Teens got Social Capital Too!

matt on guitar2.JPG

Matt, a high school senior and regular at the Neutral Zone, was noodling around on his phone about 4-5 months back and came across a photo App, Frontback, that he thought was a cool novelty.  It takes a picture of what’s in front of you and five seconds later what’s in back of you and stacks the two photos, front on top of back.  Matt tells a couple of friends, who tell some more friends, and so on and so on, and pretty soon hundreds of people in Ann Arbor have downloaded Frontback and are posting pictures with the hashtag “#A2Frontback”. 

 A little over two months later Matt gets a call.  “This is Fred the CEO of Frontback, and I understand you are the one that started the Frontback craze in Ann Arbor.”  Matt, unassuming and modest says, “yeah, I guess that’s me.”  A few weeks later Fred and three of his colleagues fly out from the San Francisco Bay area to hang out with Matt.  They want to see him in his daily life and grill him about how he got their app so popular.  They take Matt and 10 of his friends out for dinner and the next evening rent the iconic Pinball Pete’s in Ann Arbor, get a bunch of pizzas, and have a party for Matt and his 100 closest acquaintances. 

When we heard the story at Neutral Zone, we said “Matt – you have to see if Frontback will sponsor Live on Washington”, an outdoor music festival that Matt and 12 other teen curators have been planning since October and will be hosting on May 30.  Matt does the introductions, sets up some conference calls, and after a little dickering back and forth – Frontback commits to a $5,000 sponsorship!

Social capital is based on the idea that social networks have value. Social capital refers to the collective value of all "social networks" [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other.

 When we consider the components of positive youth development, we tend to think of social capital as running from adults to youth.  True this is the usual flow of social capital when working with youth – connecting youth to adult mentors, adults in the community who can provide job or educational support, or simply bridging youth to meet adults in the community who are engaged in areas of work or community life in which young people don’t have much exposure.

However, another important concept of good youth development is the notion of “reciprocity”.   Recent studies demonstrate that youth development and empowerment is enhanced under conditions of reciprocity, particularly when   youth believe that they have made a contribution to others and when their life experiences have been validated by community systems.

 Seven years ago Neutral Zone received its biggest program grant as a result of the social capital another teen brought to the table.  Emma, like Matt, served on our Board of Directors and happened to be babysitting for a Vice President at the Kellogg Foundation.  Emma introduced Anne to the Neutral Zone and invited her in for a tour and meeting.  The result wound up being a nearly $400,000 grant to pilot our “Youth-Driven Spaces” model.

 Teen spaces are often different than those than the ones adults move in, and as a result may open up new opportunities that adults are not be privy to.Adults have to be open and encouraging to youth to bring their worlds to us.We learn from teens, just as they do from us, and sometimes the result is a nice sponsorship, grant opportunity or introduction to somebody or something we would never have experienced unless we