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Creating Global Strategies for Social Connections: A Conversation with Edward Garcia

By Risa Wilkerson on September 29th, 2021

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

I met Edward (Eddie) Garcia during 2020 when COVID-19 still felt new. Eddie and I were talking about social isolation and loneliness, and not just because the pandemic was keeping everyone in their homes. The pandemic had exposed an already growing crisis of social isolation and loneliness globally, and we were both seeking solutions.

Eddie is a partner at Healthsperien, a healthcare policy consulting firm where he helped to found the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness (CESIL), the Foundation for Social Connection (F4SC), and a Global Initiative on Loneliness and Connection (GILC). As we, at Healthy Places by Design, were expanding a learning network for community-level solutions to social isolation, I discovered CESIL and called him. We instantly realized our long-term goals were aligned and have since been sharing ideas and promoting each other’s work. We are now beginning a formal partnership, which we’ll share more about in this interview. Read on to learn about the impressive momentum he and his partners are building and to be the first to hear about our new partnership with them.

 

RW: You‘ve been working in public health for about 18 years, primarily focused on public policy. Within the last couple of years, you’ve helped to found three different groups aimed at reducing social isolation and loneliness and increasing social connections at the national and global levels. First of all, I don’t know when you sleep! But how did you become so laser focused on this issue of social wellbeing?

EG: I appreciate the question, Risa. As you know, there is a long history in the public health world of looking at how nonmedical factors impact our health and wellbeing. So, beyond the services that we receive from medical providers, it’s about the places we live, and access to quality education, transportation options, nutritious and affordable food, and more. As Healthsperien was working around those broader factors, a number of organizations seemed to coalesce around the impact of loneliness and social isolation on the health and wellbeing of vulnerable populations, who are the focus of our mission as an organization. And personally, this has been the crux of my entire career. I grew up in Appalachian Ohio, in a very poor town with very few economic mobility opportunities. The lives of most people who live and work there are centered around manual labor, and I saw the tremendous negative health impacts—from lack of workplace safety to lack of education. This is very intertwined with social isolation and loneliness, and so I saw a great opportunity to focus on an issue area that I’m very passionate about.

I appreciate that. I, too, grew up in a very rural community with challenges that exacerbate social isolation and loneliness. This is a critical quality-of-life issue. That brings me to how we talk about this issue. CESIL is focused on “ending social isolation and loneliness,” while the newer foundation is for “social connections.” Should we frame this work from the negative (isolation) or the positive (connections) lens?

The two are completely intertwined, so we think it’s important to focus on both sides of that coin. To eradicate social isolation and loneliness, we need policies that address systemic changes. We believe that we can get more traction with policymakers by highlighting the negative impacts on our health. When it comes to research and developing evidence-based practices, we focus more on building connection, resiliency, and the prevention of social isolation and loneliness. We would love to see the positive focus developed more globally.

"To eradicate social isolation and loneliness, we need policies that address systemic changes."

 

That makes sense. You mentioned the global perspective. You are advancing global learning through the GILC. How have you seen global work interconnecting with our national efforts?

We are trying to address systemic change at three levels—at the global level by having a framework for systemic approaches, using that framework for national implementation, and then sharing that framework (and receiving feedback on it) at the state and local levels through our work with the CDC’s Building Resilient Inclusive Communities (BRIC) initiative, for which Healthy Places by Design is also a partner. We’ve strategically engaged in those three buckets of work to ensure that there are strong, interconnected learning opportunities.

What are you seeing globally that could be implemented here?

Some themes are emerging, such as the shift from focusing almost solely on older populations as socially isolated and lonely. Since COVID-19, around the world, young people and people in the workforce are lonelier than ever. Australia’s Ending Loneliness Together Campaign has been doing workshops for employers on loneliness for a number of years. They have coursework in that space that we could implement here. Likewise, members of CESIL are doing inspiring work with younger populations here in the US, and we could be taking that to the global stage. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? To have global exchange, and we have many opportunities to do that.

When you and I first met, we talked about areas of focus within our respective organizations, and we recognized many mutually supportive goals. Today, I am thrilled to announce to our readers that we are beginning a formal partnership to support a broader Social Connections Learning and Action Network. This will bridge your team’s work in communication, policy, innovation, and research, with our team’s work to support community-level systems change and philanthropic leadership in this space. What is one aspect of our mutual work you are most excited about?

Oh gosh. It really is the ability to have the cross-cutting learnings translated across our various focus areas. That was always the biggest draw for me. Bringing your expertise and leadership into the areas we’ll be guiding—communications, policy, scientific research, development of new programs. And vice versa. Bringing our expertise to your areas—community-based strategies and philanthropic leadership. It’s that cross-breeding of expertise and information that I think is so vital. I believe that we need a holistic and systemic approach to address social connectedness and we can’t do that without the philanthropic world and communities. So, for me it’s the “Kumbaya” aspect of working with you.

"I believe that we need a holistic and systemic approach to address social connectedness and we can’t do that without the philanthropic world and communities."

 

Thank you; I agree. I’m equally excited about this partnership. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Yes! Thanks for asking. First, I encourage everyone to register for our second annual Action Forum to End Social Isolation and Loneliness. It’s structured to showcase global, national, and community-level efforts to combat loneliness. Also, don’t miss our ongoing Connect + Conversations, where we are discussing these issues from various sector-based perspectives.

Finally, I’m thrilled to share that we are working to formalize a new partnership between the World Health Organization (WHO) and GILC on four pillars of work:

-Building a nongovernmental coalition of voices across the globe.

-Expanding, synthesizing, and disseminating research.

-Reducing social isolation and loneliness in low- and middle-income nations.

-Generating resources to fund programs, research, and global campaigns.

Seriously, Eddie, when do you sleep? This is all very inspiring and generates so much hope. Thank you for your leadership and camaraderie so that we can all create a world where everyone feels they belong and has meaningful social connections that support a thriving journey through life.

 

Photo credit: NASA, unsplash.com

Author
Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, simplicity seeker, and weekend wanderer.