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Social Connectedness, Wellbeing, and Civil Legal Aid

Over the last several years, it has become increasingly important for the DC Bar Foundation to ensure wellbeing is at the forefront of our work. In January, I wrote "Centering Wellbeing in 2023" and discussed how wellbeing relates to our work in civil legal aid. At its core, wellbeing is about ensuring everyone has what they need to survive and thrive in society regardless of socioeconomic status. This month, I want to revisit the concept of wellbeing, focusing specifically on the first domain of wellbeing—social connectedness.

Since the earliest meetings of the DC Legal Aid Transformations Network in 2021, DCBF has partnered with the Full Frame Initiative (FFI)—an organization reimagining systems to make our country fairer and more equitable for all. They describe wellbeing as the "set of needs and experiences universally required in combination and balance to weather challenges and have health and hope."

As we drill down into the first domain, we learn that social connectedness is about the degree to which individuals are socially integrated and if they feel they belong within their social networks and communities. Sandy Ambrozy, a fellow with the Full Frame Initiative and long-time legal aid advocate, shared, "I think all the domains are important, but social connectedness is a proxy for so many other things." For instance, when vulnerable and marginalized populations lack resources, it can be challenging to establish and maintain social connectedness, and, in turn, it can have a significant impact on families.

Sandy recently sat down for a conversation with Khesia Taylor, DCBF’s senior communications officer, about social connectedness and she cited the Urban Institute's recent pilot program in San Francisco that looked at child support. The pilot found that when child support in arrears is forgiven, and parents get a clean slate, they make more consistent and on-time payments, their housing status and credit scores improve, and employment barriers are reduced. The social connectedness correlation is that relationships with children and parents improved in these circumstances. As Sandy emphasized, "Child support is more than financial; it creates pathways for stronger connection between families."

When we eliminate the barriers—like child support or lack of access to transportation, health care, or even stable internet—we help foster those necessary and meaningful relationships.

Community Family Life Services, an FY23 DCBF grantee organization, supports children, families, and adults holistically. Through a one-stop service delivery model that is gender and trauma-informed, they have developed an organization that provides services using a combination of direct support and partner relationships. Risheena Schwemle, CFLS's director of legal & community partnerships, shared, "Our approach to clients is that they can enter CFLS through any of our units, and we will do a universal intake, which means they might come in asking for legal help, but through a series of questions we learn more about their life and can see all the different things someone is experiencing." The core of wellbeing and social connectedness is the ability to help a client with a legal issue while also being able to address the problems related to housing, employment, childcare, or any other concern.

At the same time, we have also witnessed the incredible impact that is made when legal services providers, social services, and community-based organizations work together. Risheena shared that "Relationship building is key. Outreach and participating in other community events are important. When you build relationships with other community service providers, you can better serve clients." Strong social connections are critical because they impact mental and physical health, being able to have a sense of belonging, resilience, social skills, and familial bonds.

As an organization, DCBF will continue to do its part, primarily through the DC Legal Aid Transformations Network (DC LATN), to make space for us to build connections within and beyond civil legal aid. How we foster social connection is essential, and being able to prevent barriers to social connection is a critical part of our work.

Over the next several months, I will cover each wellbeing domain in the hope that you will have a greater understanding of how wellbeing shows up in our work and drives us forward. In the meantime, you can learn more about the work DC LATN is doing to build stronger connections with social services and other providers on our website.

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