Hello Pop Up My Old Friend
By Danielle Wozniak, Dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work
The storm blew in on Friday morning and by afternoon we were without power. We have a well, so no power means no running water, no heat, no electricity, no showers, no toilets. No fun. We filled the bath tubs with water so we could flush. And we had pots of drinking water. We also had a small wood stove for limited warmth. By Sunday calls to the power company were useless and the water supplies had to be replenished. By Monday I was frantic. There was no more bath tub water left. The temperatures were dropping and I feared broken pipes and thousands of dollars of damage. Dirty take-out containers piled up on dirty kitchen counters. From our house, we could see the houses around us that had power, normalcy and routines. And our sense of impotence, frustration and isolation grew.
At the end of the work day on Monday, as we faced another cold and dark night, I rode the elevator from the 13th floor to the 1st full of people I knew, some better than others. Everyone had been through storms. Everyone had lost power at some point in their lives. I turned my back on the doors as they closed, faced the crowd in the elevator and lamented, “I have been without power for nearly five days.”
The silent elevator came to life with exclamations of surprise, sympathy, encouragement, stories of other power outages, suggestions for a remedy, and even a few good-natured jokes. In other words, they heard my misery and rallied around me with support. After 13 floors, the doors opened on 1. “Thanks elevator helpers!” I said with a smile. What I had experienced was a 60-second pop up community. What I felt was its power. As the doors opened I made my way into the darkness. But I left feeling supported, connected, and a little lighter as I faced the evening ahead.
The world divides us. Some argue that there is a large-scale movement to pit us against each other. Others would suggest that 21st century post-industrial life is necessarily compartmentalized and isolating. Many of us live in single-family homes or apartments that strain our capacity to stay connected with family and friends. We work long hours that impede our ability to make family meals, celebrations, and get-togethers. While some of us are lucky enough to be a part of close and supportive communities—either through geography or through our faith—many of us “lead lives of quiet desperation,” as Thoreau suggested. Age, widowhood, increased mobilization, physical and mental illnesses, addictions, and chronic problems can all impose a harsh sentence of isolation. Friends and partners die; we burn our bridges or exhaust our families through our neediness; we move and then we move again; our children grow up and move away; people do not understand our symptoms and hiding them increases our need to pull away.
Regardless of the etiology of our isolation, moments of intentional connection on an affective level are important if not altogether corrective and ultimately healing. This was the idea behind Care Cafe, started at Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University. We launched the cafe under the premise that connection is possible and important even if it lasts for a few moments; even when shared with total strangers through a community that pops up around an issue, a need, or an experience. Care Cafe, offered at different venues throughout the city provides a cozy, safe environment, often soft music, a lite dinner, and a leading expert who can deliver a stand-up talk or workshop on an important topic. All speakers are given one caveat. They must leave the audience hopeful and hope-filled. Our MSW students work the cafes chatting with guests and distributing researched materials about additional resources and services. I have attended several of the cafes. The experience feels supportive, normalizing, and connecting. Each time they feel like an elevator ride with sympathetic coworkers, or perhaps a moment of heat in a frigid house.
Little is researched about the power of pop up communities in mental health. But my experience, and those of other cafe goers, suggest that they bracket a moment in time and provide human connection around a common experience. That connection does not make the issue, need, or problem go away. Nor does it necessarily provide a room full of lasting friendships. But it does provide fortification, additional insight, support and, for a few minutes, a crowd of fellow travelers to accompany and support us on our journey. This is true for people struggling with OCD, depression, addictions, miscarriage, the loss of a loved one; it is true for those who struggle with their fears about deportation or questions about how to jump start their careers, or how to apply for college financial aid for their kids. It is true for parents who worry about how much time their kids spend online or veterans who struggle with re-entry into non-military life.
The power of pop up communities is that they unite us in a world that fractures us. They provide support when we feel we are alone and isolated and remind us that we are in this soup together—simply as human beings. Perhaps pop up communities are not old friends in the traditional sense of a one-to-one relationship. But they are old friends as they bring us face to face with the best part of us—that primordial and essential part of ourselves that knows how to band together in the face of pain and how to reach for each other in tough times.
Join us at Care Cafe. Experience the power in a pop up community.