Social Capital Project

Case Study from Mesa County Public Health

Mesa County Public Health (MCPH) began the “Community Transformation” work that would become the Social Capital Project in January of 2017, with a focus on improving their community’s state of health, education, and economy. The movement grew out of a broad recognition that the Grand Valley has many trends in need of attention, including a high number of families living in poverty, high suicide and child abuse rates, and poor health outcomes. Nearly 70 community partners decided that social capital is the determinant that will have the greatest impact on these issues. To further understand social capital in the area and to establish a baseline, a survey was administered to residents in July 2017.

Hand holding a pen signing or filling out a document.

The survey addressed four areas: 

  • personal relationships
  • social network support
  • civic engagement
  • trust and cooperative norms

Analysis of the survey results revealed that social capital was lowest in areas where income was lowest. Within those low-income areas, the themes that emerged were: low neighborhood connectedness, low participation in community activities, and low participation in local problem-solving. Respondents from the Clifton ZIP code had the lowest scores in the social capital survey, which led MCPH to decide to focus on that area specifically. Of the 23,000 (15.6%) Mesa County residents living in poverty, 81% live in Clifton (81520) with a median household income of $39,054.

Clifton’s median household income is the lowest in Mesa County when comparing by zip code. Rocky Mountain Elementary School, which has come forward as a key partner, is a Title 1 school in Clifton with more than 500 students enrolled, 83% of which qualify for free or reduced lunches. The economic hardships and unstable living situations faced by their families result in a 40% turnover of students each year.

The project has a dedicated Steering Committee (or “Key Leaders” group) made up of representatives from sectors including housing, government human services, health care, education, funders, law enforcement, neighborhood residents, and more. MCPH invested in staff time for grant writing and logistics, administration of the social capital survey, as well as initial consultation and facilitation. They contracted with The Civic Canopy to lead four quarterly meetings, which was largely paid for through a grant from The Colorado Health Foundation. The project coordinator and administration committed considerable time to researching and developing the social capital survey, which was designed using the OECD measurement of social capital project and question databank. Employees from other projects and departments were pulled in to administer the survey around the community, to reach as many potential respondents as possible. Costs for meetings, logistics, and evaluation are being paid from the MCPH general fund.

MCPH’s initial focus has been responding to the needs identified by the community. Clifton residents in focus groups identified two areas that are high priorities for their neighborhoods: 

1) more responsive law and code enforcement; and 
2) after-school activities for children and youth. 

The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office has stepped up to the request by changing their tactics in high-need areas (including Clifton) to a community policing approach, based more on relationships and problem-solving. This has led to striking reductions in crime in the Clifton neighborhood. MCPH is also working within the Mesa County system to look at how code enforcement can be improved, and a successful after-school tutoring and enrichment program chose to expand to Clifton as part of their commitment to the Community Transformation goals. What started as a push to get organizations to rethink the way they provide services has grown to include more traditional community organizing. MCPH sees the combination of the two approaches as key to lasting community transformation.

During the planning process, MCPH learned a lot by getting out into their community and asking the right questions. For example, although Clifton is densely populated and would be the second largest town in Mesa County, it is unincorporated and as such there are less resources for infrastructure that could contribute to greater quality of life. MCPH assumed that Clifton residents would be motivated by the inequity of this situation. However, they found that many people live in Clifton precisely because of the lack of infrastructure, and the lower taxes and fewer regulations that result. MCPH also assumed that the Spanish-speaking residents of Clifton would have high needs and low social capital. They discovered that while Spanish-speaking families often have low incomes and lack ties to the larger community, their connections within their community are strong and extensive. For the most part, the Spanish-speaking residents are very motivated to both support their neighbors and rely on their community connections.

This project is still an evolving work in progress, and MCPH cannot yet demonstrate a clear change in social connections or community norms. However, they know that a large body of research indicates that when people have strong connections to others and attachment to their community, the community as a whole benefits.


Advice on Replication

Project leaders believe that understanding the tone and the shared goals of the community is important in projects like this. Some issues that they thought would be priorities were not, and some of the directives of their grant funding were not a good fit for what the community identified as goals. They note that funding this kind of work is a challenge, and they hope that projects like Connected Colorado will encourage more funders to consider ways to fund it.

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