Why this former school principal is igniting new social networks across Boston neighborhoods

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Dec 10, 2019

The term “social capital” is one popular way to describe the inherent value contained in social networks. But it can also suggest that our social networks are a fixed asset like a bank account. This can in turn imply that one’s network, or stock of social capital, needs to be carefully tended, sparingly spent down, and even sometimes outright hoarded. 

Invoking the language of ‘capital’ is helpful when it comes to pointing to the immense value that relationships offer just like dollars we tuck away in our wallets. But it belies the fact that, in reality, our world is awash in humans that could be connected and contributing to one another in valuable, productive ways that benefit both individuals and communities. In other words, lots of potential social value can go untapped so long as certain people remain disconnected.

Luckily, new approaches are emerging to broker latent social capital among people otherwise not connected–in turn creating new value for neighborhoods. One exciting new model is Union Capital Boston (UCB), a nonprofit that seeks to spark and sustain community engagement as a pathway to individual and community opportunity  for thousands of low- and moderate-income Boston residents. Through the app, UCB members can earn small financial rewards for the time spent volunteering and engaging in their community. Through this, members find work opportunities, advance their education, and build trust-based sharing relationships with each other that strengthen social networks.  Along with this technology tool, UCB builds community relationships and social trust by hosting frequent in-person ‘Network Nights’ where its members can access and expand their networks of support and opportunity. I sat down with UCB’s founder Eric Leslie to learn about how the program builds and measures social capital. 

Julia: Can you describe how the Union Capital Boston (UCB) model encourages new and sustained connections across communities in Boston?

Eric: 20th Century social capital was created by the frequent interactions that occurred in school cafeterias, church basements, and other neighborhood hubs. Today, neighborhoods are often fractured and transient. Yet, civic engagement has proven a key factor in generating social capital and an innovative way to improve economic prospects without relying solely on direct services. As a former community organizer and middle school principal, I was motivated to figure out new methods and pathways to increasing community engagement that could spark transformative individual and community opportunities.

Our members are low- and moderate-income individuals and families in Boston. They are motivated residents experiencing the challenges of living in a city with the highest income inequality in the country. The cost of housing is skyrocketing, supports from public social safety nets are being chipped away, and immigration restrictions are growing so rapidly that UCB members experience extreme resource constraints every day.

The UCB mobile app aggregates hundreds of cross-sector resources into one searchable calendar, and over 1,750 Bostonians use the tool to find new opportunities, log their hours of engagement in the App, and earn financial rewards for the time they invest volunteering and engaging in our community. We partner with community organizations, schools, and health centers to sign up their members for our mobile app. We stipend and train Network Leaders from these partner institutions to connect with and support their members. The hub of our model is our Network Nights attended by hundreds of people every year (for more see: bit.ly/UCBNN).

Based on feedback from our members we have learned how our model encourages connections in four ways that we label our 4 Rs: Resources, Relationships, Recognition, and Rewards. We developed our digital infrastructure to put resources into people’s hands with our mobile app. We built our relational infrastructure by curating weekly in-person Network Nights and large Resource Fairs. We provide recognition for engagement and volunteerism through our reward points program. And we offer a small reward in the form of Visa gift cards for taking actions that strengthen our community, such as volunteering at a child’s school, participating in a community meeting, or even helping a neighbor who is homebound go grocery shopping. We find that no one ‘R’ sustains connections on their own. They are very fluid and interchanging. 

I think about these motivations as both a founder of UCB and as a participant. If I am honest with myself, when I volunteer at my daughter’s school I am actually doing it for several reasons: I get to build relationships with other parents, I can access resources about what she is learning and how to support her, I am recognized as an engaged parent (“way to go Dad!”), and maybe I will even get a free school t-shirt as a reward! All of these aspects are part of what motivates my engagement and connection to the school. It is this interchange where we find the sparks that sustain our members’ actions and engagement.

Julia: How do you generate a sense of belonging and foster trust among your UCB members?

Eric: We have been learning a lot about network theory. In network science, a hub is a node with a number of links that greatly exceeds the average. Our Network Leaders are hubs linking nodes (neighborhood residents) across our community network. In our work, those links can only be developed through slow and steady relationship building. Network Leaders are the recognizable community connectors we all know in our neighborhoods; they are who we go to for a cup of sugar or when a crisis hits and we need support. We purposefully invest most of our efforts and resources into relationship building. Our app technology investment is a distant second. 

To foster trust, we first start working in places where people are already connected in community: schools, community programs, residences, health centers, places of worship, and more. We establish contracted partnerships with these bedrock community institutions and work with them to identify and hire Network Leaders from their community. Our Leaders are the parent council members, the tenant task force participants, and the neighborhood alliance leaders that are known and trusted in their community network. We then stipend and train these leaders to serve as ambassadors for UCB. They reach out to other parents, residents, program participants and invite them to sign up for our mobile app and join our network. Each member is thus ‘plugged into’ our network through a ‘hub’, which serves as the relational connection to our program, fostering trust and belonging.

Julia: What is the technology backbone that makes your model run?

Eric: It is fun and simple! Check it out at ucbapp.org ([email protected], password: community). We bootstrapped it together five years ago with some incredible volunteer developers and have kept adding pieces to it since then. We are now migrating the backend onto Salesforce for greater stability and security. This upgrade will also enable us to learn and listen even more to our members’ engagement and their reported activities.

Julia: You recently published an impact report that is chock-full of data. What outcomes related to social capital accumulation were most encouraging?

Eric: The report is indeed chock-full of a ton of data, which is a credit to our Director of Evaluation Anna Leslie. Anna spent close to a full year collecting, analyzing, and reporting on a whole slew of quantitative and qualitative data. We knew going into the report that increased social capital generates employment opportunities in general. The analysis found that, “The [UCB] network’s use of efficient technology and place-based relational networking are contributing to UCB Member success in employment gains, community resiliency in the neighborhoods where members live, and strengthened social capital.” In particular, the more that UCB Members engage with the UCB Network, the greater their realized value:

  • Members who attend UCB Network Nights have a higher rate of employment gain than those who do not.
  • The overall rate of UCB Member employment gain the past two years has grown at three times the rate of the City of Boston overall.

What I found most encouraging from the report is that even higher levels of engagement have stronger results. Our Network Nights are not job fairs or employment training. They are simply places to build relationships and exchange resources. But the more that members attend Network Nights, the greater their employment gains. Members who attended 1-5 Network Nights in 2018, went from 28% unemployment upon entry into UCB to 9% unemployment in December 2018. Network Nights offer variety and repetition, factors that are key in facilitating social capital. There is a significant amount of trust built and felt in these spaces, which appears related to attendance frequency. As one member shared in the report, “there’s a sense of pride when someone comes up to you and says, ‘can you help me’ or ‘do you have this resource.’ There’s a sense of trust that it can and will be actualized. People remember what people share in this space. You start learning people’s little stuff.” This network building is a foundational element for opening a door to a job, as well as a whole host of harder to measure outcomes, such as educational, health, and equity measures. 

Julia: Our current research is focused on how education programs and institutions can better position themselves as brokers of social capital. You were a middle school principal before founding UCB. Based on those experiences, what are some of the design and measurement decisions your team has made that schools could learn from?

Eric: For better or worse, Stephen Covey’s mantra cannot be forgotten: “Change happens at the speed of trust.” The fuel for sustaining social capital is trust. This trust is even harder to sustain in a school environment when every August brings a new cohort of children and families to connect with and build trust. This means that mechanisms for building trust have to be built into the strategic plans and the actual infrastructure of the school. Schools should ask, what programs and groups have parents and families joined as required participants? At my former school, not only did we have parents serving on the Board of Trustees, they served in elected positions on the Parent Council, Student Event programming, Curriculum Planning, and the Disciplinary Committee.

By intentionally incorporating parents into our school structure, we had no choice but to go out and engage with new families and ensure they were part of the school design every year. Once the structures were in place, the next question becomes: who are the individual hubs connecting the nodes? Who are the parents with a following? By building relationships with families who turned out to school events and brought others with them, we connected the family hubs to our school infrastructure, facilitating trust, communication, and social capital. We built the UCB program model and our Network Leader Fellowship based on those experiences.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.