Connections, Community, Context and Capital

By Katya Fels Smyth    July 16, 2021

This is the fifth of a multi-part blog series that will take a detailed look at the American Rescue Plan and the ways in which we can leverage it to strengthen the resiliency of our public health and human services infrastructure, and, in turn, substantially move the needle on social and economic mobility so families succeed for the long run.

Read Additional Posts from the American Rescue Plan Series:
Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5   |   Part 6   |   Part 7   |   Part 8   |   Part 9

Being asset-based is big right now, and I’m all for it. But there’s a fundamental American force that cuts against leveraging some of the most important assets our country could deploy to right inequities and address entrenched challenges. That force is our infatuation with individualism. The American Rescue Plan may be just what we need to provide some ballast, and to move us closer to a country where everyone has a fair shot at wellbeing.

The myth of the lone individual

COVID-19 exposed the fallacy of America’s preoccupation with individualism: the chronic discounting of the importance of other people and our environment in our fates. For many, lockdowns and isolation forced recognition of our interdependence, and of the power of our environment to shape our actions, choices, and outlook. Focusing just on the individual deprives us of care, resilience, growth and even life. Interdependence is healing, affirming, and ultimately far more durable.

But have we absorbed this lesson in our approach to human services? Not really. While the idea of people growing and thriving in context and community makes deep sense to us as people, it’s antithetical to the legacy design principles of our systems. Just as our national narrative favors stories of intrepid individuals, with social networks and environment playing only a minor role, we create, fund, evaluate and report on impact at the level of the individual. We incentivize change that devalues the role of social networks and context in people’s trajectory. In other words, this is structural, and further concentrates harm in communities facing the greatest challenges.

If we’re committed to equity, to being asset-based, and to the wellbeing of people and communities, we must use the American Rescue Plan (ARP) to tackle systemic over-emphasis on individualism. And because ARP funds are limited in duration, flexible in use, and significant in magnitude, it’s imperative that we invest in structural change that will sustain benefits long after the investment is made, rather than investing in programs to help people navigate the harms of untransformed systems.

Two avenues for ARP investment provide potent counterbalances for individualism and foster durable change: leveraging the power of social networks and belonging and harnessing the power of the built environment to spark change.

It’s hard to be asset-based without leveraging social capital

Social capital and its distribution channels—social networks—are vital for personal and community health. But the systems we work in, administer and seek to transform combine the myth of the individual with a deep suspicion of social networks—particularly the social connections of people of color. Indeed, too many of our services are predicated on removing—even “rescuing” people from their social networks. Our country has a long history of using economic and social policy to split up families—especially Black, Indigenous and other families of color—and to disrupt and divide marginalized communities. Human services are just one cog in this wheel that also includes infrastructure, carceral systems, commerce and more. Though the program designs of modern human services do not overtly subscribe to the racist ideologies that have underpinned so much of American public policy through generations, we have all inherited the practices of separation and removal to address social problems. It is anything but asset based.

Something fundamentally different happens when we switch from seeing people’s social networks as tethers to a life they need to move away from, to instead vital components of thriving1. In other words, assets.

Foundationally, we recognize that social networks are lifesaving. When a Veterans Administration provider prescribes opioids, veterans are entitled to a free prescription for Naloxone (“Narcan”) as well. This in recognition that people overdosing may be saved by family and friends around them and professional emergency services may arrive too late.

Network-oriented services go further, stretching beyond focusing on whom people can depend. They ask, Who depends on you?, recognizing that pushing a person to change in ways that could harm or endanger others is inherently unwise and also generally unsustainable for someone who doesn’t want to pit their own goals against the wellbeing of others they care about (as one example, consider the person who isn’t showing up for counseling because she can’t leave her mother, who has severe dementia, in the apartment alone). Shifting existing program models to value and expand people’s social networks is just the kind of short-term investment with long-term payout that ARP dollars are suited for.

But we should think bigger—not only to accommodate people’s social connections and ties, but to resist the urge to try to do with a case manager or clinician what might also be accomplished in a social network. UpTogether (formerly the Family Independence Initiative) creates the space for families to work together towards economic opportunities and to solve problems collectively. Their powerful data demonstrates what we all know—friends and neighbors recommend attorneys and lenders, flag new job opportunities, lubricating and reinforcing each other’s economic mobility. As another example, microloan circles—which are not mental health programs—can have a remarkable, positive impact on depression.2

The influence of environment

Our focus on the individual roots the locus of control for change far more in the individual than is the reality. Indeed, the celebration of “context neutral” services—demonstrated to work, largely independent of setting, as long as the intervention is practiced with high fidelity—can have the effect of erasing the role that the built environment plays in our understanding of whether we belong, are valuable, or have opportunities. It is no accident that we use words like, “depressing” and “soul-crushing” to describe architecture and urban design that has these effects; how much do we spend in our human services attempting to counteract these very feelings, individual by individual? There are alternatives.

PlayfulBoston is investing in incorporating art and playful activities into urban design created by local artists and changemakers. The purpose? To spark joy and belonging, foster connections, curiosity and a sense of place. In next door Connecticut, when the Newtown community rebuilt the Sandy Hook elementary school in the wake of the 2012 shooting, they steered away from measures to keep individuals safe from individuals—razor wire and concrete—and instead adopted a revolutionary design that leverages topography and nature and our deep desire for belonging and inclusion as drivers of safety. The design principles used in Newtown ‘s community process can be used far more broadly to make returning to school this fall safer for kids, and to address education’s racial inequities in outcomes and in experiences of safety and belonging.

Deploying ARP assets to bolster community assets

What does this mean for ARP deployment? First and foremost, it means resisting the urge to add a staffed intervention program as our first response to a need or a gap. Instead, we must relentlessly focus on bolstering community assets. And that means:

  1. Starting with community—those most proximate to the harms and benefits of interventions—to identify the assets and priorities. What the examples above show is that this isn’t just about community forums and focus groups. Starting with community means first and foremost connecting the assets of ARP with the assets that are the people in the communities where investments are to be made.
  2. Interrogating existing and proposed policies for where they undercut belonging and inclusion, and where they are based on assumptions that people should leave their networks, instead of expanding, pruning and navigating their networks. Be aware that these policies are harbors for structural racism, and, whenever possible, change those policies.
  3. Investing in shifting interventions rooted in individualism to more network-oriented interventions.
  4. Investing human service dollars in the built environment as viable, alternative pathways to positive outcomes and wellbeing, rather than continuing to primarily invest in human services to help people deal with their environment.
  5. Reconceiving data systems to capture assets, including social networks.
  6. Investing across silos and getting involved in how funding is spent across silos, recognizing that how, for example, we spend infrastructure dollars in communities has a tremendous impact on people’s context and their access to their social networks.

If we want to make quantum shifts towards truly being asset-based, equitable, and focused on wellbeing, we must provide constructive counter-balances to the forces of individualism that marble our systems. If these shifts were easy or obvious, they’d be more common. Given that the challenges and solutions above are not confined to any specific field, we should do well to lean on associations and networks to scaffold individual efforts. I am fortunate to be part of the Wellbeing Blueprint, a growing community of change agents and institutions that span the country and sectors, who share a commitment to using this moment of emergence to move us closer to a country where everyone has a fair shot at wellbeing. The six principles and 40+ recommendations for structural change found in the Wellbeing Blueprint itself, which is a touchstone for our efforts, speak directly to creating an accountable, effective human service system that leverages, instead of fights the human drive for interdependence and the need for healthy, healing, joyful environments.

Whether through the Wellbeing Blueprint, involvement in APHSA, both or something else, the ARP provides us the opportunity to do what we must do—not one by one, but together.

1 This is in no way to suggest that the social networks of people participating in human service programs are always growth-affirming. No one’s social networks are. Social networks are messy, and we’re hardwired to be social, so we’ll take messy ones over none.

2 Ali et al found that not only did microloan programs improve the economic options for the women who were in the cohort; 40% of those women who were clinically depressed when they joined the group were not within six months, with the effect greatest among those whose sense of connection to others in the group was strongest. See Ali, A., Hawkins, R. L., & Chambers, D. A. (2010). Recovery from depression among clients transitioning out of poverty. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 80(1), 26–33.

Read Additional Posts from the American Rescue Plan Series:
Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5   |   Part 6   |   Part 7   |   Part 8   |   Part 9

About the Author

Katya Fels Smyth

Katya Fels Smyth is Founder and CEO of the Full Frame Initiative and co-creator of the Wellbeing Blueprint. For three decades, Katya has worked in communities and nationally to address the fundamental inequities that undermine everyone's having a fair shot at wellbeing. Prior to founding FFI, she founded and led On The Rise, was a Research Affiliate with MIT’s Community Innovators Lab, a Research Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and an Echoing Green Fellow.

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