Hidden Currency: Making Social Capital Visible in Existing Community Efforts

Tuesday, October 11, 2022
Samantha Perez, Ph.D.
Associate Director

This past spring, ESG launched a new line of work focused on social capital development. Across the U.S., we are working with different communities to incorporate social capital into their current college and career pathways work. Each community is building an implementation strategy to guide a pilot program for the 2022-2023 academic year. While the work is still in the early stages, the communities we’re working with are realizing that relationship- and network-building are already present in many of their efforts; but it has, until now, largely been a hidden and underutilized element in much of their work.

Partners like the Clayton Christensen Institute see social capital as an invisible currency. Relationships can be leveraged for access to new resources or opportunities, but these networks can remain largely hidden if an individual does not know what to look for. This imperative is even greater for communities of color, whose social capital is often undervalued. 

As a first step toward their larger goal of intentionally building and prioritizing social capital development into college and career pathways, each community will make social capital visible in work already underway. To start to develop their strategies, community teams participated in a mapping exercise that asked them to outline the work they are already doing to help students build relationships and networks, even if those initiatives were not explicitly named or categorized as social capital efforts. While these activities varied from light touch relationship-building, such as bringing guest speakers into classrooms, to higher dosage mentoring opportunities like internships, one thing was consistent across community—the opportunities for social capital development are there, but often in the form of ad hoc student experiences and without a great deal of intentional engagement with students about why relationships and networks are important as they pursue their career aspirations.

Stacy Baier, CEO of the Pinellas Education Foundation and site lead for the Pinellas social capital project team, shares early takeaways from her team’s work: “[one] opportunity is integrating the ‘social capital’ language as an umbrella for tying disparate relationship activities together. We have discovered there are a lot of social capital strategies happening [in Pinellas County Schools]. By thinking of them through the lens of social capital, we can expand our horizon and leverage some of these one time experiences for longer impact.”

In Chattanooga, Sarah Malone of Hamilton County Schools and Michelle Caldwell of the Public Education Foundation Chattanooga co-lead the work for their community. Sarah’s early reflections on social capital development recognize that “schools always press on the importance of providing quality academics, but often do not prioritize the importance of building relationships in the same way because it is not measured easily on a rubric or with test scores. However, core academic skills [coupled with] social capital connect directly to career exploration. With more awareness, other educators and families can support what teachers promote daily within their classes.” 

Over the next year, the communities will work to build and prioritize social capital development as an explicit and intentional part of their pathways. It started with naming and recognizing social capital as a critical but largely untapped asset to be leveraged as we prepare young people for their educational and career journeys. As we enter the fall, the teams will identify the opportunities and specific strategies that will help them assess, support, expand, and mobilize students’ relationships and networks. The ESG team is looking forward to continued engagement with these communities and will continue to share what we are learning along the way.