Smile and Say Hello: You Belong - Oxford County’s Story

A conversation with Jenilee Cook, Woodstock and Area Community Health Centre

How did Smile and Say Hello Oxford come about?

All stars aligned for this initiative to begin. In fact, a few things were happening concurrently. United Way of Oxford County facilitated community conversations with residents of Oxford County where they live, work and play: in their apartment buildings, retirement homes, youth centres, and more. While these community conversations were happening, agencies, service providers and our County started to hear, and learn more about the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW). The CIW looks at key indicators of a person’s health and wellbeing, giving us a picture of what it looks like by evaluating what really matters to a community. One of these indicators is Community Vitality, which includes belonging.

During a community education event about the CIW, attended by both service providers and community members, the community spoke up. They felt that one of the top areas our community needed to focus on in order to flourish was Community Vitality.

United Way of Oxford later shared what they learned via their community conversations and one of the themes that was heard from the community was a need to feel an increased sense of belonging. They said things like: “We need to help people develop a sense of community and take care of each other” and “I want a community where everyone says hi to each other on the street”.

Many meetings and brainstorm sessions later, “Secret Change Agents” and the idea of a “Smile and Say Hello” movement was born as a simple tool to increase community belonging in Oxford County.

Why is belonging so important to individuals and a community?

Belonging is one of the building blocks of healthy, vital communities. Research shows that a strong sense of community belonging is tied to high levels of participation and engagement in community. When people feel a strong sense of belonging to a group, they are more willing to contribute and take ownership of the group’s challenges. They are also more likely to be involved in decision-making within the community, donate their time and money to improving the community, and show caring for other people who live there.

At the individual level, a lack of strong social networks can lead to mental health issues, addictions and even physical illnesses. Even a person’s awareness that they could receive assistance in times of need from their social network can lead to greater levels of wellbeing.

Read about the value of belonging:

Belonging: Exploring connection to community (Vital Signs Report), Community Foundations of Canada, 2015


Tell us about the Smile and Say Hello initiative and its “Secret Change Agents”

The goal of the Smile and Say Hello movement is to increase community belonging by providing people with the tools to smile and say hello; tools to help our community see each other and acknowledge that each of us matter to our community.belonging2

Our Secret Change Agents are people who make positive change in the community in ordinary, subtle ways. They are people who notice others, help others feel welcome, feel like they belong. Secret Change Agents empower others to have a voice, to shift minds; they work quietly, with a purpose and passion, and play a role in strengthening our community. No role is too big or too small. We need people with ideas and people with resources. We need cheerleaders and doers, volunteers and thinkers. Everyone can play a part. It takes the whole community to create community-wide change.

Some of the tools that Secret Change Agents have created and been involved with include:

  • handing out Smile and Say Hello-You Belong posters and postcards at public events and offices;
  • chalkboards with messages of hope and belonging to place in public locations like park benches and bus shelters;
  • smile candy-grams distributed to people at random;
  • “Share a Chair” chairs set up at summer festivals that invited people to “have a seat because you never know who you’re going to meet”;
  • “scarf-bombing” the community in the winter months to spread warmth to those who need it;
  • fun and engaging activities like thumbs-up Thursday and high-five Wednesday (smiley faces drawn on your thumb or palm, respectively); and a
  • 3-minute video about community belonging and how to spread it.

“I was out and about this morning. It feels so good to intentionally look at people and smile at them...the hello back feels wonderful too!” - Secret Change Agent


What has contributed to your success?

We believe that our success comes from allowing the initiatives that come out of the Smile and Say Hello/You Belong movement to ebb and flow. It’s community-driven and therefore not surprising that in winter months it’s harder to engage people in initiatives than it is during the warmer months of spring and summer.

Social media — Facebook specifically — has been a great tool to keep Secret Change Agents engaged and connected to one another. People share resources and stories, as well as the tools that have been created and ideas for future tools on the website. We also use the Facebook page to promote free local events where people can gather in shared spaces as well as share articles and stories of people doing Secret Agent type work, although they might not identify themselves as Secret Change Agents.

Another reason we are successful is because we’ve tried to maintain a Turned Outward approach to initiatives. For example, we try to avoid long meetings wrapped in policies and red tape and have really focused on what we can do as a community to increase community belonging rather than what is stopping us. It’s a very strengths-based, community-focused model.

Can you explain what the concept of “Turning Outward” is all about?

Turning Outward is about changing our mindset from doing for people to doing with people. Turning Outward means that we are not only talking to our community but hearing what people have to say to learn more about their shared hopes and aspirations for themselves and their community. The act of Turning Outward creates spaces for an increased sense of belonging as it makes the community and the people the reference point for getting things done“nothing for me without me”.

As we try to get things done in our community, we can face incredible pressure to turn inward and to focus more on our own organization and its internal workings, our branding, the very survival of our organization, and the endless to-do lists, all at the expense of Turning Outward and really hearing from, and being with, our community. Turning Outward may be more time consuming in the beginning, but it pays off in the end when you’re offering spaces and places that the community has identified as a need.

What have the challenges been?

One of the challenges we have faced has been in evaluating the movement. Feelings related to sense of belonging are hard to evaluate at an individual level, let alone a community level. We seek a nuanced understanding of belonging. And we’re hopeful that the CIW will help to evaluate belonging in Oxford County.

Another challenge has been to change our mindset about what it looks like to engage people. Although we often have the same Secret Change Agents coming out to meetings and executing initiatives, with every new adventure come new people! Those who are full of ideas but don’t consider themselves doers are always welcome, because we have doers for that. We also have some Secret Change Agents who comment and leave feedback on our Facebook page but never come to a meeting or event — but they’re just as engaged as the next person! Each initiative draws the Secret Change Agents that are interested in whatever is being organized. Although sometimes we wonder how we can engage more people, we realize that this doesn’t need to be a concern, as people will become engaged as they need to or see fit for themselves. It’s about creating opportunities for that to happen.

“What does Community Belonging and being a Secret Agent mean to me?... Giving people in the community messages of respect, love, approval, and encouragement enabling them to develop a positive sense of who they are and a feeling that they have an important contribution to make wherever they are.” – Karen, Secret Change Agent



What have you learned so far?

  • Allow spin off-groups to be created that offer venues for people to continue to meet, and keep in mind that groups don’t have to be structured.

  • There are many easy ways to incorporate the language of belonging in and around the community. Recently the Oxford County Celebrates International Women’s Day added “helps create places and spaces; increasing a sense of belonging” to their AppreSHEation Award nomination criteria. Also, Suicide Prevention Day provided an opportunity to sell smile cookies at local bakeries with the following message: “talking changes lives, smiling changes moments”.

  • It takes a village. Our partners include formal agencies, service providers and community members. Community members are the people who continue to drive the Smile and Say Hello movement!

Further reading:

  • HC Link 2015 conference workshop by AOHC and Woodstock and Area CHC - Community Vitality & Belonging: Measuring what matters with the Canadian Index of Wellbeing - slides and blog post