Building Social Capital for Youth Success and Healthy Communities

Healthy Chelsea teens enjoying a nutritious lunch

Earlier this year, the SCI Board adopted a new strategic plan for the organization, certainly one of our most important developments in 2013. The new plan has been referenced in several places here on the site, including the updated summary of our programs and services. But I realized we hadn't blogged about some of our thinking behind the direction of our new plan, so wanted to do so here. Before getting into that, let me say a big word of thanks for Eric Curtis, who did a great job facilitating our strategic plan development!

For our first eleven years, we focused on increasing social capital and civic engagement to address any issue that citizens and our community partners were interested in addressing. This approach had many benefits, such as allowing our programming to be driven by the interests of local residents, and enabling us to develop broad expertise in fostering social capital. However, in the planning process, we determined there would be significant benefits to targeting our social capital building toward a limited number of key social issues. Such focus would enhance our ability to measure outcomes, tell our story and identify partners. The question, then, was what issues make sense for SCI to prioritize?

Youth Success: Since we started in 2002, developing the next generation of active citizens has been one of our main priorities. Robert Putnam's suggested in Bowling Alone, which shaped our initial thinking as we got started, that the failure to transmit the civic values of the "Great Generation" on down the line was one important explanation for declining civic engagement. We found ready partners interested in developing young leaders when we started SCI in Woburn. Our youth leadership programming flourished, and was codified into a curriculum several years later. Focusing on youth as a priority was thus a natural choice for us. In addition to engaging youth in community leadership projects, we include in our Youth Success priority efforts to recruit adult volunteers and other supporters for young people, such that all youth have a web of supporters that help them achieve success.

Health & Wellness: At first glance, choosing health as a focus area might seem a bit less obvious for SCI, but we are very excited about the potential impact we can have by bringing our social capital expertise to the rapidly evolving health space. We actually do have a lengthy history partnering with health focused organizations. Our first expansion beyond Woburn was through a partnership with DotWell, a joint initiative of two Dorchester community health centers. Many of our youth leadership programs have focused on encouraging their peers to make healthy choices--so there's a natural link between these two priority areas. In addition, there's an abundance of research demonstrating the powerful impact of social networks on health outcomes--see for instance this post rounding up some articles on the subject. As health care reform requires providers to focus on promoting wellness outcomes in the communities, we see many opportunities for SCI to serve as a partner to help health organizations leverage the power of social networks to achieve wellness outcomes.

The early returns with our new focus areas are promising. We have set the ambitious goal of growing to serve 30 New England communities over the next three years. Shortly after adopting the plan, the health focus area paved the way for new partnerships with Healthy Gloucester and Healthy Chelsea. We're in the process of exploring additional partnerships on both of our priority issue areas, and would be happy to talk about how SCI might help your community address these issues. You can email mail me at dcrowley AT to get in touch.

One addendum about our thought process on priorities. We also see a strong tie between social capital and economic develpment. In fact, our first Social Capital Forum back in May focused on the subject. For now, we are going to prioritize new initiatives that focus on youth and/or health outcomes. That said, we see social capital building efforts of any sort are likely to at least have a positive indirect benefit on the local economy. In addition, we anticipate that at some point down the road we might explore adding economic development as a more explicit target area along with youth and health.