Social Networks and Racial Equity

Connecting people who don’t usually talk is an overlooked way of creating change. Donella Meadows, who was a wise teacher of how to change systems, wrote:

“Missing information flows is one of the most common causes of system malfunction. Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention, usually much easier and cheaper than rebuilding physical infrastructure.” ― Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Establishing new relationships and strengthening social networks can help address historical patterns of segregation. For example, research has found that on-line dating has led to more inter-racial marriages.

In working toward racial equity, it’s important to be aware of the shadow side of social networks. Favoritism, i.e., helping out your friends, can perpetuate inequality, as this article How Social Networks Drive Black Unemployment states:  “Help is not given to just anyone, nor is it available from everyone. Inequality reproduces itself because help is typically reserved for people who are “like me”: the people who live in my neighborhood, those who attend my church or school or those with whom I have worked in the past.”

This greatly affects the access of people of color or those with less affluence or education to jobs and other opportunities. In this blog Equity and Power in Network Structures, Curtis Ogden writes about homophily, the phenomenon that social networks form clusters with similar properties, e.g., “birds of a feather flock together.”  This can exacerbate inequality.

john a. powell in an On Being interview talked about segregation as “a formal way of saying, ‘How do I deny my connection with you?’ in the physical space.”

Understanding these dynamics, leads to the question: how we can be intentional in weaving social networks and relationships with attention to restoring flows of resources and opportunities where they have been blocked or cut off?

powell also said:  “I think being human is about being in the right kind of relationships. I think being human is a process. It’s not something that we just are born with. We actually learn to celebrate our connection, learn to celebrate our love.” 

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