Connecting the Disconnected

Man was born for society. However little He may be attached to the World, He never can wholly forget it, or bear to be wholly forgotten by it.

Matthew Gregory Lewis

The McKinsey Global Institute recently identified ten high priority challenges in forging a social compact for the 21st Century. To me, the essay screams out the need to connect the disconnected to the rest of us – the poor, the elderly, the under-30’s without jobs, those with physical or mental challenges, the marginalized. If we can forge those connections, then we will have made great progress toward curing the symptoms of the social sicknesses we see around us.

I would love to stop right there – and why not? I would have admired the problem and provided its solution. But you and I know that that would be fundamentally dishonest – saying connect without saying how to connect is like telling a kid to go play baseball without explaining how to play the game.

One of the tragedies of modern life – highlighted by the pandemic – is that we are surrounded by tools to help us connect but bereft of rules telling us how to do so. An article I read the other day looked at crisis communications by municipal governments in Florida. It found that many were not using social media, suggested that they should and then went on to opine why they didn’t (e.g., not capable enough, didn’t have the resources). What the authors seem to have overlooked – as so many do – is that it’s not the tool, it’s the connection that’s important.

Why? – quite simply, isolation kills. In the US, the life expectancy of white Americans who have been left lonely and isolated by globalism’s shifting tides has plummeted due to deaths of despair – alcoholism, drugs and suicide – to the point that it is approaching that of black Americans. In the UK, the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 is suicide.

We have lost social capital just when we need it the most. If we are to regain it, we must reconnect the disconnected to our communities. That means helping the disconnected to look forward, not backward; to give them a reason to believe that they matter. And to begin to do that we must always recognize that this is a contact sport – we have to do it one person at a time.

That means communication, but communication with a purpose: helping the those who are not part of the community to rejoin. I am not a communications specialist (obviously!) but having given a few hundred talks in my time, I know it’s important to both know your audience and to know what the communication is intended to achieve. So, to reconnect the disconnected to the community, it’s important to:

Recognize that there are horses for courses. For the message to resonate, there must be trust in the messenger. For many of the disconnected, that means that the messenger must have shared at least some of their experiences. Thus, both have a sort of common language that provides an element of trust in the messenger and the message. As an example, other veterans are far more likely to be able to bring disconnected veterans back into the community than those who haven’t seen service.

First, eat the gumbo. Brenda Phillips coined this term to encapsulate why some groups of volunteers (e.g., the Mennonite Disaster Service) had been so successful in the aftermath of Katrina while others had not. Since the best gumbo is always made at home, this means that to connect you must meet the disconnected where they are – physically, mentally and emotionally. In essence, the goal is to transplant the disconnected back in the community. That means finding out how their present is rooted in their past experiences. Thus, you have to listen – actively listen. Don’t peddle your solutions to what you think their problems are, show them respect by letting them tell you what those problems are. For some of the disconnected – especially the elderly – just having a shining face take the time to sit and talk with them may be enough so that they look forward to another day; for others, fixing and serving the gumbo is just the first step.

Find hooks. An important part of active listening is finding out what interests them or that they may be passionate about. It may be something as simple as sports or gardening, or it may be something more complicated like politics or the plight of veterans. These are potential hooks to draw them back to the community. To push the analogy of transplanting a little further, reconnection requires a certain amount of root-pruning, cutting through some of the more tenacious roots to the disconnected’s dark past so that new roots can grow.

Transplant. Those new roots will grow best in soil conditioned for the plant; connection is more likely if rooted in the disconnected’s interests. If they are interested in sports, see if you can get them involved in some sort of sports program – coaching, officiating, maybe even playing. An elderly homemaker may be able to go into a school’s Home Ec class and teach kids her favorite recipes. Wounded warriors can help each other adapt and cope with their physical and mental challenges. Political parties always can use volunteers.

However, transplanting doesn’t mean cutting all of the roots. Just as a plant won’t survive transplanting without a good root ball, the disconnected need to be able to maintain a sense of self – and that means keeping some of the roots to their past.

Keep watering. The disconnected have to walk down the pathway on their own, but they may need encouragement – or occasionally a little shove. Your goal is not so much motivation, but movement. Ultimately, the disconnected have to see rewards in reconnection; but that recognition won’t come until they have established strong new roots. We all stumble sometimes; we all find change uncomfortable. Reconnection can be the most uncomfortable kind of change, so it’s important to follow up occasionally – your caring can water the transplant and help it take root.

Recognize that some transplants won’t take root. Any of us who have gardened have seen transplants fail. So, too, sometimes – sadly – the disconnected are just too deeply rooted in misery or despair to be drawn back to the community. Perhaps, in their misery, they finally don’t care that they are no longer “attached to the World.” But still we must try.

Failure is the risk of trying; but we should not let fear of failure keep us from trying to bring the disconnected back into the community. Disconnected, they are a burden to themselves and the community. Connected, they can become an important new resource that strengthens the community. And thus an addition to its resilience.

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