A precise definition of social capital is difficult to pin down. As we use it here, we’re thinking about the links, bridges and connections between people and groups, that can be used to achieve change in systems (i.e., groups, communities, services and beyond). To the extent that someone has social capital they have power to effect change in systems.

In one sense, the young people we work with at MAC-UK could be described as lacking social capital. All too often they aren’t connected to services, employers or other sources of support and opportunity. Sometimes they feel rejected and stigmatised by their communities. They often seem disenfranchised from ‘society’, and express feelings of hopelessness that they might be heard, understood, or responded to in a constructive way outside of their immediate networks of friends and family. The links, connections and bridges they do have, though often rich and meaningful, tend to be quite insular, and sometimes the opportunities these links do offer actually further distance young people from the ‘mainstream’.

Music & Change saw boosting social capital as central: to the INTEGRATE approach; and to our work alongside young people. We often spoke about ‘bridging out’ young people, into services, employers, education and other opportunities. More recently we’ve been thinking about working alongside young people to ‘bridge in’ these same organisations, recognising that often systems need to, at the very least, meet people halfway.

One of our key findings has been how the links we built between the projects and young people acted to mutually increase our social capital. Working together with the young people we found we could be much more influential than either group, mental health professionals or ‘marginalised’ young people, could be working alone.

A good example of this mutual boost to social capital is an event Music & Change staff and young people co-constructed for Camden Council’s Community Safety Partnership (CSP). The CSP, particularly the ‘Youth Violence’ table, wanted to know the answer to a question: “How can services support young people to exit a gang lifestyle?”. They asked for our support in getting the views of young people.

We were able to use our influence as professionals to make the case to the council that, in answering this question, young people were given paid employment opportunities. A connection the project had developed with Lucy Southern, Camden’s Youth Disorder and Safety Coordinator, meant we had enough support within the council to achieve this, and is a good example of the power of social capital. (Thanks Lucy!).

In turn the young people, taking up their roles as Expert Event Facilitators (a title they chose for themselves), insisted on having “decision makers” in the room. Once again our contacts at the council supported us to make sure this happened. Clinicians were supported in this task by young people in at least two ways: firstly, we used an inspirational letter written by one of the young people to encourage people to attend; secondly, we could offer access to their unique perspectives on issues that the council is very concerned about, and access to a group who are traditionally seen as all but impossible for them to engage.

In the end, working together as Clinicians, Young People and Council Officers, we were able to assemble an audience of very senior “decision makers” across Camden Council, including councilors, heads of Camden services and directorates, and senior members of the police – a group that would have been very difficult to get together if we hadn’t been able to make use of the many links, bridges and connections that made up our shared social capital.

After working alongside project staff to prepare, the young people delivered a powerful afternoon of training: sharing ideas, provoking debate and highlighting the challenges and realities of growing up in their communities, and what services could do better to support them.

Two young people, Princess and Khia, produced a documentary for the session, working alongside Cut Films (who were willing to help as part of a skill exchange, for which our clinical staff delivered them some MH training). The young filmmakers have given us permission to share this with you, so you can have a sense of what the event was about. You can see the film in the banner above:

All the young people involved in the event told us that they’d got a lot out of it, including developing skills, feeling like they had been heard, and being able to make a difference for themselves and others. The ‘decision makers’ in the room also gave excellent feedback, with 100% reporting that the event had changed their perceptions of the challenges young people face when accessing services.

They made commitments on the day to change how services were delivered, and young people thought about. Amongst those commitments were:

Embracing expertise by experience (i.e., ‘gang associated’ young people may be best placed to support other ‘gang associated’ yp) – this means employing and consulting with more young people

Finding ways to encourage mentalising (understanding each others mental states/inner worlds) between professionals and young people

Recognising importance of language used and attitudes of staff in making services accessible

Placing understanding of economic hardship higher on the agenda when thinking about ‘gang associated’ young people

We’re still following up on these commitments, and others, 6 months later, and it looks like the Council are now ready to employ some of the same young people, alongside a MAC-UK clinician, as Community Researchers. Bringing these ways of working alongside marginalised young people inside the Council for the first time!

Now to return to purpose, and bring this all back to social capital.

Working explicitly to increase social capital improves the wellbeing of marginalised groups, directly and indirectly. The young people we work alongside feel empowered, and develop a clearer sense about how the things they struggle with are connected to challenges faced by others, and by communities as a whole. Working together we can pull our different sources of social capital together, making us collectively more powerful. As a result, we can be more influential in the systems around marginalised young people, and better make the case for an understanding of the challenges they face which is rooted in the context of their lives. In doing so we can all begin to work together to increase the social capital, not just of the young people we work with directly, but for marginalised groups far more widely.