Competence and Confidence Partners in Policymaking: Family Leadership for Inclusive Education in Non-Traditional Settings (C2P2 FL)

Al Condeluci: Community Engagement and Social Capital

Al Condeluci, Ph.D. is the CEO of CLASS, a nonprofit organization that offers different services to individuals of varying abilities. Al has emerged as a national leader and consultant on human services and community issues and in this podcast discusses the benefits of community engagement for students with disabilities. This podcast is beneficial for administrators, educators and families. Recorded April 2017.

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LISA SONNEBORN: Hello, this is Lisa Sonneborn for the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University. Today, it's my pleasure to talk with Dr. Al Condeluci. Al is the CEO of Community Living and Support Services in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He also teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, where he writes, speaks, and consults on issues related to culture, community, and social capital-- all topics that we'll be discussing during this interview. And Al, thanks so much for talking with me today.

AL CONDELUCI: Lisa, it's really my great pleasure.

LISA SONNEBORN: So Al, community engagement, I think, means many different things to many different people. Can you begin by giving us, perhaps, a simple definition of community engagement?

AL CONDELUCI: Community engagement is really about being appreciated, accepted, and acknowledged by the other people within the circle in which you're attempting to engage. A lot of times, people can be in the community yet not engaged. When you're engaged, it really begins to suggest that you're of the community, that you're acknowledged, appreciated, and accepted in the role that you might be engaging in.

LISA SONNEBORN: So you're talking about a circle of engagement. Where does community engagement actually happen?

AL CONDELUCI: Community engagement happens in so many different ways and in a lot of different places. There's lots of different circles. I mean, you can be engaged sitting with some colleagues at lunch. You can be engaged in a discussion with people while you're on the bus. The times that we very softly engage with people in a more informal way is, oftentimes, the start point for building more important social capital in our lives.

LISA SONNEBORN: Is it even more challenging for the disability community to define and, perhaps, become more fully engaged in the community?

AL CONDELUCI: Without question because with disability, you're dealing with really a broad sense of either misunderstanding or even outright devaluation. There is a real initial reaction to difference that happens in engagements, whatever that difference might be. What leads to engagement is really similarities. Similarities create the bridge to engagement.

LISA SONNEBORN: Do you think that there's something that we can gain in the larger community by embracing the difference you're describing?

AL CONDELUCI: Differences challenge us a bit. Yet it's through the difference or the heterogeneity between people that really enliven the process. When people come together to engage in a club or a group or an association, the similarity of what that group is all about creates sort of a bridge for each other. But when people begin to engage and discover their differences, the differences that they bring to the table cause people to broaden their perspective.

LISA SONNEBORN: You used a term a few minutes ago that I wanted to go back to. You mentioned social capital. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that--what it is and how it influences our relationships with others in the community.

AL CONDELUCI: Social capital is kind of the cornerstone piece that we need to think about, whether we're parents or whether we're an educator or whether we're a human service professional or advocate or whether we're a person with a disability. In 1914, a schoolteacher, his name was Hannifin, coined the term social capital because he wanted to really highlight the fact that our social connections are valuable to us.

It was popularized by a Harvard sociologist by the name of Robert Putnam back in the late '90s--articulated all the things that social capital was associated with--health, happiness, achievement, advancement, self-confidence, getting a job, keeping a job. Even life expectancy, Lisa, has now been aligned with social capital. The more social capital you have and the stronger your social capital is, the better your life outcomes. One of the realities that we discovered in the work we're doing at CLASS is you talk to anybody who is a disability advocate or has some personal relationship with disability, they'll tell you that people who are experiencing disabilities have less social capital. And it really is this notion of difference and how difference can have an effect on the establishment and the development of relationships.

LISA SONNEBORN: Well, I'm wondering if you can suggest some strategies for building social capital for folks who do feel marginalized.

AL CONDELUCI: As a practitioner, really, what I've been trying to do is understand how we might support people to build more social capital. And in that challenge, over the course of my work, we've begun to articulate four steps that we think are part of the engagement process.

The first step is really looking at what connects us. What am I interested in? What are the people we support interested in? When somebody new gets involved with CLASS, we're more interested in what are they interested in and care about than we are in what are the struggles their disability brings to their life. So doing what we call a "cultural profile" is the first step. It's an examination of who the person is.

Step two is really then where in the greater community do people engage around the topic in which you're interested in. Let me kind of simplify this. I love jazz music. If we know Al Condeluci is passionate about jazz music, then step two really begins to say, where in the greater Pittsburgh community do people engage around jazz music? So step one-- who is the person, what do they care about? Step two-- where in the community do people typically engage in this interest area?

Step three is really about the expectations once you get to the engagement site. What's expected if Al is really going to become a bona fide member? If he's really going to be embraced by those other members of the jazz society, what's expected of Al in that setting? When you got your current job, you know, when you first started working at the institute, the very first couple days that you were there, somebody oriented you to how people engage at that institute. You enhance your similarity to them by engaging the way they do.

And then step four is really finding a gatekeeper who can validate your involvement with the group, somebody already in the club or the group or the association that you're looking to engage in who is valued by the other members of that group. And when that person sort of endorses you or welcomes you or greets you, your value rises, or the new person's value rises, they rise enough for other people in that community to begin to consider accepting you.

LISA SONNEBORN: Let's talk for a moment, if we can, about children with disabilities in school. Who else would benefit when children with disabilities are included in their schools or in the community at large?

AL CONDELUCI: When you begin to build social capital and relationships with people who are different from you, it changes you. And that's at the core of what we call "macro change." There's two types of change. There's micro change, which is how do we change the person, how do we help the child with a disability communicate more effectively or mobilize more effectively. However, the macro side of the equation is-- and I might argue more important because what macro change is about is how do we change the thinking, the attitudes, and the perceptions of everybody else about the disability.

So the notions of macro change are really more about everyone else changing than the person with the disability having to change. And so when you put this in the context of children in school, the beneficiary of social capital is not just the child with the disability who begins to build a relationship with a child who doesn't have a disability, but more it's what changes with that child without a disability that I think is so much more dramatic. Their attitudes begin to change. Their perceptions begin to change. They begin to see the humanity of their friend rather than to see them through the lens of a condition or a difference.

LISA SONNEBORN: Are there some practical strategies for helping families or even helping, say, a school administrator facilitate that kind of connection?

AL CONDELUCI: One of the things that we're beginning to discover is that families who have children with disabilities will not engage as much for a whole variety of social reasons. And when that happens, there's lots of negative fallout that unfolds there. One of the first pieces of negative fallout is the family becomes more isolated. And we know that social isolation is a bad thing. In fact, research has shown, Lisa, that social isolation is as lethal as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, that, literally, as many people die in the United States from social isolation as from all smoke-related diseases and illnesses every year.

So if families become isolated, not only is that bad for them, but their children are now set back in terms of understanding engagement or observing how people engage. So when they, ultimately, get an opportunity to engage, they're less savvy. And other people who have children that don't have disabilities don't grow, don't broaden their own perspective. So for school administrators, and, really, for anyone who has some involvement with families who have children with disabilities, we need to make it as comfortable in the engagement process for all families as we can.

LISA SONNEBORN: I wanted to ask if you had any other thoughts that you care to share before we wrapped up.

AL CONDELUCI: The final point that I really wanted to make was that we're now in sort of an era of virtual social capital, and that is the benefits I get from the relationships I have online through Facebook or through LinkedIn or through Twitter. For folks with disabilities, virtual reality levels the field a bit because the engagement really is not at a club or at a place. The engagement is right on your screen of your computer in your living room or in your house or apartment. There's a lot to all of this.

And there's so much room to explore and to study and to try and to measure as we move down the lane. So I think we're really at an exciting point in time. And the whole construct of social capital, whether it be actual or virtual, lie out there as really wonderful possibilities for us as we look to create a community where everybody belongs.

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Institute on Disabilities at Temple University
University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research and Service