Community Engagement and Social Connectedness

I’m wondering if the phrase, “social capital” has run its course.  Robert Putnam, in his Bowling Alone certainly moved the discussion along about the effects of isolation and not building relationships within and across groups.  Even then, Putnam isolates social capital without looking at community environments, which contribute to whether or not we build human connections.  If you look at the work of Flora, Flora, Fey, and Emery’s framework called, “Community Capitals”, you would be treated to a more holistic framework, which helps us understand human development.  (This “team” did much of this work while at Iowa State University).

I like the concept of community capitals, because we are led to talk about humans in their environments in terms of: social, financial, built, natural, human, cultural, and political capitals.

Remember, capital, of any kind, is a resource in which we invest to create new resources down the road. For example, our cultural capital begins at birth.  In childhood, we learn how to act, how to speak, what to value, and we acquire certain symbols that partly define us.  That is our cultural capital.  It belongs to us individually and as part of a group.  When we are employed, we are part of the human capital for our employers.  We offer our human capital (talents, education, skills, etc.) to our employers out of which some kind of product is produced.

Ogallala Commons is a non-profit organization that trains community interns for service (2 months in the summer, usually).  The community, being served, invites an intern based on a community need.  “OC” (the acronym for Ogallala Commons), uses a “12 Key Assets of a Commonwealth” as a framework for addressing human capital needs in a community: education, health, leisure & recreation, history, sense of place, water cycle, arts & culture, wildlife & natural world, soil & mineral cycle, foodshed, renewable energy, and spirituality.  Every community has these assets, which can be understood as a foundation for building new careers for the interns while the community reaps the benefits of the interns’ human capital.

This brings me to “social capital”, our relationships with those within our immediate circle of friends, family, and colleagues and those relationships we build outside our closest associates.  I think it’s all about relationships.  Relationships matter!

Think about your relationships.  Are they beneficial to you? Perhaps, it’s not a deliberate notion; how we build our relationships. But, as I look back on my past years, I realize that I’ve built some rather wonderful relationships and great friends these past 30-some years.  Each of my friends delight me in different ways, and I’m a richer person for it.  My friends are my support system, and they all accept me for my weird self!  All of us don’t think alike.  We don’t have the same political views.  We don’t all have the same level of financial security (some have planned better for their futures and some have not). I think we learn from each other at many different levels.  I think mutual respect, among my wide circle of friends, is the hallmark of our relationships.  The opposite of my level of social engagement is isolation.

What does isolation do to people?  Think of that elderly person who sits at home without friends and family around him or her.  An isolated person is more likely to display a tendency toward sadness, more physical illnesses, and cognitive degeneration.  I once visited a federal penitentiary.  The “tour guide” said that people who go into the penal system at a young age, like early 20s, are more likely to display symptoms of dementia by mid-40s since a prison environment is not one known for its stimulation of cognitive function.  Relationships matter!

If you think about your community, do you see well developed personal relationship among those who live in your neighborhood or your town?  Here are qualities of a well developed community:

  • You know your neighbors
  • You feel attached to your neighborhood
  • You are politically active and feel like your voice is heard
  • You have trusting and reciprocal relationships
  • You are involved in your community (volunteer…)

What happens when you live in a community with well-developed, intercultural relationships:

  • Crime rates are lower
  • Have better health outcomes across the generations
  • Experience more collective actions
  • Increase in shared resources
  • Mutual respect across groups of difference

Yes.  It may seem like a utopia, but wouldn’t it be great to live in such a community?

Thank you for reading.  I do have references for much of what I say, by the way.

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