Shaw & Erquiaga: Charlotte Is Investing in Social Capital to Help Students Move Up the Economic Ladder. Other Cities Should Follow Suit
On a recent evening in Charlotte, North Carolina, 10 high school students from low-income backgrounds met with top executives of the Albemarle Corp., a global specialty chemicals company. The teens were there to meet role models, learn about building a successful career and give the execs advice about how Albemarle could improve its business.
Many young people never get this type of opportunity to make connections and share expertise. For many children and families served by our organization, Communities in Schools, the American dream of upward mobility is just that — a dream, and an unlikely one. Growing up segregated from wealthier families and economic opportunity, they are very likely to remain in cycles of generational poverty. To change this, they need a resource that isn’t measured in dollars.
Sociologists call it social capital, the connections and relationships that help people navigate toward a successful future. Colloquially, it’s who you know and how they can help you navigate careers and opportunity.
The job-shadowing experience at Albemarle was one small step toward delivering this valuable commodity to children who might not otherwise have access to it, and to help them and their families move up the economic ladder in Charlotte. A citywide effort aims to boost economic opportunity, in part by helping children and their families build relationships across socioeconomic lines. These relationships provide valuable information, support and connections they would otherwise lack; empower them to unlock their own potential; and enable them to get ahead.
Other cities around the country should follow suit. Though social capital won’t show up on anyone’s balance sheet, its benefits are profound and make for a strong investment in our future. It allows people to navigate postsecondary education, enjoy successful careers, receive promotions or obtain loans to start a business or invent the next big thing. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely than their more affluent peers to have access to such important social networks that go beyond their neighborhoods and families. But they know how powerful this non-fiscal resource is, and they want it. High schoolers in Charlotte defined social capital as:
● “Creating bonds you’ve never experienced before.”
● “When everyone plays a role in gaining access to opportunity.”
● “Building a better community.”
● “Making a positive impact.”
● “The balance of relationships and connections within a community.”
To us, it’s clear that boosting young people’s social capital belongs on the list of things society must do to prepare them for life. We are part of a national network of organizations that work in schools to give children the full range of supports they need to do well academically. Helping students build social capital means that when we send high schoolers to shadow professionals on the job, we’re not just telling them to put on dress clothes and introduce themselves. We’re coaching them to see themselves as leaders, build enduring relationships with the people they meet and think about the value they have to offer.
Economic segregation contributes to the problem, so it follows that the solution doesn’t lie solely with individuals. We have to take action at a larger scale, as is happening in Charlotte, Detroit, Seattle and other communities that have prioritized improving economic opportunity for those who have been left behind or stuck in the middle. Communities and experts in economic mobility are still figuring out how to do this work, but Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg is among the organizations helping to lead the way and pinpoint policies that will turn a city, its schools, its youth organizations, its cultural and faith institutions and its businesses into relationship incubators for students.
This is not a call for wealthy, privileged people to swoop in and save poor children. The children we work with, and others like them across the nation, don’t need to be saved. They aren’t helpless. They are strong, resilient, talented, full of potential and ready for opportunity. Yet they lack networks and access — to someone they can have their first conversation about college with. Or someone to teach them about growing industries. Or someone to help them crack open doors that might otherwise be closed to them.
What we’re calling for is the desegregation of social networks so every child is exposed to experiences that can open up a world of opportunity. When that happens, whole communities will be transformed.
Molly Shaw is president and CEO of Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which empowers children to succeed in school and in life. Dale Erquiaga is president and CEO of the national organization Communities in Schools. He formerly was superintendent of public instruction for Nevada.
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