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Building Social Networks Key to Improving Lifestyles, Life… and Schools

December 6, 2016

I’ve often drawn posts from the NYTimes Fixes column, edited by Tina Rosenberg. In a column Ms. Rosenberg posts today she looks back over the past year and identifies three “big ideas” that substantially changed our society for the better, all of which are based on the notion of building human capital. The “big ideas” were captured in three phrases: “Share a Little of That Human Touch”: “Use Tech to Democratize”; and, “Make the Better Choice the Easy Choice”.

In the “Human Touch” section Ms. Rosenberg describes how face-to-face contact between those in need and service providers and/or those in need and volunteers can make a huge impact on both those offering the service and those receiving it. She doesn’t say so explicitly, but the kinds of social networks she describes here fend off loneliness, which can be painful and debilitating.

The use of technology to democratize suggests that the on-line technology should make it possible for individuals of all backgrounds in our county and the world should be able to access the same kinds of services and opportunities available to the affluent earners in our country. In this section Ms. Rosenberg describes how cattle farmers in Africa can now purchase insurance, how anyone can invest in a socially responsible way, and how the internet can provide legal assistance for those who cannot afford attorneys and consequently “…lose their apartments, their children and their jobs” when they fall behind on bill payments.

In the last section on making good choices easy Ms. Rosenberg describes how the placement of trash receptacles reduces littering and how inexpensive and readily available birth control reduces abortion and unwanted pregnancies… and offers evidence to support these findings.

The article begins with a description of the Thread program in Baltimore schools that effectively combines all three of these components. Thread is a late intervention program that provides intense support for for ninth grade students in the lowest quartile of their cohort. Here’s an excerpt that describes the program:

My colleague David Bornstein reported that Thread surrounds each of its students — most of whom face serious problems at home — with an extended family of up to five volunteers (the number drops as the child ages) for 10 years. They are always on call. Their motto could be “by any means necessary.” One volunteer might show up at a child’s house to take him to school at 7 a.m., another at 10 and yet another at noon. Consistency is essential. Volunteers can’t switch among children, and once a child signs on, he or she can’t leave or be expelled.

“Relationships are the key things that bring about real changes,” said Sarah Hemminger, a founder of Thread. The program is small but scalable. Bornstein writes that one impressive and valuable thing is the social connections it creates between groups of very different people.

In an era when we are increasingly isolated from each other by generational, income, and political, philosophical, and spiritual beliefs we connecting with others who are “very different” would go a long way to building bridges instead of securing walls. We can do so face-to-face, on-line, or by taking advantage of the random meetings we CAN create by getting out in the world in venues that our towns have created for us to mingle in. It’s a bit early for resolutions, but one of mine for 2017 is to meet more people outside of my social, educational, and geographical silo.


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