Social Capital and Youth Development

Five years ago I was invited by one of our Board members to use her northern Michigan home for a retreat with some of our teens. Kylah, one of the teens on the outing was an 11th grade aspiring artist. Kylah had a pretty tough upbringing; raised by her grandmother, navigating high school as an LGBTQ identified kylah and ashleystudent and simply not inspired by school. She was one of those kids who hung out nearly every day at NZ both to pursue her passions in visual arts and be in a space that accepted her identity. Her forte was drawing, especially manga style, where she had an amazing innate talent.

While at the retreat, taking in the incredible scenery and doing some planning around their business enterprise, we had the pleasure of spending time with our Board member’s husband. Vic, a Professor and researcher at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health is also the founder of a health and wellness company. On top of the number of interesting things Vic has done throughout his life, he was in the midst of writing a book about the loss of his daughter, Julia.

As we spoke with Vic about his book he revealed that it would be in the form of a graphic novel and that he was working with an artist named Cody Chamberlin. Well Kylah nearly fell out of her chair. Cody was one of her true inspirations.   Vic offered to help connect them and even share some of Kaylah’s work with Cody.

I reflect on that story often when thinking about the import of building youths’ social capital – a key element of youth-adult partnerships (YAP).  Social capital occurs over two theoretical aspects of YAP: natural mentorship and community connectedness. Through natural mentors, youth seek out relationships with adults who have influence or capital that young people hope to access. In Kylah’s case meeting Vic was one degree of separation from one of her heros. Additionally through community connections we help to remove the isolation that many teens suffer. So many youth have few interactions with adults outside of their families or school, something especially true for youth from under-resourced backgrounds.

The concept of social capital and youth development came up for me again this week.

Neutral Zone is part of the Music Youth Development Alliance, a collection of youth serving programs that use music as a hook for youth development. The project is supported by the ELMA Music Foundation. As part of our professional development we have the opportunity to go on cross-program exchanges to learn from one another and foster long distance teen to teen collaboration on music projects.

DSC_0737On my recent trip to northern California I had the privilege of spending several days at RYSE Youth Center in Richmond. On the exchange Ali, a high school senior who attends the Ann Arbor schools, accompanied me. Ali, a teen who is thriving despite huge risk factors in his life (including homelessness), had only once been out of Michigan. It is a thrill to expose him to another part of the country and to let him interact with new and interesting people and places. The exchange has opened up a new world for Ali, one that he never imagined existed. As a result he has new friends, colleagues and experiences that build his cache and will help him continue on a path to success.

It’s not necessary to travel across the country or to the most beautiful parts of northern Michigan to provide youth access to social capital. It is critically important, however, to intentionally expose them to all kinds of adults in the community.

This can happen in your program or school, by inviting them to meet with visitors, participate in meetings with partner agencies, inviting them to serve on your board with adult community leaders, having them present to electeds or to them accompany you on meetings with funders.

As adults the building of social capital is part of our natural cache. For youth, especially those from under-served communities, it can be a life-changing or inspirational experience – one that can be as valuable as any in their lives.

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