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Embrace the Complexity: Street Parties & Privilege

Graphic Recording by Rach Derrah of proceedings.

In the late fall of 2021, Dalhousie University approached us for guidance in setting up a collective impact project with their neighbors to address street parties.

This engagement offered an opportunity to work with a different kind of community, while continuing to explore themes of equity and belonging, and unpack the systems that were convening to foment the anti-social behaviour exhibited by party hosts and attendees in recent years.

Inspiring Communities is a nonprofit that focuses on changing systems to improve equity. We have built our reputation for social innovation, based on our collective impact work in three communities and our experiments in networking and other forms of social innovation. As an intermediary organization, we place ourselves among the trailblazers helping to birth a new system, with extended roles in fostering  communities of practice and hospicing the old system. 

Inspiring Communities, with our Dalhousie partners, undertook a journey of research and deep community listening, analysing what we heard to determine what factors were at play.

Visit Community Engagement on Street Party Culture for more history on the initiative.

Dalhousie University Website

Our first convening was a two-day community strategies lab. Students, university administrators, neighbors and other institutions gathered with a few other stakeholders from Health and the municipality. This convening allowed us to further delve into the research and the early-identified issues while helping us determine which stakeholders had not yet emerged to be engaged. The student and neighbor interactions were a particular focus, with the students present compellingly demonstrating that the party situation is “not all students”. Further, they provided insight for other stakeholders into some of the big issues causing anxiety for many students: economics, employment, social isolation, housing, and in the case of students from other countries, concern for their status.

Neighbors shared their feelings of fear of roaming mobs of students during the parties, but further noted the overall decline they experienced in civility and neighborly behaviour over time: noise, litter and parking were just the tip of the iceberg. Many reported their yards being used as toilet facilities. Some noted dangerous behaviours like fires set too near wooden structures, social-media style risk-taking antics like jumping from heights, aggressive drinking or “planking.”

Neighbors also noted the changes they had seen in neighborhood composition: single-family homes being transitioned to multi-unit dwellings, buildings being torn down and often being replaced with larger, multi-unit buildings. Some called this a “reverse gentrification.” The character of the neighborhood is changing.

A community experiencing a disconnect in communication and in the use of the shared public space began to come into focus.

Research Report: Addressing Street Party Culture at Dalhousie University:

Our second convening was held in December, bringing together a wider swathe of the community stakeholders, including neighbors, students, the HRM councillor and other municipal staff, university administrators, other institutions and emergency services representatives.

This gathering brought more neighbors voices into the space. Many brought ideas for remedies to the situation. Some were concerned about a perceived lack of sufficient policing, and who was paying for the extra emergency services required when parties happened.

Where equity enters the conversation

It is important for us, as an equity-centered organization, to notice power and privilege differentials. We heard many people speak about the privilege of the students who are responsible for these parties. They are generally described as well-off, White, often from out of province, with a strong sense of entitlement.  The students who came to the labs were largely international students. These students spoke about a fear of jeopardizing their education if they were to act as these party organizers do; about their differing attitudes towards drinking; and their commitment to their education. They fear that all students are at risk of being depicted as bad neighbors, which is particularly fraught in a time when housing is scarce and some students still feel the effects of racism and xenophobia when they are searching for housing.  

The questions raised around police response introduced another equity topic in Halifax, where the Wortley report has noted racial bias in policing. Many neighbors called for stronger police responses, describing the community policing approach of mingling, issuing warnings and managing the scene (during the day) as ineffective. Dalhousie students have expressed support for Black Lives Matter and other groups in calling for defunding of police. The Dalhousie Security approach is a harm reduction, restorative justice model.  

In 2022, it was only when the tone of the party grew more reckless as darkness fell that police began to respond more strongly. This resulted in the use of pepper spray and violent interventions. Residents and students noted that other public police responses to homeless sites or scenes where the participants were people of colour were more often a strong response from the beginning, and more traumatic. The neighbors calling for stronger police response may not recognize this equity issue. Further, relying heavily on police response requires ignoring evidence from other jurisdictions which shows that simply having a strong police response to an incident does little to nothing to prevent future incidents.  

By the same token, the privilege felt by some neighbors does not negate the negative and sometimes frightening realities of their experiences, calming fearful children, feeling trapped by roaming mobs of students, experiencing property damage, losing sleep, having their lawns used as toilets. Police are charged to protect and serve, and police response is necessary in these cases.  

All agree that the best solution is long term prevention – shifting the culture so that large parties are no longer instigated, desired, or supported by systemic mechanisms including positive social feedback via social media.

How to start shifting culture

Shifting culture is never as simple as changing a by law or dictating behaviour changes. Dalhousie Planning professor emeritus Frank Palermo attended the December gathering, and suggested that a route forward might involve re-envisioning and re-taking the use of the public space.

Since the concerns expressed by the neighbors extended into the overall experience of living in the area, and Inspiring Communities was interested in how to help students develop a sense of belonging, pursuing this kind of placemaking emerged as one of our key recommendations.

The goal will be to encourage residents to use their space, and to engage with each other to develop a community fabric that will envelop and support new students arriving. With a common vision for the community informing activities, this placemaking can be a set of work activities that neighbors, university administrators, municipal staff and students co-create.

Acknowledging that the work is just beginning, and knowing it will be hard to remain open to the process, in communication with each other, and connected, we underline that the work will be a long term effort. Still, with the many skilled, insightful and caring people involved, from the neighbourhood, at the university, and among the students and stakeholders, we are confident it will be ultimately successful.

We look forward to seeing what will come next.

Second Convening Report: Moving Forward Together to Address Street Party Culture:

Dalhousie’s Cover Letter for the Themes & Action Opportunities Report (above):

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