​Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for Okayplayer.
Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for Okayplayer.

The Mental Health Impact of Building Community in Real-Time Hits Different

Founders nationwide are taking their love for community offline into in-person spaces.

Hearing the booming bass bounce from a car passing by hits different than hearing it through your headphones. When you see, hear, and feel the music, you’re instantly connected to the driver and everyone else within earshot. It’s the same thing with sharing space. We feel the impact of physical proximity, but we have become comfortable in our singular digital lives.

Without a doubt, We can have a good time online. We can dance, learn, and laugh together and form authentic connections, but it never feels the same as sharing physical space. When it comes to healing our communities, we tend to feel the impact more deeply when we’re together. Whether engaging in after-school activities, job training, mentorship, open mic, or therapy, the benefits of in-person interactions are immense, and the experts agree.

“It’s validating to the soul to have another human being acknowledge your presence, struggles and strengths by just being physically present with you,” says Dr. Christiana Ibilola Awosan, licensed therapist and founder of Ibisanmi Relational Health in New York.

She adds, “Social media-based mental health resources are good for exploration and maintenance of one's mental health, but they are not effective at getting into the deep root of what's actually going on mentally and emotionally for you.”

COVID-19 restrictions siloed us into rooms and behind screens, and we learned to adapt, but according to an article from the National Library of Medicine, “Interactions online may not provide the same benefits to well-being as face-to-face interactions because of limited communication feedback and cues.” Simply put, real-life interactions foster vulnerability and transparency without the veil of perfection that online interactions tend to be filtered through.

While there is a growing number of social media platforms that have successfully launched meaningful conversations, offered valuable resources and moved the mental health movement forward, plenty of founder-led organizations are finding success in creating community analog style.

Black Men Build

Kareem Jackson, known as Tef Poe in his rap career, founded Black Men Build in 2020. “I created the organization to show how Black men can be effective in something bigger than our own personal platforms,” Jackson stated in a 2021 article.

Phillip Agnew, who was among the co-founders of Black Men Build, says back in 2019, the organization's launch was a response to the lack of spaces for Black men to process their trauma. Agnew tells Okayplayer, “Black men experience daily trauma, and not only were there few spaces for us to gather and talk about it, but we were also discouraged from talking about it.”

Through the conversations in the organization’s men's circles, Agnew says he witnessed powerful transformations happening within the groups. He adds that he doesn’t think the men could have reached that level of vulnerability online. “Humans are energy beings, and we vibe off of spiritual energy and body language when in person. You’re not gonna let your guard down in the same way online.”

Since its launch, the organization has continued to grow. Beyond the community men circles, they also lead BMB National Days of Service, survival programs, and political and civic engagement mentorship programs. These and other initiatives are offered through organizational hubs across seven cities: Atlanta, Columbus, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, New York and St. Louis.

Connected Wellness

Connected Wellness was founded in 2017 by Chance York, host of the PBS series Outside Chance. After a career in the music industry, York found yoga and mindfulness activities as a way to better connect with himself and others. Since then, he has created opportunities for Minneapolitans to experience “whole person wellness.” York says when he thinks of mindfulness, yoga, and similar practices, he thinks of the word “presence.”

“When it comes to virtual yoga practices, part of that [is] achieved by our attention being held by the same guidance at the same time,” York tells Okayplayer. “But the full scope and wholeness of presence requires being physically in the same place. My in-person classes tend to naturally include hugs, daps, organic pre and post-class conversations, impromptu hangouts after and any other spontaneous occurrences that come from being at the same place and time in community. Not to mention, there is so much sensory input from being in a room with people intentionally moving and breathing, struggling and self-soothing together.”

As a licensed yoga instructor and health advocate, York says he wants others to reap the benefits of self-care. Among the many yoga and mindfulness initiatives York hosts, he also leads a series called My Brothers Heal, an in-person yoga class for Black men that he hopes allows participants to “reimagine healthy masculinity” and become more flexible in mind and body.

“One of the pillars that makes being and action mindful is presence — centering our attention, mind, and body on the here and now. This requires lots of practice after we realize our attention is much more routinely not present.”

Coffee, Hip Hop, and Mental Health Cafe

Christopher Lemark founded Coffee, Hip Hop and Mental Health Cafe in Chicago in 2019 to provide community and free therapy to those who need it.

Lamark tells Okayplayer his personal journey of recovery from childhood trauma, abuse and isolation is what motivated him. “When you experience trauma as a child, it shapes your adult reality.”

Ultimately it was an emotional breakdown in a corner of a Starbucks and thoughts of suicide that made him realize he needed to get into therapy. And if he needed it, he decided maybe other people needed a safe space and mental health resources too.

Lamark uses his coffee shop to raise funds for free therapy and uses hip-hop music and culture as a bridge to connect with the demographic he serves. He says, “Coffee shops are often Meccas for people looking for resources.” People can visit the cafe to buy a cup of coffee, join a free hip-hop yoga or meditation class, or participate in a free weekly group therapy session offered for men, women, or business owners who are led or supported by licensed therapists. “It’s a cafe by day and a mental health program by night.”

Lemark says you can feel the essence and energy of someone online but the mental health impact won’t be the same. “When you’re talking about your emotions and feelings and trying to guide people to their better selves, there’s nothing like that human connection.”

2X Game Changers

In 2020, after two decades of community activism, Christopher 2X created 2X Game Changers in Louisville, Kentucky, for communities most impacted by the structural causes of mental health concerns, including poverty, racism, and exposure to traumatic experiences. Now, Master P and Snoop Dogg sit on his Board of Directors to support his efforts to help heal communities.

Among the factors leading to mental health concerns for Black youth is the looming threat of gun violence and the rising rates of suicide among Black youth. Black youth ages 5-12 are two times more likely to die by suicide than their white peers. Being mindful of these concerns, 2X Game Changers provides community and a path to reduce these disparities.

Children aged 4-13 in 2X Game Changers are engaged with real-world experiences in health and science and a mentorship connection with the medical industry. 2X says he created the organization to match children who have been impacted by trauma with healers. “The goal is for them to see themselves as future healers.” Students in underserved communities are mentored by surgeons and medical students in hospitals. His Future Healers program introduces youth to the field of medicine while helping them navigate through the emotional trauma they’ve experienced and the increasing violence currently plaguing their communities.

There is also a therapeutic program that teaches children about animal care through a partnership with the city zoo. 2X agrees a more meaningful and powerful delivery is possible when in person.

“It allows the caring factor impact and the vibe is better.”

Men to Heal

In 2019, James Harris created Men to Heal, an organization that supports the mental health and wellness of boys and men. The seed of the idea was planted in response to a question Harris was asked in grad school: If there’s one population that you’d like to serve, who would it be?

He chose Black men because, at the time, he was the only one in his cohort.

“When I completed grad school, I started at this private practice owned by two phenomenal Black women. They did a lot for women, so I inquired on how I could do something for the men. I then thought about the assignment from grad school and put together a community seminar, Men and MENtal HEALth. About 25 people showed up then I started hosting them quarterly.” These quarterly in-person conversations allowing Black men to share their experiences with one another continued to grow.

Harris is now a licensed therapist in Richmond, Virginia and runs The HEALing Hub, and provides outpatient therapy and restorative activities like yoga and Zumba. He also hosts community seminars on topics spanning home ownership, voter registration, restoration of rights, and advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights.

Harris says, whether it’s online or in person, he’s happy to see people seeking assistance. Although he believes there are benefits to both online and in-person sessions, he says meeting virtually requires more patience and presents the challenge of keeping his clients’ attention and assessing their moods.

“When in person I can assist with building rapport faster and seeing emotions and identifying them right then and there.”

Black People Will Swim

When it comes to being present, engaging in sports is one way to be in community, reduce stress and improve a sense of overall well-being. But unlike online exercise classes that help you stay fit indoors, swimming is a sport that cannot be done on a Zoom call.

Pauline Lamonier founded Black People Will Swim in New York in 2019 with a mission to empower Black and Brown people by encouraging them to conquer their fears and learn how to swim. Not only is swimming a good form of exercise but research proves that swimming also decreases anxiety.

Unfortunately, many Black people haven’t been able to reap the mental health benefits of swimming. Lamonier tells Okayplayer that beyond the fact that Black people were historically discouraged from learning how to swim and not allowed in public pools, there are generally four reasons that currently keep Black people from learning to swim: lack of access to pools, lack of affordable swimming lessons, lack of education about hair care, and lack of overall representation in the sport. Another factor is fear. “If someone has the trauma of witnessing a drowning, or may [have] experienced almost drowning, it may have hit so close to home, that they would rather stay clear of it.” This is why she works to empower others to learn what she considers a critical life skill.

She says, “A lot of the mental health benefits of swimming come when you realize what it provides. It unlocks a sense of freedom and fearlessness.”

Mumbet’s Freedom Farm

Founded in 2020, Mumbet’s Freedom Farm in Sheffield, Massachusetts, is a Black and Brown femme-led farm that provides free access to sustainable agricultural practices and connection with the Earth. Sunder Ashni is one of the co-founders and stewards of the farm. She tells Okayplayer that one motivation for starting the farm was in response to the message that the lives and actions of Black and Brown people don’t matter. “When you’re on the farm, you increase awareness of your impact on the environment, the world, and one another. You understand that you matter and your actions matter.”

Ashni is also a certified Flower Essence Therapist who takes a body-oriented approach to the healing of trauma and other stress disorders. She says “Earth is the basis for all our healing,” and with this in mind, she works to reconnect visitors and volunteers to their sensory nature by allowing them to touch, taste, and smell the bio-diverse plants growing on the land.

The farm hosts community acupuncture activities, movement workshops for farmers, educational workshops for groups of children and adults, and hosts a monthly work party every third Saturday. Ashni says she notices the sense of freedom and personal power the farm provides. “Having the opportunity to grow your own food and medicine is empowering.”

She adds that although you can connect with others and learn a lot about plants and people online, being on the farm allows people to slow down and take things in. “The fully sensory experience of being here cannot be replicated online. Certain things can’t be translated.”