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Why belonging? It’s the easiest and hardest thing we can address.

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

A few months after I arrived in San Diego, I followed a local indigenous artist and a newfound friend named Macedonio Arteaga out to a nearby reservation where he had organized a gathering of young men from his community for a weekend of healing from trauma, violence, and anger.

It was easily one of the most beautiful experiences I have had in this extraordinary town. In a small clearing amid an embracing stand of oaks, the men gathered in a circle, took turns claiming the speaking stick, and shared deeply personal stories of pain, loss, and conflict.

colorful woven fabric in rustic pastel colors and natural chill
"...our lives are endlessly entwined and dependent on each other." (Photo by Alecsander Alves on Unsplash)

Guided by Macedonio and other elders, they also spoke of how they wanted to leave destructive behaviors behind. The circle seemed to hold each one in a space that simultaneously affirmed their dignity and offered them a new and better idea of what it means to be strong.

For me, it was an incredible example of the power of belonging.

That’s a word we tend to take lightly in our society. My colleague and friend Jenn Hoos Rothberg, who as head of the Einhorn Collaborative in New York City has steered that foundation to make belonging its focus, has described the initial reaction she often receives when she describes the foundation’s work as a mildly dismissive “that’s so nice.”

As though belonging is a quaint notion, not the “Serious Work of Serious People.”

It’s a mistake we make at our extreme peril. So much of what ails our culture and country today–from our fracturing democracy to our behavioral and mental health crises to the despair of our youth–can be traced to the worsening crisis of disconnection in our society that Robert Putnam identified in his seminal book Bowling Alone 20 years ago.

In the years since then, technology, social media, and a massively disruptive and isolating pandemic have only accelerated and deepened that dynamic, increasingly aided and abetted by malignant actors who actively leverage it for personal and political gain by driving even deeper wedges of division between us, isolating and fragmenting us further.

We know now that social disconnectedness, isolation, and loneliness act like toxins in our bodies. In a recent On Being podcast with Krista Tippett, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy described these as among our most serious public health threats. And in recent years, we all have lived through and seen the similarly lethal consequences of division and disconnection for our body politic.

“I think one of the most important challenges of our time,” Dr. Murthy has written elsewhere, “is deciding whether to continue down the path of deepening loneliness or use this opportunity to choose a different way forward, to build a people-centered life and society.”

Amen. But what would that “people-centered society” look like? It isn’t a mystery. It would look like a community and society built on belonging. But belonging is properly understood in its full dimensions.

Professor john a. powell, Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, explains belonging as:

“…values and practices where no person is left out of our circle of concern. Belonging means more than having just access; it means having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of political, social, and cultural structures. Belonging includes the right to both contribute and make demands upon society and political institutions.”

In other words, belonging is certainly about the feeling of being welcome in a place and being part of a larger community. But even more fundamentally, it is about power. It is about knowing we have a right to speak, that our words will be heard, and that we have agency.

Really, it is about being in true relationship. When we are in true relationship with someone or with a group, we accept that they have as much right and need to engage as we do–and we hold that space for them, and they for us, even when we disagree.

That was what I saw on display around the healing circle with those young men. They claimed their right to speak by uttering “Palabre,” which means simply “word.” In speaking, they stepped into a power many didn’t seem to know they had, and that in a very real sense was both their birthright and granted to them in that moment by the others around the circle.

A culture of belonging dignifies everyone in it through the immense power of connection. Its strength is its recognition that our lives are endlessly entwined and dependent on each other. It, therefore, refuses to accept the idea of the Other, of the one who doesn’t belong. It extends its circle of caring and empowerment across a whole society. It invests in institutions, policies, and actions that build connectivity and strengthen the circle.

What can and does that look like for a community such as ours? Is it ensuring that diverse artists have opportunities to grow, contribute and live in the region? Is it making sure that medical research is informed by and serves populations across race, ethnicity, and economic strata? Is it about guaranteeing access to high-quality, culturally competent health care? Is it about tackling climate change in ways that protect regional well-being without shifting the overall burden to underfunded, BIPOC, and lower-income communities?

These are just some of the ideas that we have heard from the community in our work at The Conrad Prebys Foundation over the past year. It became obvious to us early on that what ails America ails us too, but very well could find its cure here, in a robustly diverse community thirsting for belonging and a renewed and vital commitment to it.

If this feels as important to you in your work as it does to us in ours, I would like to invite you to join us on May 30, when john a. powell will go deep with us on his learnings on belonging, and I hope you will join us to learn and discuss during our networking hour. You can RSVP and share this event with your friends here.

Then I encourage all of us to take some time to reflect and ask ourselves what we can do or what we should give greater attention to advance belonging in the greater San Diego region. I hope to see you in May.


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