Earlier this month, I had the honor to be in conversation with Uma Viswanathan, Executive Director of New Pluralists, and Sharon Roerty, Senior Program Officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, at the 2022 End Social Isolation and Loneliness Action Forum hosted by the Foundation for Social Connection. Our session touches on various philanthropic approaches and efforts to reduce social isolation and loneliness and strengthen connection. I hope that our discussion sparks interest, inspiration, and curiosity about the role that social connection plays in our everyday lives and in our democracy.
Read the Transcript
Jillian Racoosin 00:01 Wow, what an incredible morning it has been so far on day three of the Action Forum. We just heard from leaders and community in action, and now we are excited to share a conversation focused on philanthropy and action. This session will explore the landscape of philanthropic efforts to reduce social isolation and loneliness and strengthen connection across the nation. Philanthropy plays a critical role in the world of social health and activism. We will hear directly from some of the impassioned advocates who are leading the charge to a more socially connected future. In about 10 minutes, our next panel discussion will begin in main stage one, this important discussion will center on loneliness and connection in the workplace. To tune into that session, head back to the reception area, and then click on mainstage one. As a reminder, all sessions will be recorded and made available on our website.
Okay, turning our attention back to our next esteemed guests. I am pleased to introduce our speakers for this session envisioned as a discussion among friends over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. First, we have Uma Viswanathan who serves as the Executive Director of New Pluralists, a funder and field collaborative working together to advance pluralism in American culture, to heal our social divisions in ways that honor human dignity, repair harm, foster empathy, and widen our circle of human concern. Next, we have Sharon Roerty, who is a Senior Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where she concentrates on the impact of the built and natural environment on population health, including looking for global examples that can be adapted and adopted in the U.S. Last but not least, we have Jon Gruber, who is a Strategy Lead at Einhorn Collaborative, a foundation advancing the science and practice of empathy, mutual understanding, and relationship building. Jon leads Einhorn’s Building Strategy focused on strengthening a relational, pluralist culture in America. Thank you each for being with us here today and for your commitment to this work. I think as a way to start things off, maybe I will throw it to you, Jon. And I’m curious to hear from all of you, what brings you to this work? And what does social connection mean to each of you? Over to you!
Jonathan Gruber 02:17 Thanks, Jillian. It’s great to be with you all today and really looking forward to this conversation. I think the beauty of social connection in part is that it is core to the human experience, and we all have opportunities to experience engaging connection in our day-to-day lives. For me, I bring an identity in part as a parent of two young children and have ample opportunities every single day to engage in the practice of connection with my two young boys. And because they’re four and six, also to experience disconnection and dysregulation, which are core to human experience as well. So finding those opportunities to deepen our bonds, but also to engage in the practice of healing and repair. And in the context of the parent-child relationship is really profound for me and top of mind in all of my interactions here at home. And what’s cool about that is that a core strategy in our work and Einhorn Collaborative — our Bonding Strategy — focuses on advancing the science and practice of early relational health. So getting a glimpse into the power of those early foundational relationships, seeing my colleague Ira working closely with organizations, communities, parents, researchers to advance emotional connection, early relational health through the pediatric care setting helped bring this home in a way that also connects to the core work of the organization. So that’s really fun and fascinating, and enables me to draw on some of these strategies and research insights in my day to day life. Curious, Uma, how you would respond to that question?
Uma Viswanathan 04:04 Yeah. And it’s really fun for me to be in this conversation, actually, with the two of you in particular, because I used to work at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with Sharon, and John Gruber and I are worked very closely together through the organization that I’m leading now called New Pluralists. So my kind of entry point into connection, into to sort of human relationship, I think stems just having grown up as the child of immigrants. My parents immigrated from India about 50 years ago. And so I grew up always in between worlds, and I paid a lot of attention to what makes people function. Why do people think and feel the ways that they do with each other, about each other? And just sort of this recognition that there are different ways that we actually make sense of things? And my way into it, my way of making sense of all of it was actually through human connection, just a deep curiosity, like what makes us tick. So I actually started off my journey thinking I was going to become a psychologist, but then found my way just wanting to be about larger groups, larger societal issues. And so my journey even into philanthropy into the field of social change actually just stems from that place of “I care about people.” And I’ve often invested, you know, throughout my philanthropic career in that human relational dimension of change, of the change process, So that has to do with leadership, that has to do with civic and community engagement. My entry point into issues of equity and justice is that sense of, it’s important to me that people feel that sense of deep belonging and care for each other. And to me, the way that we’re going to get there is by getting better at caring about each other across what can sometimes feel really hard, what can feel like pretty wide chasms. And that’s what brings me to the work of of New Pluralists, which is how do we actually build and strengthen our muscles as a culture, in our communities, and in our organizations to be able to care deeply about each other, not despite our differences, but also in some ways because of our differences. Because that makes our lives richer, to be able to connect across our differences. So that’s, that’s what brings me brings me into this work.
Sharon Roerty 06:21 That’s really something I really enjoy hearing from both of you. So I’m Sharon Roerty. I’m a Senior Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. My background, as you both know, is in urban planning. And you know, when I think about connections, particularly over the last couple of years, you know, I’ve thought more about them than ever before. As a planner, I’m always thinking about that I’m always trying to connect the dots. But you know, what COVID has brought to us and what some of the social injustice demonstrations have brought to us and climate change, all those things… thinking about connections and how I feel connected and rooted in place. I think of connections in terms of like three P’s: people, place and planet. For me, as you know, people: Jonathan hit on it right when he talked about family; that identity, what does it mean to me and to my family, right? And Uma, you got into a bit of place, and I’m always thinking about place. It’s so important to me. And the planet: you know, it’s the nature, the physical world that is becomes, you know, if it wasn’t important to us before, certainly COVID, you know, taught us how important it was our physical environment. Climate change is open up the news every day; if you’re not already living in it, it’s affecting all the people around us, whether it’s, you know, in the next town, or the next state or, you know, in other countries. And then this the spiritual world; that’s part of the planet and the virtual world. And again, in the last couple of years, if you weren’t really connected virtually, you probably got connected virtually, because we were stuck in our homes and not connected with with people.
And so, you know, even those of us who are sort of not tech savvy had to learn how to connect. If not, you were left out. So I think again, it’s this sort of the connections and what connection means to me, it’s those three piece they’re really important. And with this work that I’ve been doing at the foundation, really looking at issues like social isolation and social connection: What’s the future of social connection? What have we learned from these last few years? And now, as COVID is not over but as we’re sort of emerging, going back out into the real world, what have we learned from it? And what can we bring forward so that we are better connected? Because we’re not well if we’re not connected. I think we’ve learned that. So yeah, I don’t know. What else in our work is doing it? What’s motivating us? What do we see coming down the line as we sort of get more involved, as we we come more into the physical space again?
Jonathan Gruber 09:14 Well, Sharon, I appreciate how you named the impact of the pandemic in shaping how social connection is perceived and talked about in our work and in our lives. For us at Einhorn, we named the crisis of connection, these overlapping challenges of loneliness and isolation, but also alienation, and division, and polarization, and hyper individualism as the problem statement that sits at the core of our work. And we’ve been talking about that for years now, several years. And yet, when we would describe, you know, the elevating the power and promise of relationships as central to our work as a philanthropic mission, we sometimes get eye rolls or skepticism like, “Oh, that sounds nice… and yet is that really the first order work that needs to be done in the world and that philanthropy should be contributing to?” And I think in the last couple of years, because we’ve all experienced the acute absence of connection in various ways through this pandemic period, social connection is now more of a topic of serious discussion in our circles, in the wider social change space, which creates a moment of opportunity, I think, to really elevate different strategies and different ways into the work of studying connection. And, you know, I think, Uma, I’m curious to engage with you on this. Like I’ve seen over time that in the pluralism and bridging world, the active ingredient, and so many of the methodologies, and interventions, and programs that hold great promise is human connection, right? It’s bringing people together in authentic interactions, mutually curious and open hearted interactions and experiences. And that’s how people see their shared humanity, how they navigate difference, how they solve problems together. And yet, it still gets short shrift as a priority area in the world of democracy and pluralism, but also more broadly in the philanthropic space. Curious to hear.
Uma Viswanathan 11:14 I mean, that’s very much been my experience as well, which is why I think it’s so exciting to be leading a funder collaborative with a set of people who see the importance and the value of investing deeply in this kind of work and investing big. I mean, so with New Pluralists, our goal is to, as a collaborative, to raise and deploy $100 million over the course of the next 10 years to be able to invest in the catalyzing of a cultural shift, to embrace pluralism, to embrace the principles of pluralism. But we also see an opportunity to galvanize much, much more resources from philanthropy. Actually, we very recently set a goal of galvanizing a billion dollars from the field of philanthropy over the course of the next 10 years to be able to invest in the kind of, I would even say, it’s almost like radical human connection. That is what pluralism represents. It’s one thing to feel like you can connect across the bonds of people that you already think are like you, that you already have a bent – a bit of affiliation with, but to recognize the value and the criticality of being able to see the inherent human dignity of people who are potentially fundamentally really different in their ideologies, in their perspectives. Can we still, as a culture, embrace people who are that different from us? Can we take the responsibility to repair from harm? You know, it’s one thing, we are human beings, and we hurt each other.
I mean, this isn’t our first rodeo as a human civilization that has been in the throes of this level of pain and hierarchy that we see playing out right now. It is, I think, accelerated by a lot of technology, a lot of different factors. But we have to build those skills. We have to build those muscles to be able to relate and repair from that harm and to proactively widen our circles of care and concern. It’s not going to just happen on its own. I think this is something that yes, there’s a deep need for sort of structural solutions. I think there’s a lot of reasons why we are so separated from each other, but we also can’t sort of wait for something magical to happen. Like it’s going to take each of us, wherever we’re positioned, whatever sector we’re positioned in to proactively… So this has to do with the people we put ourselves in relationship with professionally, it has to do organizationally, the kinds of bonds and bridges that were willing to build, in order to be able to grapple with, I think, in some cases, the really overwhelming challenges that I think we face about our planet, about the climate, about, you know, global dynamics that are playing out right now. And we have to really honor that we have strengths in our differences, that we’re going to actually be better equipped to tackle all of these things if we’re willing to find, and honor, and be able to actually kind of capitalize on the strength in our differences.
There isn’t one small group of people that’s going to figure out the challenge of loneliness and social isolation; it’s actually going to require a lot of different sectors kind of coming at it from different perspectives. And philanthropy, I think has a really critical role to play to really take it seriously. You know, and I think part of that has to do with coming with an abundance mindset. Like we’re in a field of possibility here. We’re so caught in this sort of zero-sum thinking, this sort of fear and insecurity that plays out both in our kind of social interactions, the ways that we think about resource allocation in philanthropy, but I think more broadly than that, what does it look like to actually flip our perspective and say, we can create something different, we can create a different kind of social contract with each other as well. So all of these, which is huge, right? This is actually what New Pluralists is grappling to figure out like, how do we enable that to become enlivened in our culture. And there is no way that one foundation or 10 foundations can actually figure that out on our own, it actually is going to require the activation and the imagination of a lot of different kinds of players and philanthropy. And we’re excited to see who’s going to find their way into this, too.
Sharon Roerty 15:27 I feel like just dropping the mic on everything that Uma just said. She captured it so well. So let me just see if I can build on that a little bit. You know, Uma talked a little bit about, or a lot about, repairing from harm. And again, I’ll just say, I think the last few years has been such an awakening for so many of us across everywhere, right? Awakening about so many things. And as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we are an organization that’s a little bit in transition, I’d say. We’ve been working in our 50-year history a lot at the very high level, you know, the 50,000 foot, some would say 300,000 foot level, working with academics and renowned institutions. And we’re shifting. We’ve seen this kind of the harm and the isolation that people have felt and what’s going on in local solutions, and we think about health and creating opportunities for everyone to be healthy, and the need to create, to lean into more equitable solutions, right? We’re doing work at the ground level. And I’m not saying we’re doing it really well just yet. Like I said, it’s a big transition to go from sort of the more academic and research institutions to working with locals. But as we do that, and we think about the harm that’s happened in communities, we’ve got to think about how people feel isolated and then what’s going to make them feel connected.
We have to call people in: the abundance thinking, the idea around, and we’ve spent some time on this with some of our partners, absolute belonging. What does that look like? You know, what does it look like for all kinds of people, you know, to feel like they belong in a community, that they’re part of the community? You know, I mentioned before the connections that people, place, and the planet. What does it mean if there’s a community garden and I don’t feel welcomed in that space, even though I’d like to be in that space? So some of the work that we’re doing on that community, sort of the grassroots level, the investing in local organizations, investing in capacity building for local organizations, is keeping that in mind or else we can’t do our work. We don’t have at the foundation this big strategy on social isolation; we’ve been doing work on it, but we don’t have a sort of what would call like a deep vertical of funding on it. And I think that that’s okay. My colleagues that have been working in this area are trying to think about it across the foundation in our work, because I don’t think, again, we could do our work well if we’re not thinking about it. If we’re not thinking about, you know, how we connect with local organizations and the work they’re doing, and how they can think about, you know, ideas, concepts, such as absolute belonging, and bringing people in. Calling people in, not calling people out so much. It relates to so much of what you were saying, Uma.
Uma Viswanathan 18:43 It’s actually painting for me a question that I’d love to hear from from both of you as well. Because what you’re describing, Sharon, right now has to do with some changes that philanthropy can also make, and even just the way that you’re describing how you’re seeing that playing out at a foundation like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And Jon, knowing that you are as a collaborative, you went through a journey to actually recognize that this work needed to happen as part of collaboratives. And there are certain behaviors and habits that philanthropy has that can sometimes get in our way of being able to meaningfully invest. And so just curious, like, what you both see around that?
Jonathan Gruber 19:23 Yeah, I love that question. I think, as we’ve tried to do with New Pluralists, Uma, amongst the funders and field leaders who are part of the collaborative, and as we’re trying to do in our direct work, I’m required… how can we model, and embrace, and reflect out the values that we’re trying to support out in the world? I think that’s a really key question for philanthropy, because funders can act in all kinds of ways and without accountability that don’t necessarily reflect the norms and values that they’re trying to support through their grantmaking. So that’s an ongoing journey, and it’s been one of those rewarding aspects of my involvement and our organization’s participation in new Pluralists. And also in the work we’ve been doing around social connection as well. I think, Sharon, as you’re getting it so candidly, too, what does it look like to listen and reflect on how you’re approaching a particular topic or priority, and to be willing to revise and evolve your approach and your thinking based on new information and insight as you listen to communities? For us, that’s also an ongoing evolution. We’ve been doing a lot of work recently around storytelling and case-making towards connection out of a belief that our dominant culture reinforces all of the opposite messages and narratives that “we are hopelessly divided,” that “we are atomized individuals who can make our own destiny,” and that “we don’t need each other,” and it fuels distrust and division and othering. And so we’ve tried to support efforts to tell a different story, a more complete story, of who we are as human beings, to lift up bright spots of what healthy human connection looks like in action. And that’s really important work, ongoing work, for us. And more recently, we’ve come to see that we also need to think about the role of institutions in our lives and within communities that have a critical role to play in enabling culture change. So we’re doing some new work to support efforts to equip local policymakers and local leaders with tools, and resources, and strategies to design for connection through policies and programs at the local level. We’re in conversations with companies that are finding authentic ways to enable and amplify social connection in ways that are core to their own business imperatives, but that are also creating connection for customers or employees, for their stakeholders. All of the above approach, which I think is really important, if the North Star vision is culture change. And so that’s another way in which we’re trying to live this value of listening and collaboration as being open to evolving our strategies over time to get at this really hard and yet necessary set of aspirations.
Sharon Roerty 22:17 Yeah, I would say, building on all that: sort of that realization, and we’ve said it at the foundation for a long time, change happens at the speed of trust, right? But then we don’t give things enough time for that trust and the relationships to develop, and if you’re doing work and community, to allow enough time for the community to come in to design their own programs, and to make sure that it’s not just the few people that always show up, but everyone else. And that’s important on so many levels, you know. It’s important to what we’re talking about. Again, you know, sort of making those social connections, so that I have an idea of my community, but I don’t feel comfortable going to that to that meeting, right? I want to volunteer, but I don’t know that I’m part of that group. So allowing that time, and I think philanthropy so often, we’re in such a race to do good that the right intention is there, but we don’t always roll it out very well. So again, wrapping our heads around that is really, really important and giving things more time. I think we’re learning that.
The other thing I want to bring into this conversation too, and see if you all have had – and I think you have – just from what you’ve said. We, particularly on the global team, are looking at this sort of concept of multi-solving. So, you know, how do we solve for more than one thing with the competition for resources that is always there, but ever more strong, and priorities and time and all that? How do we think about what we’re doing and sort of in a multi-solving way? And I bring this up because the work that we’ve invested in so far in social isolation and finding other funders that are interested in this work, it hasn’t been that easy, to be honest. And I think, you know, maybe we have to refine that approach a little bit more and sort of demonstrate how kind of like the things I’m saying… That if you want to solve for x, you have to think about you have to think about y, z, a, r and j. And all those other variables, you know, how they come together. And so thinking about sort of a multi-solving approach. You can’t build those relationships if people feel isolated, making the connections and how it’s an important part and value add to the work that foundations are doing.
Jonathan Gruber 24:55 I love that term and that idea, Sharon. One thought that comes to mind is that, like in the democracy world where I think there’s funders who have really different priorities and areas of interest, and as we’ve tried to galvanize interest in support for pluralism as core to healthy society, democracy, enabling multiple ways in to that work, I think that has served us well. Whether it’s funders who come at it from a structural change standpoint, from a journalism and healthy media environment standpoint, from a social media and digital life standpoint, they can all see how cultural pluralism is integral to their core priorities. I think there’s a similar opportunity with social connection. There may be some funders who name loneliness and isolation as a core problem they’re trying to address and make a dent in. But then I think for some funders who are education funders, social service funders, climate funders, helping them see how social connection is a key ingredient, healthy relationships are a key ingredient in powering the work that they care about, I think would be an invitation in to this broader coalition that I think we need to build around social connection that still enables folks in philanthropy to major in the things that they care most about, but to see how this work is integral as well.
Uma Viswanathan 26:25 Yeah, and just to kind of round it out, because I see the question I’d asked you both and this question really connected as well. You know, I think there’s a desire to make each of these issues like very isolated from each other. But when you actually get on the level of human beings and communities and families and the ways that they’re grappling with things, their transportation issues are connected to their job issues, which are connected to their education issues and health issues. So actually, the more proximate we actually get, and sort of the less out of our own ivory tower heads about it, the more intuitively actually everything becomes about… what is it multi-solving? I love that. It’s a really helpful thing. It’s actually like, the way that we move through our lives is like, you’re grappling with a multitude of different kinds of both challenges and opportunities and choices. And so if we can actually equip ourselves to function like that as organizations. And I think this idea that doing so together, like actually, philanthropy feeling a sense of belonging with each other, as opposed to this sense of, “I’m going to figure out the whole challenge by myself,” which is a really strange thought, you know. Like these social challenges, these environmental challenges are huge. Why would any one organization be able to figure it out on its own? So the better we get at actually doing it together as organizations, I think that’s how we start to get at the multi-solving kind of dynamic as well. And to Jon’s point, it’s like, and I heard that in what you were describing as well, Sharon, you know, it’s not always going to be a deep vertical for every foundation to invest in social connection or pluralism. But to see that this is a through line that can actually cut across. It’s the way that we think about it, in a lot of cases, diversity, equity, inclusion kind of work as well. It needs to be both vertical and horizontal, and some foundations might major, some actually might just start to see it as something that is infused throughout all of their work as well. And I think it’d be willing to see that there’s a role for all of philanthropy to invest in this in the ways that are going to make sense for their own organizations.
Sharon Roerty 28:23 Yeah, I mean, even Jon’s opening comments, he identified as a parent, right? We identify, you know, in our communities. That’s all multi-solving, because you don’t approach parenthood doing one thing on a day. You know, it just doesn’t work that way. And I know in all work, we’re always multi-solving. So just bringing that sort of that sense to it all. So I wonder if we could pivot a little bit. I know, we’re gonna run out of time soon. I want to ask about what both of you were thinking in terms of the future of social interaction. There’s so much going on in our world, you know, again, I keep saying that as we come back out into the physical world, the physical realm, and all the challenges we faced over the last few years, they’re not going away. What are you both thinking about in your lives and in your organization the future of social interaction?
Jonathan Gruber 29:21 Big question for one-minute wrap up, but I would offer: I think this is a moment to rediscover the radically old technology of human connection. We are so, you know, living in this digital world and on social media, we can have a whole some conversation about the pernicious challenges that that poses and yet as we get back into in-person interactions, we need to rediscover and really embrace this old social technology of human connection.
Uma Viswanathan 29:56 I was gonna say something very similar. So even when I think about, like the name of our organization is New Pluralists, and I’m like but this is also very, very old. And you know, when we think about the humaneness that I think we’re really yearning for right now. I mean, a lot of it has to do with… we have much, much longer been, even from an evolutionary perspective, in smaller settings in that deeper kind of social connection with each other, that sense of interdependence with each other than the kind of more recent developments that we’ve had. And I think that the future might be to just sort of reclaim what those guiding principles are, what that wisdom is. I think that we’re yearning for wisdom right now. And I think that wisdom can help us design… I don’t think we’re ever going to drop the technological advancements that we’ve had, but we can reclaim what’s going on and be guided by, in some cases, it may be very ancient wisdom about how we want to be together. So I see it as like that full circle, as well.
Sharon Roerty 30:59 Yeah, some of the work that we’ve done to in this space, and you reminded me, Uma, is with Indigenous populations. And thinking about how they relate to their people, again, to their place — the places that they’ve been rooted in for generations, centuries — and the planet, the connections they have. It’s just something we can really learn from and bring forward in our work. A lot of our thoughts on the future of social connections has to do with communications. You know, some of the challenges we have faced in recent years with misinformation and disinformation. And how do we all become better listeners, and as a populace, sort of more informed and more humane towards each other? And that’s where some of our work starts. So I want to just say, it’s been really wonderful to have this conversation with you all again. And I hope we get to have it again sometime soon.
Uma Viswanathan 32:03
Jonathan Gruber 32:05
Great to be with you all.
Jillian Racoosin 32:07 Wow, thank you so, so much, each of you. I have been writing things down furiously, because there’s just so many good nuggets and insights. Uma, your words will stay with me. You know, we’re really catalyzing a cultural shift to radical human connection. I mean, even just that phrase right there is incredible. And thank you, Sharon, for sharing with us around multi-solving, a term we’ll probably start using a lot now, and talking to us about people, place planet, absolute belonging, and calling people in. And Jon, of course, helping us think about, you know, being open and willing to revise the approach by listening to new evidence and lifting up stories about connection and, of course, helping local leaders design for connection through toolkits and other assets. And I think overall, you know, this idea that healthy relationships is a key ingredient in the success of many other existing priorities. And hopefully that’s an inspiration to other funders and philanthropists to get involved on this critical area. So thank you each so much for your work, Uma, Jon, and Sharon. And we’ll say goodbye to you and move on to the next piece here. So thank you so much. Thank you. Great.
And our next session will highlight the intersection of nutrition and connection with our friends at Meals on Wheels. So head back to the reception area, and hop in, and click on mainstage three to learn more about the results from a study conducted by Brown University comparing the effectiveness of six different Meals on Wheels’ social connection programs. We hope you will head to Mainstage Three now and join us. Thanks so much.
Jon Gruber leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Building strategy. You can learn more about our work in Building here and more about Jon here. Sign up here to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jon’s blog posts.