Building strong community through meaningful conversation
Reprinted from the Loneliness and Social Connection issue of Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (3), pp. 39-41
When my mother came from the Philippines for an extended time to attend my wedding in 2001, it was the most special period in my life. My mother is, after all, my heroine.
A strong-willed person, my mother is full of life and the most generous human being I've ever known. But within six months of her arrival in Canada, I noticed a dramatic change in her physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. My fashion designer sister and I became scared that our mother would spiral into such a severe depression and hopelessness that she would become unrecognizable and would cease being someone who lived life to the full.
It was clear that our mother was experiencing a profound culture shock in every sense possible, a shock that was compounded by her difficulty with the English language, the lack of her cultivated community support and the absence of her own friends. She could not engage in any of her familiar daily activities or social networks in Canada. She had left all of that behind in the Philippines. The strong, happy and healthy person we loved so much was now displaying all the signs of stress, loneliness and depression brought on by social isolation.
I love my mother, and it would have been great to have her continue living with us in Canada so that my sister and I could look after and care for her. Having her immigrate to Canada had been part of the plan all along. But we realized that she could not flourish in Vancouver. She didn't feel like she had any energy left to invest in building her new community. She wanted to be independent, but she was afraid to go out and do the sorts of things that make her feel alive, like socializing with friends.
In the Philippines, my mom is dignified and loved, well liked and respected by the villagers, independent and free to do anything she wishes. She made the difficult decision to return to the Philippines. Sure enough, upon her return, my mother picked up her activities where she had left off. Now in her 90s, she is still physically active and mentally engaged, living a full and happy life.
Watching my healthy mother experience social isolation and seeing how profoundly it affected her made me wonder how many other people also suffer from isolation. After my mother left, I vowed that I would do what I could to end social isolation for other people, even if it was for just one person. Thus was born Beyond the Conversation, an organization that fosters awareness and provides support for those experiencing loneliness in their communities.
Talking about loneliness
One of the most important things we can do to combat loneliness in our communities is to create the space we need to talk about it. In person. With each other.
In the three years since the founding of Beyond the Conversation, we have helped hundreds of seniors, new immigrants, refugees, international students and youth make meaningful in-person social connections. We run 13 discussion groups in the Greater Vancouver area. These groups meet once each week for two hours at a time. The groups are typically small—usually 6 to 12 people—in order to foster a welcoming experience and a sense of belonging.
Although group conversations are facilitated by a trained volunteer, discussions can be wide-ranging, anything from why we serve turkey on Thanksgiving Day to what we think of pipelines. Each group hosts sessions in a unique way. We focus on building deeper relationships with each other, so we take our conversation cues from the individuals that make up each group. Discussion topics are often generated by our participants and based on issues that are relevant to them. This way, participants and volunteers feel a sense of ownership and help to generate solutions that are personally meaningful.
At Beyond the Conversation, we emphasize the importance of making intergenerational, multicultural connections in an atmosphere of absolute trust, respect and honesty. Staff and volunteers take the time to get to know our participants and listen to their stories, whatever stage of life they’re at. We don’t have all the answers for life's troubles, but we offer a compassionate ear, and our discussion groups provide participants with a chance to share similar experiences and to pool ideas. We listen without judgement, opening our hearts to each person as a unique individual.
When we listen this way, all of us benefit. From our participants, we often hear comments like "It took three buses for me to get here, but it didn't matter because I love coming to this group" and "I feel so comfortable and alive with you guys." Many of our volunteers have also struggled with loneliness in the past, and this first-hand experience means they have a deep appreciation for what our program can offer participants. One volunteer facilitator remarked, "As we give a piece of ourselves, we also receive healing." It's true: when we feel like we belong, we can begin to share some of the burdens we carry. Beyond the Conversation offers a safe, welcoming space to share those burdens.
At the very heart of our work is a desire for a deeper understanding of the issue of social connectedness. Why do people feel lonely? How can they feel less lonely? What can we do to lift the burden of loneliness, even if only a little bit?
From there, we structure our discussion groups and our other events to meet the different needs of individuals. In the past, for example, we have offered basic language-skills training and a place to practice English. Yet many of our participants continue to return to our weekly discussion groups simply because we offer a space of belonging. We help individuals to establish a firmer sense of self and purpose in their community. The most fulfilling part of our job is watching participants re-find or reconnect to their inner beauty, strength and confidence.
Taking the conversation into the wider community
A friend from the Vancouver Foundation, a philanthropic organization that helps build meaningful community connections in the Vancouver area, recently pointed out that Beyond the Conversation is not simply an organization but an innovative movement with the energy and power to change our community. Although we have no outside funding, we’ve been able to grow and collaborate on projects with a group of amazing community partners, including faith groups, neighbourhood houses, community centres, NGOs and local businesses.
We are also organic, in that everything we do begins with a very basic, real question: What do our participants need and how can we help provide them with meaningful solutions? Conversations and events that stem from this starting point result in practical, sustainable social connections.
Most importantly, we make sure that we are always having fun. This helps to engage our participants and our more than 50 volunteers.
At no point was the impact of our work clearer than on September 9, 2018, when Beyond the Conversation held its first Walk to End Social Isolation in Vancouver. The one-and-a-half-kilometre route was designed to accommodate everyone, including people with limited mobility. At the event, a series of invited speakers of various ages and backgrounds shared personal stories of loneliness and talked about how they found the courage to identify their struggles and seek help. These stories were so powerful that many in the audience were inspired to share their own stories in the open-mic session that followed. Audience members came forward to thank us for creating an environment of acceptance, honesty and respect.
The future and Beyond
Beyond the Conversation is changing the story of loneliness and isolation, one conversation at a time. Our goal is to establish 100 in-person discussion groups throughout BC and to become a nationally recognized organization by the year 2020. We are planning presentations at high schools, colleges and universities, workplaces, community centres, cultural centres and seniors' care centres, with the aim of expanding our intergenerational, multicultural programming.
We are all touched by isolation and loneliness at some point in our lives, whether we experience it ourselves or watch a friend or family member struggle. We all know someone who needs support. At the moment when we need that support, where do we look for help?
Don't put off making meaningful connections with others. Don't wait for the "perfect" time, whether that time is after you graduate, after you get that promotion or after you retire. You might think it's never the perfect time, but the truth is, it's always the perfect time to reach out to others.
The most pleasurable moments for me as the founder and executive director of Beyond the Conversation are the ones I spend getting to know our participants and our volunteers. Getting involved—as a participant or as a volunteer—is easy. It begins with a conversation by email or phone. For more information, visit us at www.beyondtheconversation.ca or call 778-710-1499.
About the author
Amie is Founder and Executive Director of Beyond the Conversation, a non-profit that fosters belonging, self-confidence and community connection among seniors, youth, new immigrants and refugees. Amie immigrated from the Philippines more than 20 years ago. With Beyond the Conversation, she is helping to weave community and change in Greater Vancouver