How Local Leaders Can Create Socially Connected Communities

Like the East African refugees from San Diego, people who feel they do not belong to the majority of social groups, for example because of their race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, gender identity or sexual orientation, are the most prone to social isolation . However, people of all ages, demographics and identities experience isolation. In a 2018 study, more than half of adults had one or fewer counselors. And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic closed many of the staging areas that had served as an antidote to isolation.

Social connection improves health

Leaders who strive to create resilient, just and healthy communities often fail to recognize the importance of social wellbeing, which refers to the power of one’s relationships and social networks. People who live in socially connected communities are more likely to thrive because they feel safe, welcome, and trust each other. Trusted, meaningful relationships improve our mental, physical, and emotional health and well-being.

In fact, strong social connections and networks can extend a person’s lifespan by 50 percent.

To address social isolation among San Diego’s East African refugee population, the Prevention Institute and the United Women of East Africa Support Team launched the Making Connections initiative. Participants have jointly developed a cultural and community-oriented space to meet, interact and support each other. Having this safe space helped them experience a sense of belonging and increase their collective capacity to identify and advocate for solutions to other challenges, such as a lack of affordable housing and educational and employment opportunities. They called for more diversity training for law enforcement and more funding for community services, demonstrating how social connection can improve health and well-being.

Take action in your community

Communities can support a meaningful social connection between residents, improve trust between neighbors and enhance a general sense of belonging.

This does not require a brand new, citywide program. Instead, you can weave opportunities for social connection into the fabric of society. After all, social isolation is not a personal choice or individual problem, but one that is rooted in community design, social norms and systemic injustices – and must be addressed as such.

From architects to educators, faith leaders to health care providers, local governments to grant providers – everyone can help break through social isolation.

Here are five ways to get started:

1. Design, maintain and activate inclusive public spaces

The possibilities to promote health and strengthen social connection are endless in parks, community gardens, greenways, streets, sidewalks, libraries, community centers, waterfronts, shared schoolyards and the interstitial spaces around public buildings. Urban, suburban and rural environments offer equally powerful opportunities to provide places where residents can interact, experience culture, access nature and gain a sense of belonging.

2. Prioritize connection in transport systems

Safe, accessible and affordable transport connects people to jobs, education, health care, childcare, social services and other means that promote social contacts and promote health. However, the United States’ transportation system prioritizes personal vehicles, creating barriers for those who cannot drive, cannot get a driver’s license or pay for a car, or fear discrimination during traffic stops. A reimagined transport sector can stimulate conversation, increase engagement and improve health and well-being.

3. Build community environments

Millions of people lack safe, affordable, stable and healthy housing. Historically oppressive policies and practices have made home ownership disproportionately difficult for black, indigenous and other people of color. Absent landlords and discrimination exacerbate the negative conditions. Unstable living conditions weaken social networks. We need to design communities with housing options that provide access to jobs and healthy food, create opportunities to build relationships with neighbors and enhance the sense of community.

4. Invest in inclusive practices and community-led solutions

We need community-led solutions powered by a belief in the power of people to reshape their communities. That means local leaders learning from and with residents, and welcoming ideas from those most influenced by social systems. The engagement process itself can bring community members together who would otherwise not interact and forge stronger social bonds and civic engagement.

5. Make social connectedness a community norm

Every aspect of community life can enhance or suppress social well-being. All sectors have a role to play, and social connectedness should be a priority and norm for the entire community. When community leaders combine a Social in All Policies framework with approaches based on trauma and resilience, they improve trust between residents and leaders and open the door to a future where everyone experiences absolute connectedness and social well-being.

Building socially connected communities

Imagine a socially connected community where people know and trust their neighbors and people from different neighborhoods. Where they are motivated and supported to be socially involved. Where structures, policies and relationships connect residents with services, resources and inclusive spaces. And where people see themselves represented by signals (such as public art and signage) and feel welcome.

The participants of Making Connections share this vision. They recently organized walking groups to change the perception of who belongs in parks and other recreational spaces. In addition to expanding its health-promoting capabilities, they are now collectively raising their voices to create a culture of dignity and respect for all, so that everyone feels a sense of belonging.

At this critical time, it is especially important to create socially connected communities. Together we can address trauma caused by structural and systemic oppression and build more cohesive, resilient and equitable communities where all can thrive.

Read Socially Connected Communities: Solutions to Social Isolation which describes these five recommendations in more detail.

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