Value of Social Capital for low-income, ESL Youth

Posted on June 10, 2012
by FeliciaOctocog

This was a speech given by Linda Saris, Director of Salem CyberSpace at

its Great Expectations Fundraiser

June 5, 2012

In a book entitled Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard Chip Heath a professor from Stanford and his brother Dan Heath, a researcher and consultant at Duke, ask why it is so hard to making lasting change in our companies, our communities and our lives.  I was fortunate to hear Dr. Heath speak at Stanford and one of his stories really hit home with me.  A team from Save the Children went to Vietnam to open an office to fight malnutrition among children.  The root cause of the malnutrition was already well known:  The people lived in poverty, there was poor sanitation, low quality of water and no understanding of nutrition.  But the new office had few staff and meager resources. They were not going to be able to bring people out of poverty build new sanitation systems, fix the water supply in 6 months with no money.  Therefore the data and conventional thinking, while true, was useless.   They simply couldn’t fix the thorny root cause issues.   They had to develop a better idea.  They sent a research team into the villages.

  1. First they went about to study the norms – how do children normally eat. He found they ate, twice a day and were fed child-appropriate soft, pure food-mostly high quality rice
  2. Once the norm was understood, he then went and looked for the “bright spots” – those children who were NOT malnourished.
  3. He found that these parents fed their children the same amount of food but spread it out over 4 meals a day, and collected shrimp and crabs from the rice paddies and mixed it in with the rice. They also added sweet potato greens, considered low-class food by most
  4. What these mothers were doing of course was providing their children with much needed protein and vitamins absent in the normal diet.

So why am I telling you about malnutrition in this small village in Vietnam? Well, for the last 30 years since I have been paying attention to education policy discussion, we have been searching for ways to change our educational system, particularly in the urban districts where over 50% of students lack engagement in learning.  From the late 60’s with people like Jonathan Kozols and John Holt to name just few, we have been trying to change and innovate.  Recently with Secretary Duncan’s Race to the Top, charter schools and innovation schools, innovations and change is again top of mind.  They say that if a time traveler from the early 1800’s drop in today, the only thing in society they would recognize would be our public schools.  We all know that poverty, lack of access to education resources, and lack of education and engagement of parents all contribute to a student’s engagement in learning.   SC, like SOC, is a small office with a meager budget.  We are not going to solve these problems.  So like the SOC team we also look to the brightspots and ask ourselves why so many students do succeed against the odds.  What research has shown that in most of these kids’ lives is the presence of social capital.  Social capital is a youth’s social network of family and community members who increase that child’s productivity and probability of success. Social capital comes in the form of a parent or parents (and for most of us, including myself, that is our primary social capital) but for others it can come in the form of a teacher, counselor, coach or after-school worker(and you will meet 5 such individuals tonight) but it can also be a friend, another relative, clergy or an employer. At Salem CyberSpace we provide social capital by offering a supportive, non-judgmental adult who believes in the potential of all of its students. In addition to academic and college tutoring and advising we provide emotional supports and access to a range of social services. Everything we do is focused on building skills to be successful in post-secondary schools and careers. We do this through dedicated and caring staff, community partners, a strong alliance with the city and the schools, with bright and energetic volunteers from high school students to retired professions and of course with our funders.  And, most recently we formed a Leadership Circle made up of the Presidents of 4 of our region’s great colleges and universities, the Mayor of Salem and 6 local business leaders.  In the coming years, I know these invidicuals will also be contributing important social capital for our youth.

Today we currently have 125 students per year participating in year round programs that offer academic help, English Literacy, STEM programming and College Success programs.  Each year over 125 youth participate at Salem CyberSpace.  All of the youth who engage for 2 years or more and who enter our College Success program, graduate high school and go on to college.  To date we have over a 90% college retention rate and tonight, after 10 years, starting with a group of middle school students, we have our first college graduates.

Over the next 10 years, we will work with NSCAP, our Leadership Council, our community partners and our schools to expand the reach of our programs, strengthen our financial sustainability and to stand proud as hundreds more students adorned in cap and gown step forward to achieve their dreams and assure our futures. Thank You