Building students’ resiliency networks: A conversation with Brian Lightfoot

 By Julia Freeland Fisher, The Christensen Institute

How does students’ social capital impact their resiliency, agency, and access to new opportunities? I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with researcher and entrepreneur, Brian Lightfoot, who’s one of my favorite thinkers on this topic. The full video of our conversation is below, but here’s a quick overview of what we covered:

Appreciating the power of “resiliency networks.” As schools and youth-serving organizations consider how best to support students post-pandemic, Lightfoot is hopeful that more schools will pay attention to what he calls students’ “resiliency networks,” or the relationships and resources at their disposal. Thinking about the response to COVID, differences in students’ social capital played out in their educational results,” he said. “Students who have more supportive, strong resiliency networks, are able to get services, supports, and the different resources that they need to continue their education and thrive.” 

For Lightfoot, the strength of students’ resiliency networks depends in part on how connected students are to what scholar Ricardo Stanton Salazar has called “institutional agents,” or people in young people’s lives who are “well positioned to provide key forms of social and institutional support,” be those ensuring students are accessing formal school-sponsored services or offering informal advice and guidance. Understanding the strength of resiliency networks also depends on how these agents leverage their power. “[Institutional agents] are people with power…who can choose to either use that power in oppressive or liberatory ways,” Lightfoot said. “[Schoools] can provide people with access and knowledge to services, but [students] still have to go through some sort of a gatekeeper. They have to actually connect with a person to be able to obtain those services.” 

What gets measured gets done. Lightfoot is also a realist about the fact that many education systems aren’t set up to pay attention to resiliency networks or access to institutional agents. “The limit is how we think about assessment and accountability,” he said. “In my view, in education we don’t do anything that we can’t measure. So we have to think about how we are holding schools or districts accountable to thinking about students’ social capital so it becomes a priority. I think that’s how we start to renovate the education system.” 

To better understand what those measures might be, as part of his research, Lightfoot has also been working closely with Colorado Youth Congress (CYC), a nonprofit that empowers high schoolers across the state to lead transformative change in neighborhoods, schools, and statewide policy. As a researcher, Lightfoot has been working alongside young people to understand how the program is shaping their identities, their understanding of the systems they are aiming to impact, and their access to social capital. Lightfoot offered a taste of how he’s gone about building data around participants’ access to and ability to mobilize networks. To collect the data, questions include aspects of quality and quality of students’ relationships, as well as the role particular connections played across the system. For example:

  • Who would you tell a personal secret to? 
  • Who do you hang out with outside of CYC? 
  • Are there people you would work with on a campaign or an initiative not connected to CYC?
  • What types of institutional agents do you know?
  • What type of principal or district leaders do you know? 
  • How many elected officials do you know? 
  • How many community leaders, church leaders, or people who run youth programs or advocacy do you know? 
  • How many media professionals do you know?
  • How comfortable are you in engaging with different people from these different kinds of settings?

Building social supports and networks to expand inclusive pathways to entrepreneurship. Finally, Lightfoot and I talked about his newest venture, working as co-founder and chief program officer of a nonprofit called Formation Ventures, an organization that is expanding pathways and access to entrepreneurship. For Lightfoot, developing entrepreneurs depends on building both entrepreneurial identities and social capital. “We know entrepreneurship is something social capital is largely tied to. How successful your business is or how hard it is to get your business established will largely be dependent on who is in your social network. 

As he develops the program, two lessons he’s learned from his research and partnership with CYC are top of mind: the power of purposeful action and real stakes to yield stronger outcomes, particularly in terms of students’ networks. “To develop students’ social capital or their relationships, they need to be doing purposeful action like trying to pursue civic campaigns that they’re passionate about and doing something that is actually going to have a big impact,” he said. That action is even more powerful if there are real outcomes or stakes attached. Having purposeful action and ensuring the stakes are real—to me, that’s how you generate intrinsic motivation. Students are doing something that is purposeful for them and the outcome is real.”

To access the resource, please click here.

Watch the full conversation here.