Reid Porter discussed the importance of citizen engagement and public safety in urban neighborhoods with Charles F. McElwee, assistant editor at City Journal. A 2019 Civil Society Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Porter is the founder and president of Advocates for Community Transformation, a legal nonprofit that uses an innovative approach to create safer neighborhoods in Dallas, Texas.
How does Act pursue outreach to neighborhood residents when working to shut down drug houses?
Most of our work happens in living rooms or at dining room tables. Our community advocates spend the greater part of their time meeting neighborhood residents, hearing their stories, educating them on their rights, and drawing these residents together so that they can begin the work of shutting down a nearby drug house. We are proud of the unique legal model that we have created to help shut down these types of properties, but we know that, in the end, local outreach is what makes our work stick.
What inspired Act’s mission to improve public safety through citizen engagement?
Ten years ago, as a young lawyer, I discovered that in pockets of our city less than a few miles from my home—places like West Dallas—there was a vast, overlooked injustice: families were often living in fear and isolation because of the crime and violence in their neighborhood caused by nearby drug houses. Parents, hoping to raise their children in a safe environment, were confronted by the reality of drug dealing and prostitution. I felt called to respond directly to this need, and—alongside many voices of wisdom—developed a theory of change to address the crime and violence in these neighborhoods. But it wasn’t enough for us to create a model meeting the physical needs of our fellow Dallas residents. We relied on partnerships across the city, so that marginalized communities could gain access to the justice system, bring peace to their streets, and experience hope. Act was born.
Does blight play a role in the proliferation of drug houses in Dallas’ struggling neighborhoods?
Blight—if understood as the visible and physical degradation of neighborhood infrastructure—can be a catalyst for criminal activity in a community as well as its byproduct. To be sure, blight can hide the violence and crime that so often forces families to live like prisoners in their own homes. Blight is also, quite often, the result of systemic injustices that affect areas of high crime and violence. Too often, we forget and overlook the brave men and women in those communities working to take back their streets from crime and violence.
How can other U.S. cities replicate Act’s model?
We know that the need for reducing crime in Dallas exists throughout the country. The Act Academy will serve as a training ground for multiple stakeholder groups, including Act’s staff, volunteers, neighborhood leaders, and those looking to replicate the organization beyond Dallas. We invite anyone interested in establishing community-based, legal-justice work in their city to contact us and join in this effort.
What is an overlooked trend occurring in U.S. cities?
Most people, when talking about the solution to societal issues or systemic injustices, point to the need for more changes in laws, governmental policies, or financial investment. Yet, despite the importance of these topics, there is a powerful solution that is often overlooked: our growing civil society. Civil society—sometimes called the Third Sector—is comprised of a wide array of community groups, nonprofits, labor unions, local fellowships, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations. Government cannot carry the weight of transformation on its own.
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