‘Who you know’ really does matter

My wife ran into an acquaintance the other morning and asked about the woman’s daughter who had attended the Harley school. The proud mom told my wife that her daughter, a 2013 college graduate, got a great job working for, as she noted “one of the 1 percent.” She lives now in Brooklyn but is wealthy enough to have recently given her parents a Paris vacation trip.

The young woman concentrated in French and film at Sarah Lawrence College. She works now for a hedge fund manager, and one of her duties is to make sure his art collection, which he loans to museums, is properly packaged and sent.

Mom said she had gotten the job because she became friends with someone at college and had formed some relationships with people there who knew she spoke French. These connections led to meetings and a job offer from her eventual employer. It sounds like a really cool job and I am happy for the young woman. But it got me thinking.

There are deep truths to many old adages. The one that I kept thinking of was “It is not what you know, it’s who you know.” And we all know that making the right connections and building relationships opens doors in education, jobs and careers for our children and ourselves.

Those of us in the middle class may not know the 1-percenters, but we often know someone who will open a door for our kids who may need a break, an interview, or a favor. But students who live with and go to school with only other poor children never have the opportunity to meet the people who can open those doors for them.

Relationships make the world go ‘round. They lead to opportunity, advancement, and upward mobility. Yet Americans enjoy less upward mobility than almost any citizens in the world.
Poverty is destiny for manyAmericans.

• 42 percent of men raised in families from the bottom one-fifth of incomes stay there as adults

• 62 percent of those raised in the top fifth stay there as adults

More on income inequality can be found here:

• Few investments yielded as high a return as a college degree
• College is far more expensive and out of reach for low income students
• High income families dominate enrollment in select colleges (like Sarah Lawrence)
• College graduation rates have increased sharply for wealthy students but stagnated for low income students.

So, no college means—no connections, no relationships built, no doors opened. And without these relationships many urban kids face almost insurmountable odds. Even when urban kids do go off to college, few make it. They are smart enough, but they often feel alone and have no context through any family member or friends to negotiate the middle class world and the rules of college. They have no relationships to build on.

Some critics point to their parents and grandparents who “pulled themselves up by their boot straps and so can these city kids.” They forget the context of the situation. Students in earlier generations did not face the barriers that today’s kids face. Fifty years ago a generation of immigrant and working class families lived together. Their kids went to the same school where the student body comprised a wide swath of social classes. Through those schools people formed relationships.

Later generations moved to the suburbs, denying both city and suburban families exposure to people outside their social class. Then about 30 years ago we reached the tipping point and all that was left in most of Rochester’s schools were poor families. Gone were the opportunities to form relationships with diverse social classes and ethnic groups. Instead of forming relationships with people less fortunate than themselves, many of the families who moved away became critics, blaming the poor for being poor. But that suburban flight contributed to the problems we now see in city schools—because relationships matter and families with kids who attend diverse schools may learn, through their children’s friends, not to stereotype or generalize.

GS4A advocates for the creation of magnet schools and regional academies because we recognize that schools are not just about academic achievement but also about making connections and building relationships.

There’s no doubt the kid from Sarah Lawrence worked hard to learn French and make the most of her major, but there was no way she would have the job she landed without the relationships she formed first through her parents and later her college.

No matter how many dollars we invest in urban schools, they will never truly be equal to suburban schools—until students have the relationships that make success much more likely.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.