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Social Capital to Address Structural Inequality

If a random young person of color approached you, extended their hand, and told you they could make a valuable friend, reliable employee, or dependable connection, would you take their hand, confident they’d follow through? Or would you hold back, wondering what their game is?

If you’re like most people, you’d go with the second option, reserving your trust for the young people who are connected to the adults within your network. And although you may display concern about the plight of young men of color in the city where you work, your trust of them may not be so apparent. After all, it’s hard to trust those you barely know.

Take for example a recent survey we conducted in Washington DC. When we asked random workers in the central business area to rate their concern for the plight of local African-American DC youth on a scale (1- little concern to 5 – great concern), the majority of respondents rated it a 5. Then we asked them to name three African- American youth residing in the District. The majority couldn’t name one.

Trust is a cornerstone in the social capital building process, forged through similarities in race, class, and belief systems. Unfortunately, policies and practices that promote discrimination, income inequality, and segregation have prohibited this all ever important asset access the opportunity to grow. And regardless of an individual’s intent or how they identify, in the absence of these similarities of experience, trust’s evil doppelganger rears its head: distrust.

Distrust has dire consequences, especially when you consider that people tend to distrust people who look, act, and sound different. It is the same distrust that prevents many employers from tapping into the vast potential latent in the nation’s unemployed and job-seeking citizens, especially the inner city youth who they don’t know.

And here’s the kicker: the way most people form trust is severely misguided at best. When employers rely on subconscious biases or reputation based on previous interactions, they’re denying the possibility for many young job seekers of color to break those expectations.

According to Dr. David Desteno, many of the criteria we use to determine trust are misleading – particularly our reliance on a person’s past actions1. Instead of looking at people under the lens of whether they’re inherently trustworthy or “good,” he says, it’s more important to consider how an individual perceives a given opportunity. Moreover, we judge individuals based on their clothing or socioeconomic status – as Dr. Desteno puts it, we are inclined to trust someone wearing an Armani suit more than someone whose suit is off the rack from Men’s Wearhouse – even though research points to, if anything, the contrary being true. People who exude privilege or positions of authority are actually more likely to be untruthful since they feel more entitled to things – how’s that for flipping our society’s narrative? 2

What if there were a solution – a way to foster increased trust through the power of social capital building?

Social capital building helps people look at each other as individuals, people that have more to give than they take. Unfortunately, this type of compassionate exchange is becoming increasingly less common. In times of social distancing, it will become even more uncommon.

Social capital building, unlike networking, involves developing practices, procedures, and policies directed towards helping job seekers and employment stakeholders reveal each other’s character and capabilities. It entails believing that the process of connecting will pay dividends for all involved parties.

At our Social Capital Building Institute, we shed light on how to build this trust – from Dr. Desteno’s research on the power of meditation to our work on using program participation as a key trust-building asset. Because at the end of the day, trust is the key to social capital building – and the economic success that comes with it.

1: Desteno, D. Who can you trust? (2014, March). Retrieved November 26, 2018 from

2: Desteno, D. The simplest way to build trust. (2014, June 02). Retrieved November 26, 2018 from

Edward DeJesus is the founder of Social Capital Builders and the author of Workforce and Summer Job Success.