She soon discovered that a new school that focused on reading, writing and math was about to open. She took off work and stood in line for enrollment to make sure I had the opportunities that she did not. I was fortunate that my parents were involved in my education and used their relationships to help me despite the limitations their network presented. I was fortunate because I had a network of people who supported me at church, at school and in the community. This wasn’t the case for many of my friends. I realized as I became a college student the value of relationships recognizing that many children of color might not have access to opportunities not because of their intellect but due to the limited availability of social networks of power and influence.
If social capital is about networks, relationships and associations, then it is critical to understand the role of bonding and bridging. Terrion (2006) reported the first critical concept as bonding. Bonding involves connecting to those who are familiar. The connection is through like backgrounds, education levels and socio-economic status. Everyone desires to belong and feel a sense of purpose. Bonding can occur between individuals but also connects groups because of commonalities. Terrion (2006) reported the second critical concept as bridging. Bridging is connecting with those who are different. Bridging is developing relationships outside of the familiar network. Bridging is important because information can be received from this type of relationship that can benefit both the heterogeneous and homogeneous communities.
For many who are segregated due to race and/or socio-economic status, it is often difficult to have access to those relationships outside of the familiar network. “Social capital often reinforces homogeneity because individuals tend to bond with those that are similar limiting the opportunities for bridging social capital.” Tilly (1998) and many others reference the role of bonding and bridging in social networks recognizing that issues such as race, class and poverty can create additional challenges. According to Blokland and Savage (2008), “Bridging social capital can simultaneously create bonding social capital as it defines those ‘insiders’ in comparison to ‘outsiders’ with whom bridges are made. Bridging and bonding social capital become two aspects of one and the same process. Weak ties do not guarantee bridges, and strong ties do not guarantee bonding.” For many students in poverty, bonding and bridging relationships can exist but might not be at the same level for students who have more resources.
Social Capital makes a difference in not only educational outcomes but it can impact even criminal sentencing. When I examined the lives of two criminals, Bernie Madoff and Mumia Abu-Jamal, I noticed the differences even in their sentencing had so much to do with access to information and individuals of influence. Their trajectories were definitely a result of their educational experiences and the relationships those opportunities offered. Although Bernard Madoff and Mumia Abu-Jamal are both incarcerated now for life, their journeys are very different as a result of their birth, circles of influence, education and opportunities for advancement which is important to note.
Madoff benefited from an upbringing with both parents that afforded him a college education and one year of law school. He was an entrepreneur that built a multimillion dollar firm that was responsible for billions of dollars of assets. He was able to network and influence many rich and notable individuals for over twenty years. His involvement in charitable organizations and many boards such as serving as the Chairman of NASDAQ provided him with access to individuals with resources. Even after returning much of the money that was stolen from investors, his wife was still allowed to keep $2 million dollars. His sons even at the time of his incarceration had borrowed millions from their father. The access to this type of wealth was not the case for Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Mumia Abu-Jamal grew up in a single-headed household with siblings in the projects. The Black Panthers became a father figure for him and he dropped out of high school. Even though he returned to school to receive his high school diploma, he still worked part time jobs and even drove a taxi cab to support himself. Living in a poor area of Philadelphia also offered limited options. He did not have circles of influence that provided access to wealth and individuals who were notable. His children have grown up without a father most of their lives and did not inherit any wealth. He also was plagued with racism, classism and police abuse during a time of heightened racial tension which played a role in his incarceration.
Robert Putnam (2000), the modern-day father of social capital, states in his work that communities with high social capital typically have lower crime, higher civic engagement and educational outcomes. In examining the lives of Abu-Jamal and Madoff, it is obvious that social capital or the lack thereof assisted in the development of their lives as it does with all of us. The implications of quality, bonding and bridging relationships can have a long-term impact especially for students in poverty because of the access to new information, role models and opportunities that are not shared in their existing networks.
As educators, it is critical that we provide students an understanding of the value of relationships and building networks. More importantly, it is critical that we leverage our relationships within the community to do this for students who might not have exposure to people who live outside of their immediate neighborhoods.
In my current role at a very large nonprofit, I am extremely intentional about working with local schools that are challenged by poverty. I not only utilize our resources to support these schools but I leverage relationships that I have as well as the relationships of our organization to provide support. I could only do that when I was aware of the assets that existed in our community so that I was not duplicating efforts and being intentional to leverage existing entities in the community. Schools can benefit from understanding the value of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) which is based on the work of Kretzmann and McKnight (2003) of Northwestern University. Instead of focusing on the deficits that exist in communities, according to their body of research, every community has the following: Institutions, Associations, Physical Space, Local Economy and Individuals. These are resources that can provide funding, programming, guest speakers, mentors, events, and the list goes on and on. Students need us to serve as connectors to possibilities.
I know from my own personal experience that the interest of one teacher can make all of the difference. I will never forget teachers like Dr. Riley Bratton, Sharon Settlemire, Mary Rounds and many others who took the time to encourage, share their knowledge and relationships to help me on my journey. Being introduced to resources like internships and summer camps in our area served as the inspiration for a timid girl from the Deep South to ultimately dream big, travel, build a wide array of friends and colleagues, pursue a Ph.D., write and commit to a life of service. I know the power of relationships and I am grateful for those individuals in my life who saw beyond my color and background, partnered with my parents and pushed me to be all that I am today!
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