Whether we realize it or not, many of us have gotten to where we are in large part because of connections, networks and exposure. Those of us with broad networks have significant opportunity. Yet even the smartest, most motivated people may struggle to realize their dreams if they lack access. The network of relationships that enable people to connect and society to advance is known as social capital.
In the Leading On Opportunity task-force report, social capital is defined as the building of relationships and networks that may very well be the “secret sauce” for helping economically disadvantaged youth navigate systems, gain access to information, and open doors to resources and opportunity. It could change the future lives of many of our community’s children.
The task force named social capital as one of two factors that influence all recommendations in their report; the other cross-cutting factor is segregation. It is no coincidence that our abundance of segregation and lack of social capital are inextricably linked. They always have been. Take 20 years ago, when social capital was a new term after Harvard researcher Robert Putnam conducted a national study. At that time, Charlotte delivered some of the lowest social capital scores across the country, particularly on items related to inter-racial trust and informal socialization. In other words, segregation existed physically, socially and emotionally.
Eighteen years later, segregation has only intensified in Charlotte. We have twice as many residents living in poverty and three times as many living in already poor areas compared to just ten years ago. Our city is economically and racially divided. The stark lines between poverty and prosperity on our Charlotte-Mecklenburg map tell a modern day tale of two cities. Building the right kind of social capital could help foster trust and connect our neighborhoods.
There are three types of social capital: bonding, bridging and linking. Bonding social capital is the network of relationships among people who are similar (in terms of race, culture, economics, etc.). Bonding social capital creates belonging and security, which have great value. It’s also insular and preserves resources within its own system. Charlotte has mastered bonding.
Alternatively, bridging and linking social capital occur when people connect and share across difference. Relationships based on exchange have the power to move someone into a new space (physically, emotionally or economically). According to the Brookings Institute’s Richard Reeves, these relationships “turn vague hopes into active aspirations.” Bridging and linking capitalizes on the multiple strengths that exist when people who are different come together for a common goal. Charlotte has not excelled at these – we can get better.
Here is what we know: Bridging and linking happens when people who are in different circles (racial, cultural, economical) move beyond those circles to truly connect. This takes a commitment to developing relationships. It takes a belief in reciprocity. Bridging and linking social capital is not charity – it is community building. It takes the courage to step outside of what feels comfortable in an effort to build something greater. We believe it’s going to take a movement.
Twenty years ago, Charlotte heard the social capital call and missed it. Then, we ranked at the bottom for community trust. Today, we stand at the bottom for economic mobility. Now is the time to launch the movement. We are asking you to share your access and opportunities and stand for what Charlotte can be. On April 20 Communities In Schools and Foundation For The Carolinas are kicking off this movement at a special “All In For Social Capital” event. Please join us. Charlotte can be the city that sets the bar for creating opportunity and building trust through social capital.
Shaw is Executive Director of Communities In Schools, Cooper-Lewter is Executive Director of Leading On Opportunity, and Collier is Executive VP of Foundation For The Carolinas.