Cities build trust with social capital | Opinion | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | September 25, 2016 5:00 pm
Last Updated: September 21, 2016 at 11:58 am
Today, in our cities and in our nation, we live in a time of great uncertainty. We are in unfamiliar territory, and no city or town is immune to the heartbreaking incidents that have devastated some communities. How do we as city leaders go about restoring a respectful community? What steps can we take to change peoples’ hearts and prevent these acts? How do we prepare for the aftermath of unthinkable actions even before they occur?
At July’s annual meeting of the Municipal Association of S.C., the idea of building social capital and trusting relationships showed up in many of the presentations and hallway conversations among local elected officials as a way to navigate and overcome troubling times in our communities.
Simply put, social capital can be defined as the value created by the networks that connect similar people and build bridges between diverse people. By developing ongoing personal and trusting relationships within communities, city leaders have created the social capital necessary when facing challenges.
Several examples of social capital came out of law enforcement sessions. Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen talked about the years of relationship building between police and various sectors of the community. This groundwork meant the community was prepared to trust and talk to one another across demographic lines after the Mother Emmanuel shootings. He used Charleston’s Illumination Project, started in March 2016, as an example of engaging the community before challenges happen rather than waiting for events to occur.
During the association’s awards breakfast, the City of Anderson shared its community policing task force. Aware that their city was not immune to the tensions facing many cities around the country, officials took a proactive step to encourage a positive relationship between Anderson residents and its police department. A grassroots task force focused on minority neighborhoods by holding open-forum meetings to encourage frank, and sometimes uncomfortable, discussions with the goal of building trusting relationships.
Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook explained how the capital city program is putting its new Criminal Justice Academy graduates on the streets in a different way for their first week on the job. These new officers spend a week volunteering in the churches, recreation centers, soup kitchens and parks in the part of town where they will be working. This helps those being served, as well as those who are serving, see the human side of the people and situations they will encounter on the street.
But social capital and relationship building go beyond just policing. Peter Kageyama, author, community development specialist and one of the general session speakers, talked about building social capital in the context of creating cities for all generations and across demographic lines. This can be as easy as paying attention to the small things that connect people to each other and to their city. He used dog parks as a simple example. Dog parks can be one of the most social places in a city, and they are inexpensive to build and maintain. Plus, dogs are great at helping people connect beyond social, economic and generational barriers.
The annual meeting’s other general session speaker made the case that leaders can build social capital using technology as a way to communicate and build trust across generational, racial and geographic lines. For instance, Curt Steinhorst, an expert on generational trends and the age of distraction, said city officials can build relationships with their millennial residents by having a responsive social media presence.
Through its Achievement Awards winner video, the Town of Mount Pleasant illustrated how it is building social capital with its Government Outreach Office that takes city hall out into the community. Using a four-part approach, council members and senior town staff get out in neighborhoods all over town on a regular basis, helping residents get to know them and letting them really experience the town’s neighborhoods.
These are just a few of the many examples that illustrate the importance of social capital. The bottom line is that the relationships and trust necessary to build and maintain social capital don’t just happen. City leaders must be aligned both philosophically and strategically to connect people and create true community engagement.
(Young was elected president of the Municipal Association of S.C. at its annual meeting in July.)