Updated: Feb 3
Before I jump into it, here’s a quick story:
Rayshawn (his real name is Kevin but he hates his government name) was beat. He’d been working 12-hour shifts and couldn’t find more than five minutes to himself. Work had been challenging that week, and it took every ounce of energy for him to keep things in check, but it was cool because he loved his job. As a youth program staff member, he understood how crucial it was to stay positive and make sure the youth were taken care of. He had grown up on the same streets, and the bond was strong between him and his kids.
Logan, on the other hand, was from the other side of town. He’d secured the job at the beginning of summer, genuinely wanting to help but also knowing that working with inner-city youth would help spruce up his chances for graduate school admission. He was enthusiastic about the idea of working with youth, but the reality was that he didn’t really know how to connect with them, at least not intrinsically. Logan went through the motions, took some local positive youth development training classes, biding his time until he could jet off to whatever grad program would accept him.
What separated Rayshawn and Logan was more than growing up in different neighborhoods.
Rayshawn had "big thing" dreams. After high school, he wanted to start a sneaker shop specializing in collector-grade Yeezys, Air Jordans, and other sneakerhead merch. All he’d known growing up was tragedy and hardship on his block, and the whack a#% skippys that he was too embarrassed to rock. Drug dealing was a way to get the money up for his vision but he eventually realized, like all drug dealers do, that dreams come tumbling down real quick when you gamble you life and freedom with that drug money.
After Rayshawn did his time and everyone else’s, he joined RiseSide. RideSide was a non-profit organization committed to giving the most marginalized youth options beyond the streets. Rayshawn got kicked out of the program three times but they always let him back in. RideSide’s no eject/no reject philosophy insured that Rayshawn could eventually claim, “I graduated and completed that” when referring to his time participating in RideSide. Due to RayShawn’s dedication, affability, and passion, he soon joined the youth service staff. He realized he had another vision - he wanted to do everything in his power to help marginalized youth just like he was a long, long time ago. The irony, however, was that Rayshawn didn’t have much social capital himself outside of the hood and the brothers on Rikers’ Cellblock eight.
Logan was another story. He was well connected and ran an extremely popular Instagram account. His true passion was travel photography, and it afforded him the opportunity to connect with a diverse group of people, from everyday followers to business owners and celebrities. His social media networking had landed him some lucrative photoshoot gigs in Hawaii and Canada, and he’d saved the earnings to pay for a five-week trip to Africa. Logan’s parents were well connected too. His dad was a semi-retired executive with a federal government information technology contractor and his mom was the executive director of a national foundation that supports STEM initiatives across the eastern seaboard. Logan could expose the kids to a whole new world, but he just wasn’t aware of the power of his social capital and was clueless on how to share it with kids.
Mastering Social Capital for the Kids
Rayshawn and Logan represent the two sides of youth service program staff: one with high levels of social capital (SoCap) and one without. The unfortunate reality is those staff members who possess "street cred" but low-levels of social capital are generally the ones connecting with youth while the ones with higher levels tend to not fully engage.
So why does this matter? The erosion of civic participation, the number of whites who live in almost all-white communities, and growing community and class segregation call for youth workers to be deft at connecting youth with individuals and groups who they may not look like or be familiar or comfortable with but who could help open doors otherwise inaccessible to these young adults.
“Credible Messenger” types — those like Rayshawn who enable change and help others find their purpose — need to ramp up their understanding and use of social capital, especially bridging social capital. “Save-a-brother” types, like Logan, must learn how to undo some of their bridging capital and give it away to help build the social capital accounts of others.
So how do we go about facilitating this? How are youth service staff members supposed to help others build social capital when they don’t have much themselves? How do you motivate those with social capital to transfer ownership and help others?
For a staff member like Rayshawn, it’s the responsibility of the organization that employs him to take an active role in helping him build social capital, so he can spend it with his kids. Non-profit board members can play an important role in this regard. Board members, for example, can agree to act as Rayshawn's wingperson at many of their civic and social functions and assist him in cultivating new ties? Rayshawn’s got the social part down; he’s smooth with it. Did you ever see him speak to kids?!
As for those like Logan, they must be educated on the power of their social capital and how to help young people build it. Maybe the program could support students shadowing Logan at one of his gigs or networking events. Logan could connect them with potential employers
via a simple online post or creative social media contest. A young adult’s aspirations can be just a weak-tie connection away from being ignited, and someone like Logan may be the gatekeeper of that connection without even knowing it. We thank those like Logan for their service, but we need their social capital!
At the end of the day, it’s about helping youth find their purpose and rise above their respective challenges. For disconnected youth, this starts with connecting. If we can train the Rayshawns and Logans of the world to master social capital building, invest in systems to help them build it, and develop policies that encourage them to share it, we can help millions of disconnected youth connect to opportunities that we don’t know exist. Connection rates lead to placement rates; how did you get your current job?
Edward DeJesus is the founder of Social Capital Builders.