The Power of Positive Human Connection

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My name is Bruna Aguiar and I am a 24 year old Brazilian living in Canada with a passion for empowering youth in underserved communities. I had the pleasure of attending the Symposium on Isolation and Social Connectedness that was held in Toronto in October of 2014. I attended as a youth participant, meaning I was one of the few people in the room who did not hold an impressive amount of knowledge or credentials to bring to the table. I was kindly invited by TakingITGlobal and the Samuel Family Foundation to be part of that conversation, and I feel very lucky I did because there I had the opportunity to deepen my understanding on the causes and consequences of social issues that once were not as clear to me.

Growing up in Brazil, I have always been concerned about homelessness, particularly with people who leave favelas and move into the city with feelings of hopelessness and end up in even deeper cycles of poverty and loneliness.  They then feel stuck because they cannot return and they do not belong and feel unwanted by anyone. This is social isolation.

At that Symposium we were invited to look at world issues through the lenses of isolation and social connect. We are social animals, and as Kim Samuel said at opening, “we thrive in community and we struggle if we are cast adrift”.

We all know isolation is devastating and we do recognize it as a social  issue. But because it’s so obvious we tend to overlook it when trying to assist individuals and communities on overcoming oppression. And, in failing to acknowledge this factor in the equation we risk being ineffective and even have the potential to worsen an already overwhelming scenario.

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Every person involved in promoting social change should be exposed to the ideas shared at the Symposium. It’s something that is obvious, but it is also something that needs to be talked about so that we can see it clearly when we are faced with it in our work.

It has been almost a year now since the event, but I still haven’t gotten over this new perspective on isolation and social connectedness. The valuable lessons I learned have reshaped my views on social innovation, community development, and even in individual well being.

The most valuable lesson I took from the Symposium is that we cannot truly help a community to develop unless we include them in the conversation, in the pursuit for solution

I was recently in Brazil, my home country. We from TakingITGlobal organized an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate the artwork created by youth from popular territories in the city. They created digital media projects highlighting issues they care about. Mostly they chose to talk about their own communities and the city. The projects brought awareness, not only to bad things but also the good ones. This caught my attention because all of these projects had one thing in common: moments when the youth felt included.

They talked about being part of groups. Groups of music, groups of dance, groups of capoeira, and how these groups have changed their lives. Many talked about how much they value the social projects they are a part of. In Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, within marginalized areas, one prominent issue is the amount of time parents are forced to leave their children home alone. Because both parents need to be away for work all day, and a number of them only come home for the weekends, the kids spend a lot of time unsupervised.  

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That is the most common and cruel way to lose a child to drug dealing. And that is where social projects literally make the difference between life and death for many youth in marginalized communities in South America. Seeing the passion and gratitude these kids have for the organizations offering programs in their communities show us how much they value being connected.

In one of the projects, for example, one youth inhabitant of a marginalized community introduced us to a day in his summer. He showed us his home, his family, the birds he has as pets, and then he walked us to the after school program he participates during school year and summer too, which is called CDI. While here he shows us around, introducing educators and staff, all of which wave to the camera as he records. After that is done he flips the camera back to himself and says to the audience “And this is CDI, the best place in the world. Everybody knows me here, everybody knows who I am”.

Everybody knows me and knows who I am. That sentence stuck with me.

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In another project, the youth decided to talk about the isolation they experience in the city. They felt, they said, as though there are invisible walls that define who gets to mingle where and with who. One beautiful image has a picture of the shacks of a slum digitally made black and white, with a caption that says “The Invisible Ones”.

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In this particular project, the youth participants were both from slums and privileged areas. When we asked them to tell us about the project and what was the best thing about being part of it, they said it was “getting to know new people”, that if it wasn’t for the project they wouldn’t have never met some of those people because they are not from the same circles. So there again I was able to observe the joy that comes from inclusion, from social connectedness, for both the privileged and the underprivileged. By connecting and working together with people from different realities in the city, they were able to exchange knowledge and collaborate in projects that were outstanding in the exhibition.

Also when I was in Brasil this summer I visited my hometown, and I had the chance to connect with friends of mine who envision a city and country that is more democratic. We shared ideas then, we shared experiences and we talked about reflections we have made and things we have learned over the last few years. And since then we have been discussing the possibility of bringing to life a project we call now of the School Of Heroes, which consists in creating a space within an underprivileged territory for youth to come and dream of solutions. Our job will to make sure that these youth are getting what they need in terms of inclusion, educational support and resources to achieve the goals they have for their community.

But this whole idea came from understanding that we cannot solve problems that do not affect us personally unless we include the community directly affected in coming up with the solution that they need and that they want. We also understand that the drug dealers have the upper hand when it comes to affording a sense of community and belonging. If we can’t offer these youth a place where they genuinely feel they are valuable and they feel empowered, then we are bound to fail.

It’s believing in community and in the power of positive human connection that we think we can help empower youth inhabitants from underprivileged areas to become leaders of positive change, the change they want and the change they need.

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As I said before, I feel so lucky I had the opportunity to be part of the symposium on Isolation and Social Connectedness because acknowledging Isolation is what is going to help us bring down some walls that keep people who long for human connection from realizing their true potential.

Furthermore, I am thankful for being part of this community of people who believe in change. I met so many inspiring leaders at The Symposium on Isolation and Social Connectedness that was hosted by the Samuel Family Foundation, and for that I say thank you, Kim for your leadership! And I also have met so many wonderful people working at TakingITGlobal. I express here my gratitude to TakingITGlobal for believing in me, for giving me the opportunity to get involved, and for allowing me to be part of this movement of people who believe in change. Being included in this community of social innovators has changed me, and I hope that I can do the same for many other youth out there.