Friday, October 06, 2006

Social capital and healthy communities

I just looked back in my blog to see if I'd every posted anything on social capital and health in communities. I couldn't find one explicitly but the idea is certainly threaded in a number of the posts. The reason I thought I might have posted before is that this is such a constant theme as I seek to understand the connection between leadership and community.

Essentially the point is that one of the most important contributions of leadership is to enhance social capital within the community. Social capital is the degree to which all participants/members invest in the community. Investment can be the amount of time spent in community meetings, in service to the community, in talking positively about the members of the community, in making space for others to be part of the community. It's just like investing in a for-profit or not-for-profit entity; the investment doesn't appreciate unless there is ongoing attention, analysis, and enhanced commitment among those who hope to reap benefits from the organization.

A very challenging part of community life is that we are quick to seek the benefits of community but aren't willing to invest in order to reap the benefit. Thus, everyone wants to go to a great event, happening, or other privilege of a community, but far fewer members are willing to do the work to make it happen. The Scholar Leader community at Miami is a very interesting example. It is a great community of bright and interesting residents. Members want to benefit from having Scholar Leader on their resumes. They also want to benefit from the privileges of the scholarships, the programs, and the associations established through the community. However, it is a challenge when it comes to those who are willing to work to make all the good stuff happen.

One of the keys to effective community is providing flexibility for members to contribute on the topics and at the times they are able. There will never be a one-for-one exchange of investment to benefit. If everyone were to identify a contribution they can make, the equation would have a chance to balance out over time. So, for example, one member may come to all the community meetings and may get involved in planning the January Plunge trip. Another member may not come to community meetings but may be an individual who is frequently involved in late-night "bull" sessions or who is the "go to" person for a particular academic subject area. Are these two students contributing to and benefitting in the same ways? No. They do benefit in likely proportion to what they invest and this is fine. The problem is that sometimes those who are the higher investors get perturbed with the low investors and then resentment unfolds. When some members resent others for not participating, the stage for deteriorating community is set.

The "note to self" point here is that healthy communities result when the degree of social capital investment is increased. Equal contribution and benefit as well as comparable investment across members of the community is unrealistic in most settings. Learning to accept this and remaing open to the ebb and flow of member participation will go a long way to increasing the overall social capital investment and, hopefully, benefit to all.


MJ said...

Hey Denny,
Interesting post about social capital and community. That's actually a primary topic in Kettering's upcoming staff and associates meeting. They are exploring two sort of competing big questions as to how citizens can increase social capital:

If citizens came to trust one another more, or

If people learned to work together to address shared problems whatever their differences.

Their hypothesis, and what their research confirms thus far is that the former is more the case than the latter; meaning that people do not really need to trust one another in a community as much as they need to see that they have stakes in common problems. This is contrary to a lot of research out there, and perhaps even more importantly, popular thought.

On a side note, Kettering does not use the term "social capital" much - has something to do with it being an insufficient concept. I haven't grasped the whole argument yet, but I think it's an interesting dynamic nonetheless!

Nice chatting with you today. Hope to see you soon.


Denny Roberts said...

Matt - Thanks for commenting on this post. We've talked a lot about social capital in a tangential way in Fraternal Futures. I didn't realize that Kettering didn't like using the term but I'd love to hear more. As you poke around, please let me know.

One of the reasons I did this post is that social capital is one of the concepts that Darbi is using at Carnegie Mellon. I've also talked with Kevin Gibson as he's searching for a better model for the Leadership, Excellence, and Community first-year residence program.

What I like about the term "social capital" is that it clearly communicates the importance of investment. That seems to be a critical issue in building health and benefit for all.

Your point that community members don't necessarily need to trust each other in order to be successful is counter-intuitive. I'm going to have to think about that one...

Darbi said...

Dad -

I think issues like these are inherent in communities. I think it arises sometimes out of one of the essential leadership hungers - which is to contribute to something greater than themselves (that's Heifetz specifically, but I think every human with a beating heart can affirm that hunger). Disengagement arises possibly when our passions divert. Some people find their agency one place, and others find it somewhere else, and in the specific case of a house with leadership as the commonality, this is destined to happen simply because of the nature of the students. When these differences in passions start manifesting themselves in the actual investment one puts into something, then sometimes their living community can fall behind something else in terms of the amount of investment that's put into that community. If some people are heavily invested in the community, and others are heavily invested in, say, their athletic team, both equal amounts of investment are for equally "good" and compelling reasons but the ones invested in the living area are more prone to frustration because of their proximity to their investment and the fact that they may feel that everybody should be as invested as they are in the community. Really, I see the issue more as a difficulty in reconciling passions which is then experienced in a lack of investment, but really what needs to happen is for everybody to understand where their community members are coming from. This is an issue my residents have already talked about in depth but we never seem to come to any conclusions.

So the issue, in my perspective, is not necessarily how much one invests, but where and in what one invests. And I think the more we take time to understand the different answers to these questions, the better people will understand each other and the better our communities will function because we're all running on one foundational need: to have agency. If we could just capture that better, it would be easier to focus and direct towards greater impact.

I know this is all wonderful and optimistic and maybe not even feasible, but somebody's got to believe it.

Darbi said...

I had another notion after rereading Matt's post. In understanding the play between trust and a stake in a common problem, I cn give light through the example of political strife in Northern Ireland:

The '80's and '90's for Belfast were some of the most difficult time in the history of the nation. People were being killed left and right for their views, their loyalties, and their affiliations. Guerilla warfare was tearing the streets to pieces, and no end was in sight. Enter George J. Mitchell. He was a US senator who was crucial to the process of reconciliation and he did it not by getting the two groups (the protestant unionists and the catholic rebuplicans) to TRUST each other, but he helped to do it by getting them to see that they have a stake in a common problem: the future of their communities. Both sides were concerned for the preservation of their own rights. Both sides were concerned for the safety of their children and their families. Both sides were heavily invested in their own identity, albeit completely different, but each group recognized that as a commonality nonetheless.

Having this level of understanding of the "enemy" allowed each side to recognize the futility of fighting because neither group was ever going to be convinced of anything but their own views (political and religious identities run VERY deep in Ireland). And also through this process of understanding each group was able to recognize that they were concerned about the same issues as the other group, just coming from a very different belief system. I wouldn't say either group trusts the other group any more than they ever did, but it was the common undertanding and common problems that they each faced that allowed them to overcome some of the bloodiest fighting Europe has known since the end of the World Wars.

Just food for thought.

Denny Roberts said...

OK - so my daughter just put me to shame in her critical analysis of community and how the struggles to forge it are shaped by issues of purpose, conviction, and agency...

It's funny that Matt's perspective on the importance of working on shared problems triggered the connection with change and community-building in Ireland. I'm sure Kettering has done some work in Ireland and I wonder what they found. Matt - do know if there has been any deliberative democracy work that helped shape the Celtic Tiger?

I can see what Darbi is saying in terms of competing passions undermining the community-enhancing experiences. What's been weird in the Scholar Leader program is that it's usually the simple, low-impact stuff that seems to bring people together most easily. Examples are "Turkey Bowl" (the annual touch football game between honors students and Scholar Leaders) and MUSmiles (a repeated event that attempts to connect students by encouraging them to greet each other). These are not heavy, intellectually challenging issues. They are simply fun activities that draw people together. My guess is that, if and when we go to deeper levels, the divergent passions undermine the community because members get serious about what they're doing. As long as something is superficial, it's OK to work together. When the stakes are critical, passionate people investment themselves where it counts on their issue, not on someone else's.

I think this may actually be a breakthrough moment. Building community in a residential setting is probably not so much about trust but just about doing stuff together that demonstrates a willingness to contribute and confirms the positive regards that fellow residents have for each other. This idea fits with our experience in Scholar Leader, it appears to fit with Kettering's conclusion that it's more about working together than trust, and Darbi's experience with her first-year community.

Any other thoughts? How about our colleagues in Doha, Qatar!?

MJ said...

A report came out this week from the Corporation for National and Community Service Authors today about volunteering and college students. (You can get the report, both full and executive summaries, from

Anyway, this report is the most substantiated and complete of its kind, and has a lot of interesting things to say about how college students volunteer. Of the most intriguing to me was a sentence that reads, "When students participate in quality service activities - that is, when they are given the opportunity to shape their activities and reflect on their experiences - they are more likely to demonstrate other positive civic attitudes and behaviors." This sentence is somewhat hidden in the text, but I think it is the most important statement in the entire report. While increased volunteering among colleges students is well-documented, I think people unquestionably assume that the more volunteering that occurs, the more civically engaged students will become. This report, however subtly, hints at something that many scholars/practitioners have been saying for years: not all experiential learning is created equal. If students are not involved in the creating and shaping of the experience and provided with meaningful space to reflect upon it, is the experience really that beneficial?

This reminds me of student development staging models. If dualistic students are placed in an advanced pedagogy that requires fundamentally higher levels of learning, are they just supposed to "catch on"? Much of the SDT says that the learning has to occur along some trajectory. I wonder why volunteering/civic engagement would be any different? It seems like it isn't being treated as such.

That sentence seemed to have a lot of weight behind it and wanted it to share it with you Denny, as well as others who happen to come across your blog.

Denny Roberts said...

Matt - Great quote from the National and Community Service publication. Kevin and I just had a confirming experience with our first-year leadership seminar. We went to Serve City in Hamilton, OH, where the students helped those coming to the food and provisions pantry as they chose from what was available. Most of our students reported that they'd done lots of service before. However, almost none of them had ever come face to face with the people they served nor had they taken the time to reflect on it. We asked them to do journal entries on their experiences and they were terrific.

The next step for this group will be to choose and organize for their next service experience. They seem to be stepping up but it's all about asking them to be reflective in what they do. It is amazing that, evidently, most had done service but had never been asked to dig into the implications of the service for their own lives.