Six core strategies emerged across the Making Connections sites during the planning phase of the initiative, providing the foundation for each site’s theory of change and planned activities. Every Making Connections site combines the strategies and modifies them according to their population of focus, geography, and community culture for a comprehensive approach to create the community conditions necessary for mental wellbeing.

Click the arrows below to read about each strategy or download the entire list.

Social connection is essential for mental wellbeing, but social isolation is a growing problem throughout the U.S. Across all the Making Connections sites, developing a space where men or boys can gather, be themselves, support each other, and use their talents to make their world better is essential for mental wellbeing. This approach quickly became a cornerstone for many of the other Making Connections strategies to evolve and a point of engagement and orientation for new participants.

How do we create spaces for being, doing, and connecting? Consider designating drop-in locations with staff or volunteers on hand and hours that respond to the community’s needs (like after-school programming for teens). You can also start with a public space where young people already gather, like a park, and focus on improving this area and making people feel welcome. The Making Connections coalitions have created many different types of spaces for being, doing, and connecting, like a “hub” where young men are invited to join in video games and connect with their elders; a bike shop where boys and young men learn to repair bikes and explore their cultural heritage; veteran’s center on a college campus where student veterans can study together and support one another; or a monthly park gathering where peer-led activities create a cohesive community.

Remember that a safe place to assemble shouldn’t be taken for granted. Many spaces pose risks for boys and men of color or people who are involved in the justice system, or may prove triggering for people in recovery. People who are isolated may struggle to connect with others, even when such spaces exist. But once created, these spaces can become a place where trust can grow. Learn more about how three Making Connections sites created spaces for being, doing, and connecting:

Young men in San Diego created an informal gathering space for healing community trauma

The loss of five young East African men to suicide in a San Diego neighborhood spurred the community to take action. The United Women of East Africa Support Team (UWEAST) and its partners created a peer-led, culturally literate, and responsive “wellness hub” to address employment, education, and isolation among young men of East African descent. Abdiweli Haji of UWEAST, describes the hub as “kind of like a living room—people can walk in at any time they want, and it feels like home.” Located on the second floor of the UWEAST Center, the space has comfortable couches, soft carpeting, and colorful art on the walls. There are also computer workstations, a television, video games, an area set up for small workshops, and an outdoor space for sports. At the hub, young men can be themselves, connect with peers, and get the support they need to live healthy lives. They can also access resources, workshops, and mentoring on career development, leadership development, financial literacy, and advocacy training. Watch a video about the Making Connections “hub” in San Diego.

Young men in Honolulu “circle up” at a local bike repair shop

Every weekday at 3:30 p.m., young men and boys meet up at KVIBE, a bike repair shop connected to a local community health center, to participate in culture circles before moving on to bike repair. They go around the circle and each young man states his name, the place he calls home, and then the name of an ancestor who taught him something like how to laugh, how to cry, or how to heal. Coming together in circles is a way to connect, have conversations, and build trust and respect. Circle participants can share opinions and emotions freely about topics such as dealing with mental health issues, coping with stressors, and making positive changes in their communities. The circles create space for young men to be themselves, without judgement. Watch the video.

Creating a space for student veterans to build community

Returning to civilian life after serving in the military is never easy, and going back to school can add extra challenges. This was the situation faced by student veterans at Kankakee Community College in Illinois. To address this need, a group of students and professors developed a veterans’ resource center on campus to give student vets the opportunity to come together, foster connections with other vets, and build a community. A lot went into the design of the center to make it trauma-informed—for instance, seating is arranged so that no vets have their back to the door in recognition of the hyper-vigilance veterans often experience—and to make it a place where vets can let down their guard and feel safe enough to focus on their studies and connect with each other. The resource center also serves as an operations center, where student vets plan events and activities, such as an ongoing PhotoVoice project, which helps give them a sense of purpose—another important element of military life that isn’t always present back at home. As a result, student veterans feel more connected to each other, more engaged in the community, and able to participate in more personal and educational development opportunities. Read more about efforts at Kankakee Community College. Watch the video.

The paths to achieving wellbeing are as diverse as communities themselves. Making Connections focuses on men and boys of color and veterans and military families, groups that each have specific cultural strengths that can build resilience, which protects against mental health challenges. The Making Connections gender- or culture-specific networks have included peer-support networks made up of young men of East African descent; referral networks made up of veterans service providers; healing circles that bring in Hawaiian cultural traditions; and intergenerational mentorship and coaching programs that connect African-American men with youth through basketball and other sports. What’s important in creating a gendered or culturally responsive approach is to start with a core group of the people who are most affected by an issue and then build natural and service supports around the peer-led core group.

Ensuring there’s “no wrong door” for veterans in Nebraska

Veterans and military service members are part of a culture that can look very different from civilian life. It’s important to understand these cultural issues to be effective in preventing suicide among veterans, who are nearly twice as likely as nonveterans to take their own lives. In Nebraska, VetSet, Nebraska’s Making Connections site, offers a “No Wrong Door” training for organizations that interact with veterans and their families but may not have expertise in veterans’ issues or military culture. They work with social services organizations, faith-based organizations, educational institutions, health clinics, government agencies, law enforcement, and employers, among others. The training explains veterans’ challenges, which can cause them to feel isolated or unprepared for civilian life. It also highlights their strengths, including strategic thinking abilities, teamwork, leadership skills, and a can-do attitude. Learn about the “No Wrong Door” training; VetSet is also available to provide training for others.

Creating a place where young men of East African descent can be themselves

After several suicides among young men of East African descent, United Women of East Africa Support Team (UWEAST) and its partners decided to take on suicide prevention in City Heights, San Diego, which has the largest population of Somalian refugees in California. They do this by building on the community’s natural resilience and culture of strong interpersonal connections. Making Connections partners in San Diego have opened a dialogue about mental health with community members, which includes developing a network of partners ready to engage on the issue. They’ve encouraged faith leaders to speak out about post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicide; worked with local mental health practitioners who come from the East African community to speak to the young men and their families; and partnered with other organizations to provide young men who feel hopeless about their future with leadership and career development training. All of this takes place in the Making Connections “wellness hub” in City Heights, which has become a safe space for everyone to honor their friendships and culture, and access support and resources. Watch a video about the wellness hub.

Bringing culture and history into community-building activities in Hawaii

In the Kalihi Valley of Honolulu, poverty, loss of cultural identity, and low-educational attainment have put men and boys at risk of depression, stress, and other mental health challenges. So, the Kalihi Valley Instructional Bike Exchange, or KVIBE, the Making Connections site in Hawaii, weaves culture and history into its programs to provide grounding and affirmation for the young men they work with. They open their activities with culture circles to help young men understand where they come from and why they matter. “We always start with what is your name, what is home to you, and then an ancestor,” said Jeffrey Acido, a former KVIBE education and training specialist. “Anyone who can say these things with confidence has love for themselves—this is mental wellbeing.” The strength of their activities and deep roots in the community have enabled the development of a strong network of support for the young men and their needs—everything from local restaurants that donate food, to local businesses that provide t-shirts and biking equipment for the young men and boys to represent KVIBE, to recent partnerships with housing agencies and schools to support families during the COVID 19 pandemic. Watch a video about KVIBE. Read an article about their approach.

When community leaders and residents come together to advocate for community change at the policy or system level, it can improve their mental health and wellbeing in two ways: through the experience of taking action for change and through the resulting change itself. Advocacy efforts can include championing policies that increase men and boy’s access to resources and basic needs; introducing and operationalizing new practices in organizations to better support men and boys’ mental wellbeing; and engaging with policymakers, practitioners, and government agencies to embed gendered and culturally competent approaches within systems, such as countering biases against young men of color or assuring adequate supports for those in the military.

This webinar recording and presentation covers the basics of policy and advocacy to advance mental health and wellbeing.

Across Making Connections, advocacy has included a focus on community improvements related to housing, employment, education, transportation, and more.

Changing health department policies in Nebraska to meet the needs of veterans

Nebraska’s Making Connections network, led by the Nebraska Association of Local Health Departments (NALHD), trains and supports organizations and agencies that interact with veterans and their families to recognize veterans’ unique needs and respond to them in a way that’s sensitive to their culture. They also advocate for policies that make sure veterans’ needs are embedded in the system. For example, NALHD encouraged Nebraska’s statewide health survey systems to include demographic questions in the annual Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) and Youth Risk Behavior Surveys to identify needs of military involved populations (active members, vets, and their families) As a result of this policy change, the state learns more about the unique strengths, needs, and progress of young people whose parents serve in the military every time the survey is implemented. Learn about NALHD’s VetSet initiative.

Removing obstacles to employment in Chicago

Without opportunities for employment and compensation for your expertise, it’s hard to be mentally well. As an anchor institution on Chicago’s west side and the lead partner in Making Connections: Chicago, Sinai Health System knew it could potentially provide part-time employment for local community members. But Sinai Health Systems’ onerous application process and school volunteer criteria were creating obstacles. Through internal advocacy, the Making Connections: Chicago team secured changes to the hospital’s lengthy paperwork requirements and background check  risk-review process, which opened up the way for hiring youth and men from the community as mentors and volunteers for the program. These changes have resulted in employment, financial opportunities, and the mental wellbeing that comes with the added safety and dignity of having a job. Learn more about Making Connections in Chicago.

Participatory budgeting gives community members a voice in community mental health spending

Community members often know best what types of programs and services will support mental wellbeing in their local area. So why not let them have a say in which programs get health department funding? Tacoma’s Making Connections coalition, 253MCI, which is led by the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department in partnership with a community coordinator, made this idea a reality by coordinating a “community participatory budgeting” process through which grassroots organizations that serve and are led by people of color vote on how to allocate health department funds for community wellbeing. Through this process, grassroots organizations have been funded to lead wellness activities that range from cultivating food in urban gardens to participating in a tribal canoe journey, most of them linking to deep cultural traditions. Read about 253MCI. Learn about participatory budgeting.

Creating a shared policy agenda to support formerly incarcerated men of color

A history of structural racism has resulted in underfunded schools, inadequate housing, and other community conditions that generate trauma and undermine the mental health and wellbeing of men and boys of color across the US. Making Connections in Boston, which goes by the Male Engagement Network (MEN), wanted to make a difference and created an opportunity for its partner organizations to come together to advocate for policies that dismantle the obstacles formerly incarcerated men of color face when they try to find stable housing and jobs in their community. This goal resonated for all the partners, but they felt daunted about taking up the cause. So, together, they held community forums, organized criminal justice reform workshops, participated in statewide advocacy networks, and prioritized how their programs can be more supportive of men re-entering their community. As part of this work, MEN has provided men with culturally inclusive spaces to engage, educate, and connect with each other and built the capacity of men to advocate with community leaders. As community members and organizations built a broader understanding of how policies and practices contribute to structural barriers for fathers—especially those who have been involved in the criminal justice system—a stronger synergy developed across partners working on different aspects of this complex issue. And programs like Fatherhood Uplift and Vital Village, and community development corporations, including Nuestra Comunidad, Codman Square, and Mattapan ABCD, gained higher visibility and improved coordination.

Coming together as a community to organize projects and events builds community members’ sense of belonging and connectedness with each other. Supporting civic engagement and community action to enhance wellbeing includes strategies like organizing community gardens, offering recreation and arts activities, and providing peer leaders with the resources they need to organize small-scale, focused projects. Across Making Connections sites, this has included Veteran’s Day celebrations, young men’s sports programs, a program to train support dogs, and an annual fatherhood “grill-off.”

Developing young leaders in Albuquerque

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Making Connections International District (MC:ID) engages young men of color to be change agents in their own community. Through opportunities for leadership and organizing skill-building, on-site job training, and mentoring groups, the young men of MC:ID lead projects in their community and advocate for policies that impact their community’s wellbeing, such as accessible public transportation, neighborhood design, and education reform. The MC:ID coalition also hosts gatherings like cooking classes and community gardening sessions, delivers workshops on healthy relationships and policy advocacy, and supports teenage fathers. One of the goals of the initiative is to draw out youth voices so that decisions are not made for them but rather made by them. As Together for Brothers says, “We’re not telling young people how to live; we’re getting an understanding from them about what it is that they need and finding ways to empower them to take charge of that.” Working with Together for Brothers, young men in the community collect data on youth perspectives and priorities to guide their advocacy efforts.

Building the capacity of people of color-led grassroots organizations in Tacoma

The 253 Making Connections Initiative (253MCI) is a collaboration between the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and grassroots organizations that focus on improving mental health and wellbeing and strengthening resilience among men and boys and LGBTQ people of color. The collaboration has built the capacity of people of color-led, grassroots organizations to lead civic and community actions that promote mental wellbeing in culturally relevant ways. For example, Consultants for Indian Progress offers an All My Relations program for indigenous youth and another innovative program called Paddles Up, Families Strong that ties urban natives to deep cultural practices such as the annual Tribal Canoe Journey. Centro Latino provides space for grassroots community organizations to gather, plan, and organize. La Resistencia organizes visits, communicates with, and advocates for immigrants who are detained at the Northwest Detention Center.

Bringing together veterans and their families with the broader community in Canton, CT

Resilience Grows Here, the Making Connections site in Connecticut, is a veteran-focused mental health initiative led by the Farmington Valley Health District that engages veterans, their families, and community members in efforts to prevent suicide among veterans. Their activities are designed to reduce veterans’ isolation, destigmatize mental illness, build resilience in boys and men, and create safe spaces for veterans to connect with each other. RGH organizes community meals, resource nights, film screenings, a Veteran’s Day celebration, and other events meant to provide places where veterans and their family members can come together and get community support. Anzac, the program’s post-traumatic stress disorder therapy dog, participates in RGH public events and is available to social workers, psychologists, and clergy members at the local military base. RGH’s peer-to-peer mentoring program trains veterans to provide support and friendship to other veterans by helping them problem solve and connect to community veterans’ resources.

Men in Boston connect with each other at a Breakfast IV BROTHERS

In Boston, Breakfast IV BROTHERS uses word of mouth, its Facebook page, partner organization newsletters, and outreach at community centers to invite men of color of all ages to enjoy a meal at a regular location, usually The Salvation Army Kroc Center. Supported through funding from the Male Engagement Network and Making Connections, these meals provide a safe space for men to share conversation, grow in their commitment to family and community, and strengthen intergenerational bonds, especially among fathers. The men address challenges related to family relationships, housing affordability, financial stability, civic engagement, and make a commitment to each other to strive toward individual and collective aspirations. During the COVID 19 pandemic, the men have pivoted to holding virtual breakfasts, hosted via Facebook. Learn more about Breakfast IV BROTHERS.

Early on, the Making Connections sites realized that strengthening men and boy’s skills to navigate life challenges in healthy ways could benefit not just those men but also their friends, co-workers, family members, and entire communities. This approach leveraged the social norm of being willing to go out of our way to help others before seeking help for ourselves. Because men have also been socialized to see expressing their emotions and seeking out help as not “manly,” the sites wanted to find new ways of understanding manhood and masculinity. Making Connections focuses on men and boys of color and veterans, military service members, and their families, so they also took into account additional barriers and leverage points that come from those populations’ cultures and communities.

Some of the Making Connections sites offer workshops, dialogues, or trainings about healthy masculinity, gender roles, and cultural practices that can support wellbeing, and building resilience to increase participants’ confidence in coping with stress, anxiety, and trauma. Other sites provide trainings on Mental Health First Aid and the QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) suicide-prevention method to change community norms on talking about suicide and other mental health challenges. Many Making Connections sites have created opportunities for the men who’ve gone through these trainings and workshops to become peer counselors, trainers, or mentors for others. Beginning with building the capacity of those most affected—the population of focus—to implement the work is core to a culturally grounded approach.

Hope Squad trains students in Oklahoma to support peers at-risk for suicide

To prevent suicide among Native American men and boys in Anadarko, Oklahoma, the Southern Plains Tribal Health Board implemented the “Hope Squad” program in collaboration with several local schools. Hope Squad is a nationally recognized peer-support program that’s being used at more than 700 schools throughout the US. Young people are nominated by their classmates to participate in training to recognize warning signs of suicide and open a dialogue about suicide with their peers. Hope Squad members work to create a safe school environment, promote connectedness, and reduce stigma. “It’s so important that we not be afraid to ask someone who seems to be depressed, withdrawn, or is showing other signs of being suicidal if they’re thinking about hurting themselves,” said Susan Gay, project manager for the Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing Among Men and Boys initiative at the Southern Plains Tribal Health Board. “Peers are more likely to confide in their peers if they’re feeling sad or depressed. The aim is to train peers to look out for each other.” This work changes the way that students and faculty think and talk about suicide, creating a healthier learning environment for all. Learn about the Hope Squad. Watch a Hope Squad video.

“Peer 2 Peer” trains veterans to support other veterans

Resilience Grows Here (RGH), the Making Connections coalition in the Farmington Valley of Connecticut, aims to address isolation and suicide rates among veterans by providing socialization and community support through peer engagement and events. Their “Peer 2 Peer” program matches veterans with trained peers, much like the military “buddy” system. Peers are encouraged to do activities together like hiking, kayaking, art therapy, and dog therapy/training. All peer mentors go through a training that teaches them about suicide prevention, boundaries, ethics, confidentiality, and other skills to better equip them to deal with issues that may arise while hanging out with their peers. Check out the RGH website. Learn about their “Peer 2 Peer” program.

Boys in rural South Carolina earn a “Passport to Manhood”

The Making Connections coalition in Florence, South Carolina, helps young men develop skills they can use to navigate the journey from boyhood to manhood through the Passport to Manhood program. Passport to Manhood, which was developed by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, uses a “passport” for young men to document their personal journey along life’s multi-faceted experiences. It includes activities related to self-esteem and identity; personal decision making; healthy relationships; fatherhood and the family; cooperation and conflict; and others. The program includes a service project where boys learn the importance of giving back to the community. Latoria Lewis, director of the local Boys & Girls Club in the community of Hemingway, which is one of the local Making Connections partners, says that in her rural community there are few opportunities for young people to engage outside of school, creating a need for programs like Passport to Manhood that bring boys and young men together in settings where they feel comfortable sharing what’s going on in their lives. Read about Making Connections in Florence, SC. Learn about Passport to Manhood.

Making legends out of mentors in the Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago

How would relationships change if we replaced fear with trust? How would whole communities change? The Chicago Making Connections coalition asked these questions as they created their programming around safe spaces to play. With a vision of men and boys of color feeling a sense of belonging, ownership, and safety in a thriving community, Sinai Health System and its partners created a program focused on mentorship. Working alongside behavioral health experts from Sinai, Coaches and mentors from the North Lawndale neighborhood model positive social and emotional wellbeing and healthy relationships. Held at Mason Elementary School, the program brings together participants ages nine to 13 to engage in safe play supervised by adults who care about their emotional wellbeing. Sinai staff train mentors and coaches in trauma-informed care to give boys and men the tools to model positive masculinity, while situating mental distress experienced by the boys within the social conditions of their life—like recognizing that an emotional outburst on the basketball court often has more to do with an unsafe home environment than a bad pass. In the gym, these episodes quickly deescalate because everyone involved in Legends of Lawndale—from the clinical support staff to the youngest fourth graders—are equipped to communicate their needs, identify the source of their emotions, and problem-solve together. Learn more about Making Connections in Chicago.

To counteract the negative stories about our communities, we need to uplift the hopeful stories that illustrate community strengths, progress, and resilience. Across Making Connections, community coalitions have created videos, podcasts, op-eds, spoken word events, and social media posts that tell different stories about men and boys’ mental wellbeing than those that usually get highlighted. These stories about cultural strengths and the healing power of traditions, and community successes and resident-driven solutions have always been there but don’t get the attention they deserve.      

Telling positive stories about American Indians through videos and podcasts
Making Connections in Oklahoma City focuses on preventing suicide among American Indian male youth. American Indians have the highest rates of suicide of any racial/ethnic group in the United States—and men are at a far higher risk than women. But through a program called the “Hope Squad,” Making Connections, which is led by the Southern Plains Tribal Health Board, has trained students at three local public schools to address and prevent suicide among their peers. To get the word out about how young people can make a difference, they created a short video about their work. They also use podcasts to shift the thinking of American Indian men from seeing emotional expression as a weakness to considering it a strength.  

Using social media to show a different side of African-American men in New Orleans

Making Connections New Orleans (MCNOLA) is working to create better mental health and wellbeing for African-American men and boys in the city’s St. Roch neighborhood. Through resident workshops, civic engagement, and neighborhood improvement and art projects, MCNOLA is creating positive norms and a culture that supports community hopefulness and togetherness. MCNOLA saw how harmful the way that people talk about masculinity in their community can be, so they’re using social media to change this narrative and embrace the healing power of mutual support. Their standing invitation reads: “If you would like us to show your photos of black men and boys showing each other affection, please send them to @makeconnexnola #blackboysneedlovetoo #movember.” Check out MCNOLA’s Facebook page to see the power of sharing stories that represent healing and hopefulness.

Showing what young men of color in Houston have to say about “the man box”

Making Connections in Houston creates opportunities for boys and young men of color to talk about health, wellbeing, and healthy masculinity. The program, which is led by Houston’s Bureau of Youth and Adolescent Health, empowers young men to define what it means to be a man according to their own values, rather than having it defined by others or the culture at large. In addition to hosting regular dialogue sessions where they discuss alternative models of masculinity, they have created a series of short videos in which boys and young men of color discuss topics related to masculinity. For example, this video shares how the young men feel about  teen dating violence, masculinity, and a concept called “the Man Box,” which refers to societal norms, attitudes, and behaviors about being a man.