Block leader program looks to students

In light of recent crime, officials want students to be more involved with neighborhoods.

Meara Cummings

Block leaders came from the Marcy-Holmes, Southeast Como and St. Anthony neighborhoods near the University of Minnesota last week to learn about crime prevention and community building. No students attended.

Block leaders are volunteer residents who work with crime prevention specialists to help avert crime and create a safer community. The Minneapolis Police Department hosted the Block Leader Training on Jan. 15, which emphasized a need for the program in light of the recent violent crime on and around campus.

“Students think, ‘Block leader? That means I have to be a permanent resident and I have to live there.’ Well, no, you are here for eight months, so you are a part of the neighborhood for the time that you’re here, so you can be a block leader,” Minneapolis police 2nd Precinct crime prevention specialist Nick Juarez said.

Clay Wagar, who represents the Minnesota Student Association for the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, said long-term residents and students often don’t share the same goals for the community.

“Generally, the neighborhoods have historically been somewhat hostile to students, which I frankly understand,” he said. “It’s because of conflicting interests. Students are here to learn, and most of them don’t have a long-term interest in the direct community.”

Juarez said when he started his job, he received many more grievances, like noise complaints, from long-term residents about students.

“In the past, it’s been a very rocky relationship, but I think it’s improved greatly,” Juarez said. “The University of Minnesota has done a great job of trying to do some outreach with students to get them more involved and be a part of their community.”

That outreach includes the Student Neighborhood Liaison Program and multiple volunteer opportunities within specific neighborhoods. But Southeast Como resident and mathematics junior Alex Hsiao said many students don’t know about those programs or don’t think they pertain to them.

“There’s a lot of flyers that go around about the Como community,” he said. “I think there might be some sort of council, but I don’t think the students are involved in it; we’ve never been involved in it.”

As University and Minneapolis officials stress the importance of crime prevention this year, the city is making stronger efforts to get students more involved.

“The victim pool is the students,” Juarez said. “So they have to be aware of what’s going on in the neighborhood … so you can take the steps to protect yourself.”

But the city and neighborhood councils have struggled to get students involved in communities they may occupy only briefly.

Hsiao said he hasn’t seen many neighborhood events that he’s been interested in attending.

“We have gotten fliers before for community events and haven’t gone,” he said. “But if somehow they could get something that catered to both the students and the permanent residents, then yes, I think [I might go].”

While the neighborhoods offer many opportunities to get involved, Wagar said most go unrecognized by students. Permanent residents are often the only ones who attend, he said.

“I think there is a lot to gain from students working with the neighborhood,” he said. “Students are here for four years, so they do have at least a short-term interest in the community.”