By Vanessa McGrady
Cat Moore grew up in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, a small town near Pittsburgh best known for being “the most radioactive town in America.” It’s an apt setting for what Moore describes as a bleak and lonely childhood.
“I just really struggled socially,” Moore says. “In high school, I developed an autoimmune condition, and I just could not handle the thought of kids making fun of me, so I dropped out.”
“I just really struggled socially…I just could not handle the thought of kids making fun of me, so I dropped out.”
–Cat Moore, director of belonging, University of Southern California
As her parents went to work, Moore spent half of 10th grade and all of 11th grade being homeschooled, visiting the library, and reading what she could at the local bookstore before it closed. Her friendships with classmates faded.
After high school, Moore entered an Americorps program called CityYear: Boston and moved into a 19th-century mansion in Boston with 35 other people. “It was just nuts,” she says. “They were the kindest people ever, and the whole thing was set up to be like a co-housing community thing, and I was just so socially shut down that I couldn’t talk to any of them for nine months of the 10 months’ stay.”
Moore set her sights on learning how to rewire herself—not just because she was lonely but because she realized her inability to bond with others was creating an intense emotional deficit in her life. Little did she know that one day she’d teach others how to do the same: From mid-2013 through January 2020, she organized small, informal neighborhood connection projects under the name “The Coop” (and yes, her title was “Mother Clucker”). Among the most successful gathering was a “Curious Conversations,” series, which Moore describes as two-way TED Talks in people’s homes. (Here’s a video about a book launch that was part of the series.)
All this led up to her dream job as the University of Southern California’s official “director of belonging.”
Understanding the Mechanics of Friendship
Accepted at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Moore moved across the country in 2001 and started to emerge from her shell. With prompting from one extrovert determined to become her friend, she found herself linked with a circle of people and met the man who would become her husband.
Moore also began to go deep into her philosophy coursework. “I wanted to know what goes into making connections possible: What were the conditions for community and for belonging? And maybe if I can put those conditions in place, then things will magically change for me, and I’ll just magically start making friends, like everyone else already seems to know how to do.”
In 2008, Moore was 28, without a job, and newly pregnant with her son, Noah. It was then that things radically changed for the better.
“It was the first time in my life that I felt organically and profoundly connected to another person from the inside out. I was enough to make the relationship work. I didn’t even have to do anything,” Moore says. “Here I was watching my own body make space for another person, and see how what I ate affected them, and how they moved affected me, and it was just this incredible experience of interdependence that was natural.”
Meanwhile, at home, things started unraveling. When their son was 3, Moore’s husband left. Suddenly, community connection wasn’t optional—it was a critical survival tool. She relied on her friends for social support.
And then USC called in 2017, impressed by her community-building work and her research with the LA Unified School District studying the role of relationships in education reform. Loneliness was a chronic and dangerous issue at USC—could she help?
Yes, of course she could.
CLICKing Into a Groove
Through her community work, Moore had devised and trademarked a methodology to crack the connection code. She calls it CLICK—connecting as-is; listening, investigating, caring, and keeping in touch—the five elements necessary to make a meaningful relationship. She’s been able to adapt CLICK for companies who were concerned about employee isolation, especially with so much remote work. “We anticipate B2B will be most interested in employee well-being, onboarding into a connected culture, teambuilding, and keeping a remote workforce meaningfully connected,” she says.
“We anticipate B2B will be most interested in employee well-being, onboarding into a connected culture, teambuilding, and keeping a remote workforce meaningfully connected.”
For USC, she created a small class in which people would unpack and practice those things, and experiment with their newfound skills. It was a hit—everyone sitting on couches, eating cupcakes she’d brought in, writing on whiteboards, measuring distance between people, playing with balls of yarn. They’d created organic bonds.
Then, in the spring of 2020, COVID -19 hit and she was asked to take the class online. Moore was skeptical, but figured if she could help even just one person, it was worth it. She tweaked the class so it could be held via videoconference. “All my expectations were completely upended, and that class bonded more quickly, more deeply than any class I’ve ever taught face-to-face, to the point where, when the fifth session came, there was a mutiny.” The classmates had gotten so close, they wanted to petition the school to extend it—they weren’t ready to stop.
“I think part of the online success was circumstantially everyone needed it more because of COVID , and there was an awareness that everyone was in the same social-deprivation boat, so attending was radically destigmatized,” Moore says. Add zero commute time and fewer time obligations to a new focus on wellbeing, and she had a hit class. “Zoom allows for multiple modes of communication and simultaneous communication, which isn’t possible in person,” she says, “Maybe the coolest thing is how by being in the digital space together, it streamlines the process of connecting outside of the class period in a different digital space like email, social, etc. So several relationships built in the class period ‘spilled’ into them connecting outside of that. Some, six months later, are still connecting.”
Janice Littlejohn—a journalist, author, and associate director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC—took the virtual class initially because she thought it could complement her therapy and wellness work. She was not only drawn to Moore’s warmth and engaging nature, but she found it helpful during the strange aloneness of the pandemic as a way to connect with others. “Cat has built a class that is both serious-minded and fun—she has a wonderful sense of play in her lessons, while also providing life-supporting, self-affirming tools that I wish were taught to children about connection, the healthiness of self-boundaries, and the importance of community,” Littlejohn says.
“Cat has a wonderful sense of play in her lessons, while also providing life-supporting, self-affirming tools that I wish were taught to children about connection, the healthiness of self-boundaries, and the importance of community.”
–Janice Littlejohn, associate director, Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC
“As it was, I needed the course more than I expected,” she continues. “During the third week of class [in April], a dear friend and neighbor died. I decided to continue with the class for a sense of ‘normal,’ but found myself breaking down during the session. Cat and the class were there for me at a time when we were all isolated, alone, and uncertain about the future. They became my online tribe when I didn’t know I needed one.”
Littlejohn has continued taking the class, and is still reaping benefits. “Recently in [Moore’s] holiday-themed course, I shared a piece of Larimar stone that I got last year on a family vacation to the Dominican Republic with my parents, my brother and his family. Just sharing that experience reminded me of how precious time is, and seizing the moment.”
Moore is now thinking differently about the benefits and opportunities of virtual connection in a way that goes far beyond what people find on social media. “If your intentions are the same, which is to practice making meaningful relationships, that can happen in multiple mediums in multiple ways.”
Even the Department of Defense came on board in 2019 when an Air Force base commander heard about her work. “They wanted friendship and community ‘soft skills’ experiences that were outside the box and hadn’t found anything yet that seemed to directly provide that in a non-therapeutic way,” Moore says.
Moving Past Zoom
Moore realized that the workbook she’d made would lend itself well to an app. She received investment and technical help from Kevin Coyle and Nick Warnes of Cyclical LA, an incubator for nonprofit starters.
The app, which uses the CLICK framework, is called Re-human and is in development now, slated for release in early 2021. It’s expected to roll out in a mostly business-to-business functionality and will lead users through a series of exercises to build “muscle memory” on connecting with others.
The exercises in the app, which have endless iterations and room for updates, reward proactive efforts to meaningfully connect to self and others through leveling up and seeing one’s circles grow. In a business setting, it will allow for the creation and analysis of “relational data” for management to truly measure a culture of belonging, Moore says.
Some of the exercises are reflective and active (paying attention to your breathing, investigate groups you’d like to join), and others are more about reaching out to friends, family and strangers with questions and memories, and asking about their well-being.
Users are encouraged to adapt the exercises to work for them.
“In tech, I feel like we talk about disruption usually in the sense of industries (e.g. disrupting the N-billion dollar X-industry), but Cat is really aiming to disrupt things like loneliness and lack of community. Who doesn’t love a good challenge?” Coyle says, who’s the CTO of the app.
“In tech, I feel like we talk about disruption usually in the sense of industries (e.g. disrupting the N-billion dollar X-industry), but Cat is really aiming to disrupt things like loneliness and lack of community.”
–Nick Coyle, CTO of Re-human, Cyclical LA
“We anticipate joining institutions of all types, universities, for-profits, nonprofits, B-corps, who want to take seriously the social health of their employees, clients, and customers,” says Warnes, Cyclical LA’s director.
Coyne believes that others will get the same result that he’s gotten from the app when he tested it—namely, tools to help him connect with himself and others. “The exercises definitely help me to think through this whole business of connecting as something that can be learned with a little practice.”
Moore says that there’s hope for anyone feeling isolated—it takes diligence and patience, and relationships are built over time. She likens connection to light. “Go towards the light, even if it’s a twinkle light,” she says. “Because once you’re used to a little bit of light, then you can see more clearly how to go forward into it, and expand that. Depending on where you’re starting from, you might need to move very slowly to acquire the skills and the positive experiences to gain the confidence to take bigger risks and be more vulnerable and grow.”
photo credit: Annie Hock