Public Health

Combatting social isolation

No one should ever feel isolated. This belief motivates Jonathan Garcia, PhD, to combat social isolation among Latino lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth living in the U.S.

Group of four Latino men having a good time.
Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

No one should ever feel isolated. This belief motivates Jonathan Garcia, PhD, to combat social isolation among Latino lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth living in the United States.

As ethnic, sexual and gender minorities, Latino LGBTQ youth are prone to social isolation resulting from rejection from family members, religious communities and peers. This threatened sense of belonging can lead to depression, chronic stress, attempted suicide, sexual risk, substance use and exposure to violence.

Combatting social isolation

Thanks to a three-year, $405,065 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to the Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences (CPHHS), Jonathan and a team of expert partners are combatting social isolation experienced by LGBTQ youth.

Their approach — creating an environment that leads to supportive relationships among Latino LGBTQ youth and their peers.

To create this environment, the team will start by collaborating with Latino LGBTQ youth to adapt a telenovela (soap opera) toolkit to train peers in combatting social isolation. The telenovelas will then be piloted among Latino youth allies through the Outreach Leadership Institute operated by 4-H at Oregon State.

“With this method, people can act out scenes from the telenovelas and not have to personally identify with being gay or being an undocumented immigrant or other things that might be sensitive,” Jonathan says. “This way, they can still discuss these sensitive topics, but instead of having to personally identify with them, they can portray them as if they were a character.”

Tapping into shared experiences and empathy

Jonathan, an assistant professor in the CPHHS, says since the youth have shared experiences of marginalization they can empathize with each other.

“The theoretical basis of this project is empathy. Latino youth have the ability to understand the struggles of a Latino LGBTQ youth because they have likely also experienced marginalization because of their immigration status, poverty, their family not speaking English or a range of other reasons,” Jonathan says.

Using global solutions to address social isolation in the US

Jonathan says the youth leadership training program is an approach that has been implemented successfully by the Brazilian Interdisciplinary AIDS Association (ABIA).

“ABIA has been working on social isolation and social solidarity with marginalized and excluded populations, and especially with LGBTQ youth, for more than 30 years,” says Richard Parker, PhD, a project partner and the president and director of ABIA. “Our major focus has been using cultural activism to confront stigma and discrimination and to build a spirit of community and engaged citizenship.”

The ABIA project used role-playing workshops guided by consciousness-raising videos to train Brazilian youth to create an inclusive environment for LGBTQ youth living in shanty towns.

“This new project being developed by Oregon State University and a number of other partners in the U.S. is a great opportunity to share some of our experiences in Brazil so that they might feed into the work being developed in Oregon,” says Richard, one of Jonathan’s long-time mentors. “It is an opportunity to show how global learning can contribute to community building locally.”

Coming together for Latino youth

To adapt the program to the U.S., Jonathan will also work with Dr. Jesse Clark from the University of California, Los Angeles; Nili Yosha, executive director of Outside the Frame; and Mario Magaña Álvarez, Oregon State 4-H outreach specialist.

“Dr. Clark and I recently published an article about using telenovelas to address stigma and stereotyping among transgender men and women,” Jonathan says. “This article also informed our idea for the pilot project.”

The team will work with Outside the Frame (OTF) for video production. The Portland nonprofit empowers marginalized and homeless youth to co-create, produce and direct movies reflecting their experiences.

“Four OTF peer mentors will come with me and Nili to Brazil to learn about pedagogy of the oppressed, theater of the oppressed and the production of this genre of intervention,” Jonathan says.

Telenovelas for social change

During the first 18 months, the team will create five telenovelas to guide role-playing and discussion of topics to train Latino youth as allies in the U.S.

“The intervention videos and process trains allies for Latino LGBTQ youth,” Jonathan says. “We’ll be measuring if they identify themselves as good allies before and after the intervention.”

For the remaining 18 months, the program will be tested and evaluated among Latino youth participating in Oregon State’s 4-H Outreach Leadership Institute (OLI). The program brings together more than 100 Latino high school students, who are training to become leaders in their communities and counselors during summer camps run by the 4-H program. Youth must qualify and receive parental consent to participate in the pilot intervention.

“This pilot program will help prepare our 4-H camp counselors so they can detect and prevent abuse, bullying and harassment,” Mario says. “This will also prepare the 4-H students to be able to take actions when they see abuse or bullying in their communities, schools or at home.”

“I believe this partnership will help us, and all students, to be more sensitive about these issues and to be able to provide a voice to our marginalized children and youth,” he says. “Especially for our children and youth that identify as different than what is considered traditional norms.”

Piloting the project with OLI is a great opportunity, Jonathan says, as youth congregate from all over Oregon, including several rural areas, addressing another layer of social isolation.

Impacting the individual and community

Jonathan says the project is designed to have an individual and broad impact.

The hope is that young people who participate will be able to better address a circumstance when someone is being bullied, he says. “They can be better friends. They can speak up for people who are being marginalized, even if they aren’t gay or trans themselves. They’ll have the capacity to create a welcoming context for their friends.”

“In the broader sense, there is a great need to reduce suicide among LGBTQ youth and other health effects, like drug use, that are related to isolation and marginalization,” Jonathan says. “This pilot project aims to decrease social isolation and the health issues that result from it.”