Access to equal opportunities is a major challenge for our societies and one of my biggest interests. The short- and medium-term economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis will be global and systemic, but will specifically impact in low income communities across the globe. Western countries hit by the pandemic have already changed their budget priorities and invested millions of euros in public policies to ensure access to resources and support citizens’ well-being. However, our societies are facing a major challenge beyond the access to resources, that is the generation of thriving opportunities for the disadvantage groups that have been pushed away from our unequal system. This complex issue will need a comprehensive and co-responsible response from public administrations and all sectors, and as always, local organizations will be at the forefront of the action. In this post, I will use a social capital perspective to argue how local organizations from diverse fields -education, social, health, cultural, labor, science, and so on- are weaving sustainable opportunity infrastructure that empowers individuals to thrive.
Our family and the relationships we establish with parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. are the main social network that supports us throughout life, being able to provide us with love, education, well-being and multiple opportunities for development and projection. An economist will call these individual assets as ‘human capital’, and will argue that this capital will determine our socio-economic possibilities in the future. But in addition to human capital, exchanges through the family social network are a source of multiple and diverse resources for us throughout life. An example of this is that you could access to a job, a tool, career advice, a travel opportunity, any type of expertise and many others, thanks to some of your parents’ social relationships. These relational assets are known as ‘social capital’, and many studies indicate that social capital of families, understood as family connections and access to the resources that reside in them, are an important source of opportunities. Thus, family members become initial weavers that connect us with many divers’ resources and new opportunities for our personal growth.
On the other hand, the community we live in is another highly influential and opportunity-generating space for people. As sociologist Robert Putnam suggests, the importance of community and family social capital in the generation of opportunities is even more decisive in low-income districts and neighborhoods. Different studies conclude that families living in these contexts have fewer relationships of trust in their closest networks -family or friends-, and many times their general connections are not very diverse, that is, between people very similar to themselves – ethnicity, gender, location, socioeconomic level, concerns, and so on-. In this context, local organizations and professionals play a key role in facilitating new opportunities for children, youth and families that allow them to live a dignified and full life.
In this sense, Harvard University professor Mario Small has evidenced that organizations in which we participate throughout our lives – as schools, community centers, after school programs, recreational centers, health centers, sport clubs, universities, and so on- and the professionals we relate with can make a real difference in people’s lives. Moreover, beyond the service offered by the organizations -learning, health, sports, caring, and others- personal growth will be generated when professionals weave people’s trajectories and personalized needs with diverse resources and opportunities across the local and global systems. With this purpose, organizations and professionals need to be connected with local network of actors that operate in the community and can influence long life learning, well-being and personal growth, and not stay in their offices or classrooms, but got out into the hallways, onto the streets, and into the spaces where people live. In order to generate and weave this opportunity infrastructure, professionals will need to dance across disciplines, organizations, sectors and spaces becoming experts in their place-based ecosystem of opportunities.
Let’s land in a real and concrete example from my previous research that shows how organizations are weaving opportunity infrastructure that empower children and families in low income communities. Two different families who live in the same disadvantage neighborhood, both have a arge family and both have a two-year-old child. But these families take their two-year-old child to a different schools for early childhood education. In the first school, the family come and receive the service they expected, good opportunities for the educational development of their children, grounded pedagogies and a respectful and affective relation with parents. However, in the second school the other family -in addition to the development opportunities for their children and the grounded pedagogies- receive also extra development opportunities for parents and kids such as: shared spaces for parents where new emotional support relationships are established with other families; workshops for mothers run by educators on how to improve their own parental skills; visits and talks by pediatricians or nurses where connections are started with nearby medical centers; recreational and educational advice in the neighborhood library connecting with cultural and educational community services; participation in neighborhood projects between schools and other local organizations that collect food, or clothes or toys to reuse; and outings to cultural facilities outside the neighborhood or municipality connecting families with development opportunities outside their neighborhood.
We could think that the first organization is doing well what is expected, but only the second one is weaving and multiplying the opportunities offered to the whole family, both children and parents. The family is empowered through new personal and parental skills -human capital-, but also through the social and emotional infrastructure that connects them with their environment -social capital-. Now they have a broader contextual knowledge and social connectedness: having personal links with pediatricians and nurses and connecting with every resource that they can offer them; knowing social facilities where they can spend family time; and knowing other parents with whom they can connect and interact in the neighborhood. Hence this acquired social capital will in turn revert to the family network itself, further increasing family capacities to support their thriving futures.
Therefore, local organizations that intentionally decide to become weavers resonate with the power of social capital as a generator of thriving opportunity infrastructures. Thus, they are well connected with other organizations in their local and global system and benefit from resources exchanged -information on families; innovative projects; alternative spaces to carry out activities; or specific facilities or materials-. And they also activate these relationships for co-creation and co-implementation of new local solutions. Weavers seek to collaborate and co-create with all those who facilitate them to fulfill their missions. At the same time, weavers extend and share with families and students their own social capital in a planned way, multiplying their present and future opportunities. These weaver organizations exist worldwide, are positioned in the bridges between services and discplines; and are a real and promising approach to face challenges as complex as social justice and equal opportunities.