Monday, November 3, 2008

Bridging Social Capital

Last week my boss Dan Bassill, Founder and CEO of Cabrini Connections, blogged about "bridging social capital" and how providing a means by which kids growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods can gain access to new social networks is perhaps the most important resource we can provide to our youth. You can find his post here. Indeed, at Cabrini Connections, what we do is to bring together successful working professionals with kids in economically disadvantaged communities and offer a structure for them to develop deep and lasting relationships, opening up the mentors networks, (personal, workplace, faith-based, community...etc) to their mentee (student) so that the youth can benefit from these contacts when seeking employment, internship experience, college admission and a career.

Harvard Political Scientist Robert Putnam has defined social capital as: "the collective value of all 'social networks' and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other". Considering the dearth of economic resources in isolated, high-poverty neighborhoods such as Cabrini Green, it can be argued that kids in our target population have less developed and supportive social networks than their counterparts in more affluent areas of Lincoln Park or the Gold Coast and that this contributes to their increased risk for negative outcomes such as: dropping out of high school, entering the prison system and teen pregnancy. In fact, a landmark study looking at over 24,000 public, Catholic and other private school students found that social capital in students' families and communities attributed to the much lower dropout rates in Catholic schools compared with the higher dropout rates found in public schools (Coleman and Hoffer 1987).

In a recent book, Bowling Alone (2000) Putnam posits that "Child development is powerfully shaped by social capital" and continued "presence of social capital has been linked to various positive outcomes, particularly in education". He argues that positive youth outcomes are primarily a result of a parent's social capital in their community. This crucially includes the relationships that they have with their childs' teachers and educators and more generally the strength of their relations with other individuals who determine their childs development both at school and in the community. However, in high-poverty communities where single mother-led households are the norm and numerous factors converge to requre these lone parents to work multiple jobs, leading to less time spent with children and their educators, it is difficult to accrue the high levels of social capital, that help catalyze a child's success.

This is where tutor/mentor programs like Cabrini Connections step in and help "bridge" this social capital. For instance, in our program mentors like last weeks' volunteer spotlight Carolyn Grunst work with both their students and their educators, meeting with school counselors, teachers and administrators to ensure that the child is receiving the resources they need at school while also developing trusting relationships with the child's primary caregivers. Mentors thus serve as bridges between often disparate communities, between school and home life, between student life and the professional world and between Cabrini-Green and the mahogany trimmed offices of elite law firms around the city. In this way, mentors help to develop networks of support (i.e. social capital) around the youth that increase their opportunities for success, ensuring they stay on the right track through junior high and high schools, continue with higher education and enter a career by the age of 25.

No comments: