Kevin Wilson, '13

Bonner Scholar works with city government to curb poverty, strengthen communities

August 25, 2011

Kevin Wilson, ’13, embraces political and government service as a means of working for the betterment of society.

During his senior year in high school, the Franklinville, N.J., native served as an advisor to President Barack Obama’s election campaign and as a member of Obama’s transition team. Following his high school graduation, he worked as a summer consultant for the Domestic Policy Council, which oversees the development and implementation of the president’s domestic-policy agenda.

Wilson gained some valuable insights into the workings of the American political system from these experiences.

“The fundamental problem with politics is the disconnect between constituents and the people we elect and hold accountable,” Wilson said. “People have a distorted belief that the president is singularly responsible for the implementation of change in their daily lives, when the fact is, he can't do it by himself. 

“The solutions to our problems cannot come from the top down. Rather it is the inverse. Some pretty powerful changes have started from the grassroots level with everyday people and worked their way up. It takes each of us working together for change to see it implemented.”

Wilson is doing his part.

Since coming to campus as a Bonner Scholar, he has been fulfilling his Bonner service commitment working for city government, most recently with Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N), the city’s service department that focuses on increasing collaborative-based civic engagement and volunteerism throughout Richmond.

“N2N operates on the premise that coordinated civic engagement can be used to mitigate poverty and other challenges facing the city,” Wilson said.

Wilson worked alongside other N2N administrators to develop a proposal for addressing systemic issues identified by Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones’ Anti-Poverty Commission.

Wilson and other members of the N2N team met with nonprofit, corporate, and city government representatives; conducted research; and collected and analyzed data. They drafted a N2N service plan, which Wilson helped to present at a public hearing on March 24, 2011.

“I spoke about the merits of social change from the grassroots — the idea that it’s not all up to the city government,” Wilson said. “People in the city, including people on our campus, have a role to play too.”

As a French major, Wilson has studied social capital, the concept that people from various social networks can collaborate to achieve shared goals.

“The idea of social capital — the economic and social benefit of cohesion — had its origins in France in the 19th century,” Wilson said. “Alexis de Tocqueville, Pierre Bourdieu, and Emile Durkheim laid the foundations of French social-integrated theory, the precursor to what we now call social capital.

“This abstract idea from across the pond still matters today in this city.”

Wilson is researching the empirics of social capital generated by the N2N initiative for his senior thesis. He will share the English-language version of his thesis with Mayor Jones and the French-language version with the University’s French faculty.

From discussing political and social theory to promoting grassroots community initiatives aimed at alleviating poverty, Wilson strives to find answers to entrenched societal problems.

“To do the same thing the same way, time after time, but expect different results is the definition of insanity,” Wilson said. “Poverty has been here for a very long time and will continue to grow if we treat it the same way. Now is the time to look at new ideas, make new plans, and involve new strategies. We're in a unique position to do something good and make a huge impact.”