Excerpts from NPi's May 2009 Community Dialogue
On May 7th, 2009 David Crowley, President and Founder of Social Capital Inc., participated in NPi’s community dialogue at the Boston Public Library. NPi community dialogues bring together local leaders to discuss lessons learned, current projects, and potential collaborations. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
About founding Social Capital Inc.
I’m the founder of the organization which is SCI for short. Before starting the organization I’d been in the nonprofit sector all of my career… For about a dozen years prior to starting the organization I had been involved with several different nonprofits, but all of them had a theme of getting people engaged and solving problems in their communities. Most recently, before starting this organization, I ran something called Generations Incorporated here in Boston. But what really [laid the groundwork for Social Capital Inc.]… was the process of moving back to the town I group up in, which is Woburn, Mass, about 10 miles to the North. A place when I graduated from Woburn High in 1987, I really thought I would [cut ties from], go on to the big, brave world, and probably other than visiting my folks wouldn’t have a lot of connection to. But sometimes for some of us the call of home is strong. And so when my wife and I were ready to purchase a home and barely could afford it in the late 90s in the greater Boston area, Woburn started looking better and better—probably because it’s one of the few places we could barely afford at the time.
I started the organization because it’s the process of trying to reconnect to the place I grew up in as an adult and bring all the community work I’d done professionally to a place that’s called home… One of the ironies for me in my 20s was I was doing community building work and didn’t feel part of the communities in which I was living. I felt very transient through most of my 20s. It was a process of trying to think and engage 24/7 in a community to [apply] what I’d been doing professionally in Woburn. And [around the same time], I read Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam… that talks about declining community and uses the term, “social capital.” It’s very interesting to have this personal experience of trying to connect and engage in my home community and be reading this book that’s sort of been this broad indictment of the state of American communities. This very deep story of community and then having this experience of seeing how my community had changed from when I had gone to high school, how it’s changing… In the context of the changing community… how do you ultimately get people together and share a community and make it better together?
I got the notion that by trying to solve that problem in my community I could perhaps create some useful ideas and models that would help address the bigger challenge that Putnam talks about in terms of why we’re bowling alone and why we’re disconnected from our neighbors today compared to times past. So we set out to do that [in Woburn] and we pretty quickly started getting interested in other communities. We started working in Dorchester in 2004 and then Lynn in 2007. And we’ve since added six new locations throughout Massachusetts.
About Social Capital Inc. and its programs
The mainstays of what we do around youth leadership development—we talk about how we develop social capitalists, which I think are probably pretty compatible with the BCCJ values as well. Our second main area of work is using technology to connect people to what’s happening in their local communities. We do a lot to connect people around the world, but we think there’s a place for using technology to connect people to neighbors… And thirdly, we run a lot of community events that bring people of diverse backgrounds together in our communities to try to create bridges across differences that often divide folks.
On what he’s learned from the community
[At Social Capital Inc.] we work across a lot of communities that people perceive as being very different in a lot of different ways. And in my career I’ve spent five years working in Kentucky, including the Appalachian region of Eastern Kentucky. One of the things I’m struck by is people often want you to talk about the differences… I’m struck by how much the things people deal with are similar, how much the challenges are common across communities despite a lot of apparent differences. The struggles people have, the things people want.
You said that you’re organization connects people using technology, but have you found communities where they don’t have technology or don’t have access to something like the internet? And are you successful in connecting those communities?
Certainly that’s a big issue… folks who don’t have access to technology… In each of our locations we run a community website tool that helps people find resources, places to volunteer, things happening in their communities. And we actually developed a current version of our tool in Dorchester. And a lot of people say Dorchester? Oh, don’t a lot of people not have access?… Certainly that’s a valid concern… We certainly support and collaborate with people who are trying to address the access issue, but… it doesn’t mean you don’t invest in the tool.
One of the ways we do it is we work in partnership with local community organizations. And some of the barriers [have to do with technology or language]. [We want to make sure] if there’s a neighborhood that might not have direct access—that the place where they’re receiving services does have access to the tool. That’s part of how we do it… by partnering with organizations so that people are able to make bridges for people… One of the parts of our website tool is a searchable database of community organizations and services. If you want to find childcare services [in your] neighborhood, you can find that. We also will print [this information]… Right now in Lynn for instance we’re working on using a web tool to print [information about local resources] in five different languages that will be disseminated to all the kids and their families in the public school system… I think clearly trying to do any kind of work in this space—if you just have it on the internet, you’re kind of missing the boat. For us it’s always going hand in hand with doing work in the community in different formats, different languages as much as we can… But ultimately the internet is a good way to organize, the best way to organize and evolve that information.
Advice he would pass on to others
I would echo some of what Hilary [Allen] said… We don’t need a bunch more new nonprofits per se. I think getting involved, dabbling, trying some different organizations rather than waiting for the perfect alignment—this is the best place to volunteer. Go out there and try some things, be attentive, but don’t feel like you step in the door once and just because the organization’s addressing a cause you care about that that’s where you have to be… What do you want to contribute? What do you feel like you have to contribute? And frankly, some organizations don’t do a great job in general in terms of taking in folks and engaging them in the work. Don’t feel like you have to stick with a place like that. If they’re not using your time and skills well, I would go on and try something else until you feel like you’re doing what you really want to do.
How are you seeing things change in your organization and your field now that the Obama administration is in? Is there a tangible change happening? Is the conversation shifting? the flow of resources or collaboration? What’s happening?
Practically speaking, we’re part of the AmeriCorps program, which is getting ramped up significantly… so that’s very tangible… I was actually involved in AmeriCorps when it was first founded and President Clinton [spoke about it]… In that case it was a paragraph I would say every campaign stop about AmeriCorps. But then it takes a while for things to come into place.
That said, some of the stuff certainly on the service act is moving quite quickly. There were a lot of new resources in the stimulus package… There’s practical hopes of some sustained resources coming in with the new service act that’s been signed… The challenge when stuff moves fast is some organizations and folks are in more position to benefit… Whether it’s an Obama administration or any other—that’s always going to be an issue, especially when things are coming fast and there’s a lot of resources coming down the pike. You would [think] the value of the administration might be to spread [resources] more equitably… I know that’s hard to put into practice when you’re trying to do things quickly. I think the good news is more resources, but there are challenges in hand with that I would say as well.
How does each organization evaluate its impact, its progress toward its vision? How do you capture your impact?
I think there is often a disconnect. If somebody asks me to describe what success looks like… they’re asking more for a story almost more than for what impact I would put in a report for funders. One of our challenges is how we start bringing those two together a little more. What do we really care about and moves us? We need to find some ways to capture [those things] in a way that’s going to satisfy funders.
I also point to a couple things in terms of what success looks like. I started out in Woburn, [Massachusetts]… [When I started Social Capital Inc.], Woburn was much more diverse, a lot more interesting… than the town I grew up in. You wouldn’t know that if you walked into a city council, you walked in a rotary club and many other institutions. So success in our work long-term I think is five years from now you walk in and the folks at the city council chambers [are] reflective of the folks who actually now live in Woburn as opposed to those who lived there 50 years ago. That’s one example of a measure.
And stepping stones in terms of getting there—I think a moment of success is having people that really reflect the new community dancing to the Brazilian jazz band in the center of town. My mother said she’d never go to the center of town when I was growing up as a kid. [There are] these snapshots that stick with you. It’s not that that is the endgame, that people have a fun time at a concert. But these little things that show people are starting to break down barriers and starting to connect at a human level and find some commonality. Because part of the concept of social capital, both the organization and concept, is you’ve got to have those informal ties and relationships first before you can tackle the bigger things. Part of what matters to us is valuing those informal ties and creating spaces that people do reach out beyond themselves a little bit. Not that that’s the ultimate goal, but you have to take those steps first.
Is racism the root of the problem in a lot of the systems and a lot of the battles that you guys are trying to fight?
[With racism] there’s sometimes an assumption that there’s intentionality… Part of our whole paradigm is based on the idea we’ll do better with more evidence of everyone participating in an equal way, we’ll get a better result. Ultimately, [this comes from the idea that] at the end of the day there’s good at least in most of us, if not all of us… I think a lot of the exclusion that happens isn’t intentional. I think in some cases it is clearly, but there’s a lot that goes on that’s subtle. People are comfortable with people they know. It so happens that in this country it’s traditionally white males who have been in power. It’s not that every white male running around in power today is thinking… how do I exclude folks? It’s not intentional… [We] try to penetrate the circle that might be in power now and create more connections across divisions and try to get at [the idea that] there’s a lot of excluding that’s happening that’s not intentional… That’s not the total answer, but I think that’s a part of it.
[Media] has always been a way for nonprofits in social change to get their message out… Where do you see media going?
I think a lot of what’s exciting is this certainly puts the ability to create [media] and get messages out in a lot of people’s hands… The youth that we work with in our communities love the opportunity to do a video to get their message out. And one of their frustrations is the way… teens in the community in particular are portrayed… The ability to create their own message is definitely empowering. I think it’s exciting because there’s so much opened up. I think there’s certainly a lot of inherent challenges as well.
The Boston Globe example… Not all media institutions are like this, but there are reporting standards that somebody writing for The Boston Globe is generally going to have and follow. Not every blogger out there obviously has that training. So I think there are challenges with… how stuff gets vetted or validated… It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out, but I guess if you follow the wisdom of crowds theory… I think that you see that sometimes some of the stuff that gets a lot of play on Youtube maybe isn’t all that good, but there’s some systems that do [surface things that] wouldn’t surface otherwise that are well done, that shed more light on something that wouldn’t [be covered by] mainstream media. By and large it’s promising, but I think there are a lot of interesting things to navigate as we move forward in the work.
In response to the question, “What is a major challenge or opportunity that each of your organizations are facing right now?”
Fundraising is challenging… so if anybody wants to write us a big check, that’s an opportunity. One of the things I mentioned is that we do a lot with technology… we’re trying to figure out what our long-term strategy is with this in terms of [to what degree] we do our own thing with technology versus how much we try to have training on how to utilize the technologies that are out there. We’re very interested in doing more to engage people who are interested in that. We’re going to be doing some groups… in person and some virtual convening around helping us strategize.
You all are facing such difficult circumstances. I don’t just mean financially, but just doing what you do. You’re looking really difficult situations in the eye and trying to heal them. So, a two part question: how do you stay present when so much of what has led to these situations is historic and some of your hopes are future-oriented? And how do you not own all of the problems that you see? How do you prevent yourself from taking them on, carrying this weight of the world on your shoulders?
Great question… I was thinking that just some real practical things are important to me… doing something that’s very centering. I typically go and home cook and connect with my wife and my three and a half year old… In light of all the challenges that are out there in the world… what you can impact the most is the people whom you’re closest to. And I think if you’re out there working for social justice and a crappy father, then that doesn’t make sense… So I’m supposed to be home by 5:30 to be with my son and my wife. [I make sure] that I honor that. That’s a starting point. The other thing that you’re talking about, technology—we actually recently instituted no Facebook, Twittering, any of that on Sundays at our house.
A follow up thing I would say is… realizing you can’t change it all yourself, but there’s a lot you can do nonetheless. You start small and say, how can I be a good family member, a good friend, a good neighbor and build out from there?
I’ll end with this story. My first year out of college I developed this program in Eastern Kentucky called Teen Power… I realized what we really needed to do was teach young people that they had power, that they could do things to change things. There are plenty of folks out there trying to serve them, but trying to get them to make change. That was the concept. And I’ll never forget, there was this one girl Tabitha who was a little bit troublesome sometimes, didn’t always want to pay attention to the training or whatever we were doing. But her heart was always there, [she was] always motivated about doing whatever project we were doing… I’ll never forget she called about 12 years later. I never would have recognized her voice… It took her about five minutes to convince me that it was the same Tabitha. But she called me because she wanted to network and figure out how she could get grant money to fund a teen center she was starting in her community… And that kind of stuff happens a lot when you do this long enough… I feel like that’s where you can have the most impact, with individual folks… You’re not going to [see individual transformations] though if you’re always 30,000 feet [above] wondering how do we achieve some abstraction of social justice or equality or what have you. You get there by those individual people you connect with to make long-term change I think.
How to Get Involved:
Visit SCI’s website for info on AmeriCorps positions and opportunities to donate time or resources to help SCI develop social capitalists.
Image by Masia Goodman