Digging Virtual Wells to Network Against Poverty

When I recently was faced with the prospect of finding a job in a new city, I did what any young professional knows to do. Before I even began filling out countless job applications online,  I turned to my network of former coworkers, editors, and bosses and sent emails letting them know that I was on the hunt. I’ll be honest: The effort hasn’t paid off in the form of a full-time job quite yet. But my decision to reach out to my connections was pure strategy because, more or less, these people all work in my chosen field—and when it comes to landing a job, it’s often about who you know.

Luckily, making connections has never been easier than it is now in the digital era. Even back in 2008 The New York Times (NYT) already reported the trend: more and more people were beginning to use social media platforms to look for work—though scoring a job through Facebook or Twitter still seemed to be “a rarity” back then. But consider LinkedIn, which has seen “hyper-growth” in the decade since it was founded; its user total has skyrocketed, reaching 225 million users this year. The reality is that the 2008 NYT article is more accurate than ever: Savvy Internet users know that the online marketplace may be the best place to seek employment and promote one’s “job skills and all-around business networking.” Fortunately the article also offered advice for how to network on social media; Chuck Hester, a man who credited his job to his extensive LinkedIn connections, told the Times that he lives by a networking credo: “Dig your well before you’re thirsty.” That advice is well and good for those of us who have had the good fortune to drink from the firehose of opportunity, but what about those who have never known anything but constant thirst?

Many Americans living in poverty are unable to dig any well of business connections simply because they aren’t granted access to the right networks. Very little research exists regarding whether the social networks of disadvantaged groups (e.g., the "underclass") differ from those of advantaged groups; social scientists haven’t exactly quantified how disadvantaged poor people are as a result of their relatively few connections to employed people. Yet, we do know that “elite, connected people” gain initial access to their equally elite connections through education.

A young professionals networking event. Photo via blogs.psu.edu.

A young professionals networking event. Photo via blogs.psu.edu.

We spent our first two months here at Shared Justice discussing how to improve access to education, and it’s a point worth addressing again. Education gives students a head start on business networking, akin to providing them with an already-dug well. Once they have access to the well itself, it’s much easier to retrieve water—that is, to land a job and gain more connections—than it ever would be otherwise. According to CNBC,“The benefit of higher education isn't so much the classes that students take, but rather the network of people that surround them and the doors that are opened because of a college's reputation.” As a result, one’s success isn’t necessarily linked to an Ivy League diploma—or even a job candidate’s intelligence—in and of itself. Take the technology industry, for example. “In (that) industry, connections matter,” CNBC continues. “A college's alumni network can help startups as they seek funding from investors and guidance from mentors and advisers, as well as establish partnerships that could elevate the business.”

In other words, education conditions us to engage different societal spheres and gives us access to social power, thereby providing the privileged with a greater range of opportunity.

In a job environment where a candidate’s Klout score actually can be a make-or-break factor in a hiring decision, access to the right networks is crucial; it even could be the difference between poverty and paying the bills. So, how can Americans shift from a model that perpetuates inequality within the system? The key is to determine an arena that levels the playing field.

To some extent, that arena can exist within the Church as the body of Christ, where both the privileged and impoverished stand equally sinful—and equally free—before God. Our equal footing within the boundaries of the Church empowers us to reach across socioeconomic class divides and form a different type of network—that is, relationships with people who may never have any other opportunity to make such connections. The idea of doing so scares us, because it means that we enter into people’s lives for more than our own gain, for more than the economic opportunities they can provide for us. But the decision to form relationship with others who are unlike us is a unique form of the networking we use in professional spheres; the difference is that this networking is less about who you know than it is about who you are.

Outside of the Church, though, we also can pursue strategies that empower people to make connections. In addition to improving overall access to education for those in poverty (no small feat, as we previously discussed), we can work to connect children to the Internet; education advocates can support programs that provide school-issued computers or tablets for every student. Though there has been debate over the dangers of giving children so much access to the Internet, the American Psychological Association says that the “Children who may stand to benefit most from home Internet access are the very children least likely to have it. The vision of the Internet as the technology that levels the playing field in education will remain just that—a vision—unless visionary leaders launch a concerted effort to make the Internet available to all.” Enabling impoverished children access to the web, whether at home or at school, can help teach them how to use social networks and make business connections. As a result, handing them a tablet is like handing them a shovel, the first step in teaching them how to dig a deep well.

Of course, job searching takes effort beyond mere access to the well. I’ve become increasingly familiar with that reality over the past few weeks; the fact that I am connected to journalists and writers does not pay my rent, unfortunately. But I also have realized that I am lucky to have had an education that prepared me to seek employment through my networks, and that those same networks present a justice problem when they deny others crucial opportunities to enter the job market and many social institutions. As the job market increasingly shifts to online forums, many people simply need to understand how to network—and more importantly, to realize that they can connect with people outside of their own social spheres.

-Melissa Steffan is a 2012 graduate of Seattle Pacific University. She previously interned at the Washington Post and the Center for Public Justice, and was the 2012-13 Editorial Resident for Christianity Today magazine. She currently is a freelance journalist in Washington D.C. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissasteffan.