AUSTIN, MN — Wikipedia defines “social capital” as the economic benefit created when individuals and groups connect and cooperate with each other and thereby increase their productivity.
Further inquiry reveals that this term is not just some new buzz-phrase concocted by do-gooders seeking racial harmony and multiculturalism. It is actually a timeless concept that was encouraged by the Founding Fathers, and famously identified by Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 1800s as the essential ingredient of the emerging American democracy.
This positive social interaction in an increasingly compact and connected world sometimes just happens naturally. But basic introversion or divisive tribalism often intervenes, and experience shows that organized and intentional efforts are necessary to overcome barriers and biases, and to develop authentic social capital among groups with different languages and cultures.
What might social capital formation look in real life, up close and personal?
At its best, it looks like a recent event in Austin, home of Hormel Foods and Spam, a major agriculture processing center and a forward-looking community near the Iowa border, which is also one of greater Minnesota’s most racially and ethnically diverse towns.
This event was preceded by weeks of careful planning, energetic outreach, and personal invitations from local education and social-service organizations. The gathering was billed as a “Feast and Conversation” on the subject of how to improve education and student success in the local community. Special attention was given to inviting more than just the “usual suspects,” often a few key leaders of various groups in the community. Parents were encouraged to bring their children, and youth voices in the room were respected and encouraged.
People began arriving on a late Sunday afternoon at the dining hall of Queen of Angels Catholic Church. Each attendee was warmly greeted and immediately invited to partake of that most important social lubricant, good food, and an abundance of it. Two long tables — a taco bar and a build-your-own-casserole line — were crowded with platters and bowls.
The lead organizer and “social capitalist” in charge was Marnita Schroedl, whose nonprofit, Marnita’s Table, has years of experience with this model of “intentional social interaction.” A half-dozen volunteer helpers were on hand to guide the feast and the conversation and record the interactions.
More than two-thirds of the 120 participants were either African immigrants, mostly from South Sudan, or Latinos, mostly from Mexico. Also in attendance were leaders from Riverland Community College and the Parenting Resource Center Inc., a former mayor, and the planners and leaders of Austin Aspires, a new community partnership on a mission to improve the success of all students from birth to career launch.
Before long, comfort levels rose. With gentle but persistent encouragement from Marnita and her helpers to get each person to move around and talk to strangers, the ice went out. People began to hold each other’s babies, toddlers from South Sudan played with preschoolers from Central America, and grandmothers born oceans apart began to share stories about their grandchildren.
A wealth of advice on education policy was offered by attendees, from more mentoring and tutoring, to more internships with local employers, to more resources in the schools. But perhaps the most important learning was that the event itself had helped break down barriers and make new connections.
Among the comments made by attendees:
“I have a really difficult time walking up to people but I found people came up to me quite often, which helped. Thank you for hosting this.”
“Met two new people.”
“I am very happy to meet with different people I have never met.”
“Great to see everyone talking to each other and no cell phones!!!”
“I enjoyed knowing more people here and learning about how everyone has a big passion for education.”
“Conocer mas personas.”
“I like to see people in our community coming together to sit down and eat and talk with one another.”
Several attendees said the event was just a beginning and that they hoped the positive interaction would continue. Indeed, more such engagement will help the organizers of Austin Aspires to build a stronger community-wide partnership to drive student success, to build a better workforce, and to close opportunity gaps. And many other determined efforts to build social capital in other communities will contribute to the growing statewide movement for student success.
Lots of ingredients will be necessary to create this statewide student success movement. More money needs to be invested. Early childhood education must be enhanced. Alignment between schools and employers needs to be improved, and businesses need to get more involved. Data must be intelligently sorted and analyzed to determine needs and responses.
But social capital and more authentic engagement from the kids and parents and communities who face the biggest challenges and disparities are foundational, and the response can be inspirational. A crowning highlight of the “Feast and Conversation” was the big circle formed at the end, with each person volunteering lessons learned and personal intentions for improving the outcomes for all youth in the community.
Several of the youth who spoke vowed to work harder and do better in school. One boy in middle school spoke up and said that he wanted to be a role model to other students. Many South Sudanese and Latino parents gave thanks for being invited together, instead of having separate events for each community. And one woman said that the love in the room was the answer to our questions.
Dane Smith is the president and Maureen Ramirez is the policy and research director of Growth & Justice, an organization focused on broadening prosperity in Minnesota.