Strengthening the Bonds of Connection Through Togetherness

January 5, 2022


By Deidre Huntington, Defy  Communications, Culture of Health Leaders Consultant

We’re all wired for human connection. It may show up in different ways—a phone call to a friend, a coffee break with a colleague, sending a care package to a distant family member—but at the end of the day, we are social beings who crave togetherness. Since the dawn of our time on Earth, we have banded together in social networks (not the virtual kind) to ward off predators and keep babies alive. Information sharing and working alongside each other were critical to our survival and propagation. 

But as we’ve evolved as a species, so too has our socialization. Leaving the nest is often a rite of passage as we pursue education, careers, and families. Moving away from family and friends in pursuit of these endeavors is normal, if not expected. We’ve  become more self-sufficient and rely on technology to serve many of the needs that our tribes formerly met. But the reality is, many of us are lonely. In the U.S., more than three in five people reported feeling lonely, left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship. 

Isolation and loneliness have become common challenges that undergird many of society’s issues. The pandemic has only exacerbated and added another layer of challenges for individuals working to create healthier, more connected communities, such as the practitioners in the Culture of Health Leaders (CoHL) program. The secret sauce of a program like COHL is the network of support and fellowship that comes from a group of people working toward a similar goal: healthy, thriving communities where everyone has the opportunities to succeed—a true culture of health. For these leaders, sharing information, knowledge, resources, stories, and experiences is the cornerstone of shifting the needle on society’s biggest challenges. Virtual meetings have come a long way in the pandemic, and bridged gaps when we desperately needed it, but there is still no substitute for the real thing: organic conversations while walking to the next session at a conference or shared laughs over a cup of coffee. For a program built around human connection, the pandemic presented an unprecedented challenge that required quick pivoting and new ideas.

“We were tired of Zoom. Tired of seeing each other on a screen. We were craving that in-person gathering.” – Leslie Hoglund, cohort 5

The COHL program team knew they needed to provide leaders with that secret sauce, the magic of being together. In the spring of 2021, COHL provided funding to any program participants interested in organizing small, COVID-safe retreats where they could meet in-person, share knowledge, and build connections. 

Leaders immediately grabbed onto the opportunity to be creative about meeting together in small groups, and to forge the connections that can’t be made on a screen. “We were thrilled to be able to provide such a valuable resource to our participants.The speed with which the retreats were planned speaks to the hunger that the leaders had for this opportunity,” says Tara Gonzales Hacker, Director of Program Strategy at CommonHealth ACTION, the organization that implements COHL.

When asked what goals, objectives, and expectations the leaders held for these gatherings, some called it fellowship, others called it relationship building, but the heart of it was the same: The leaders wanted connection. 

Leaders met in Washington, D.C., Alaska, Florida, Puerto Rico, California, New York, and South Carolina. Some locations were chosen for logistical reasons while others were chosen because of their significance to leaders’ capstone projects. It can be challenging for leaders to decide how to focus their skill sets and learnings from the program, so collaborating in-person can be a game changer. 

Laura Norton-Cruz, cohort 4, described her desire to host a gathering in her home state of Alaska as a way for her fellow leaders to deepen their understanding of their work. “Alaska is so different from anywhere else, especially when it comes to healthcare for rural and Indigenous communities,” Norton-Cruz explains. “If you understand the margins, then you understand everything better.” 

Nakeitra Burse, a cohort 4 leader focused on Black maternal health in Mississippi, and Norton-Cruz first connected around midwifery and because Burse wanted to learn more about Norton-Cruz’s mother’s birthing center in Alaska. “We talked for a year about how I could get up there to see the center, understand how it works, and get a better picture of what it could look like for Mississippi to have something similar,” Burse says. 

So, when the travel funds became available, it was a no-brainer that Burse was going to Alaska. While Alaska and Mississippi are seemingly worlds apart and have their own unique challenges when it comes to maternal health, both Norton-Cruz and Burse say that there is much they can learn from each other. And the opportunity to experience Alaska, meet Norton-Cruz’s colleagues, and see a birthing center model left Burse excited, inspired, and ready to approach her own work in Mississippi.

In Washington, D.C., cohort 5 leaders highlighted the time they spent at the National Museum of African Art and their stroll around the National Mall as their favorite parts of the trip. They were inspired by their monthly group coaching calls to take advantage of the travel funds and gather. “My work felt more real,” says Julian Watkins, cohort 5. 

Others like Renee Pitter, cohort 5, say that in-person moments, such as browsing the museum gift shop for books, were significant for her and made her feel closer to her colleagues. “I knew I liked my fellow leaders on the surface and being together solidified that,” she notes. It also opened her aperture to better understanding their lived experiences and what has brought them to this work. “Seeing people in person and how their body takes up space in public illuminates their story and their experience.” 

In addition to the connection these trips engendered, participants also felt a kinship around their work within the program and in their day-to-day careers. Cohort 5 leader Daniel Mediate, whose strategic initiative for the program is focused on storytelling and how racism persists today, visited the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco with cohort 4 leader Ed Tepporn. Mediate had virtually connected with Tepporn in the past, so when the in-person meeting funds became available, he knew he wanted to continue that connection in-person to learn more about Tepporn’s work, especially as it relates to inclusive storytelling. Mediate explains that “spending the day on Angel Island and learning from Ed inspired me and helped me gain a new perspective when it comes to equity, inclusivity, and history.” 

For Nettye Johnson, another member of cohort 5 who joined the Washington, D.C. trip, gathering in-person provided the opportunity for free-flowing conversations where folks could jump in with their own “aha” moments and shared challenges. “One of the most impactful exercises we did was sharing more about ourselves, which informed our work, who we are, and our strategic initiatives,” Johnson says. Candid and organic sharing also laid the foundation of trust and connection, bringing forth opportunities to carve out next steps for each leader’s work. “It was so incredible to see action taking place in real time.”

While there are countless individuals in the world who have taken on social justice work, and have created communities of support and knowledge sharing, this work can still be isolating. Moving through the world with a lens of health or racial equity, a commitment to maternal and child health, leveraging the arts to bolster communities, or the numerous ways that these leaders choose to do their work, can sometimes make it difficult to connect with those who are not traveling in these spheres. But the fellowship of the COHL program allows for like-minded individuals—who are doing very different work—to come together and talk and share and recharge. 

“Connecting with my fellow leaders and having time to just chat has reminded me that I’m not behind or doing something wrong. We’re all figuring things out little by little, and that comes with being a leader,” reflects cohort 4 leader Gabriela Alvarez, who gathered in Puerto Rico.

These in-person gatherings offered the leaders exactly what they needed, exactly when they needed it. Faced with tackling some of our country’s most complex and seemingly intractable challenges, program participants were able to look at a problem differently, leave their silos behind, or just soak in the company of others. The secret sauce of the COHL program is undoubtedly born of this recipe—like-minded individuals working in very different ways to achieve the same thing: a world where every person has a fair opportunity to live a long, thriving, and healthy life.