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Change agents’ sought to build social capital

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By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — While they give and volunteer more than most Americans, and trust nearby groups like religious congregations and parent-teacher associations, research shows, Greensboro residents, particularly whites, tend to mistrust community-wide organizations like elected bodies or the police.

“People are hanging out in their social comfort zones with people who look the same and think the same and share the same passions,” says Walker Sanders, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro. “But they’re not breaking out of those comfort zones.”

To help people remove social barriers, get to know one another and work together on community problems while engaging other people in their own social networks, a coalition of local groups is launching a new initiative that will focus on diversity, leadership and community-building.

The effort, known as Impact Greensboro, aims to enlist 90 “change agents” in an 11-month program that will kick off January 10 and culminate in a summit for community leaders and others from the participants’ own social networks.

At the summit, the inaugural class will present a series of steps it will have developed to address community problems.

While those recommendations will be important, Sanders says, the larger goal of the new initiative is to create a “forum for dialogue that takes place and fosters good, constructive civic discourse.”

Impact Greensboro grew out of Mosaic, a one-year project launched two years ago by the City of Greensboro in partnership with the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, the Cemala Foundation, the Weaver Foundation and the community foundation that paired individuals of different races for a series of meetings with one another.

Chaired by Mona Edwards, chief of staff at the Center for Creative Leadership, the new effort is a partnership of the community foundation, the city’s Human Relations Commission and the Center for Youth, Family and Community Partnerships at UNC-Greensboro.

Impact Greensboro will recruit individuals who want to make a difference and who represent diverse backgrounds based on factors such as race, ethnicity, education, income and gender.

Drawing from applications that had to be submitted by Dec. 3, a committee representing the three partner organizations will select the inaugural class.

The class will be divided into five core groups that will explore critical issues in Greensboro such as race, criminal justice, neighborhoods, immigration, education and economics, and will develop strategies to address those issues.

The program also aims to build participants’ skills and understanding on the issues of cultures, relationships, race, gender, economic and community issues, and to focus on networking and relationships.

“Our theory is that this type of forum promotes communication so people get to know and understand people at a deeper level, and that builds trust among people who on the surface are different,” says Tara McKenzie Sandercock, vice president for grants and initiatives at the community foundation.

“Our hope is that these creative people will develop ways to increase trust of institutions,” she says.

Stephanie Walker, deputy director of the Center for Youth, Family and Community at UNCG, says the interaction of participants from diverse backgrounds will have a “multiplying effect” that will engage and connect the participants’ own social networks and foster “cooperative action.”

Sanders says a key strategy for the initiative will be to share with participants a series of reports and studies that have addressed community problems, resources and trends.

“They will serve as a foundation for building discussions so everyone has a common set of facts,” he says.

“If you can begin to cross-pollinate those groups so people begin to know each other,” he says, “we can then begin to address some of the decline in social trust through stronger social relationships and more diverse networks across the community.”

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