Opinion:  Have fun with strangers. Democracy and our mental health may depend on it

A line of skaters at an event cohosted by the L.A. Skate Hunnies and Ivy Station in Culver City on July 6.
A line of skaters dance at Throwback Thursday: A Groovy Roller Disco, an event cohosted by the L.A. Skate Hunnies and Ivy Station in Culver City on July 6.
(Courtesy of David Tuman)
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Over the past couple of years, I lost my fear of the Other.

It happened while I was picking up new hobbies, such as skating and dancing, while befriending a larger and more diverse array of people. In some cases, I bonded with people whose politics are very different from mine.

The disconnection I’d felt during the Trump administration and the height of the pandemic has largely waned, replaced by more hope and faith in my community and a stronger sense of well-being.

Opinion Columnist

Jean Guerrero

Jean Guerrero is the author, most recently, of “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda.”

Could we all benefit from expanding our social circles? America’s mental health crisis is inseparable from its decline in community. As screen time steals nearly every waking hour and fuels our outrage at one another, we’re more lonely and unhinged.


Our sanity, and even democracy, may depend on our readiness to rebel against tech domination by using social media to get off social media. What better time than summer to play outside and befriend some strangers?

It may seem difficult in Los Angeles, where people are isolated by traffic and sprawl. But in the years since the pandemic, in-person hobby groups from the Westside to the Eastside are inspiring people from all over Southern California to gather and have some wholesome fun. Using Instagram, Heylo and other apps to bring people together in person, these groups are an antidote to the epidemic of loneliness and decades-long trend of plummeting participation in clubs and other community groups.

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For example, the L.A. Skate Hunnies is an all-gender, all-wheels skate group led by women. They host free-of-charge skate-outs in various locations, featuring colorful and often feminine themes and music-blasting portable speakers. I learned about them through a longboarding group that I’d connected with through Instagram.

A skater dances during a costume contest at the conclusion of Throwback Thursday.
A skater dances during a costume contest at the conclusion of Throwback Thursday, an event in Culver City on July 6.
(Courtesy of David Tuman)

Jen Yonda, a 25-year-old of Italian, Irish and German heritage, created the L.A. Skate Hunnies in July 2020 for people to gather safely after lockdowns. She had worked as a therapist and knew that social support systems are crucial. “The connections people build from regular community meetups and a safe community space are so powerful, they’re sometimes more powerful than antidepressants or talking to a therapist,” she told me.

Her group hosts movie outings, meditation and more. Among those who’ve joined is my friend Lon Criswell, a 48-year-old Black man and systems engineer I met through Skate Hunnies. “I got a whole circle of friends that I didn’t even know existed,” he told me. Until discovering the group, he skated alone. “I was one of those people that would just be skating up and down the boardwalk by myself, ‘cause I could never find anybody to skate with and meet my schedule,” he said. “Everybody is so busy in L.A.”

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Before Skate Hunnies, he had a hard time opening up to people. “I’m coming from the ‘hood, so you can’t be soft, you can’t cry,” he said. Skate Hunnies changed him. “I’m getting in touch with more emotions,” he said. “It really did open me up, because I never ever saw myself being like — you know, emotional, or hugging men.”


Groups like Skate Hunnies opened me up, too, and inspired me to host my own skate-outs, where I met Bradley Russo, 32, a white man and job recruiter who voted for Trump in 2016 and is now an Independent. As we skated over many months, I suspected he leaned conservative, but we never talked politics until this column. “I’m glad we have differences and I think that’s what makes this a beautiful world,” he texted me.

A contestant dances during a costume contest at a skating event in Culver City.
A contestant dances in the costume event at Throwback Thursday in Culver City on July 6.
(Courtesy of David Tuman)

Community meetups were teaching me to let go of purity tests in friendships and say goodbye to my own harsh self-judgment. As my other skating friend Denecia Jones, a 46-year-old Black woman and career consultant, observed of new hobbies: “You’re going to make mistakes. It’s good to be like, ‘Wow, I’m actually human.”

In recent weeks, I’ve started learning various styles of dancing: bachata, salsa, Zouk and contact improvisation. In these dances, there’s sensual contact between women and men outside any sexual context, and they’ve helped me work through relationship trauma and feel safer connecting with men.

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I first experienced this type of respectful partner dancing at Ecstatic Dance L.A., which hosts substance-free dances at multiple locations. They welcome people of all ages and backgrounds, from babies to grandparents. They begin with a meditation circle, reminding people to dance as they please while respecting people’s boundaries.

“It’s a space for a pause to be pressed on the bullhorn that is being blasted out of, ‘you’re not safe, you can’t trust people,’” the group’s Black co-founder Atasiea Kenneth L. Ferguson, 39, told me.


People are finding community in all kinds of meetups. At the Boyle Heights Bridge Runners, people of all ages and running levels — mostly Latinos — can exercise and connect in a city lacking green spaces. “If you run or walk half of it, nobody’s gonna be judging you,” Rolando Cruz, a 40-year-old Mexican American resident, told me.

Other groups teach better listening and communication. My Italian American friend Laura Paragano, 32, whom I met through a longboarding group, has found fun, insight and belonging in improv comedy, which she started last summer. “Growing up, I felt like I wasn’t allowed to be big and gregarious and dramatic and take up space,” she told me. “I’ve found improv to be the perfect practice in doing exactly those things.”

We can all benefit from those lessons. It’s time to stop making our worlds so small. A good place to start is to learn something new, get out into the community and experience some joy with other people who might surprise you.