(10.4.17) In good times and bad, people are, at their very core, interdependent and social creatures. News coverage of recent natural disasters has pointed out just how important we are to one another. In much subtler ways, I’m often reminded in my work and day-to-day life of the multitude of ways in which social connections are critical to well-being.
Being stranded by water or displaced earth, or even cut off by failed communications technology and infrastructure, is – at best – disorienting and frightening. But times like these allow us to see the hero in one another, and to recognize our own humanity and that of others. Scenes that have recently played out in Texas and Florida have reminded us of our similarities rather than differences and of our interdependence. This is also true in Puerto Rico, but with even greater challenges given delays in reconnecting with a broader infrastructure to support recovery. Not withstanding those challenges, we’re beginning to see stories of families and neighbors reuniting, and the sense of relief and “normalcy” re-established that comes with that reconnection, even as water and food are still difficult to access. We’re also seeing the creation of new “low tech–high touch” systems involving many people working together to ensure medications are reaching people that need them.
Even in less severe, non-life-threatening situations, there’s great comfort in providing and receiving support, and in simply knowing our challenges or circumstances are shared. I’m struck by this each time we have a power outage when neighbors emerge from their homes to touch base with one another, as much for social exchange, as for information or supplies. In fact, a power outage can sometimes feel like a great social opportunity; in the absence of that constant background hum of electrical current, there’s a chance to interrupt the strange silence with a simple conversation with family members or neighbors that can feel both reassuring and re-enlivening. Our ability to connect with one another – not only in times of crisis but also relative calm – serves to make us feel better about ourselves, our lives, and our challenges, which can seem both overwhelming and also less meaningful in the absence of others. Ultimately, we depend upon one another for support, encouragement, and signals to indicate that we are in line with what’s “normal” but also with our best selves.
I see this in the work of our grantees and partners who bring parents and families together in the face of shared challenges or circumstances, both those of an everyday nature and those that involve urgency or crisis. They do the expert work of helping parents and families feel connected, perhaps initially with agency staff who work to understand their strengths and needs, and then connect them helpful resources, including other parents and families with shared experience(s). For all the variations that exist amongst and between families, being with other parents and families and knowing that you’re not alone both literally and figuratively, is reassuring and normalizing; it can ultimately create the opportunity for significant growth and change. Through personal interaction they recognize their own strengths and the strengths of others. They gain confidence to pursue new opportunities for growth, and benefit from information and role models provided by other parents and families.
This happens amongst professionals too, which explains the popularity of “learning circles” or “communities of practice,” and is the rationale behind our Family Strengthening Community of Practice, established just over a year ago. We came together around a shared interest in increasing our ability to effectively support and strengthen families. Together, we adopted a new set of tools towards this end: Quality Standards for Family Strengthening and Support. The Community of Practice began with a certification training around the Quality Standards and has continued as a vehicle for shared reflective practice. We come together every few months as a means of stepping back, if just briefly, from day-to-day work with parents and families, to enable deeper reflection and learning. We spend our time together digging into specific topics of interest, sharing “best practices” and “practices in development.” We exchange information about programs and resources in order to capitalize upon each other’s strengths and collaborate for greater impact. Ultimately, the goal is to support and leverage one another to increase the effectiveness and reach the field of practice of Family Strengthening in our community.
It’s not surprising, I’m sure, that a social worker would feel strongly about the importance of social connections. But, it’s not just my professional bias at play – research tells us that social isolation is correlated with many social problems. Furthermore, social supports are widely acknowledged as a key element of the social determinants of health. Social supports make a bigger difference than many of us may realize, and practices which support the development of social supports are not widely understood. They are part “art” and part “science”, part “formal” and part “informal” and therefore don’t fit neatly within service categories or classifications.. But, we must pay attention to this important factor if we truly want to make a difference in people’s lives.
Senior Program Officer for Resilient Families
Learn what Saint Luke’s Foundation grantees are doing to transform the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities of Greater Cleveland. Check it out here.