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A Social Capital Centered Approach to Education and Training

Imagine, for a moment, a young person stuck on a barren desert island. This person is a great cook, a real “reina de la estufa.” They know how to make a three-course meal from scraps. They are known for working miracles with the basics. The way they turn corn husks into tamales would make Bobby Flay jealous! You might even say they’ve found their calling. Now they just need a pathway to it. There’s no reason why they should not be able to enjoy a profitable career and make a strong contribution to society.

There’s one big problem. The person is stuck on a barren desert island, alone. They have no access to food, cooking utensils, or fire. Their life and talents are going to waste as they sit on the island, malnourished and alone.

The good news is that all around them are thriving Islands. Islands with mad restaurants, hungry patrons looking for the best new delicacy, and eager investors salivating for a bite of the next culinary craze. There is just one challenge: no one on the other islands is trying to reach out to our young chef. And the subject of our story doesn’t know how to swim.

Most people would think that jumping in the water and practicing a few strokes is the easiest way prepare to get off the island. After all, It doesn’t take much to freestyle, if one could just get used to putting their face in the water. Unfortunately, 64% of Americans are afraid of deep water, and this person is one of them. The fear of what lies in front of them is greater than the fear of what could be.

Many inner-city kids live in opportunity deserts and have similar fears. They come from communities plagued by poverty, failing schools, chronic gun violence, and increasing lack of access to quality jobs. Surrounding their islands are other islands of wealth and opportunity, populated with people who can open doors for them and facilitate their entry into jobs and careers. Programs and policies have been created to train young people in job skills, but few in how to swim to these opportunities. And little has been done to help young people overcome their fear of jumping into the workforce. Current labor force participation rates prove just that.

At Social Capital Builders, we’ve developed a social capital-centered approach to education that intentionally connects young people to others who can help them overcome the fear of the water. A social capital-centered approach to education enhances traditional instruction through its conscious and strategic use of personal connections to support and enhance learning objectives, and creates opportunities that young people never knew existed. We created this approach in 2018 to increase equitable economic outcomes for the millions of job seekers living in low-income communities—and it’s growing every day!

At the heart of this innovative approach is a commitment by agencies to be truly assets based. A part of this commitment entails recognizing that all communities, and the people living in them, possess assets that are often left undervalued and underutilized. When engaged, these latent social capital assets can be a powerful force for economic empowerment and community transformation.

Let’s say a young man named Carlos is in the Anytime USA Career Development program. He’s being trained in the importance of writing and using a professional-looking resume in his job search. As part of the lesson module, we assist Carlos in identifying a familial or developmental connection who knows about job resumes, and who has used one in their own career development efforts or, as part of their own job, has reviewed resumes from job applicants.

We’ve found that 73 percent of young adults have connections to such individuals, but traditional workforce and educational programs place little effort in helping youth connect to these assets. Leveraging this unspent social capital is the key to helping youth get off the barren desert island and onto islands of opportunity and wealth.

Through our social capital-centered approach to education, several important objectives can be achieved:

  • Carlos now gets it. Learning objectives are legitimized through the utilization of culturally competent opportunity agents who can provide proof of the efficacy of the subject matter in career and social development efforts.
  • Carlos is now strategically connected to a gainfully employed individuals who can assist him in his career development efforts.
  • Carlos has strategically “signaled” his career development intentions and efforts to an opportunity agent thereby increasing the likelihood of the agent offering personal career development assistance and support (“Mio, I never knew you were looking for a job”).
  • Carlos’ sense of workforce connectedness is increased and his belief in the power of personal transformation through direct connections to opportunity agents within and outside of his community.

The release of our new Foundations in Social Capital Literacy (FISCL) curriculum is a manifestation of our three years effort to assist workforce, educational, community development and justice agencies in integrating such an approach into traditional career and youth developmental models.

At Social Capital Builders, we’ve found that connections between young people and prosocial capital assets are often hidden and must be uncovered. They could be made, but they need to be identified and strengthened. This is a process that can be facilitated (by us) and learned (by the student).

Young people often have latent social capital—that is, they have trusted relationships with family members, former teachers, counselors, and coaches. They know people who can help them get off the island and succeed.

Millions of young adults are born at the intersection of racial inequities, class stratification, and residential segregation, which together severely limit the social networks of many and the opportunities that they can access. Let’s help them leverage their social capital assets and watch how quickly they want to learn how to swim!

Edward DeJesus is the President of DeJesus Solutions the Founders of Social Capital Builders.

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