In conversation with Patrick Brennan: Academic Institutions & Overcoming Social Isolation

Written by: Salima Punjani

The next Overcoming Social Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness Symposium is set to take place in the fall of 2016 at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. This announcement comes after an action-packed partner strategy session on social connectedness held at McGill University on Oct., 16, 2015.

The session, organized by the Samuel Family Foundation, brought together 16 members from a diverse range of partners ranging from academics and youth to representatives from the Special Olympics. In the spirit of respect, reciprocity and recognition; the three elements Kim Samuel outlines as essential to establishing social connectedness, the experiences and opinions of everyone at the table were acknowledged and taken into account when building the global movement’s strategy. The session explored key developments that have taken place since the 2014 symposium.

Patrick Brennan, the Executive Director of McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID), is one of the partners that attended last year’s symposium as well as took part in the strategy session. Brennan became aware of the impact of social isolation in 1997 and 1998 while working for the United Nations in Haiti. While visiting communities, he was struck by the extent to which greater coordination had to happen at the multilateral, bilateral and local level to connect with the people benefiting from the policies and programs that were coming to their communities.  Brennan shed insight on the role ISID and McGill University as an academic institution can play in the social connectedness movement.

How did you get involved in the Overcoming Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness movement?

I became involved by attending the symposium that Kim Samuel organized in September 2014. I think it’s fair to say that issues of social connectedness were something that I considered in previous work with both with the Government of Canada and at the United Nations but I probably never put the term on it that Professor Kim Samuel has.

I feel there are groups in society that do not feel their voices and views are reflected in policies and programs. My interest has always been in trying to craft both policy and programs that reflect as much of Canadian society as possible.

Why did ISID decide to choose Kim Samuel as a speaker for the McDonald-Currie Lecture held at McGill University last week?

The McDonald-Currie Lecture is a joint effort between ISID and the School of Management at McGill. As a professor of practice at the institute and with Professor Samuel’s background both in international development and business, she was seen as an ideal candidate to deliver the lecture.


What kind of feedback have you received from students after the lecture?

I received messages from many students not only who were thoroughly impressed with the lecture but who also want to meet with Professor Samuel in the weeks to come to discuss the files.

I think for a lot of students there is a question of if social isolation is a western society phenomenon. That was one point that was raised. On top of that, I think a number of students that look at areas of policy see that isolation and social connectedness is something that is overlooked. I think they want to look more thoroughly at what the implications are when that is overlooked.

Why does the theme of overcoming social isolation interest McGill University?

The institute in particular, and I would argue McGill at large, is very interested at further looking at issues through the lens of research to policy. The issue of isolation and social connectedness is a theme that clearly needs to be considered when crafting both policy and programs. We also feel in terms of the student body there is great deal of interest in it. So those would be two of our main areas of interest.

How do you feel social isolation is linked to poverty?

At the end of the day I think social isolation is linked to poverty due to the fact that there are a number of people who are isolated that do not benefit from programs and policies.

I think this community of practice we are looking at is going to be able to provide very concrete examples of how the way a culture looks at isolation and social connectedness can have an impact in a real way in terms of projects on the ground. These examples of best practices can be given to policy makers and those who are delivering programs.


How do you feel academic contributions could bring a greater sense of legitimacy to the issue of social isolation?

I think the more research that we can carry out in this area as well an effort to identify any gaps in research are going to be very beneficial as a driver in terms of policy and program areas that are perhaps not addressing very vulnerable groups.

With the work that we do at the institute we always ensure the bulk of our papers that focus on research to policy do just that. They look at areas where gaps exist, they look at best practices and lessons learned and they give policy options of how those gaps can be addressed.

What role do you think youth will play in the social connectedness community?

I think youth are going to be key in bringing forth those areas where there voice is not being heard. I expect they will also be the driver behind potential technology which will be able to address that.

What is it about this topic that makes it attractive for such a diverse range of partners?

I think one of the main attractions in terms of this topic is that on one hand we’ve never been so connected to the internet than any other time in our life. As a society on the other hand, we have more people that feel isolated than ever before. I think the main reason this really resonates with people is that it’s impossible at the end of the day with us being the human beings that we are to substitute anything for human contact and interpersonal relationships.

Taking into account your extensive experience at the policy level what do you feel makes this topic appeal to policy makers?

Well policy makers are always interested, I would argue, in developing policies and by extension programs that do respond to the greatest number of stakeholders. For that reason I think they will be very interested in learning not only about the gaps in research that exist in this area but also the areas in which possible policies and programs are not responding to as large a part of the population that is perhaps assumed.

Deep listening is something Professor Samuel speaks about as an essential element to building social connectedness. What are some ways deep listening could be integrated into the decision-making level?

I think there are probably three ways of doing it. I would argue that one way is to connect more effectively through information technology. So, through the web, through video conferencing or whatever it may be with communities. I think number two getting out and visiting those communities is another effective way. I think number three would be having direct dialogue with them.

Do you feel there is hope for this theme to be accepted at the policy level? What development on the theme of social connectedness excites you the most?

Absolutely. I think we can do work in this area in social isolation and connectedness both in terms of identifying research gaps and getting research to policy work done. This will ultimately ensure the programs that are implemented and identified in policy are more broad in their scope.

Something that really excites me is the extent to which foundations are playing a much larger role now in the realm of international development because they are able to focus very specifically on a given area. It could be health, it could be education. They tend to be able to move to make a difference in that area rather quickly.


When it comes to building a social movement, the challenge of how to shift from awareness to action is ubiquitous. As Patrick Brennan mentioned, one of the strengths of this community of practice is to provide examples of solutions and entry points for involvement. ISID’s intention to engage its students through research to policy work as well as the public through lectures and online communities on the theme of social connectedness creates an opportunity for people to connect to academic language and build pathways to belonging through programming.

As seen in the questions audience members asked at the Bridging Divides, Building Connectedness: Why social connectedness matters in a changing world lecture, people are hungry for solutions and concrete examples people can get involved in the movement.

To Be Complete – “one is complete as a human only with love, and when one has the feeling they belong”


Some of the links between social isolation and poverty can be tied to the lack of opportunity for expression. Art can be thought of as a universal connector, providing an opportunity for voices to be heard in a visual, accessible way. TakingITGlobal recently held a competition titled  What Does Belonging Look Like? Twenty powerful visual art pieces were submitted by youth all over the world showcasing their interpretations of belonging. From Fela Buyi’s photograph depicting the links between a Nigerian woman dealing with harassment and the sentiment of solitude she lives with to Grace Jin’s visual reflection on the isolation older generations feel when their children assimilate into a new culture, these voices shed light on multidimensional effects of social isolation on poverty of the mind, body and soul.

Leading up to the 2016 Overcoming Social Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness Symposium, we will be highlighting people and initiatives working to create pathways to belonging. Follow our social media channels and website to learn more about solutions and ways to get involved in the movement.

PatrickIn August 2014, Patrick Brennan joined McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development. Mr. Brennan came to McGill from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, where he served as the Manager of Multilateral Relations in the Intergovernmental and International Relations Directorate. During his time at the Department, Mr. Brennan assisted with Canada’s endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, initiated research for the examination of programming and policy approaches taken by other countries in the area of Aboriginal affairs, supported Canada’s work in the area of the Post 2015 Development Agenda, and contributed to Canada’s Strategy for Engagement in the Americas. (McGill)