The connectors

When 250 children joined together to sing at the dedication of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge two years ago, it marked the first performance of what would go on to become the Boston Children’s Chorus, a multicultural mix of young voices from throughout Greater Boston. But the harmonies heard that day on the soaring, cable-stayed span also represented another kind of orchestration.

Hubie Jones, a former dean of the Boston University School of Social Work and longtime black civil rights activist and children’s advocate, founded the chorus to unite in song children whose paths might not cross regularly in life. The idea came from a visit Jones made to Chicago, where a similar children’s chorus was started. The Chicago trip was part of another project of Jones’s, one that takes groups of Boston civic leaders to other cities, where they scout out fresh ideas to bring home but also spend time getting to know one another far from the everyday demands of busy lives in Boston.

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David Coyne

These are the sorts of things the 70-year-old native of the South Bronx has been doing for nearly 50 years, ever since he arrived in Boston to attend graduate school. Over that time, Jones has helped found or lead 30 different organizations, and he has become a well-known figure in academic circles, in the world of nonprofit organizations, and among government and business leaders.

Hubie Jones clearly has a capacity for making big things happen. He is, for example, probably the individual most responsible for a 1972 state law that established a broad mandate for the education of children with special needs, a measure that became the model for federal legislation defining the educational rights of children with disabilities.

The clout that Jones wields, however, whether in pushing policy change or forming a new choral group, doesn’t come from any of the usual hallmarks of a big-time powerbroker. He doesn’t preside over a large company. He holds no high office, nor does he have deep financial pockets. Instead, the key to Jones’s long reach may lie in the breadth of his connections across the many worlds of Massachusetts life, and the credibility he has built as someone who puts those connections to work toward public-spirited ends. There are plenty of people in business or politics who are well connected, but Jones is a connector.

“Hubie Jones is the iconic civic connector in town,” says Linda Whitlock, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston.

People like Hubie Jones can make things happen.

The concept of civic connectors gained recognition four years ago, in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Gladwell’s book describes how “social epidemics,” ranging from New York City’s sharp drop in crime in the 1990s to the sudden re-emergence of Hush Puppies as high-fashion footwear, can be set in motion by small, seemingly inconsequential events. Such “tipping points,” he writes, can yield sweeping change in a relatively short time. And often crucial to a tipping point, he says, are a small number of individuals who wield inordinate influence within a community. Gladwell calls this principle “The Law of the Few.” Among the few who count more than others are people Gladwell refers to as “connectors.” People like Hubie Jones.

“What makes someone a Connector?” writes Gladwell. “The first—and most obvious—criterion is that Connectors know lots of people.” But, he continues, “their importance is also a function of the kinds of people they know…. [Connectors] are people whom all of us can reach in only a few steps because, for one reason or another, they manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches.”

Just like Jones. State Rep. Byron Rushing, who has known Jones for 25 years, says that if there is a model for connectors in the Boston area, “he would be it.” Whenever he meets someone new to Boston, Rushing always tells them, “You should try to get connected with Hubie.” As Rushing explains, “he’ll know somebody that will have an interest in whatever that person is interested in.”

Jones is not the only connector around. In every community there are people who serve as critical links in the civic chain, often in very different ways (see profiles, beginning this page). They aren’t always people who make Boston magazine’s annual “power” list. But these citizen schmoozers can have an impact every bit as large.

Know (them) all

What good are connectors? Consider this evidence from Hubie Jones’s long career.

In the late 1960s, Stephen Rosenfeld worked with Jones to establish a task force whose work eventually led to the 1972 law mandating comprehensive special education services for Massachusetts children. At the time, Jones was director of a Roxbury social service agency, while Rosenfeld was head of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. “What he did, and he’s done dozens of times since then, is draw together people he knew, people who were advocates, social service providers, public school and public education experts,” says Rosenfeld. “You come 35 years later to the children’s chorus, and everything else in between, and it’s the same set of skills. He reached out to people he knew. What’s happened to Hubie over 35 years, of course, is that the circle has widened.”

Though Jones saw early on that things get done when people reach beyond the circles they usually travel in, by the 1990s he was growing frustrated by a civic culture in Boston that he thought resisted that ethos.

“For the last 10 years, my work has been focused on trying to build a culture of collaboration in the city,” he says. “This is a city with a silo mentality, where institutional leaders believe they can achieve progress and the goals for their institutions pretty much on their own.”

In 1997, borrowing from an effort started two decades earlier by Seattle business leaders, Jones launched the City to City Program, an initiative that takes 25 to 30 leaders from a cross section of Boston institutions to visit other cities. In places ranging from Atlanta to Barcelona, these local luminaries open their thinking to new ideas for Boston, drawing on everything from arts programming to urban revitalization projects in the host cities. But having these honchos spend several days together, far from their home turf, also encourages them to do the sort of connecting with one another that comes naturally to the likes of Jones.

“A lot of the leaders who were on these trips, many of them only knew each other through the newspapers,” says Jones.

It was also out of City to City that the Boston Children’s Chorus, another Jones-inspired connecting project, was born. On the Barcelona trip in 2000, Jones was struck by the city’s use of major public events to raise the profile of important initiatives. Two years later, in Chicago, a child-ren’s choir made up of kids from diverse backgrounds caught his eye. Then, in his mind, the two started to come together.

“Let’s see if we can take the dedication of the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge to elevate the arts,” he said to his City to City comrades, and they put together a consortium of seven different children’s choirs from the Boston area for the event, in October 2002. But Jones was determined to form a permanent choir of children from city and suburb, with a racial and ethnic mix to match that of the metropolitan area. So today there is the Boston Children’s Chorus, now preparing to celebrate its second anniversary.

Jones says one key to the choir’s success is a top-notch board of directors that, like the chorus itself, draws from many sectors of the Boston-area community. In recruiting members ranging from Boys and Girls Club president Whitlock to William Van Faasen, the longtime CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Jones, who serves as president, cashed in on his wide range of contacts in both corporate and nonprofit worlds.

But they didn’t join the board because they’re all Jones’s best friends. “We don’t have tight personal connections, but we’ve spent time together,” Jones says of Van Faasen. The health-insurance executive says much the same thing. Though he has known Jones and admired his work ever since arriving in Boston 14 years ago, Van Faasen says, “We don’t hang out together.”

Acquantances are a source of power.

Oddly enough, such loose connections are typical of connectors, and a source of their effectiveness. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell calls this “the strength of weak ties,” a term he credits to sociologist Mark Granovetter. The strongest ties people have are often not the most helpful ones, since such people share many of the same interests and contacts. It is the extent of people’s reach outside of their own circles—to people with whom their ties are often weaker—that often determines how much “social power” they have.

“Acquaintances, in short, represent a source of social power, and the more acquaintances you have the more powerful you are,” writes Gladwell. By that measure, Jones is powerful indeed.

Information, please

It is not only those whose Rolodexes runneth over who stitch together the social fabric. “Just as there are people we rely upon to connect us with other people, there are also people we rely upon to connect with new information,” Gladwell writes in The Tipping Point.

Gladwell could have had Robert Winters in mind. The 49-year-old Cambridge math instructor has taught for more than two decades at Harvard and Wellesley, where calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations are his specialty. In Cambridge civic circles, though, Winters is known as the guy who knows everything. It’s not that Winters is so smart—though with a mathematics Ph.D. from Boston University he is certainly smart enough. Rather, he has amassed the most comprehensive collection of information on Cambridge municipal matters outside of City Hall and the public library.

“I respect information,” says Winters. “I’m a bit of an archivist. Call me a junk collector, too.” But for the advent of the World Wide Web, that “junk” would have taken over Winters’s five-room apartment in the three-decker he owns. But since 1997, he has been slowly building an online archive of Cambridge civic doings and public records.

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Elliott Carr

Winters’s “Cambridge Civic Journal,” located at www.rwinters.com, provides one-stop shopping for everything from campaign finance reports for local candidates to the results of every city election since 1941. Though the site serves principally as an information repository, Winters doesn’t eschew commentary altogether. Over the summer, Winters posted a summary of his testimony before a council committee considering whether to change the city charter to provide for direct election of the city’s mayor (he’s against it) and his account of a council meeting in June, at which the antics of one councilor created a considerable stir.

Still, Winters says he’s more comfortable as purveyor than player. “I’m not a very partisan guy,” he says. “I’m much happier being the diplomat that wants to post information about every candidate than to promote a particular candidate.”

Hear ye, hear ye

If certain connectors tie people to one another, and others serve as information conduits, some manage to play both roles. Take Bill Walczak, founding director of the Codman Square Health Center, who’s been a fixture in the Dorchester section of Boston for 25 years. His health center hat doesn’t begin to describe what the 50-year-old New Jersey native does.

“When we organized the health center way back in the 1970s, for me the issue was rebuilding the community,” he says. “I had no knowledge of health care, and very little interest in health care. It was a vehicle for saving the Codman Square community,” he says of the surrounding neighborhood, which was in steep decline at the time. “That’s probably one of the reasons why the health center has moved in all sorts of different directions.”

Indeed, along with becoming one of the city’s most successful health clinics, the center has become a pillar of the Dorchester community. A program launched seven years ago, called the Civic Health Initiative, has pushed voter registration and supported neighborhood groups, all part of Walczak’s expansive vision of what makes a community healthy.

The civic dimensions of the health center’s work are a direct reflection of Walczak’s philosophy and temperament. “I really like people. I like talking to people about all sorts of things,” he says. “It’s a personality trait.”

Despite Hubie Jones’s complaints about the city’s “silo” mentality, Walczak finds Boston an easy place to make connections. “Boston is a small town,” he says. “I have never been to downtown Boston without seeing someone I know.” Referring to the pop-culture idea that there are no more than six degrees of separation between any two people, he says, “in Boston, it’s like one-and-a-half.”

It is for Walczak, anyway, if not for everyone else. But these days, people are as likely to hear from Walczak by e-mail as they are to bump into him on the street. This summer, there were four job openings at the health center, so Walczak spread the word, electronically—to his e-mail list of 4,000 addresses. How did he come by such a massive address book? E-mails sent out to large lists often hide the addresses of recipients, but not always. To Walczak, those all-addressee e-mails are civic gold. Whenever he receives one, he promptly adds the names to his stockpile, sorting them by affinity group.

“I have about 30 different groups,” he says. “People associated with Ted Kennedy, people associated with health care, people associated with Lower Mills in Dorchester, people associated with Savin Hill,” he says, the last being the Dorchester neighborhood he lives in. Walczak is judicious in his use of this electronic bullhorn. “I don’t send out jokes, I don’t send out prayer wheels,” he says. “I try to make it just sending out information.”

In his home neighborhood, Walczak is using e-mail as a tool for crime prevention. Produced in collaboration with the Boston police, a local weekly newspaper, and another Dorchester health center, the weekly “E-Lert” consists of a simple rundown of the locations and times of crime incidents in Savin Hill over the previous week. Now a pilot project that may be expanded into other areas, this electronic police blotter is intended to make residents more aware of crime patterns, allowing them to spot suspicious activity and take preventive measures.

Not only does Walczak combine personal connecting with electronic connecting, he also wants to connect other connectors, for the benefit of Dorchester’s health agencies and their clients. In what they’re calling their “Town Crier” project, staff from Walczak’s center and the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center, a nearby agency with which Codman Square is affiliated, are looking to harness the civic connecting skills of those who work at the two facilities.

“In every organization there are people who talk to just about everybody,” says Walczak. Not only do they mix easily within the workplace, he says, they are the people who “tend to talk to their state representative and people in their churches and people in civic groups.” Of the 525 people employed between the two centers, Walczak figures about 40 fit this bill. The goal is to identify these “town criers” and tap their talent for talk to spread information within the health centers and in the broader community.

Such a network might have been helpful, he says, earlier this year when the state moved to cut Medicaid benefits for immigrants who are not US citizens. Not only do health center officials oppose the move on principle, but the two centers stand to lose $1 million a year between them in reimbursement for services they will now have to provide for free. Employees in both clinics received information on the issue, but had the Town Crier network been in place, health-center leaders would have put added effort into informing the small group of employees who would spread the word—and make themselves heard by neighborhood leaders and elected officials.

“We want to be able to connect with people who will connect to important people,” says Walczak. “We’re trying to systematize the natural abilities of certain individuals who can be really effective networkers or communicators, for the purpose of advancing our cause.”

It’s an idea straight out of Gladwell, Walczak is glad to acknowledge. “The Tipping Point book made an impression on anybody who cares about community organizing or producing a better world for people,” he says.

Which raises the question of whether the ideas in The Tipping Point have reached their own tipping point, helping to fuel civic-connecting initiatives across the country. “Much to my delight and surprise, [the book has] become a kind of manual for people who are thinking about how to leverage social change,” says Gladwell, in a telephone interview.

Great man, everyman

Connectors have always been around, in one form or another. Indeed, it was Gladwell’s Tipping Point description of Paul Revere’s gift of gab—and social connectedness—that inspired the Dorchester Town Crier project and gave it its name.

But civic connectors may be more valuable today than ever. The year before Gladwell’s book was published, describing the pent-up civic energy that could be set loose by someone with tipping-point powers, Robert Putnam offered an especially somber, and influential, assessment of the civic zeitgeist in Bowling Alone. In his book, the Harvard public policy professor argued that the decline in fraternal organization membership, voter turnout, and even families sharing meals together added up to an era of low “social capital.”

“If we’re living in an age where there’s less social capital, there’s more value in people who can spot new civic opportunities or create new civic institutions or get people to collaborate who weren’t collaborating before,” says Tom Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar, a program at Harvard established by Putnam to brainstorm ways of reviving civic culture. (The seminar is named for a desert cactus that grows underground for years before emerging with a hardy trunk.)

And as immigrants reshape the face of Massachusetts communities, it will become increasingly important that the “next generation of civic leaders be fluent in a number of different cultural languages and able to link people who at first glance have disparate associations with each other,” says Kevin Peterson, director of New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based group promoting civic literacy and policy.

Ordinary people can be more than bit players.

Interestingly, Gladwell and Putnam both tell the story of Paul Revere’s famous ride from Boston to Lexington, but they draw different lessons from it. In the towns Revere sounded the alarm in, Gladwell writes, local militiamen were ready for battle when the British approached the next day, but towns visited by a fellow patriot, William Dawes, ignored the call to arms. What accounted for the difference? Gladwell says Revere was a “connector,” while Dawes was not. Revere knew the right people to talk to in each town, and his news spread quickly to militia leaders, whereas Dawes’s warnings fell on deaf ears. “Revere’s news tipped and Dawes’s didn’t because of the differences between the two men,” writes Gladwell.

Putnam, on the other hand, says the difference lay in social capital. “If you look at the history of that ride,” he said, in a 2000 interview with CommonWealth, “those towns that had dense networks of engagement, where there had been trust and connectedness among the citizens, were the ones who showed up when Paul Revere and Rev. Dawes issued their call.” Other towns in the area, which he says lacked similar networks of connections, “were AWOL that morning.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The dueling interpretations at first seem to be a variant of the debate over the “Great Man” theory of history. Adherents believe the course of events is often shaped by looming historical figures of the time, while those rejecting the view place more stock in the prevalent social and economic conditions. In the Battle of Lexington, Putnam leans toward the latter view, ascribing differences in civic responsiveness to differences in indigenous social capital. Gladwell chalks up the gap to Revere’s gift for igniting social capital, and Dawes’s inability to do the same.

But that reckoning, like the examples of civic-connector power today, is not an argument for the Great Man Theory. It’s really an argument for the Everyman Theory. It suggests that ordinary people—armed with a knack for knowing lots of people and connecting them to one another—can be much more than bit players on the civic stage.