Social connection is essential for mental wellbeing, but social isolation is a growing problem throughout the U.S. Across all the Making Connections sites, developing a space where men or boys can gather, be themselves, support each other, and use their talents to make their world better is essential for mental wellbeing. This approach quickly became a cornerstone for many of the other Making Connections strategies to evolve and a point of engagement and orientation for new participants.
How do we create spaces for being, doing, and connecting? Consider designating drop-in locations with staff or volunteers on hand and hours that respond to the community’s needs (like after-school programming for teens). You can also start with a public space where young people already gather, like a park, and focus on improving this area and making people feel welcome. The Making Connections coalitions have created many different types of spaces for being, doing, and connecting, like a “hub” where young men are invited to join in video games and connect with their elders; a bike shop where boys and young men learn to repair bikes and explore their cultural heritage; veteran’s center on a college campus where student veterans can study together and support one another; or a monthly park gathering where peer-led activities create a cohesive community.
Remember that a safe place to assemble shouldn’t be taken for granted. Many spaces pose risks for boys and men of color or people who are involved in the justice system, or may prove triggering for people in recovery. People who are isolated may struggle to connect with others, even when such spaces exist. But once created, these spaces can become a place where trust can grow. Learn more about how three Making Connections sites created spaces for being, doing, and connecting:
Young men in San Diego created an informal gathering space for healing community trauma
The loss of five young East African men to suicide in a San Diego neighborhood spurred the community to take action. The United Women of East Africa Support Team (UWEAST) and its partners created a peer-led, culturally literate, and responsive “wellness hub” to address employment, education, and isolation among young men of East African descent. Abdiweli Haji of UWEAST, describes the hub as “kind of like a living room—people can walk in at any time they want, and it feels like home.” Located on the second floor of the UWEAST Center, the space has comfortable couches, soft carpeting, and colorful art on the walls. There are also computer workstations, a television, video games, an area set up for small workshops, and an outdoor space for sports. At the hub, young men can be themselves, connect with peers, and get the support they need to live healthy lives. They can also access resources, workshops, and mentoring on career development, leadership development, financial literacy, and advocacy training. Watch a video about the Making Connections “hub” in San Diego.
Young men in Honolulu “circle up” at a local bike repair shop
Every weekday at 3:30 p.m., young men and boys meet up at KVIBE, a bike repair shop connected to a local community health center, to participate in culture circles before moving on to bike repair. They go around the circle and each young man states his name, the place he calls home, and then the name of an ancestor who taught him something like how to laugh, how to cry, or how to heal. Coming together in circles is a way to connect, have conversations, and build trust and respect. Circle participants can share opinions and emotions freely about topics such as dealing with mental health issues, coping with stressors, and making positive changes in their communities. The circles create space for young men to be themselves, without judgement. Watch the video.
Creating a space for student veterans to build community
Returning to civilian life after serving in the military is never easy, and going back to school can add extra challenges. This was the situation faced by student veterans at Kankakee Community College in Illinois. To address this need, a group of students and professors developed a veterans’ resource center on campus to give student vets the opportunity to come together, foster connections with other vets, and build a community. A lot went into the design of the center to make it trauma-informed—for instance, seating is arranged so that no vets have their back to the door in recognition of the hyper-vigilance veterans often experience—and to make it a place where vets can let down their guard and feel safe enough to focus on their studies and connect with each other. The resource center also serves as an operations center, where student vets plan events and activities, such as an ongoing PhotoVoice project, which helps give them a sense of purpose—another important element of military life that isn’t always present back at home. As a result, student veterans feel more connected to each other, more engaged in the community, and able to participate in more personal and educational development opportunities. Read more about efforts at Kankakee Community College. Watch the video.