Jonathan Gruber -

Dec 18, 2023

Building Connected Communities: Seven Reflections for the Shared Work Ahead

communities gathering and building

The best conferences add up to more than the sum of their parts. The discrete topics, formal sessions, and impromptu chats cohere into insights that linger long after the event is over. That was my experience at Building Connected Communities, held in October in Cambridge and Boston. Through Einhorn Collaborative’s partnership, I had a window into the vision and planning, and I was also familiar with the work of many of the speakers. Yet, being at the event, I found myself not just affirming ingoing beliefs but seeing the work of strengthening social connection in new ways. Here are seven reflections from the gathering that I plan to carry forward.

1. Loneliness and social isolation are bound up with other big societal challenges.

Conversations about loneliness and social isolation often highlight the negative health effects given the concrete evidence for how harmful disconnection is to our physical and mental health. There is also research – from early relational health to aging – on the vital health benefits of connection over the course of our lives. However, across the sessions at Building Connected Communities, another salient insight surfaced. Just as there are many different drivers of disconnection, the downstream consequences are equally varied, from toxic polarization to declining civic health to a lack of community resilience in the face of disasters. We cannot fully understand or contend with a host of major issues if we do not see loneliness as part of the puzzle. And the flipside is also true. Those of us focused on strengthening connection and ameliorating the effects of loneliness and isolation must widen the aperture by finding common cause with people working to solve adjacent but overlapping challenges.

2. Young people are bearing the brunt of disconnection, and they can help lead us forward.

Scholars Jean Twenge and Rick Weissbourd spoke in different sessions about the mental health crisis afflicting young adults and adolescents. As Weissbourd explained in Making Caring Common’s latest research, the issue is exacerbated by a lack of meaning and purpose, and nearly 3 in 5 young adults report lacking these important elements in their lives. Amidst this troubling trend, scholar Robert Putnam offered a hopeful historical note. The Progressive Era reforms that sparked an upswing in community connectedness a century ago were powered largely by young people, like Jane Addams, who found purpose in renewing the promise of America. What more could we do today to support and empower young people to lead in reweaving the social fabric? That has long been a question and aspiration that animates our work at Einhorn Collaborative.

3. Spaces that foster connection need to span our physical and digital worlds.

The time we spend in offices, neighborhoods, parks, downtowns, and other spaces reveals – often in subtle ways – how the built environment fosters or stifles social connection. As Eric Klinenberg, Amanda O’Rourke, and Thomas Cudjoe explained, we must design public spaces in ways that work for people of all backgrounds, abilities, and ages and that positively shape how we interact. “Social infrastructure” is a key ingredient in building connected communities. Given the amount of time we spend online, the connection imperative extends to digital platforms and products. Steve Downs shared findings from a new report from Building H that paints a nuanced picture of social media platforms as spaces that stoke feelings of both loneliness and connection. There is a clear need to improve existing digital spaces and create new ones that draw on practical insights for how to design for trust and community.

4. Bolstering connection and community calls for spiritual solutions as well.

Many of the ideas discussed at Building Connected Communities were anchored in data and practicality, which was refreshing for a topic that could be perceived as abstract or soft. At the same time, another throughline was the need to revive a set of “we-centered” values that stand in contrast to the culture of hyper-individualism and “us vs. them” narratives that have taken hold in America. One might have expected this heart-forward message to come solely from a session on religious and spiritual life or one on civic participation, but many voices joined this chorus. When a political scientist, an epidemiologist, a sitting senator, and the Surgeon General all speak to the spiritual dimensions of disconnection and the need for spiritual solutions, they must be onto something. The opportunity is to bring together different kinds of analysis, wisdom, and solutions to strengthen connection and community in ways that speak to people’s deepest yearnings and aspirations as human beings.

5. Lived experience experts have as much to teach us as scholars of connection and community.

There were different modes of engagement throughout the three days at Building Connected Communities. That included hearing stories from a group of leaders stewarding community-rooted connection efforts in Atlanta, San Antonio, Bangor, and Minneapolis. We also spent a morning in Boston learning from people fostering connection at the neighborhood level. I joined Shana Bryant, the lead organizer for Boston’s Open Streets, on a stroll through the Roxbury neighborhood. Shana talked about how these half-day events turn a stretch of Blue Hill Avenue into a joyful, car-free public gathering with food trucks, games, performances, community activations, and other ways for people to interact and be together. Getting out of our seats for this ground-level view gave participants insight into the trust and relationships being forged among community members, as well as the resources and creativity it takes to foster social connection.

6. There is an opportunity for coalescing – and field building – across disparate strands of work.

For me, Building Connected Communities evoked an earlier period in the field of pluralism and bridge-building, an area where Einhorn Collaborative has worked for many years. I thought about the substantive interplay between the work of fostering social connection and strengthening pluralism (our view at Einhorn is that connection is the active ingredient in much bridge-building work) and the evolution of the pluralism field from an under-appreciated and fragmented set of actors to a better recognized, more integrated ecosystem. The 2016 election was a pivotal event that accelerated this shift toward greater visibility, coherence, and investment in the pluralism field. The pandemic has similarly sparked an opening for the field of social connection, reinforcing its urgency and galvanizing broader interest. The question is how to build on this momentum and create the conditions for a growing ecosystem to thrive.

7. We need to humanize the work of social connection and model what it’s about.

Two moving moments at Building Connected Communities helped me get out of my head and into why this work matters to me personally. The first was a conversation over lunch in small groups curated by Lennon Flowers and her team at The Dinner Paty Labs. In introducing the experience, Lennon said that as people working on social connection, we need to remember to engage in the practice ourselves. To affirm our own – and see each other’s – stories of community and belonging and of what inspires us to do the work. The second was a reflection from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy during his talk. He pulled from his pocket a pair of infant socks his kids had once worn.

“I carry these with me when I travel,” Murthy said, “because they remind me of what’s at stake. Because I want for them what I want for your kids and all our kids: to grow up in a world where people have each other’s backs, where they look out for each other…. where it is understood that it’s when we’re together that we go farther and we’re all better off… That is the deeper spirit and purpose behind the movement we are building to create connection and community in our world.”

The Surgeon General’s story was an invitation for each of us to express, in our own words, the commitments we bring to this work. Amidst an epidemic of loneliness and the ruptures we see across the country today, I hope these seven takeaways resonate with you as we work together to build a more socially connected society.

If you are curious to experience some of the content from Building Connected Communities, check out the many session recordings and resources now available on the event website. I hope you find this trove to be a source of insight and inspiration.

Jon Gruber leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Building strategy. Learn more about our work in Building and more about Jon. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jon’s blog posts.