Tags Posts tagged with "social capital"

social capital

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Daniel Homsey, Director, Neighborhood Empowerment Network

Over the last century, astrophysicists encountered a major hurdle in their efforts to understand the fundamental nature of our universe.  As they began to build more powerful mathematical models and measurement instruments, the Universe seemed to become less and less predictable. In a nutshell, the visible bodies in space were not behaving in a way that was defendable by the great minds of earth. Their behavior reflected a universe with substantially more mass than was visible to our measuring devices (i.e. visible, infrared, radio). The only explanation was that the majority of the matter of the Universe was invisible or “dark”. Once scientists embraced Dark Matter’s existence, virtually all of their formulas and projections were applicable.

The Disaster Management universe is entering such a period of discovery.

In the recent decade, there has been consistent and over whelming evidence that the sum of the traditional disaster response assets do not necessarily equal the desired impact necessary to respond to a hazard.  Hotwash after hotwash showed that all too often, although the presumably necessary assets needed to respond to a hazard were deployed, the desired outcomes (minimal loss of life and destruction of property) were not achieved.  Consistently the evidence showed that it wasn’t a lack of physical assets or individual capacity that was the problem, but rather a more intangible asset that seemed to be the underlying culprit. In the professional response world it’s called interoperability: in the neighborhoods it’s called Social Capital.

The classic definition of social capital is “The web of social networks, norms of reciprocity, mutual assistance, and trustworthiness” (Putnam & Feldstein, 2003), and like Dark Matter, social capital is almost impossible to see, and yet its impact is readily identifiable.  In the response phase of an event, the way the Fire Dept.


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The Noe Street Experience from NENtv on Vimeo.

On Noe Street, in San Francisco’s Duboce Triangle neighborhood, there’s plenty of places to sit, the traffic goes slowly, plants and trees are everywhere, each building is unique, and neighbors wouldn’t live anywhere else.

How did this street become one of San Francisco’s jewels and what can other neighborhoods learn from this example? NENtv visits Noe Street to find out.

[Also viewable on Youtube here.]


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Adam Greenfield, Inner Sunset Community Organizer

Author/lecturer Dale Carnegie once wrote that “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

My appreciation for knowing people’s names never stops growing. I’m steadily learning the names of neighbors on my street; and now Antoinette, John, Cynthia, Jesse, Ken, Judy, and Carl – among others – hear their names when we greet one another.

Learning the names of local business owners and employees is also a real kick. Suki runs the corner store around the corner from my house, John owns my local wine bar, Donnamarie works at my nearest jewelry store, Brandi co-owns a nearby gift stop, and Howard works at the bakery.

There are the names of people who work in important local organizations: Paula is the administrator at the church near me, John is principal of a nearby international school, Kevin is a local police sergeant, and Ross is my district supervisor.

I wear a name tag on my jacket’s lapel at all times (a shrinky dink saying “Hello my name is Adam”, made for me by an old friend) so that my name is readily apparent to anyone. It’s worked well over the past few years and people seem to appreciate it.

Lots of names, lots of opportunities. Photo from "The Big Lunch" event.

Why learn people’s names?

1. Ice-Breaking. Knowing someone’s name is the ultimate ice-breaker. Whether someone is shy, suspicious, unfamiliar, of a different culture, or otherwise, you can warm to one another by learning their name. Learning names is the first step to getting to know your neighbors.

2. Navigating the grape vine. A community-builder who knows a lot of names builds a map in their mind of who knows who and where to go for information and resources. “You should talk to Cheryl at the local school. She knows someone with a lot of spare carpets you could use for your event.”

3. Seeing people as humans. We have all de-humanized strangers, judging them by their looks, race, gender, clothing, demeanor, or otherwise. That doesn’t mean we’re bad people, it’s a natural tendency. However, knowing someone’s name makes them fully human to us and lifts us above our natural lazy judgments. We come to appreciate people and to empathize with and respect them.

4. Being happy. Knowing names makes people friendlier and more familiar. Most people smile when you call their name. It’s part of a happy life.

How to learn names

Many of us think we’re naturally bad at remembering names. I don’t actually think this is the case for most people; we just need some techniques. Chris Witt has some great advice, which I will put in my own words and expand upon below:

1. Commit to learning names. Understand the importance of knowing names and build name-learning into your daily practice.

2. Concentrate. Make sure you really listen when someone tells you their name. Ask them to repeat it if you didn’t hear or to spell it out if their name is unusual to you.

3. Employ repetition. Use someone’s name a few times within the first couple of minutes of talking with them. This really helps you memorize their name.

4. Use the power of association. To help remember a name, associate it with an action, visual, sound, or something else. For instance, if someone’s name is Derek, you might say it sounds a bit like “deck” and thus associate them with an image of a ship.

5. Ask next time. If you failed to remember someone’s name, ask them on the next occasion or as soon as possible. This avoids the awkward “I’ve known someone for 6 months and I still can’t remember their name” phenomenon that we have all experienced.

6. Use name tags. When organizing events, get people to put on sticky name badges. I do this for most events with which I’m involved.

7. Introduce someone else. I use this sneaky trick when it feels too awkward to ask for someone’s name a long time after you first met. Introduce someone whose name you do know to the person whose name you want to know and the latter will introduce themselves. Now remember this time!

Time to get learning! Photo from "The Big Lunch" event.

Knowing names is a key ingredient of an effective community-builder, a good neighbor, and a happy person. It has become uniquely important to me as I’ve gotten to know more and more people in my neighborhood and you will probably discover the same thing.

If you want to feel a part of your community, get to know names. It’s that simple!


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On May 7th, Shareable Magazine will be bringing together the Bay Area’s best and brightest for a day of connection, innovation, and action.  During our event called SHARE San Francisco, we will challenge you to discover new opportunities for impact, connect with leaders across sectors to boost your innovative potential, and explore the use of sharing as a powerful change strategy that addresses multiple social goals at once. 

SHARE San Francisco is partially inspired by a quote by author and instigator Lisa Gansky. She said “Cities are a platform for sharing.”  When I first heard it, a myriad of images flooded my mind – bike and car sharing, knowing my neighbors, community gardens, street fairs, potlucks, parks, libraries – I pictured a city in which sharing and connection was a way of life.  But then I had an unsettling thought: Why did that vision feel so far and distant – like a dream in a city, in a city supposedly full of those things?

Don’t get me wrong, the Bay Area has a lot going for it. From our vibrant neighborhoods and the tech industry, to our unified commitment to the environment and our love of good food – we are a mecca of ideal urban living.  But how much do we really share? And, as my 5 year old cousin used to always ask “Do we HAVE to?”

If we care about the future of our city, our economy, and our planet, the answer is a resounding yes – and we need to do a lot more of it.  To meet the constantly changing and complex challenges our world is currently experiencing, our governments need to become more open and democratic, our workplaces more flexible, creative, and agile, our food, more local, our transportation and energy use more sustainable, and our neighborhoods more personally connected.  We have to create new, cross sector and stakeholder networks that will help us have greater impact in our work to face the economic, environmental, and social challenges of both today and tomorrow.  And as shocking as it might sound to some of you, the kindergarten lesson of sharing might be our best hope.

Sharing (of space, time, work, food, resources) is a triple threat to what ails us – it’s good for the environment, creates jobs and is easier on the wallet, and helps you connect and take action in innovative and collaborative ways.  And we at Shareable believe it is the foundation on which any societal progress must be built.

For those of you already tuned into the NEN, you understand that the future of our city, and the resiliency of our communities depends on how quickly we can connect and build networks.  SHARE San Francisco is our attempt to build a new and powerful network around sharing. We’re meshing Gov 2.0 leaders, non-profit and community activists, students, social entrepreneurs, makers, bikers, and all those with a stake in developing our city as a platform for sharing for a powerful day of inspiration, connection, and action.  We believe that sharing both online and offline will result in more connected communities, through which real and meaningful resilience can develop.  We hope you’ll consider joining us in reimagining our city as a platform for sharing on May 7th.

For more information, scholarships, volunteer opportunities, or press passes contact milicent@shareable.net

And keep up to date on SHARE SF with our Twitter hashtag, #SHARESF and our SHARESF channel on Shareable


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Adam Greenfield, Inner Sunset Community Organizer

You probably understand community as knowing your neighbors, helping each other out, feeling a sense of commonality and connection, and so forth. But how does one actually begin building community? In this writing, I focus on one element – an element without which full community cannot happen: Bringing civic life back to the streets.

Why is the street so important?

Whereas the street was once the place for connection and for lingering, it is now a place of hypermobility and danger. That this common space could, in daily life, be for anything else is now unquestioned; it is apparently rude and dangerous to act otherwise. When we retreated from the streets, the roar of traffic then pushed us off the sidewalk into our homes. The retreat was complete.

In the street, recurring faces become familiar and familiar faces become friendly. From there we begin sharing our lives. Pushing back into the streets is essential; it is also easy, cheap, fun, requires little time, and is liberating. Below I’ll list some ways that you can do this, ranging from instantly doable to achievable with some resources or a little courage.

Neighbors learn lindy hop together in the street at the Inner Sunset Street Fair, organized by people in my neighborhood. Photo taken May 15th 2010 by Chris Duderstadt


Introductory thoughts

There could be said to be two main parts of the street: The sidewalk and the road. Reversing the retreat into our houses will likely involve pushing first back onto the sidewalk and then into the road (with parking spaces as a mid step between the two). Thus, I divide the below suggestions into these different areas.

I intend to motivate you to act. Don’t spend too much time thinking; start doing something as soon as possible. Below are my suggestions but you’ll probably get more excited about your own ideas. Think for yourself about how you could push into the street.

We need a culture shift in how we view the streets, especially in moving beyond seeing streets as places dominated by automobiles. I think that culture shift would include the following:-

  • Performing as many daily functions in the street as possible.
  • Considering the street as a place for lingering, not just movement.
  • People depend less on laws and rules and more on negotiation and compromise.

Step 1. Start with the sidewalk

My 30th birthday party on the sidewalk outside my house. Photo taken October 10th 2010

The sidewalk is the place to begin bringing community back to the public realm. These daily activities are suitable for individuals or groups to do on the sidewalk:-

  • Eating meals
  • Drinking tea or coffee
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Doing physical exercise
  • Making art
  • Playing music
  • Daydreaming
  • Smiling or waving at passersby
  • Chatting, or doing any of the above, with friends

Due to their tendency to degrade the public realm or to make people feel excluded, I recommend keeping the following away from public places:-

  • Phone conversations
  • Computers
  • Sunglasses
  • Smoking

Step 2. Move out to parking spaces

The ever more popular "Park(ing) Day" event. Photo by Steve Rhodes.

Once you get used to sidewalk activities try moving beyond and doing the below in parking spaces.

  • Dinner parties
  • Book clubs
  • Discussion groups
  • Board games
  • Music, acting, or other performances

These activities can be more enjoyable if you create a living room feel outside. Loot your house or build a street reclaiming kit by visiting garage sales. To create such a space, you could bring:-

  • Rugs
  • Cushions
  • Chairs
  • Plants
  • Tables
  • Ornaments
  • Materials to create a border around your space on the road side

Some people go a little further and create “linger nodes” that can be left outside all the time. Such nodes can involve benches, potted plants, and community notice boards. I recommend visiting the City Repair website for more ideas on this subject.

There are two San Francisco-based initiatives that deal with using parking spaces as civic gathering spaces:-

  1. Park(ing) Day: This event began in San Francisco in 2005 and happens once a year in September. Organizations or groups of people transform parking spaces into small parks in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways.
  2. The parklet program: I theorize that this is the City of San Francisco’s official response to Park(ing) Day. Parklets, which are becoming very popular, are “sidewalk extentions” that stay out all the time and anyone can apply. Applicants submit a design, get approval, find funding, and build the parklet. As far as government programs go, this is still relatively unbureaucratic but you do have to find all your own funding. There’s no next application round confirmed but I hear that round should come eventually.

Step 3: Reclaim the roads

Parachuting at the Inner Sunset Street Fair 2010. Photo by Chris Duderstadt.

Right now, in San Francisco there are two main City-sanctioned ways for communities to use the road for something other than storing or moving automobiles (the Sunday Streets event also offers possibilities for street activity if an event’s route passes through your neighborhood). Both are temporary approaches – see here for more information on these approaches.

  1. Apply for a block party permit ($150 to close one block for the benefit of the residents of that block)
  2. Apply for a street fair permit ($480)

However, these options are expensive and time-consuming for communities and require months of advance notice. In the long term, to properly make our streets places of community once more, we are going to need to forge new flexible, low-cost solutions that work better for communities…

…Solutions like the “Playing Out” scheme in Bristol, England, where streets are closed regularly for short periods after school hours for children to play in the streets. This short video may inspire you:-


Playing Out from Paul Gilbert on Vimeo.

Start talking with groups in your neighborhood, and elsewhere, about how schemes like this might happen where you live.

Your street, your home

Your street is part of your home. This is your space and you should feel welcome there. In fact, the more you are there the more everybody benefits. Using the street is a service to yourself and your community.

For further reading, I strongly recommend reading the book Mental Speed Bumps (author’s site, Amazon link) and visiting the Creative Communities website, where you’ll find many inspiring suggestions included in the MSB book.

Whatever you do out in the street, make sure it’s fun and promotes community and harmony. I promise that if you push back into the street, your life and that of your community will never be the same again. You can change the world on your own street and now is the time.

Friends and neighbors join me on my stoop at my birthday party. This was inspired by the famous Art Kane Jazz Portrait photo from Harlem 1958. Photo taken October 10th 2010.

2010 Youth Leadership Award – Mitzi Chavez from NENtv on Vimeo.

Congratulations to the 2010 Neighborhood Youth Leadership Award winner Mitzi Chavez for her work as a youth mentor, educator and peer leader.

“She is truly a positive role model. Her intellectual curiosity and intelligence, open-heartedness, and her communication skills are three of her greatest attributes. This combination shows through in her work both in and outside of Peer Resources. Whether a mentor or an educator, Mitzi’s welcoming nature and true passion for helping others regardless of their diverse needs and backgrounds has had a great impact in many lives,” said resident Sarah Brant.

Alessa Adamo, Executive Director, SF CARD

The explosion and fire in San Bruno, CA devastated a small section of this peninsula city on September 9th. It literally rocked this normally peaceful community, registering the explosion as a 1.1 magnitude earthquake at USGS. Witnesses reported the initial blast “had a wall of fire more than 1000 feet high.”

First responders were on the scene quickly, but it took scores of fire engines that waged an all-night battle, including air tankers before the fire was finally brought under control in the early hours of the morning. Residents rallied and were instrumental in the response, helping firefighters drag hoses long distances to working fire hydrants and drive burned neighbors to local hospitals.

By noon on Friday, the fire was finally out, but the neighborhood was devastated with four people dead*, many more injured and several people missing. It might best be described as if a napalm bomb was dropped there; people could certainly be forgiven for initially assuming a plane crashed there.

Even as first responders were there minutes after the explosion, nonprofits and faith-based organizations mobilized immediately as well. Led by the City of San Bruno, the County of San Mateo and American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter, evacuation centers were erected, shelters opened and services rendered.

The needs of the affected residents’ were starting to be met, from food and clothing to grief counseling to spiritual care to family locating services. Residents throughout the Bay Area needing to help but wanting no recognition were dropping off donations of money, food, water and clothing at local churches, the shelters and the local assistance center. They simply needed to contribute something to help a devastated community heal.

A sense of shared community is inherent in disasters. People feel an immediate bond through the experience of shared loss. A few misguided authority figures may believe a population rocked by disaster should be feared and contained, lest they devolve into anarchy with looting and murder becoming the predominant outcome (refer to some of the responses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina).

In reality, communities come together; people feed each other, house each other, watch each other’s children, support each other emotionally, spiritually and in every way needed. It’s known as mutual support, and it was clearly happening in San Bruno.

As we know, all disasters are different, and this one is no exception. Some of the differences are that this one is confined to a small isolated area; it only affected a small segment of the population; it didn’t affect the response agencies; it didn’t affect the nonprofits or the majority of the congregations in the city; it was largely confined to a middle-class neighborhood where insurance could help compensate the residents; it was immediately identified as caused by a failed gas pipeline owned by PG&E, who also immediately acknowledged that they “owned” the disaster and led the recovery effort.

There are more differences, but the one I want to point out is the one of a lack of shared loss throughout the community.  

One of the silver linings that come from a large-scale disaster such as a major earthquake, wildfire or flood is that the entire community shares in the loss. It is not a positive aspect that so many are devastated by large-scale disasters, but it is the spirit of the shared experience that brings the community together as the recovery begins. In this case, the residents of the neighborhood in San Bruno who are directly impacted by the explosion and fire may begin to identify themselves as separate from the remainder of the community.

That tendency was evident as early as the town hall meetings that took place the week following the disaster, where residents clearly identified themselves as red, yellow or green tagged. And there were heated conversations between government entities, PG&E and the residents, indicating a sense of the divide beginning to surface. And despite the gratefulness of all the residents for the outpouring of sympathy and assistance, there was a sense of “there’s us and there’s them”.

This is not to judge people’s attitudes but instead to point out that there is a very real schism that takes place between people whose lives are completely overturned and devastated in a disaster and those whose aren’t. And in this case, the affected population is large enough to send shockwaves through the community that creates the desire to assist, but small enough to have the potential to isolate those directly affected. As I walked through the assistance centers set up to support residents it was apparent that those wanting to provide support and aid outnumbered those who were seeking that assistance.

So as we reach out to help we must keep in mind that there is a difference between mutual aid and charity. That people prefer a hand instead of a handout. That people have the need to participate in their own recovery. That there may be a tendency to overwhelm the residents affected by this event as long term recovery operations establish themselves. Because even if there isn’t widespread shared loss as a result of the disaster, there is shared pain throughout the community resulting in a need to help.

We should keep in mind that we need to proceed carefully. Allow the residents to participate as decisions are made about how to allocate recovery funds and render assistance. Establish the recovery effort to include their voices, not just their needs. This simple but powerful concept will keep the model of shared community recovery prominently at the fore and keep the recovery a shared experience – a true practice of mutual aid.

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How can people care about neighborhood traffic calming or graffiti abatement if they’re still struggling financially? SF City Treasurer and upcoming Craigslist Boot Camp speaker José Cisneros talks with NENfm about his fight to stop citizens getting ripped off and the importance to our communities of financial empowerment.

Download this episode (right click and save)

Show Information

Guest: José Cisneros, TreasurerCity and County of San Francisco
Related Event: Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp
Related OrganizationsCraigslist Foundation, City and County of San Francisco, Bank on SF
Host: Adam Greenfield
Additional Credits: Moontan (music)


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Darlene Weide, Executive Director, Community Boards

My two earlier NEN blogs discussed how Community Boards has helped individuals with personal conflicts and how we’ve aided neighbors address disputes. Now I’d like to discuss a third area where Community Boards has great expertise: Assisting organizations with issues that involve multiple groups with competing interests and goals.

As the executive director of a nonprofit that provides its services in English, Spanish, and Chinese with the help of 200+ trained volunteers, I’ve seen the challenges of maintaining the quality of programs with so many moving parts. With increasingly reduced resources, nonprofit and community leaders have to deal with the demands of staff, clients, volunteers, board members, and funders. Even the strong at heart can be daunted when faced with such an array.

When people work and collaborate in groups they share ideas, energy, and responsibilities. From the get-go, though, groups too often face internal challenges. Group members bring significant differences to the table: language, race, ethnicity, culture, age, gender, political affiliation, and so on. Such rich diversity can too easily become divisive, disruptive, or counterproductive. When a group needs to address a contentious issue, such as the allocation of limited finances or determining program priorities, any possible dysfunctions too readily manifest themselves.

So you can well imagine (if you haven’t already experienced it first hand) what frequently happens: the issue gets lost as group members, or cliques, jostle with each other. Good leadership strives for consensus. Most final decisions, however, can leave a frustrated minority with ill-feelings and resentment.

Image by Mick Wright, Flickr

Conflict resolution, especially facilitation, can greatly assist. For disputes within an organization, when decision makers are perceived as biased for one side or the other, having a neutral party participate can make a critical difference. Providing neutrality is Community Boards’ forte!

With facilitation, a neutral third-party leads the process (usually a meeting) that helps group members define their shared goals, while also identifying the issues hindering fulfillment of these goals. Facilitators develop comprehensive and inclusive agendas that balance individual and group needs. They set and enforce meeting ground rules, and they identify and manage problem issues as they arise. The ultimate goal is to increase the likelihood for consensus while minimizing future discord.

Below are examples of the issues nonprofit organizations have brought to Community Boards. Confidentiality prohibits me from going into details about how each dispute was ultimately resolved. How we proceeded in each instance—and how we can help your organization—followed our standard procedures.

1.    A citywide social service agency operated several neighborhood sites. The agency held monthly meetings at its central office attended by program staff from these sites. One specific site felt that the downtown office was purposely underfunding and underserving it and its clients. The monthly meetings became increasing contentious, culminating at one where the disgruntled staff walked out.

2.    A youth-serving nonprofit had a large volunteer base that was essential to its evening and weekend programming. Tensions arose and increased between staff and a large contingent of the volunteers when new program goals were introduced. The executive director and program manager needed to intervene on an almost daily basis.

3.    A nonprofit had doubled its board of directors, with the goal of bringing in “new blood.” While things initially ran smoothly, older (both in age and in their length of service) board members were perceived as thwarting the innovations being introduced by the newer board members. Board meetings were openly hostile and fundraising came to a standstill when it was discovered that the newer members had been communicating privately with each other.

In the above instances, to begin, our staff met separately with each self-recognized group so people could speak openly about their individual and shared concerns without fear of any possible disciplinary repercussions. A large meeting was then convened with all parties (or selected group representatives) present. It was here that the issues were hashed out with our facilitators overseeing the discussion. This discussion segued into one that focused on options for addressing and resolving the issues.

In all three cases, action plans were eventually formed upon which all parties agreed. It may not always be possible to get everyone to agree on everything 100% of the time, but it’s certainly often possible to mend deep divisions and find enough common ground on which to move forward. Watching opposing parties work hard to reach agreement and then move forward is one of the many pleasures of working at Community Boards.

Darlene Weide is Executive Director of Community Boards, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization founded in 1976 that empowers communities and individuals to resolve conflicts peacefully and appropriately.


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As more community groups start improving their neighborhoods, many feel they lack the resources to do the job. Our guest on NENfm, Dr Gerald Eisman from the Institute of Civic and Community Engagement at San Francisco State University (and a speaker at the Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp on August 14th), explains how the academic community could make a massive impact.

Download this episode (right click and save)

Show Information

Guest: Dr Gerald Eisman, Director at the Institute for Civic and Community Engagement
Geographical Area: San Francisco Bay Area
Related Event: Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp
Related Organizations: Craigslist Foundation, Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, San Francisco State University
Host: Adam Greenfield
Additional Credits: Moontan (music)


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