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Stories and social connection in community building

Every single one of us has an innate need (and right) to connect and to belong.

We are wired for connection since birth and our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water. While our body doesn’t demonstrate direct and obvious signals for it like it does for thirst and hunger, our yearning for connection speaks through many different signals. Loneliness is one of the strongest indicators that our need for connection and belonging isn’t being met and currently ⅙ Australians report being lonely in any given year.

As human beings, we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and suffer immensely when we don’t have strong social bonds or when they are threatened. On an individual level, our well-being is strongly dependent on our connections. On a community level, our societal health and progress depends on connections too.

In this world of fast and faster change and hyper-individualism, we struggle to sustain a deep sense of belonging - to feel that we have a home with the people and the places around us. This disconnection, disempowerment and lack of belonging brings all the negative impacts we know too well of mental and physical health issues. But the cost of disconnection isn’t just worn by the individual - our communities and governments also suffer in the form of health costs, distrust, segregation, violence and apathy.

If connection is an innate need that has been ‘hardwired’ into us since the beginning of human history, then perhaps we need to look at how other cultures and civilisations maintained their need for social bonds and belonging.

Stories are an ancient means of connection that all known human cultures have used to bring people together. Stories help us share our sense of individual identity, our understanding and sense of belonging in a place. Stories shape people and they shape society. Every person has a story - young or old, rich or poor, in any culture – who we are is made up of the stories we tell ourselves and each other. When we share our story with another human we feel ‘heard’, we feel valued, that we ‘matter’ and that we belong in that community. When we listen to stories – really listen – our brain is flooded with oxytocin, connecting us through empathy. This interaction is the foundation for trust and rapport, connection and collaboration. The stories we tell as a group makes up the narrative of how we see our community and our role in it.

In our culture, we’ve lost the natural sharing of unique and individual stories. Instead, we’re struggling with dominant and negative global narratives, or closer to home even experiencing political narratives, ‘young African men are dangerous and violent’ and in the community and planning sphere, ‘all new development is bad development’.

In our work at Humankind Enterprises, we support communities to share their stories, help people to feel heard and valued, and build strong meaningful connections between community members. And we passionately believe there is so much scope for stories to be used in planning and community building.

Stories are a powerful and hopeful way to;

  • Increase people’s sense of feeling valued and ‘heard’ - an important part of a whole

  • Build trust, empathy and social connection between previously separated groups (i.e between youth with seniors)

  • Collect deep and unique insights for empathetic decision-making. People tell their story in their own words, which is a deeply democratic and inclusive way of engaging people. It’s about going beyond statistics and surveys to find the ‘data with soul’

  • Foster sense of community and belonging and change the shared narratives

So how can we use stories to transform our communities intro vibrant, inclusive and connected places?

At Humankind Enterprises, here are some of the ways that we do it:

  • We create safe and brave spaces for communities to share their stories, insights and reflections - whether that’s through our StoryPod, or within a workshop setting. With people’s permission we use these stories to help organisations and councils to plan, deliver and report on projects that will make a difference in the community
  • We support people to truly listen, connect, and collect each others stories through training and community programs

  • We aim to leave communities with embedded principles and processes that have strategic storytelling and social connection principles at their core

We believe that through the meaningful and ethical use of stories and designing for social connection, we can improve our neighbourhoods and address emerging social and environmental challenges with shared community responsibility, collaboration and trust.

References:

https://melbourneinstitute.unimelb.edu.au/hilda

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/212681/social-by-matthew-d-lieberman/

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