“Social capital” sounds like a good thing. And it is!
But the concept also misses something important. I’d never considered it until I heard this related phrase: “bridging capital.”
Let's dissect the two.
First, social capital. It’s a common phrase, though maybe not easily defined. Here’s how Rachel Perić, executive director of a non-profit called Welcoming America, explained it to me: “It’s the idea that some of the assets you gain as a member of a community have to do with your relationship to other people.”
In other words, community creates value. The people inside our community may help us find a job, share resources, or trade information. When I run out of ketchup and ask my neighbor if they have any to spare, I’m spending some social capital. Hooray for this.
But while social capital is great, it limits us to the value we gain from people already inside our community. That’s why researchers created another term — bridging capital — to describe what happens when we reach outside our borders.
The Institute for Social Capital defines “bridging capital” as the “connections that link people across a cleavage that typically divides society (such as race, or class, or religion).” A Swarthmore sociology class calls it a sociological WD-40: “Connections that bridge demographic and social differences, while perhaps being not as 'strong' as internal links, can better serve a larger society by leading to more information diffusion and a broader identity,” reads the course site.
I find this a handy way of thinking. “Bridging capital” helps visualize a particular kind of value that you can’t get by sticking to what (or who) you know. In this model, connecting with others isn’t just an abstract good thing to do — it is the creation of value that we’re otherwise leaving on the table. It’s like the life equivalent of expanding your customer base. And we’ll simply never adapt well to change — whether it’s our company growing or our neighborhood evolving — if we cannot build and trade over this bridge.
But the truth is, most of us aren’t sure how to break out of our shells and create the value only a bridge can create. So, how do we do it?
Perić’s organization, Welcoming America, works to make communities more inclusive to all who live there. We spoke for a podcast I made about the value of talking to strangers.
Her organization, and those it works with, are often trying to bridge divides in communities. There’s no better solution than getting people to meet face to face, she said, but people don’t often seek that out on their own. It isn’t necessarily because of hate or suspicion, she said. They’re afraid of rejection, or not belonging.
Here’s one project where her organization worked around that barrier: In Nebraska, immigrant populations have been growing in several towns that have historically been made up of mostly white residents. In turn, businesses became self-segregated. An established, white-owned lumber store would be frequented mainly by long-time white residents, while newer, immigrant-owned businesses were patronized mainly by other immigrants. This wasn’t just a coincidence. White people in town would literally travel to other towns find stores that felt more familiar than the immigrant shops.
Was this racism? Well, Perić said, it was more complicated than that. Members of each group weren’t sure if they’d be welcomed in the other group’s stores.
How did they remedy that misunderstanding? Simple: By inviting people in. A local organization set up a tour.
“Literally all they did was bring people into each other's stores,” Perić told me. “They were literally crossing into each other's businesses and made to feel welcome in those places. It just had this big impact in people's interest and desire to shop at those places.”
THAT is bridging capital: Now these disparate communities create more value for each other.
Similar projects at Welcoming America have tied communities together in even more ways: According to the National Civic League, building bridging capital has helped reverse population decline and strengthen community resiliency in Ohio, and helped employers in Northwest Arkansas grow its talent pool by encouraging people of different backgrounds to establish themselves in community. Elsewhere, researchers are trying to measure the specific impact of bridging capital.
But bridging capital isn’t just useful for residential communities. We can use it anywhere, whether it’s bringing different teams together at work or melding two sides of a family. There are communication gaps all over the place that can easily be bridged, if only people have opportunities to interact — and if only people see that bridge as the creation of value.
Ronni Abergel, a journalist in the Netherlands, ran an interesting experiment. He started something called the Human Library, a traveling event where visitors can "borrow" a person that they wouldn’t normally have access to and then ask them anything they want. Each of the library’s “human books” comes from a group whose lifestyle, health, ability, belief, social status, or ethnic origin is stigmatized. Want to know what it’s like to be a refugee, for example? Wondering about that guy’s face tattoos? Have at it!
Abergel says the results have been heartening. Human Library patrons are happy to ask more and deeper questions than they’d someone at, say, at a coffee shop, because they feel they have a legitimate reason to talk. And then, having spoken with a different person one time, the visitors feel more comfortable talking to other different people — even outside the library.
So how can we do this ourselves, without creating a big traveling event or without the backing of a well-meaning organization?
Having worked in a bunch of different communities to bridge social divides, Rachel Perić has developed some general principles for building bridging capital.
Listen. Anyone who’s seen as “different” might feel alienated. Get to know their concerns and interests to help them feel like they belong.
Set up joint activities. Just like that shop tour, doing activities together gives people a reason to talk to each other. Your organization or community might set up joint projects (a volunteer day, for example) to give folks an excuse to hang out.
Set up a welcoming plan with goals, concerns, and strategies (like those events or scheduled dialog) to bring people together.
Is it easy? No. Is it necessary? You bet.