Struggling to connect? These online and IRL groups will help you make meaningful bonds
BY VALERIE HOWES (WITH FILES FROM AMA SCRIVER)
“After moving back to Toronto in my late 20s, I found myself without a lot of gay friends and I didn’t feel connected to my community,” says Matt Stokes. On the suggestion of his partner, Stokes joined Forte – Toronto Gay Men’s Chorus. He’d always enjoyed singing, but he discovered something powerful about singing with other gay men. “When we finish a performance together, the energy and connectivity is palpable—electric—as is the sense of brotherhood that connects us all,” he says.
That buzz is thanks, in no small part, to spending time with folks who understand each other’s journeys. While inclusion and diversity make communities richer, it’s also to connect with people whose life experiences or identity you closely relate to. Not having to explain things, because people just get it, can make you feel empowered and less alone.
Flying solo without ties to people who know where you’re coming from can be really tough emotionally and physically. “We’re all struggling to make a path, and there are a variety of reasons people will become isolated,” says Joshua Peters, a registered psychotherapist at Toronto’s Centre For Interpersonal Relationships. Those could include facing accessibility barriers as someone with a disability, culture shock as a senior newcomer, or judgement as a racialized solo parent. And the effects of isolation are crushing. A 2015 study concluded that lacking social connections is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
More and more people are turning to online and in-person groups to find their support system and celebrate the ties that bind them.
One great way to connect is logging on to social media. (Yes, really!) “We talk a lot about the damaging effects of technology, but there are also fantastic benefits, because online groups foster an environment in which people can connect in ways they wouldn’t have been able to before—especially if they live somewhere where meet-up groups would not be available to them,” says Peters.
When Toronto mother Tanya Hayles founded Black Moms Connection, a private Facebook group for Black moms and moms-to-be, she recognized that a virtual space was ideal for busy women with kids wanting to connect—no babysitters required. Why uniquely Black moms? Hayles was already in several parenting groups, but she found experiences unique to Black motherhood hard to discuss there.
“When you’re pregnant, you can have a lot of stereotypes to deal with, particularly if you’re single or with a partner who’s not Black. And the Black maternal mortality rate is higher, because of how physicians respond to Black women and their pain. Later, navigating the education system is a big one for Black moms—dealing with teachers or systems that have biases. Then there are news stories like Trayvon Martin’s death that make you want a safe space, where you can say, ‘I’m afraid for my son’ or ‘I’m afraid for my husband.’”
Online discussion groups let you access a larger support network than in your local community—Black Moms Connect started with Hayles and a few local friends, but today it has 12,000 members worldwide.
The keys to a solid online support group are clear posting and commenting guidelines and judicious moderation. “You’re talking to strangers, and they don’t know your tone, so they may interpret things differently because of their own traumas or biases.” Hayles says. “In our group, moderators keep an eye on hot-button topics, and if things go left, they step in to say ‘play nice,’ or shut off comments or post a video response.”
While social media connections can be meaningful, meeting in person can create a different kind of intimacy. “You connect in a kind of unvarnished way,” says Peters.
The most focused type of meet-ups are support groups. At the United Way-supported Afghan Women’s Organization, elderly female newcomers break their isolation, talk and connect at the weekly Senior Afghan Women’s Circle. Many participants are experiencing language and cultural barriers, and rarely leave their homes, so the group provides relevant life-skills workshops and outdoors activities, as well as time to talk.
Note that if you’re seeking peer support for complex issues, Peters recommends looking for a group with trained facilitators.
Participating in recreational activities with people who share an aspect of their identity with you can help forge meaningful connections. Creative pursuits, such as music, theatre and even stand-up comedy, lend themselves well to bonding.
Singing, for example, releases endorphins—happy hormones—and oxytocin, which relieves stress and boosts feelings of trust. Stokes says that conversation flows naturally at Forte – Toronto Gay Men’s Chorus and translates into social get-togethers outside the group.
Get your runners on
Playing sports or training in a niche league or group promotes bonding, too: “These kinds of activities are really fantastic, when it comes to marginalized groups, because they allow people who have faced similar experiences or perhaps similar traumas to connect,” says Peters.
GTA leagues like the Tamil Women’s Sports League and Flags of Glory (a flag football league for LGBTQ+ women and non-binary players) have a powerful impact on team members’ lives post-practice, when they forge relationships and grow in self-confidence.
And the benefits of sports can extend to the bleachers, too: At the Special Olympics Active Start Program the parents of kids with developmental disabilities chat on the sidelines about everything from school advocacy to specialist appointments to playground stigma.
“A lot of tears get shed at the Special Olympics [among] the parents, in conversations in the corner, but at the same time, there’s a lot of laughing, a lot of cheering and a lot of gratitude that is shared,” says volunteer and mother Côté Loken.
Having a brief immersive experience with people who just get you can be empowering for rest of the year. Folks from Ontario’s Deaf community camp together annually, at Presqu’ile Provincial Park, for four days of fun, learning and bonding.
“There are activities like discovering the animals and birds at the provincial park and American Sign Language (ASL) workshops. At nighttime we do ASL stories around the campfire or tell Deaf jokes that are culturally relevant to our community,” says Sarah Colbeck, who co-organizes the ASL Community Camp.
The activities are recreational—rock climbing, museum visits, downtown field trips—and they help orient these young newcomers to the GTA and make friends with people who might share their hopes, fears and challenges.
“Everyday life isn’t the same when you’ve been through war or torture,” says organizer Leah MacDonald. “Certain everyday things may be triggering, if you have experienced violence, for example: passing a group of men alone or even taking the subway when there are lots of people.” In the company of people who’ve had similar traumas, they feel safe from judgement.
Many of the youth arrive in Canada without relatives, but by the last day of Summer Quest, they’re saying they feel like they’ve found a family.
“When you can recognize that many of the struggles you may have perceived as affecting only yourself are shared by many of your peers, there’s a lot of solace in that,” says Peters.
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