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The power of networks

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How did you land your first job? I'm not talking about the first job you got out of college, I'm talking about the first job where you earned a paycheck and then probably went out and immediately spent it on music and movie tickets.

One of my first real jobs was when I was a sophomore in high school and I landed the coveted gig of "snack bar" girl and official holder of the ping pong sign up sheet at a swim club one town over from where I lived. As far as summer jobs go, it was pretty easy, decently paid, and I got to hone my ping pong skills during my breaks. Lots of people applied to work there, but few got hired because there was very low employee turnover. So how'd I manage to get the job? Simple. My brother's girlfriend's sister was the assistant manager and the one in charge of hiring. I called her up, told her I wanted to apply, and one very brief interview later I was hired. Yep, I networked my way in to my first summer job.

I've been thinking a lot about networking lately. In some circles, "network" is a dirty word, something we don't like to talk about lest we admit out loud that maybe, just maybe, we didn't get where we are in the world today by grit and determination and hard work alone. But I'm guessing that many of us got where we are today through a combination of hard work and a few helpful connections along the way. Maybe it was that relative who gave you your first summer job, or your friend's mom who let you clerk at her law office so you could have something impressive to put on your resume, or that math teacher who wrote a letter of recommendation on your behalf to the school of your dreams, which also happens to be his alma mater. Networks are all around us. If we're lucky.

But there are countless folks out there who have no networks to draw upon, and that can make social and career advancement very difficult, if not nearly impossible. Those who live in poverty are especially vulnerable to this "crisis of relationships," as one non-profit leader described it to me. Yes, they may have a network of friends and relatives they can call in a time of need, but that network is largely homogenous and likely faces similar challenges to the person seeking help in the first place. No, if moving on up is the goal, networks have have to be economically and socially diverse.

If you come from a place of little opportunity, how do you build a diverse network? It's a question even well-intentioned non-profits have a hard time answering. One non-profit leader I spoke with who works with homeless youth says network building is a mission of hers, but she's found it difficult to find people in the community to help build out that network. I found this article from the non-profit Crittenton Women's Union quite helpful in terms of how it goes about creating a social network for the women it serves.

Investing in the development of social networks can be a powerful anti-poverty strategy as people are connected to employers, academic institutions, and supportive, encouraging peers. For organizations that want to be intentional in aiding those they serve in developing their social networks, the strategies identified in this brief, such as connecting peers with shared goals, making introductions to employers and mentors, and creating an encouraging environment, are provided to help organizations increase their effectiveness. Ultimately, as organizations and their staffs develop and nurture their own professional networks, they will be better positioned to broker ties for program participants. Strategically implementing ways to help women develop social networks that offer both leverage and support will help them move closer to their goals.

Yale sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis believes so much in the power of networks that this Yale Alumni Magazine article jokes that Christakis has effectively added a new “n’ to the familiar dichotomy of nurture and nature: "we are also creatures of our social networks—simultaneously individuals and...intimately connected parts of a superorganism." His research highlights the good (and not so good) contagious impact networks can have on our health and happiness among other things.

So yeah, networks are powerful and empowering and I intend to spend quite some time over the next several months looking at how networks shape who we are and, especially for at-risk youth, who we might become.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.