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Building and Leveraging Social Capital

Julie Majors and George Lopez; Weslaco Independent School District
Weslaco , Texas

All communities possess both risk factors and strengths. All too frequently, programs focus predominantly on the risk factors. However, many communities have found that identifying these strengths can help them create change and build social capital. Social capital refers to social networks, norms of reciprocity, trustworthiness, and mutual assistance that tie individuals into groups and communities.1 As Lewis Feldstein emphasized in his Keynote speech at the Annual Conference, social capital can be fostered at several levels, including between parents and children, among families in the community, and between families and service providers.

For many communities, risk factors may seem overwhelming. In Weslaco, Texas, for example, there are many. Over a third of the 26,000, predominantly Hispanic, children and families live near or below the poverty level. Adolescent drug use and risk-taking, well above the state averages, are influenced by several factors, including high use and acceptance by youth and adults, easy accessibility, and proximity to the Mexican border, where students easily purchase drugs and alcohol. The Spring Break season, in particular, is a period when many students are drawn to Mexico to engage in drinking, drug-taking, and promiscuity. In addition, comprehensive support services for students and families are minimal outside of the school environment.

Yet, despite these risk factors, the community is blessed with a strong SS/HS advisory board and deep community involvement in helping youth. Recognizing this opportunity to build social capital, Julie Majors, SS/HS Project Director, and George Lopez, Parent and Community Relations Specialist, worked closely with their advisory board, made up of community agencies, to organize a Community Youth Rally to promote "strength-building" and reduce AOD use by youth and adults. They planned the first rally in March 2003 to mobilize the Weslaco community and promote services of the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative. Key elements of the rally were planned as catalysts for community improvement:

  • TIMING. The rally was timed just before Spring Break to drive home a prevention message. Youth were asked to sign a pledge not to engage in alcohol or other drug use during their Break.
  • SERVICE AWARENESS. Community service providers were a prominent feature at the rally to increase residents' awareness of social services and encourage their use. This also increased visibility for SS/HS program resources.
  • COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT. Fortunately for Julie and George, there was strong support among stakeholders and community services in organizing the rally. Local libraries, churches, schools, and service agencies lent their facilities or services for the event - church vans transported the elderly, schools lent their parking lots, school district ROTC students provided security and safety oversight. Vendors contributed food and drink for the event without hesitation. Julie and George realized that the rally tapped Weslaco 's strong commitment to programming beneficial to its residents - a form of social capital in itself.
  • ACTIVE ROLES FOR YOUTH. Performances by student groups were the prominent highlight of the rally. In addition, a Mentoring Mile was set up to promote education about AOD issues and parent-child communication. Youth signed up to walk the Mile, populated by signs displaying local statistics on drug use and risk behavior, with their parent(s) and thus took the lead in education and discussion of the topic.

The Community Youth Rally was so successful in both 2003 and 2004, it is now an annual event. Julie and George are already looking forward to the Third Annual Rally in 2005. Julie reports that since these visible events have been held service use has gone up, especially by women in the community. She suspects this shows a decline in the stigma associated with help-seeking. Perhaps the strongest evidence of the rally's positive impact in the community can be seen in this simple fact: no fatalities were reported during this year's Spring Break season.

Julie and George offer the following advice when trying to create social capital:

  • Evaluate the assets your community already has as well as what's lacking and create opportunities from there. Many Weslaco families lack the money for entertainment such as movies. The Youth Rally filled the need for fun, free, and safe entertainment for the whole family.
  • When knocking on doors for support, as George says, "you can't only sell the event, you must sell the vision behind the event". In this way, you are building social capital and ensuring sustainability for your vision beyond the cessation of program funding. Julie and George are completely confident that the many community stakeholders will make sure the Rally continues because it is viewed as their community's event, not an SS/HS event.
  • Make sure you have a strong Advisory Board that is representative of your community and all its interests. It took a full year for this to happen for Julie, but the support and passion of Board members have made a tremendous impact.

1 Putnam, R. & Feldstein, L. (2003). Better together: Restoring the American community. Simon and Schuster.