July 17, 2017

From At-risk to At-Promise: Social Capital and Adult-Youth Relationships

Tigonzales IMG_2646 (1)By Teresa Irene Gonzales and Marilyn Barnes, recent graduate, Knox College

Every year, seniors at Knox College engage in a year long research project. In the fall term, students come up with a topic, write a literature review, refine their research question(s), and draft their IRB submission. During the winter term, the students collect data through ethnographic observations, interviews, surveys, and/or content analysis. In the spring students write their final research paper and present their findings to campus.

Students are encouraged to focus on topics and research questions that are important to them; to draw on their everyday lives, the interactions they’ve had with others, reflect upon their workplace experiences, and implement an anthropological or sociological lens to those everyday interactions (like many small liberal arts schools, we’re in a combined department. This allows students to become familiar with both disciplines and to seamlessly draw from both in their research).

This year students researched everything from how students manage their everyday personal problems, to how LGBTQ+ individuals in a small midwestern town find and cultivate support systems, to the impact of popular media on constructing biased images of welfare recipients, to pet-human relationships, to the importance of social capital for marginalized youth.

Marilyn Barnes, (a recent Knox Alumnae and departmental prize winner) conducted a study on the importance of adult mentoring relationships for “at-risk” middle-school students.

Drawing on theories of social capital, Barnes found that adult mentorship relationships and youth-focused programming provided the middle-schoolers in her study both academic and personal support.

Social capital is a way to describe the social relationships that exist between individuals. Through these relationships, we can access different kinds of resources (information about a job or a delicious recipe, money, expertise, access to housing, and ways of being). For instance, if you’ve ever asked your professor to let you know about potential internships, you are activing your social networks in order to acquire social capital. You might access social capital through your neighborhood, family, school, church, work, extracurricular activities, and/or coaches.

Although social capital seems like an inherently good thing, it can be used in both positive and negative ways. Some factors of positive social capital include social connectedness, norms of generalized reciprocity, and trustworthiness. However, it can also be used to expand ethnocentrism, corruption, or to consolidate economic and/or political power into the hands of the few.

There are two kinds of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital refers to the connections of individuals within a group (think neighborhood or family). In this scenario, resources are consolidated and the likelihood for new information is low. Bridging social capital links individuals from different groups. This allows people access to external resources and new information.

In terms of youth development, both positive bonding and bridging social capital is important in shaping the goals, behaviors, and life chances of young people, especially those considered “at-risk.” Barnes found that positive adult relationships taught the middle-schoolers critical thinking skills and positive coping mechanisms to resolve interpersonal issues. These relationships also empowered the students to reflect on and take responsibility for their actions, and to learn forgiveness.

When researchers discuss “at-risk” youth, they often are referring to young people who have a high chance of dropping out of or failing high school, and therefore have low chances of transitioning into adulthood as an economically self-sufficient person.

Concentrated poverty is linked to “at-risk” youth outcomes in a variety of ways. Studies on urban poverty found that this includes lowered aspirations for the future, underperformance in academics, low graduation rates, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty trusting adults, and avoidance of others. Although not an urban center, 62.7% of students attending public school in Galesburg are considered low-income, only 34% are ready for college coursework upon graduation, and there is an 18% gap in academic performance between low-income versus non low-income students.

Barnes talked to mentors and students in the program and observed their interactions. He noticed that the mentors not only engaged with the students academically, but also on a personal level. Mentors demonstrated the importance of caring and love in their relationships with the students. This included constant communication and presence at lunch, in the hallways, and during extracurricular activities and visits to students’ homes to check-in and talk to their parents.

The constant flow of information that the mentors received through conversations with students can help eliminate some of the day-to-day conflicts that arise between students and even between students and other adults within the school. That information gives the mentors a chance to defuse tense or possibly explosive situations.

By preventing situations like these, mentors are lowering the “at-risk” stigma placed on their students due to perceived behavior issues and office referrals by teachers and staff. During conversations with the youth, mentors are also able to model positive communication skills like deep listening, reflection, and ways to respectfully disagree with others’ ideas. Through sharing stories and ideas, these conversations also create feelings of closeness, connectedness, and trust. While that can be awesome on its own, it also increases the likelihood that a student will trust the mentor’s advice. Students look up to the mentors and care about what they think of them which pushes students to want to do better in all areas that define them as “at-risk,” such as behavioral problems, low GPAs and missing school.

In addition to removing “at-risk” barriers to the youth in the program, the mentors are also flipping the narrative of “at-risk” to what sociologist Victor Rios terms “at-promise.” For Rios and others who study the stigma associated with negative labels, the term “at-risk” places lowered and problematic expectations on individuals.

This is not to negate the very real problems that impoverished individuals encounter (some of which are articulated above). Rather, this is to highlight two things: 1) impoverished individuals are not poor because they are risky, instead this is due to structural inequities that disproportionately reduce the life chances of those who were not born into wealth and/or safe environments, and 2) labels matter, as Rios says, “what you call someone determines how you treat them, the discourse you create about someone often determines the treatment that they receive.”

If you label someone “at-risk,” this tells the individual and others that the person is in a precarious situation, may engage in risky behavior, and/or that they lack agency. We may feel bad for the person, and we do not expect much of the person “at-risk.” However, in changing the discourse, we may change the outcome. The social view towards “at-promise” youth, and the personal view of those labeled as “at-promise” changes in a positive way. The mentors in Barnes’ study believe in their students, respect their students, and expect the best (not the worst) of their students. This is reflected in their interactions with the young people, and in the love and trust that the young people exhibited towards their mentors.

What social relationships in your life have guided you through high school and/or college? What networks do you rely on for information regarding jobs, places to visit, or books to read?

Comments

I am pleased to announce the publication of my latest research papers

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Sujay_Rao_Mandavilli/stats/profile_views

Sujay Rao Mandavilli

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