Community Resilience, Social Capital, and Positive Child Development

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America is often thought of as a land of opportunity for everyone. In theory, when children are born in the United States, they are soon to experience the fully available spectrum of opportunities allowing them to thrive, become educated and healthy, and evolve into happy, productive, well-adjusted adults. In theory…

The truth is so much affecting children’s development is often out of their control. Turns out geography has a lot to do with how well we turn out as adults. Where children live, and what opportunities are/are not available to them have substantial implications for their growth and development. Things like the availability of affordable health care (for children and parents), affordable and healthy food in sufficient and accessible quantities, access to competent and affordable child care, growing up in safe neighborhoods with housing that families can realistically rent or buy, the availability of jobs offering a livable wage,  and having properly resourced school systems (human, financial, and material resources) – these things have important impacts on the trajectories of children’s lives. And they all interact in complex ways. Even if one or more of these determinants are lacking, many children may thrive in the face of such adversity. Others, not so much. We are learning a lot more about the effects of social determinants on childhood resilience (the ability to withstand or bounce back from harmful and even toxic events). It turns out that impacts created by social determinants can be improved through strong personal and professional social networks.  

It might feel like these things are big challenges if one wishes to advocate for more nurturing environments where children are likely to thrive, or at least be less influenced by adverse childhood experiences (e.g., ACEs). How might one go about improving these social determinants? Where to begin? We can start by actively, purposefully building relationships that can enhance opportunity, advance community resilience, and link social networks. Community resilience, or the collective ability of a neighborhood or geographic area to navigate stressors, traumatic events, and resume the day-to-day ‘rhythms’ of daily life is fundamental to building something called social capital.[1] Social capital consists of the organizational structures and processes that create engagement, mutual cooperation, civic “ownership” of community and individual outcomes – in other words, social capital helps bring people together, empower them to define problems, seek mutually beneficial solutions, and evolve systems in ways that ultimately support children and families, not adversely impact them.[2] Research and experience teach us that strong social bonds, collective civic engagement, resilient and collaborative communities have direct and lasting positive influences on how children and families thrive. Social capital positively affects child development outcomes such as environmental quality (e.g., absence of lead in water pipes and paint, freedom from PFAS in our streams), reducing child maltreatment, lower crime rates, improving school graduation rates, achievement of better health outcomes, and positive youth development. Therefore, when we actively, intentionally, and sustainably work to build nurturing relationships across businesses, nonprofit and faith organizations, schools, human services and government agencies, neighborhood networks, etc., we are creating the bridging and laddering tools needed to support children and families. Relationships matter. And strong, positive, healthy relationships matter the most.

The Child Advocacy Center is an example of an intentionally created, relationship-driven organization constructed by a network of professionals, advocates, and volunteers who work on behalf of vulnerable children and their families. Originally organized through an informal network of child advocates and professionals, the CAC evolved from a committed team of volunteers, and has grown to become a trusted, competent, safe, and highly professional environment where children and families can overcome the impacts of childhood trauma and adversity. Yet the CAC would not have been created without the social capital from personal and professional relationships. Those relationships created a shared vision and commitment to link other resources together (financial, professional, volunteer, etc.) on behalf of children vulnerable to the traumatic and harmful impacts caused by child maltreatment. Throughout its 27 years, the CAC has helped thousands of children and families in our communities through its resources and services. We should never underestimate the power and influence of relationships; they drive everything, can overcome seemingly unconquerable obstacles, and when harnessed for the good of our children, can accomplish amazing and wonderful things.   

[1] Aldrich, D. P. (2012c). Building resilience: Social capital in post-disaster recovery. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Putnam, Robert B. 1995. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Journal of Democracy 6 (1): 65–78. 

Robin Jenkins, PhD

Guest Blogger

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