Non-Profits, Social Capital, and a 1,600-Mile Leap of Faith

If there is one thing I learned in my Community Based Research Methods class this past semester, it is to have a plan. I want to start this series of blog posts by confirming that I do in fact have a plan but also by giving a disclaimer: though I’m receiving help from Professor Arries to make sure things go as smoothly as possible, my summer research may require a bit of…flexibility. You may be able to see why through the plan so far, which that can be narrowed down to three parts.

Part One-Theoretical Background (Which concludes this week): As with any good research project, mine begins with reading; lots of reading. I’ve been pouring through three vast texts on social capital by Robert Putnam and the business school’s own Professor Herrington Bryce. My first week of research has been focused primarily on Putnam’s Bowling Alone and Bryce’s Players in the Public Policy Process. Bowling Alone has been a fantastic lens into the concept of social capital which is so very key to my research. The book goes into detail of the of the various types and layers of social capital, ranging from religious networks to casual socializing.  It has been particularly helpful in clearing up my misconceptions about what is and isn’t “social”. (For example, though my preliminary research has strongly focused on voter turnout, Putnam argues that voting is not an act that builds social capital in itself, but rather exists as a measuring stick of bonding and bridging ties in a community.) Players in the Public Policy Process asks a more broad theoretical question: In a decade of increased privatization, why does the world still need government supported non-profits? The book has been excellent in analyzing the economic aspects of non-profits and their “cognitive social capital” and has given me a fuller understanding of the non-profit sector in general. The third book, which I’m currently starting, Putnam’s Better Together, is of particular interest to me as it is both more recent and opens with an analysis of a Rio Grande Valley non-profit network, Valley Interfaith. (Look for more on this text in my next blog post!)

Part Two-Preparation: I’ll be taking the month of July to learn about the recent socio-political history and current local issues of the Rio Grande Valley, with a focus on electoral trends and a study of local newspapers. I’ll also use this time to finalize interview logistics and travel plans. (As well as to brush up on my Spanish as to avoid language barrier induced misunderstandings.)

Part Three- The Trip (This is where it gets complicated): Drive 1,600 miles to the southernmost tip of Texas to build relationships with and interview community organizers in a non-profit network, whom I will have contacted via email and phone prior. Though I’m currently working to establish mutual trust beforehand by making the interviews a friendly and unobtrusive process as possible, the truth of the matter is, I’m going to a place that I’ve never been to interview people I don’t know.  The risk of failure is around every corner, but I believe, as a youth organizer and as a researcher, the opportunity to truly learn something new in a part of our country so often absent from the public mind makes this trip a risk undoubtedly worth taking.

So that’s the plan so far, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself forced to adjust it as the summer progresses.  I’ll be making weekly/bi-weekly posts on this blog to document my experiences on the process of preparing for this crazy trip.