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The Social Connectedness Fellowship: A Case for Researching Belonging

Olivia’s blog image
February 3, 2023

Three years ago, the field of social connectedness was populated by a much smaller group of actors, working on an area of study that seldom made the press or public discourse. While we can all understand that social relationships are essential to our happiness and overall well-being, the pandemic and post-pandemic crises have tested these connections in a global context.  

Today, we are seeing more people, media, global alliances and organizations discussing social connectedness and its inverse: social isolation. For example, in 2021 the WHO, UN Women, DESA and ITU released an advocacy brief detailing the ill effects of social isolation on seniors such as a reduced lifespan, increased physical health concerns, increased mental health concerns and poorer quality of life. Further, recent research at the University of Toronto and reported in the Toronto Star found that across a range of health issues from stroke to anxiety to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), “patients who reported they were thriving all had one thing in common – social connection.” Dr. Esme Fuller-Thomson commented on her findings, “People with COPD, who had even one confidant, were seven times more likely to be in excellent mental health than people who didn’t.” The pandemic demonstrated that feelings of loneliness, or experiences of social isolation, are not just difficult emotions for us to navigate through, but the result of systemic failings that require our collective attention and action.  

At the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness (SCSC), we are invested in understanding and articulating how social connectedness can improve our collective well-being and help to solve some of our greatest challenges such as climate change, systemic oppression (ex. racism, cisheteropatriachy, ableism), global inequity, and isolation.  

We frame social connectedness as innately linked to creating spaces where people both feel and actively belong; we dream of communities where people can feel purpose, where they have the power to create better systems, where we are meaningfully connected to place, and where our relationships with other people are prioritized. A critical component of social connectedness is belonging. We understand belonging as having four branches, all equally important, and rooted in approaching the work intersectionally:  

  • People – being able to form meaningful relationships and engage in authentic self-expression. In our conception, we look beyond rates of social contact or feelings of being alone, and also examine how structural oppression isolates marginalized groups.  
  • Place – being connected to the physical places and lands upon which we reside; whether we feel rooted and at home in nature, or cities, or both, we cultivate a relationship to the land built on reciprocity and respect. *   
  • Power – the ability to make change in your community and to have your voice heard in decision-making spaces.  
  • Purpose – the opportunity to create and enact meaning in our lives and communities.** 

This framework is explored in the Social Connectedness Fellowship: a program wherein young people and people with lived experience lead research, evaluate program models, and meaningfully engage with community to understand what belonging and social connectedness look like in action. Partnering with national and international organizations dedicated to creating a more equitable and just world, the Fellowship supports people to connect non-profit, advocacy and research spaces to break down barriers across a wide range of issue areas.   

The Social Connectedness Fellowship runs every summer from May – August, where Fellows are actively involved in community-based research and outreach. We aim to set ourselves apart from other fellowships by designing the program around an ethos of care and belonging. In practice, this looks like expanding what is classified as knowledge, expanding ‘who’ opportunities like this are available to, creating space for intersectional analysis, working on a one-one basis with Fellows and partners, and committing to co-creation. We recognize that knowledge can be held in many forms and encourage Fellows to connect with storytellers, academics, everyday people, and those most affected by the issue they are researching. Fellows can produce first-hand orations, easy-read reports, podcasts, or other forms of creative expression to communicate their findings. We believe that young people, and people with lived experience are crucial to understanding and analyzing global issues.  

 The Social Connectedness Fellowship creates a body of knowledge focused on how communities are solving significant challenges through the lens of belonging and social connectedness. In 2022, research by one Fellow focused on building solidarity between newcomers and Indigenous peoples found that Indigenizing education, including ESL education, is a crucial step to rectifying harmful stereotypes held against Indigenous people. In 2021, a survey of Montreal’s urban heat island conducted by a Fellow examined how social isolation placed low-income neighbours at increased health risks and called for the creation of a new heat alert system. In 2020, a Fellow’s study of best practices and recommendations for a community health system raised the importance of social connectedness and household models as tools for change. A 2019 Fellow’s research focused on preserving and cataloguing Queer spaces in Montreal, highlighted the changing landscape for Queer people and ensured that history wasn’t lost.  

The Fellowship program has supported 86 young people and people with lived experience to create impactful projects, whether through research, storytelling, program analysis or community engagement. Through them we’re offered bite-sized building blocks to a more connected, thoughtful world.  


*Our conception of place is heavily influenced by our Indigenous partnerships and the work of Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island to advocate for the land and collective healing. It is also influenced by our work with forced migrants and the importance of creating a sense of home/belonging in new places.  

**The four P’s (people, place, power and purpose) framework was conceived by SCSC Founder and Chief Belonging Officer Kim Samuel and are an integral part of the global movement for social connectedness. A more detailed discussion of the four P’s can be found in her book ON BELONGING.