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The Innate Desire for Connection

October 13, 2015

“Isolation is the feeling of sitting alone at the bottom of a well – a separation so profound that it can occur even when you’re amongst others…and darkness, not light, is the norm.”

This is one of the first things that Kim Samuel led with at the Overcoming Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness Symposium last year. Before this moment, I didn’t have much understanding of what social isolation really meant – or the effects it has on individuals and communities as a whole. I realized then that I’ve spent most of my young adult life overcoming isolation.

In my own community of Kibera – one of Africa’s largest slums – we grew up in extreme poverty and in turn, were socially isolated. Being poor meant that we were automatically labeled as lazy or as criminals, and we essentially became invisible to the rest of society. Even though our next door neighbors were struggling with the same empty stomachs and daily struggles we were, we kept it to ourselves and it only deepened the divide between us. As humans, we have an innate desire for social connectedness, but external and internal barriers can keep us as prisoners within our isolation. And, it can start to feel impossible to overcome these barriers.

In my new book, Find Me Unafraid, I describe my childhood experiences being homeless and much of it comes back to topic of isolation. I left home at an early age and although I was a homeless child, I didn’t garner much sympathy. I was considered a street kid, which people did not want anything to do with: “The first night I found a stall where women sold vegetables during the day, and I crawled underneath to use it as a shelter to sleep. I lay there crying, praying that nothing bad would happen to me. I thought of the stray dogs that could bite me, and of the thieves that could attack me. The night could mask so many terrible things. The night was long, the longest night I’ve ever experienced. Sleeping in the open air made me feel so alone.”

It took a personal breakthrough to overcome all of this. I found my own relief through a local soccer team in Kibera and from there, community organizing. It’s what sparked the start of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), the nonprofit my wife and I founded. But, not everyone has a breakthrough and it is important to note that isolation does not just exist within poverty. It exists for people in all walks of life and who face a variety of challenges – whether it stems from a disability, depression or something else that is stigmatizing. You can feel isolated in a slum of Kibera, just as much as you can in in the middle of a crowded Times Square in New York City. We must start work together and figure out: how can we break down those walls? How can we make people feel valued? How can we keep working together to empower our communities?

Through the symposium, I learned to be a bridge for people and to really listen to their challenges. Social connectedness creates progress, but we have to take the first step. Take for example, the inspiring work of Special Olympics, which gives individuals with intellectual disabilities a chance to shine through sports, or the Homeless World Cup, which advocates for the end of homelessness through soccer – and the players in those who are homeless to play. We need to work with those who are socially isolated and policy makers to better understand one another. We need more inclusive spaces that accept and celebrate people’s differences and more dialogue. Most importantly, we must get rid of the “us vs. them” mentality and invite everyone to sit at the decision table.

For the people who are the most marginalized – we have to listen to their voice. Most often, the people at the top make decisions for those whose experiences they do not or can not understand. People can speak for themselves, but have to be given an opportunity. This is where the Symposium and the Social Connectedness movement come in. By raising awareness of the effects of isolation and promoting initiatives that foster social connectedness, we can get the attention of decision makers and affect change. Let’s begin working together to give the most marginalized people a chance to be heard.

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Kennedy Odede is the founder of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO). SHOFCO combats extreme poverty and gender inequity in Kenya by linking tuition-free schools for girls to a set of high-value, holistic community services. These services include: health, community empowerment, and clean water and sanitation. In our model, a girls’ school becomes a portal for large-scale social change. Kennedy was born and raised in the slums of Kibera, where he was inspired to start SHOFCO as a grassroots movement. Kennedy and his wife, Jessica Posner-Odede, officially launched SHOFCO in 2009. You can read about both of their journeys, the work that inspired them and their love story in their upcoming book, “Find Me Unafraid,” which was released on October 13th.