Commentary: Social Media: An Innovative Way to Strengthen Communities

As an international social work student, I am deeply indebted to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis for the opportunity to participate in the Exploring Innovation conference from April 22-24, 2009. Several graduate students, including myself, were chosen to use small video cameras to interview conference-goers about community development and their experience at the conference. This innovative way of getting graduate students with a passion for community service involved in this wonderful conference not only gave me an eye-opening learning experience on the definition of community development, but also the great chance to hear experts' innovative ideas for community capacity building.

The most innovative definition of community development that I have taken away from this conference is "social media," which was given during a keynote speech by Nicol Turner-Lee, senior vice president of One Economy. At an evening reception, Nicol held my hand and sincerely told me that those working in social media need social work values to help them reach out to low-income families—because everyone should have the right to benefit from modern technology. My heart was beating, because I knew I had found the right person to talk to and to share with, and I started to look for Nicol's trail...she is my role-model!

Nicol's speech on the first day of the conference highlighted the impact of social media on modern society. Unfortunately, she said, we are all using social media, but we tend to overlook its meaning to the community, especially underprivileged people. Nicol said social media consists of highly accessible technologies, such as the Internet and cell phones, that help modern society obtain and share news and social development information.

In terms of community development, Nicol and her company's dreams are to leverage the power of technology and information to connect low-income people to the economic mainstream. Her definition of community development focuses on capacity building through technological development at the community level. In other words, her organization's goal is to bring broadband into the homes of low-income people, produce public-purpose media, and train and employ youth to enhance communities' technology capacity. "Young people are our future, and I believe that everyone has an equal right to access the social resources," Nicol said.

The great impact of Nicol's innovative thoughts on me is that they become an engine driving social work values and practices with communities, a kind of eagerness to help the vulnerable population and to advocate for social justice through community capacity building. I perceive technology development as asset building at the community level. As a social worker majoring in disaster management and community preparedness, I was greatly inspired by Nicol's speech and her movement to empower lower-income people. Even without changing the present political and socioeconomic context, social workers still can develop an innovative way to link community development with disaster preparedness.

I have a vision that everyone in this society should have access to modern technology during a disaster so they can obtain information and connect to social support services. In rural communities, social workers can strengthen community preparedness by creating a premise-based solution for accelerating digital access and creating digital literacy. For example, connecting children from low-income families in rural communities to the Internet could be an innovation in community capacity building. It could enhance the connection of local citizens with multiple resources from the international community, government, private organizations and volunteers.

I still remember that even in some developing countries—such as China, when there was a devastating earthquake last year in May and thousands of people were missing—it was cell phone messages and Internet blogs that helped many people find their loved ones. If such technology is made available to under-developed areas, more people will be prepared, informed and, ultimately, rescued.

In addition to advocating for using social media to help vulnerable people, as a social work student, I also have a passion to be an intermediary who matches the needs of low-income people with available resources. In other words, not only we should understand the needs of community development, but also the needs of the resource providers, so that social workers can link them together. In this process, social workers can play many roles: educator, counselor, therapist, helper, broker and advocate.


Sarah Li Zhao is a graduate student in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.

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