The Learning Lunch podcast explores ideas, approaches and social innovations – creating opportunity for non-profit organisations’ teams to discover what others are learning and space to reflect on what these insights might mean for their own strategy and programme implementation.

Inequality of opportunity means that every child does not start their life with the same chances. Inherited circumstances such as race, gender, socioeconomic status and place of birth affect their likelihood for upward income and social mobility. A growing body of research is telling us that people’s social connections predict mobility. Harvard researchers have mapped the childhood roots of upward social mobility, demonstrating how neighbourhood factors shape human capital development1Opportunity-atlas: Mapping the childhood roots of social mobility. Pathways to social mobility are weakest in fractured communities with high levels of poverty. In South Africa where 10% of the population owns 80% of the wealth, the bottom half of the population is socially and economic disconnected from the rest, setting them up for life-long underachievement and exclusion.

The economic value of social connections is not a new concept; but two new studies out of the United States are reigniting public interest in the topic. Building on their previous work, Harvard economist Raj Chetty and a team of researchers found that cross-class social connections are among the strongest predictors of upward income mobility. They call this economic connectedness.

For many people, exclusion from influential and powerful social circles are shaped by factors outside their control, including their race, gender, level of education, class and geography. However, connecting to people you would not otherwise interact with has the potential to spark innovation and create new economic value2Krishna A. (2002) Active Social Capital: Tracing the Roots of Development and Democracy. Columbia University Press. New York.

Social connections have economic value but they also have the potential to shape the political and social fabric of the country. Experience has shown us that social networks of unlikely people have the potential to spark positive change. The bigger the network, the more energy they have – because they draw on a growing diversity of ideas and expertise.

In this podcast, we explore strategies to promote social and economic connectedness in all its forms with Rejane Woodroffe – Director at Bulungla Incubator, Adam Cooper – Senior Researcher at Human Sciences Research Council and Lihle Mbikwana, programme manager at the Vibrant Village initiative.

Réjane Woodroffe is the Director and a founding member of the Bulungula Incubator, a not-for-profit organisation engaged an integrated rural development programme in a remote part of the former Transkei region of the Eastern Cape, South Africa. The Bulungula Incubator initiates and manages a number of projects in Education, Health, Sustainable Livelihoods and Basic Services in partnership with the local community.

Dr Adam Cooper is a senior research specialist in the HSRC’s Inclusive Economic Development research division. He holds a PhD degree in education policy studies from Stellenbosch University. Cooper specialises in the sociologies of education and youth, looking at how young people navigate various social challenges shaped by race, class, gender, age, language and spatial relations, amongst others, to create opportunities for themselves and others.

Lihle Mbikwana is the Vibrant Village programme manager for Bulungula Incubator. He first became involved with the Bulungula Incubator in 2018, as a facilitator for the iiTablet Tshomiz programme, an e-learning project for school learners in the area. In his current role, he oversees a range of projects and activities, particularly for young people, as part of the Bulungula Incubator’s aim to enhance social cohesion. These include soccer and netball tournaments, talent shows, and the community radio station.

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Our colleagues at Youth Capital developed a brief on social connections. A wide and deep body of research confirms that social connections matter to unlock opportunities for young people. But how can we intentionally grow young people’s circles? In this brief, Youth Capital explores the different social ties young people need to thrive; looking at the working model of organisations such as Bulungula Incubator, WeThinkCode_, and SAYES, this brief offers practical solutions to build social connections for and with young people.