If it succeeds, the Ajo project could be a grass-roots model for economic development and revitalization that's an alternative to the usual pattern of brain drain and community decline.
At the NCoC, Smith says people who have a connection to their community also have a stake in its success and a willingness to solve its problems. He says this "social capital" is as important to a community's economic recovery as a financial investment from government or business – and that no financial investment can succeed without it.
"For the financial capital to hold and make a difference in communities," he says, "you need to have human capital existing within those communities, to receive that financial capital and make it work. And as soon as you have that, when you invest the financial capital, you'll see greater returns. You'll see more jobs created and staying within those communities."
Smith and his researchers are careful to say that civic engagement alone won't create jobs. But because the connection is so strong, the NCoC has embarked on a joint study with the Knight Foundation to explore exactly how crucial civic health and community attachment are to economic prosperity.
The lost letter ruse
Other research supports this line of inquiry.
Robert Sampson, a Harvard University sociologist, spent 15 years studying all the neighborhoods in Chicago. His book, "Great American City," was published in January. Using the US Census, housing data, and community surveys, Professor Sampson looked at the social conditions that either strengthen or weaken local altruism. He found large differences between neighborhoods, and patterns that have persisted through the recession.
In one field experiment, his researchers randomly scattered thousands of letters with fake names throughout Chicago's neighborhoods, and then calculated the rate at which people picked them up and mailed them. The rate was anywhere from none returned to 82 percent returned, depending on the neighborhood. And the rate of return corresponded to other factors that reflected each neighborhood's social "climate."
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.