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MOUs are Not Social Capital

It’s an axiom that people who need guidance in how to live alive and free will most readily accept such guidance from a person with shared lived experiences. The goal of many transformational mentoring initiatives is to do exactly that: to pair clients who need guidance and support with mentors with shared lived experiences who are committed to help individuals deep in the belly of the criminal justice system ( or who are soon likely to be) transform attitudes and behaviors around violence, labor market participation, and education. They serve individuals whose needs exceed the traditional mentoring approach of companionship, confidence-building, and the typical academic, social, or career guidance. They can connect with very high-risk individuals because they:

• Come from the same communities,

• Are formerly incarcerated or were involved in the justice system,

• Have turned their lives around,

• Demonstrate integrity and transformation, and

• Are skilled and trained in mentoring and violence prevention.

To provide support for transformational mentors is important. The mentors are themselves people from the community who have first-hand experience with the streets and the criminal justice system and the trauma that these environments produce. In a sense, if you imagine people struggling to climb out of a hole to escape the oppressive systems of oppression, racism and injustice, many are at the base trying to figure out if they should even try to climb, and the transformational mentors are a few feet into the climb urging them to follow along. To make it more difficult, each person—in both groups—is weighed down by the heavy load of past experiences and the trauma that these experiences create.

Many want to enjoy an alive and free life. They want out of the chasm that they know can quickly turn into craters and often they need help from the community, and the support agencies in it, to get the job done. But the transformational mentors themselves, who are helping their clients climb, need double support – They need support to carry their own loads and as well as the weight of those that they serve.

A transformational mentor’s recognition as one with shared living experiences means that they were likely also disconnected, like the many that they are trying to reach, from the necessary consistent community supports that can lead people out of the hole. Absent these connections, many entered incarceration with a disproportionate amount of the wrong type of connections and released from it with limited amounts of pro social ones.

Moreover, years of jail culture does little to train one to be the social capital builder of the month. The skills needed to be a social capital builder—compassion, trust, and mutual assistance—are often denigrated by the prison system and street culture that feeds it.

Social capital – the value of a person’s connections to individuals, organizations and institutions, provides the support that we all need for success. Social capital is the automatic parachute that deploys when the affluent fall. When many returning citizens fall, they are back at the bottom of the hole. Transformational mentors need social capital, and they need it now. The struggle is real, and the cliff is full of loose rocks, jagged edges and steep rock faces.

In our social capital training, we can measure the amount of social capital transformational mentors need for their climb. Sadly, our research shows that fewer than 30% of transformational mentors are confident they have the social capital connections necessary to not only help themselves but the very high-risk individuals that they serve. That means that at least 70% lack the valuable connections necessary for the advancement of life, freedom and future economic opportunity, perceived or not.

These well-meaning and dedicated individuals need help in building their social capital. Just as they are reaching down with a helping hand to lift up someone else and guide them on a journey, community organizations that employ transformational mentors need to reach out and provide transformational mentors with the resources, policies, and practices to ensure that they have the necessary social capital connections to get the job done.

At the present time, well-meaning programs are not doing enough to build the social capital of their staff with the other with the service agencies that are critical to their mission objective. It is a huge gap that we want to help close.

At Social Capital Builders, we work with agencies to enhance their level of social capital competence and their ability to help connect their staff and students to a network of belays, anchors and harnesses to safely and successfully climb the wall while helping others to do the same.

*Pic. Social Capital Builders in Cincinnati initiating new Credible Messenger through Power Forward activity.

Edward DeJesus is the President of DeJesus Solutions, the Founders of Social Capital Builders. To reach Ed, please email