I often attribute my passion for creating connections between and with people to a childhood that lacked them. As the only child of a caring, but protective single mom, my mother ultimately decided upon the friends and family I was allowed to develop bonds with, which meant I didn’t fully develop a natural ability to connect with others until late into my college years and after graduation.

My journey to grow as a connector first began as I sought out volunteer opportunities after graduating from the University of Miami. Whether a group needed help planning an event, building a house, planting a garden, or serving drinks at a fundraiser – you name it, I was there! These volunteering roles indirectly helped me come out of my introvert shell. I met people who had similar interests, and little-by-little developed a network of personal friends and professional acquaintances.

When I graduated from college in Spring 2009, the economy wasn’t in good shape and architecture firms were letting people with decades of experience go instead of hiring new employees. So, I enrolled in AmeriCorps to explore a newfound zest for community-based work. For several years I pursued jobs that didn’t pay much, but were immensely rewarding in other ways. I was able to immerse myself in neighborhoods that were very different from where I’d ventured during college, and learned a lot about Greater Miami’s checkered past.

While serving as an AmeriCorps member, there was a lot of community outreach necessary to make sure the projects I was working on could be as successful as possible. Focusing on neighborhood development and food equity initiatives, I traveled to Liberty City and Opa-locka to network. Each day I was dove deeper into Miami’s long history of social injustice, becoming increasingly frustrated with the disparities between communities located mere miles from one another.

This awareness wasn’t something I could just ignore, and I decided it was important to educate myself formally on community psychology if I wanted to remain in this field of work. Although I didn’t leave the master’s program I attended with an official degree, it inspired the creation of a large-scale project called Celebrate Diversity Miami, which is still going strong. The vision for this project – a united Greater Miami community, where residents of all backgrounds feel accepted, connected, and valued  – aligns closely with Connect Miami, and it was an honor to be invited to join the host committee.     

The programs I’ve been fortunate to coordinate in my spare time over the past several years vary, but with each one I have witnessed the positive impact coming together with diverse groups of people can have on the participating individuals. From organizing community-driven bicycle rides to curating a countywide photo-voice exhibit, and imagining the future of Miami to facilitating pop-up meals with neighbors in public spaces, something incredibly special comes as a result of bringing multi-generational, cultural, and socioeconomic locals on a unique adventure with one another. I’m looking forward to seeing the creative ideas that are sparked by Connect Miami’s campaign come to life, and hope that the events leave attendees with new friends and the desire to bridge gaps with strangers more often in their lives.

If you’re excited to get a head start on making connections with fellow Miamians before the end of this month, I’ve got you covered  =)  During the first weekend of May (May 5 – 7, 2017), residents of all ages throughout Greater Miami are invited to experience the global walking movement called Jane’s Walk. In neighborhoods across the county – including Little Havana, Coral Gables, Downtown Miami, Brickell, Miami River, South Miami, and North Miami – there will be a variety of free, citizen-led walking tours where people can actively connect with friends and neighbors outdoors, while engaging in conversations with one another and learning more about our collective hometown. These kind of walks, inspired by a writer and activist from the 1960s named Jane Jacobs, have engaged tens of thousands of people all over the world in 200+ cities since 2007. Now for a 2nd year, #MiamiWalks will embark, and I invite you to join me for one (or more) of the tours mentioned above.

Naomi L. Ross is Community Curator at the Center for Social Change. Her organization Celebrate Diversity Miami is a member of the Host Committee for the 10 Days of Connection. You can connect with Naomi at Naomi@4socialchange.org.