In the middle of a pandemic, what does a commitment to wellbeing mean? And what do connection and belonging look like when we can’t be physically close to each other? These are things I’ve been learning about as I’ve watched the 13 Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing Among Men and Boys coalitions respond to COVID-19 impacts in their communities.
2020 is the fifth and final year of the initiative, so the coalitions had been focused on scaling up their most successful programs and developing strategies to sustain the work. But 2020 had other plans.
Today, Making Connections communities are responding to COVID-19 with the same energy and engagement that has built them into a national model. Unlike what I’ve seen during most of my 20 years working in public health, mental health, and equity, their emphasis is on fostering wellbeing, not focusing on mental illness. For them, health is rooted in connection, communication, sharing stories, and bonding.
The ability of the Making Connections coalitions to respond to the pandemic reflects the strong efforts of these coalitions over the years: the connections they’ve made, the trust they’ve instilled, and the work on issues like structural racism, housing insecurity, food sovereignty, and more. This strong foundation made it possible for them to quickly respond in a time of crisis.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Making Connections sites found themselves at the center of response efforts and able to juggle upstream approaches with downstream response – from advocating for bus passes for youth to access free lunch at schools during quarantine, to helping distribute food in their neighborhoods.
At the beginning of the pandemic, schools in Albuquerque closed for the school year and transitioned to offering hot meals at breakfast and lunch. But many of the families with the highest need had no way of getting to the schools without school busses running. So MC:ID and its partners successfully advocated for the city to provide free bus passes to students so they can get to schools to pick up free meals. They also launched an online learning series in collaboration with community partners for art-making, exercise, and lessons in leadership building. In Albuquerque, this video shows how community leadership continues to grow.
In Honolulu, Hawaii, the young men that are part of the Kalihi Valley Instructional Bike Exchange, or KVIBE, couldn’t gather in their bike shop anymore. But the community they’d built with the support of Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services positioned them to continue being a resource for the community during the pandemic. For KVIBE, connection and belonging looks like stepping in to be a food distribution site for the YMCA, and the young men calling families and checking in on them to connect them to resources. Now, the families in the Kalihi Valley know that they can go to KVIBE several times a week for a healthy meal during this time of crisis, and the connections are going strong.
In Tacoma, Washington, the community activists from Hilltop Urban Gardens that were helping families grow their own food and organize for housing stability couldn’t continue their workshops and group activities. They turned their kitchens into places where they’re making meals to deliver to those same community members, and tribal herbalists are growing natural medicine to help ease stress. For these activists, their commitment to wellbeing means keeping communities nourished and connected.
I’m inspired to see young people lead the charge. Seeing young men and community leaders in places like Albuquerque, Honolulu, and Tacoma put so much effort into keeping things going motivates me and others. These young people embody the values of connection, leadership, heart and soul, and taking responsibility for one’s community.
During this trying time, we’re all facing challenges – and yes, trauma – collectively. But when communities experiencing trauma lead, they show us how to build on strengths, assets, and resilience. These actions also raise questions for all of us about what our communities bring and have been doing, what our organizations do to support each other, what the members of our Making Connections community of practice learn from each other, and what our systems and institutions have the potential to do.
What’s been holding us back from free bus passes, free food distribution, and reaching out to our neighbors and families? Now that we’ve flexed that muscle, we need to keep that resilience moving, flexing, and growing, and we can get through this together and connected.
Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing Among Men and Boys is funded by Movember.