By Elizabeth Tang & Eleni Pacheco
Connecting from a distance
For nearly a year, social interactions have been limited more than ever before. Students who once bonded through academic extracurriculars or sports involvement can no longer afford that luxury. Social distancing can feel like a losing game where hugging your favorite person is an unsafe and unattainable prize. But San Antonio is a resilient community. Efforts can and are being put towards ensuring that young people have better outcomes and opportunities for success without losing an essential part of what makes us human: connections.
Social bonding can be described as a strong and lasting attachment to one’s community that fosters positive youth development and healthy behaviors. It is foundational in youth-serving programs - particularly for public health organizations like Healthy Futures. In the context of sex education and advocacy, social bonding can result in the development of many powerful tools and campaigns. When young people connect with peers over shared beliefs, experiences, sexual health becomes less taboo and more engaging. These connections add depth to the learning experience (especially if what’s learned is practical, transferable, and exciting).
Why focus on social bonding?
A sense of belonging, support, and connection is the driving force behind any mission. Social connections are key to dismantling systems of power inequity, oppression, and misinformation that keep young people feeling disempowered and, thus, disengaged. In our work, for example, today’s biggest sexual and reproductive health injustices exist largely because people are too afraid, uncomfortable, or unsure of how to connect over sexuality and health management. Our programs address misinformation, shame, and stigma head-on - something young people may not get to do elsewhere. This creates unique bonds that motivate social change.
In creating environments where social bonding is supported, it’s necessary to work with young people to develop social skills such as listening, setting appropriate boundaries, and conflict resolution. These skills strengthen pathways to form other social connections - both in and outside of the program - such as healthy relationships. Not only do social bonds help young people develop a sense of self, but they also make the work, the mission, and the vision meaningful and clear.
What we’re doing to keep young people connected
Knowing that we needed to orient new Youth Advocacy Council members in a virtual setting, we planned for moments of social bonding during every engagement. We largely facilitated these connections through icebreaker activities, ensuring we had a mix of fun and lighthearted games and thought-provoking shared introspection. Giving everyone a platform at the start of a meeting means students are more likely to step up and participate, knowing that they’ve already established a voice and a presence.
We planned for a sequence of activities that would guide new members in bonding:
Community in Identity Icebreaker
First, we allowed members to acknowledge the intersections of their own identities while learning more about - and celebrating - each other’s similarities and differences. By asking which parts of ourselves show up in different situations, we were able to learn about the strengths of our team as well as how best to support one another.
Connecting accurate information to real-world situations (especially adapted to a digital world) models respect for the lived experiences of young people. Forming activities that mirror those experiences empower students to share ideas and help evolve and expand everyone’s understanding.
Integrating the Mission
While we are united over the same cause, we each bring ourselves to this work for different reasons - and being seen and heard is important in forming mutual bonds. We had members interview one another, then summarize their partner’s testimony back to them. After hearing the way their experiences were received by another person, members were better able to write their own narrative.
Now that we’re in the second half of an unprecedented YAC year, the council is eager to hit the ground running and make big changes. Though the cohort has yet to meet in person, members have collaborated effectively with one goal in mind - helping teens stay sexually healthy. Members are encouraged by the platform we’ve built for them to be open and grow together through their understanding of sex and relationships. The passion and support of our members continue to motivate us through each campaign - and it’s only getting better!
Elizabeth Tang is the first-ever Team Lead for the Youth Advocacy Council and a YAC alum herself. A first-year student at UT Austin, this young leader plans to pursue a career in public health with hopes of being an asset to the community. Elizabeth can be found reading or playing with her cat when she isn’t working on creating opportunities for equitable sex education.