The GenWell Project, the Canadian led Global Human Connection Movement, was originally inspired by the summer blackout of 2003 on the Eastern Seaboard of North America, when over 50M people found themselves without power for 2-7 days, depending upon where you lived. Having occurred shortly after the events of 9-11, the initial reaction of many was fear that something terrible had occurred, but as news spread that the blackout was caused by a power failure, people started to settle into a different crisis mode.
For those who had loved ones, the initial goal was to get to them and check in. With much of public transport at a standstill and cars not moving very quickly, due to the outage on streetlights, it took most people much longer than usual to get to where they wanted to be. This extended commute turned into opportunity after opportunity for the human species to shine bright. Whether in Canada or in the US, story after story arose, showing how people stepped up to help others and most of them, people they had never met before. From directing traffic, to filling up trucks and cars with people heading in all directions. From stores handing out ice cream and water to help people as they made their way home in the sweltering heat, people came together. At homes, condos, apartment building and office towers alike, people stepped up and helped people make their way safely home, even if it was a little more challenging than usual.
As people made their ways home, people started to hear that the fix to the problem was going to take a little longer than the typical summer power blip. Once home, or tucked away in your favorite restaurant or bar, people realized that the new normal, for the time being, was one without electricity and the technology that requires it to function.
What happened next? In your house, in the bar, on the street, in your neighbourhood, SILENCE. What happened next was truly remarkable. People connected. Not though social media, texting, no phones, or any other means of communication, but face-to-face. Not with people on the other side of town, the country, or the world, but with the people that were right beside us. In our homes, on our streets, and in bars and restaurants all over. The same people that we may have driven or walked by many times before, but did not have the catalyst, excuse, or time to reach out and connect with.
People gathered for many different reasons. They gathered to help, support, to discuss, to cope, to share, to find solutions, and when loved ones were confirmed safe, to break bread. To share the food that may be going to waste, whether it was in a home or in a restaurant. We came together like, dare we say it, they used to in the old days. Before cell phones and computers, before social media, 24-hour news channels and on demand TV were such a big part of our lives. Before high density living, longer commute times, economic pressures, a changing work force and when the only thing open on Sunday’s was your local convenience store.
People connected. Why? Because we all need to connect. Human beings have a deep need for attachment in our lives. Research suggests that the single largest indicator of life happiness is our social connections and the relationships that come from them. The blackout gave us the perfect opportunity to disconnect, and the permission to get connected. With no power or distractions, we were able to quickly seek one of our most basic needs and get away from the faux connectedness and pressures, that society creates today. Abraham Maslow referenced this back in 1943 in his Hierarchy of Needs as Love and Belonging, and we are no different today, we are social animals, but we may have been getting a little too caught up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle that life had become, prior to the global pandemic.
The GenWell Project, launched in the fall of 2016, after a decade of conversations asking “what if” we had more opportunities like the blackout of 2003 to build greater human connection. It wanted to remind people about the importance of these face-to-face connections and be the catalyst that got them to take action. The GenWell Project identified two weekends a year when we wanted to be the excuse, the deadline, and the reason that people could reach out to family, friends, neighbours, classmates, and colleagues, and get connected. We all had that long list of people we had been meaning to see and we wanted to be the excuse to make it happen. The two weekends; spring, and fall, had been selected for many reasons that suggested that people might need support in building connections during these critical times of seasonal transition. By identifying the weekends and rallying individuals, businesses, community leaders and governments to be part of getting people connected proactively, and through a positive lens of human connection, we believed we could help people build healthier connection habits and stronger relationships, before they needed them in a time of crisis.
Here is the launch video that kicked off the first GenWell Weekend in August 2016 (originally called Generator Weekend), when we wanted to help people generate great human connection. In 10 days we were able to inspire 57 leaders around the world to step up and be part of the solution to the isolation, disconnection, and loneliness that people face around the world, by registering their intention to get connect on the very first GenWell Weekend.
After launching our social media pages, activating around GenWell Weekends, and sharing our message with media, podcasts, and through many other communication channels for the first two years, it became abundantly clear that most people did not understand the facts around human connection and its benefits. This reality also became clear when we had the good fortune to meet with Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute and Director of Health Equity at the Centre For Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, who shared his support for the movement, but gave us one warning to be aware of. He kindly stated that “you will be very successful with this movement, but you need to know one thing. It is going to take time, as most people have no idea what you are speaking about.” Those words, although difficult to hear based on the importance of the message and mission that we were on, has rung true from that day forward, however the global pandemic seems to have awoken us all to the need that we have to be connected with others. Starting in 2018, The GenWell Project shifted from only being a catalyst a couple times a year, to a 12-month awareness and education program that was working to educate, empower and catalyze 38 million Canadians to start building healthier connection habits each day.
Many grassroots movements require a catalytic moment to take their efforts to the broader population. The global pandemic may have been the catalyst that has awoken all of us to the need that we have for human connection in our lives. Not just the deep meaningful connections with close family and friends, but the casual collisions that happened in the workplace, on the street, at the local coffee shop and when out walking the dog. Those collection of connections, removed during the global pandemic, added up to a sense of support, a sense of belonging and a sense of confidence that you were not in this world alone and that should you need support, you had a network in place. The global pandemic put a stop to many of those connections, and for the first few weeks, people found comfort in connecting on digital technology, but as the pandemic continued, we all started to get a taste of what it might be like to be socially isolated, disconnected, or lonely.
It was in the midst of the global pandemic that The GenWell Project took a pause to reset our targets, to refocus our efforts, to find support from government for our proactive health movement, to find corporate partners who recognized the importance and opportunity to lead in reconnecting Canada, and to take our place as the leader of a positive, proactive, health promotion campaign that had the power to support all Canadians through the end of the global pandemic and beyond.
It is our hope that people see the need to shift the societal focus from crisis management, to the preventative health approach that shares this message before the crisis arrives. Most of us have been educated about the importance of exercise and eating well, with many initiatives and campaigns having been in place for the last several decades. The time is now to begin educating our young, our old, our marginalized, our business and community leaders, and our politicians, about the importance of human connection and what we can all do to be a part of the solution.