of my full-time job. I burned out really bad about a year ago. That’s when I decided that I have to make it all fun.

Humor helps people let their guards down and makes content more authentic. The “Don’t cheat on your mug video” still makes me laugh.

There are many great and serious causes out there. It’s hard to get your message noticed. So, we have a little fun. We let people know that we are human, just like them. In turn, they relate to us. I believe our humor increases participation.

I use humor to catch attention and cause people think about changing their behavior-whether it’s wearing a nametag to encourage neighbors to talk to each other or using a mug to reduce waste.

BS: Neighbor for Neighbors now attracts thousands of volunteers within the Jamaica Plain area. Would you please share a story or two of moments where the group has exceeded your expectations?

JP: Let me tell you about two groups.

Jamaica Plain Trees started a couple of year ago. They wanted to plant more trees. They had only a handful of members. Two year later, they planted over 200 trees in Jamaica Plain and have about 40 members. I also believe they influenced the mayor’s decision to commit to 100,000 trees by 2010. Just awesome!

The JP Women’s Group, now the Boston Women’s Group, started about a year ago. They wanted to create an inclusive and open group for gay/queer women. Within months, they had 400 members and couldn’t say “no” to other women in Boston who wanted to join.. Now they have over 1,200 fabulous women and have had 163 meet ups.

Both of these groups came to one of our community organizing expos, where they launched and totally flourished. I guess you could say we’re a Social Capital VC incubator.  “How-ya-doin?!”

I’m really proud to have been a part of helping these folks transform their visions into action that make a difference for our community.
BS: You’ve been involved with launching neighborhood watch programs as well as community events and socials. At first, these two events seem really different-one is designed to reduce risk and the other to promote connections. What have you learned from both of those networks and what do you plan to implement in the future?

JP: Traditionally, Neighborhood Watch has been focused solely on crime and reporting crime to officers. What I’ve learned is that for the groups to be sustainable, they need to incorporate fun and social activities. On the other hand, socializing is fun a couple of times, but the group needs a passion, interest, or issues to stay focused. It’s been great observing from the process from both sides, and I’ve been able to assimilate lessons and make stronger programs.

BS: In addition to your work with Neighbors for Neighbors, you work with the Boston Police Department as a civilian program coordinator for the Neighborhood Watch program. Part of that project seems to require building trust between neighbors as well as increasing the level trust between the community and the police department. What insights have you learned?

JP: Fear plays a huge role, and it greatly influences how the community experiences and deals with crime. Often times, the community will work itself up into a panic, because they lack facts. Then, anxiety sets in. To deal with this, the Boston Police Department focuses on developing relationships and rapport-which builds trust over time. Communication is key, but more importantly, we are most effective when we give the community tools to help themselves and our enforcement efforts.

BS: What have you learned about social capital that you wish everyone else knew?

JP: Social Capital is a community’s most important asset. Take away the fancy homes, cars, clothing, iPhones, etc. What are you left with, people. No matter what, we always have the capacity to make a difference. It comes down to remembering you have a choice. It’s easy to embed community-building choices into our daily routines, culture, and politics. Go Service Nation!

BS: Do you encounter people who are resistant to getting involved with their community? If so, how do you help them over that?

JP: There are three common reasons people are resistant.

  • They think they don’t have enough time or that it’s not worth allocating time;
  • They don’t see themselves relating to the topic or issue; or
  • They perceive somehow they are not invited or good enough.

I find it’s important to repeat messages and invitations to people who are “on the fence”. Then, I go to the event myself. We collect photos and videos, which make it easier for people to envision themselves participating.

But, you know the most effective way? I have a conversation with them. I listen to their objections and obstacles, and I let them know that I’ve heard what they said. Often, when people know they’ve been heard, they become willing to consider new possibilities and will call themselves to action.

BS: What sustains your passion in developing communities?

JP: I lost a very dear friend to suicide a couple of years ago. I believe that if he had a community of friends that new what was going on with him he might still be here. My work honors his life.

Everything becomes possible when we come together. I see this over and over again every day.  My life’s value come from my service to my community. I love working with and learning from the incredible people I work with, and I really dig playing with new technology that creates efficiencies and produces social capital.

Some people spend their lives making and investing money to become rich. I am spending my life developing social and technology systems that produce social capital so we all can live rich lives.

BS: How can people get in touch with you?

People can write me at josephporcelli (at) gmail (dot) com or through

One Response to “Building Local Social Capital: Interview with Joseph Porcelli”

  1. Seema Says:

    Thanks for writing this.

    October 22nd, 2008 5:35 am

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