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Together Apart

Organization development specialists offer their communities ways to connect deeply during isolation

July 22, 2020  | 3 min read

Human beings are social creatures. We may be introverts. We may consider ourselves “loners.” But as poet John Donne recognized, each of us is nonetheless “a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

Two Graziadio alumnae, both of whom earned degrees in organization development, run businesses designed to foster conversation and connection—two keystones of the togetherness we all crave and, ultimately, require. When the coronavirus pandemic sent the country into quarantine, they immediately saw the need for community that months-long safer-at-home orders would generate. Sharon Swing (MS ’93), owner of Swing Consulting, is also the coauthor of Listen to My Life: Maps for Recognizing and Responding to God and My Story. With the life- mapping materials outlined in the book as their guide, she and her colleagues hold therapeutic programs that help individuals be more “self-aware, God-aware, and other-aware.” The clients use the life maps to document their story; they’re then taught how to share their story and how to really listen to others. Within six days of the issuance of safer-at-home orders in her community outside Chicago, Illinois, her organization segued from in-person life-mapping events to online mini-retreats.

Renée Smith (MS ’05) heads A Human Workplace, an organization she founded to make workplaces more loving and human centered. Before the pandemic, Smith and her small network of “hosts” led workplace teams in how to be more inclusive, trusting, and supportive of one another to create a kinder and more productive work environment. Since the outbreak, her team has grown from “a handful” to 20 hosts reaching nearly 1,000 people in more than 50 gatherings all over the world. Some of the Zoom events she holds are composed of people who work together. Others are made up of complete strangers. “We feel really convicted about the importance of helping people through this time,” says Smith. The point of the gatherings is to provide “opportunities for people to process their fear, de-escalate stress, practice strategies for self-care, and give voice to hope.” In response to events that have subsequently unfolded around the country, Smith and her group are also hosting gatherings to stand with the Black community and people of color and to create space for white people to “do the work” of anti-racism.

The conversations at these virtual meetings are designed to reveal the attendees’ most raw and profound thoughts and feelings. Swing’s program encourages participants to review their lives and their perceptions of God and to share them with the group, while Smith’s asks participants to simply talk to each other about what they’re feeling and experiencing in this time. Candor is critical, and both divide their large groups into groups of three people. In those small groups each individual has a chance to speak, uninterrupted, for a period of time. Participants travel to a “very deep, reflective place,” says Swing. This opportunity, the chance to really be heard, is central to connecting deeply. “It’s amazing what can happen when people are given a space to just talk to other human beings and have that human connection,” says Smith. “It is essential for our emotional health.”

While our time at home has altered our understanding of the community experience, and technology has not yet advanced in a way that it can replace the actual presence of fellow human beings, connecting virtually has arguably never been more critical to our well-being. At a time when many are suffering from loneliness, mental health issues, or are just wanting to feel they’re “a part of the main,” it is heartening to know that making a deep and fulfilling connection can be just a click away.