Since the mid-1990s, political scientists have observed an alarming decline of civic engagement, civic trust and social capital within the United States. Today, more of the same is taking place, as modes of social interaction continue to dwindle and 45% of Americans report not being civically engaged. This trend presents troubling prospects for our democracy, as social isolation has been shown to reduce networks that enable collaboration, negotiation and a broader sense of self –– all integral aspects of a functioning democracy. As stakeholders focus on strengthening social inclusion within cities and neighborhoods, allowing community members to be not just recipients, but leaders of social development, projects may be the most effective approach toward both identifying local need and increasing social engagement. 

Working at a social center in France this summer, I observed how social isolation can be most hard-hitting among the poor. Consuming work hours combined with a lack of adequate public transportation present time and mobility challenges that may limit a low-income individual’s ability to engage socially. The consequent social isolation makes it difficult for organizations to make their services known to vulnerable communities and to identify needs that may not be initially apparent. In participating in social development projects, I discovered that project managers have been able to successfully tackle local issues by leaving their project focus open-ended. Rather than following a traditional project model of prescribing a challenge or issue, the “hands-off” social development approach creates community growth by allowing constituents to decide what needs and themes they want to organize themselves under. Rather than determining specific project functions, organizations are encouraged to simply provide an outlet for members to participate.

One of the projects I witnessed was geared toward improving social inclusion of vulnerable families with young children in northern France. This project implemented a hands-off model, allowing families and organizations to cocreate a collective partnership to address issues. By bringing families together in local community spaces, families could meet and collaborate to address local barriers and needs, facilitated by professionals, volunteers and community stakeholders. 

While families clarified what types of services would be of benefit — including childcare, employment workshops or otherwise — they were simultaneously being engaged socially. This project provides a model of collaboration that solves local problems while also combating the issue of social isolation at large.

When organizations address needs that they have preidentified, they do not always turn out to be the primary needs the constituents, as constituents’ social isolation may prevent project developers from having full knowledge of their circumstances. Instead, setting up a framework and allowing constituents to specify what they want provides the most effective approach, even though it may not be the most clear-cut. 

Relaying hands-off social development into policy may be difficult, as it is essentially setting up a framework and leaving the rest unplanned. The costs and duration of projects may vary depending on circumstances such as city resources and population. However, by allowing trials of co-creative projects to take place, the effectiveness of this model may increase with each continuation, as patterns of need within the socially isolated poor may be better identified.

Socially oriented issues are difficult to tackle. The appeal of trial-and-error projects may be tainted by uncertainty, but the hands-off development of local communities holds promising potential in the face of America’s declining social capital. In the end, what may be lost in experimental trial is gained in increased civic and social engagement –– a change that can be as small as a family having stronger access to childcare services, and as large as a nation’s political atmosphere becoming more collaborative and inclusive.

Christina Luke is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. 

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