by Elizabeth Turnbull
Before the issue of community safety came to the forefront of the nation’s conscience after the BLM protests in 2020, members of the Rainier Beach community and the Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC) had already been working for several years to build a greater sense of safety in their own community.
To this day, every Friday night, community members, known as corner greeters, pick one location to table at, making connections with community members who pass by, handing out food and water and making their presence known.
To the local police, some of the corners in Rainier Beach are known as crime hot spots, but to the community members who spend their Fridays making these corners safer, these corners are known as pearls.
“In our identified area, we identify a lot with, you know, water and the ocean and things like that,” Mariam Bayo, a local organizer and former corner greeter, said. “And so we kind of wanted to flip the negative connotation.”
Working as corner greeters in areas where safety issues are more of a problem, putting up community signs, and inspecting buildings and spaces, are just some of the things that RBAC and members of the community have done to implement a framework called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) to help with community safety.
“Admittedly, PBIS is kind of a mouthful,” Stewart Bowerman, the coordinator of the PBIS project at RBAC, told the Emerald. “So I just say I’m on the public safety team at Rainier Beach.”
PBIS has become relatively well-known in certain contexts but is less commonly implemented on a community level. In particular, PBIS is most often used in schools.
In 2013, community partners and RBAC launched a safety effort called A Beautiful Safe Place to address public safety in and out of schools and in 2017, after the City of Seattle got a grant from the National Institute of Justice — the research arm of the Department of Justice — RBAC began implementing the PBIS framework at a community level, as part of the research aspect of the grant, according to Bowerman.
A Google search for PBIS will likely pull up jargon and an overwhelming amount of information, but at its core, the framework tries to improve overall mental health in the environment and to help students change behavior and succeed.
“I think oftentimes when we think about mental health, we think about getting specific supports from an individual, like a clinician inside of an office or a therapist,” Susan Barrett, an Implementer Partner with the Center on PBIS, told the Emerald. “And we really see how important it is to make sure that again, that host environment, that ecosystem is one where I feel included, and I feel seen and heard and valued.”
To successfully pull off PBIS, members of the community have to decide on a set of values that are most important to them and the community holds these in place largely through positive reinforcement of good behavior, rather than simply calling out the bad. In addition, increased levels of support, or tiers, are in place for when problems arise.
“It’s very different from a pool, for example, where it says, no running, no diving, no yelling, no horseplay. Where the emphasis is on everything you don’t want,” Bowerman said. “In a PBIS framework, you teach people what safety, respect, and responsibility look like. And then the way you teach it is through positive reinforcement.”
While the program may seem generally positive, PBIS has garnered some concern for its use in schools. Individuals in school districts in some states have worried that the approach will make students too reward-focused, and that it limits teachers’ ability to punish behavior that is deserving of consequences, among other issues. RBAC’s use of the framework implements some of the core practices of the framework but doesn’t yet have more substantial support like mental health services.
After the BLM protests of 2020, many have advocated for community safety efforts to replace the local police departments; however, PBIS looks more like cultivating a greater sense of community that is already there.
One of the first things RBAC and community members did as part of their PBIS effort, was to have the community vote on what community values were most important and what that looks like. Members of the Rainier Beach community chose safety, respect, and responsibility as the most important.
To keep the values in the public consciousness, community members and individuals at RBAC put up signage stating these values and RBAC hired community members to be greeters and help create an environment of safety in areas where issues may be likely to occur.
As a way of making sure that physical spaces are safe, people like Bowerman go to businesses and see if they would like to be connected with their neighbors or if certain adjustments like signage should be added to increase safety for the community and young people in particular. This year they hope to complete between 10 and 12 site assessments, according to Bowerman.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic dampened some of the project’s efforts, community members were organizing to stand outside schools and give students high fives on their way to class. “[This was to show] we see you, we are supporting you, we want to encourage you, we’re proud of you,” Bowerman said. “There’s kind of a positive reinforcement thing going on.”
Though the program took some hits due to the pandemic, efforts like the Rainier Beach United Gathering — where the neighborhood meets every third Friday of the month to share and brainstorm through various challenges — are continuing on.
In 2021, RBAC and community members passed out 800 “Be safe, Be respectful, Be responsible” coloring books, supported two community murals, conducted seven public safety assessments, and hosted community healing spaces, among other efforts.
Through all the various efforts and as they continue on, Bowerman has a specific goal in mind.
“I’m defining PBIS very broadly,” Bowerman said, “as creating safe positive spaces for young people.”
Elizabeth Turnbull is a journalist with reporting experience in the U.S. and the Middle East. She has a passion for covering human-centric issues and doing so consistently.
📸 Featured Image: Members of the Rainier Beach community high fived students as they arrived for their first day of school at Rainier Beach High School in 2018. “[This was to show] we see you, we are supporting you, we want to encourage you, we’re proud of you,” Stewart Bowerman, the coordinator of the PBIS project at RBAC, said. “There’s kind of a positive reinforcement thing going on.” (Photo: Susan Fried)
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