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A-Ha Moments

Interview with David Crowley of Social Capital, Inc.

Written by: Bill Sherman on Wednesday, 6 August 2008, 6:15 AM

The past few weeks, I’ve had several great conversations with David Crowley, the President and Founder of Social Capital, Inc (SCI). As the founder of SCI, David has become a national leader in exploring how communities can systematically and intentionally weave stronger social fabrics connecting its members. Currently SCI hosts three community-level projects within the Boston area.

BS:  You’ve said that Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone inspired you to become active in building social capital within communities. I know many have read that book, but they haven’t taken action. Tell me about your experience. What inspired you to act?

DC: Well, I suppose my previous work in the nonprofit sector pre-conditioned me to be receptive to the message.  I read the final chapter of Bowling Alone on a flight to San Francisco, and I was ready to jump off the plane to get to work addressing the problems Professor Putnam describes in the book.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with that energy at first.  My wife and I had recently bought our first home in Woburn, MA.  I had a desire to reconnect and get involved in this community I grew up in but hadn’t lived in a dozen years.  I found challenges to getting connected in a meaningful way, and also noted that the community was growing much more diverse and different in many ways than the place I grew up.  I had an “Aha” moment of my own when I saw that the best way I could address the big issues in Bowling Alone was by starting locally in my hometown.

BS: In 2002, you launched the first SCI initiative in Woburn, Massachusetts, and you’re now also operating in Dorchester and Lynn. Why have you chosen these three communities-what stood out for you? Did you see a specific need in these communities?

DC: As I noted, choosing Woburn as the starting point was pretty easy, as doing this work in my hometown was very much wrapped up with my general motivation to address this issue.

Leveraging our own social capital has been a big part of finding new locations to work with.  We had grant support to replicate our program somewhere within the city of Boston; networking for a neighborhood and organizational partner led me to Bill Walczak of the Codman Square Health Center.  He made a good case that Dorchester was a great place for us to work.

We got a bit more systematic in searching for our third location.  Our board believed that there was a lot of potential for SCI in very diverse, mid-sized urban communities in Massachusetts.  That narrowed our list, and we chose Lynn because the city had recently done a community survey that made a great case for SCI to work there.  In particular, most residents indicated that hadn’t been involved much in their neighborhood but were interested in becoming active.

BS: You have brought a number of youths into leadership programs and given them many opportunities to build marketplace skills while serving their community. Tell us about some of your successful program alumni.

DC: Joao Ramos is one that comes to mind.  He started with SCI in Dorchester in the summer of 2007, as part of a summer jobs program where we trained youth in technology and outreach skills to work on our community website.   Joao already had developed an interest in computers, and he really thrived in our program as it gave him a platform to further develop his skills while serving his community. Joao, originally from Cape Verde, got to sharpen his communication skills too as he has spent much of his time with SCI doing presentations about the organization and our website.  Though I’m sure there are a lot of local companies that would like to recruit Joao, we convinced him to stay with us for a year of AmeriCorps service.

BS: Over the past six years, have you seen social capital within Woburn, Dorchester, and Lynn change? What impact have you been able to make?

DC: Numbers are of course important.  We document over 10,000 individuals each year participating in civic life.   75% of those in our network say they are more civically active because of SCI, and over half say they have met new people in their community.

But it’s often the stories that best show the impact.  The vitality in Downtown Woburn for WorldFest, or people of diverse backgrounds throughout the community coming together for MyDorchester night.

Sometimes it’s the stories of connecting neighbors.  For instance, around the time of the first snowfall last winter, I got a call from someone from out of state.  She was worried about her elderly father, living alone in Woburn and recovering from surgery.  Knowing that her Dad had a stubborn streak, she was worried that he’d still try to shovel his own snow if he didn’t get some help!  We posted this concern to our community website & our weekly eblast.  Within 24 hours, I was contacted by Jim, one of the gentleman’s neighbors who read about this need.  Though Jim was a bit sheepish that he had never met this neighbor in the years he had lived on the street, Jim was more than happy to use his snowblower to take care of his neighbors driveway now that he knew of this neighbor in need.

BS: You’ve built partnerships with a number of service groups-such as AmeriCorps, the Boston Globe Foundation, and the Massachusetts Service Alliance-how have you gone about building partnerships (themselves a form of social capital)?

DC: We definitely are conscious of leveraging our social capital in terms of how we run the organization, including gaining support for our work.  I was re-connecting with a former colleague when he introduced me to the Executive Director of the Globe Foundation, Leah Bailey.  Fortunately, they were also embarking upon a new funding strategy that emphasized long-term relationships, so we started a conversation that day that has continued over the past 5 years.  A key point here is that we have found partners that share our commitment to relationship building.

I’d say it’s easier to think about how leveraging one’s social network can lead to new contacts, but takes more discipline to continuously nurture those relationships so that one is truly building up a stock of social capital upon which one can draw in the future.

BS: You’ve made community-based social capital an important part of your life. What insights have gained through your work with SCI?

DC: Our son, turning three this week, arrived in the midst of this journey of creating SCI.  It definitely adds a new level of meaning to feel like I’m enriching the community he’ll grow up in through the work I’m doing.  And it already has some very tangible benefits.  For instance, we love going as a family to the summer concert series we do in Downtown Woburn.  In addition to exposing him to an eclectic array of music, it’s a great way to connect with fellow community members.  Downtown Woburn is a place we tended to stay away from when I was growing up, so it is exciting to see the city center now have so much to offer families.

BS: What are the next steps for SCI? How do you plan to expand your reach and impact?

DC: We’re always interested in expanding our network of people interested in our work, so I’d love to hear from any of your readers who want to learn more. We’re going to be working over the next year or so in documenting our curriculum and best practices such that we are in position to be helpful to communities interested in doing similar work…so stay tuned for that!  More at http://socialcapitalinc.org.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a shameless plug for the full-time AmeriCorps positions we currently have open.  AmeriCorps is a great way to gain valuable experience while serving the community; and our positions provide a great entrée into social capital and fields such as community development, youth work and community technology.

David’s Bio:

As the founder of SCI, David has become a national leader in exploring how communities can systematically and intentionally weave stronger social fabrics connecting its members. David brings over fifteen years of leadership in the nonprofit sector. Prior to starting SCI, David served as Executive Director of Generations Incorporated, which under his leadership grew into a national model for intergenerational programming. He also started and directed the Kentucky Community Service Commission.  David has written and presented extensively on subjects related to civic engagement, community building and technology.  David graduated from Harvard College in 1991 with an A.B. in Government,

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