Does wealth begin in the wallet? A couple of years ago I would have answered with a resounding “YES!” Wealth is the vehicle we use to reach our goals, income is our greatest wealth building tool, and living-wage jobs are necessary to provide those incomes. Create more jobs in targeted communities. Solve concentrated poverty…right? Not so fast. Challenges to realizing economic mobility aside, upon achieving the “American Dream”, African-American families are more likely to have their gains in mobility wiped out within a generation. There must be foundational wealth building tools beyond earning an income or increasing net worth. Or to put it another way, if wealth is the vehicle, and income is the fuel, what represents the tires, engine, or brakes?
One of these tools is social capital. Don’t let the name fool you. This unassuming system packs a punch. Social capital says that it is the nature of members of a network to support each other and though it may be difficult to put a dollar sign on, this support has tremendous value. Our networks are our neighbors, friends, coworkers, classmates, family, fellow alumni, support groups, or congregations. We depend on these networks to help us with child care, share information about employment opportunities, provide neighborhood security, and give a sense of community. Creating networks makes it easier to share information, support, collaboration, and ultimately trust.
This connection supports healthy neighborhoods regardless of their racial or economic makeup, but it does very little to actively integrate one networks with another. So what happens when your networks are few, isolated, or perhaps have a negative impact on your quality of life? How can we claim that all people have equal access to information, opportunities, and support when our most powerful tools for sharing these resources are blatantly homogenous?
We need to build social capital across all borders that divide our city, including the racial and economic borders that have recently been thrust to the forefront of our consciousness. Integrating our social networks with people of diverse backgrounds is not an easy task. Rarely will opportunities to build social capital with someone outside your network ring the doorbell and present itself packaged with a tidy bow. In fact, the more opportunities located within your social reach, the less imperative it may seem to leave your comfort zone. Even when this was my reality, I cannot say I always made the extra effort to expand my network. However, we have seen enough studies and read enough reports to know that addressing this failing foundation will be key to building a city that is welcoming, inclusive, and an economic powerhouse.
The community wants change. I attended an Economic Development, Diversity & Leadership Summit last spring where one of the breakout sessions discussed ways to create diversity within your workplace. The room was packed with corporate leaders, HR representatives, and department heads of all backgrounds. Every chair was filled, so people began to stand against the wall and even sit in the aisle. Though this was one subset of Madison, it reminded me that as a community, we have the vehicle, we have the fuel, and we are beginning to understand the other tools that will help our city run better. What’s still missing is a roadmap.
A few years ago I would have said wealth begins in our wallets. Now I think it begins in our communities. Perhaps the roadmap to building cross-cultural social capital will share the same origin.
Share your ideas for building barrier-defying social capital and as always, stay connected!