written by Jill Leahy
building community during lunch break at the Othering & Belonging Conference
Imagine a world and society which holds a place for all people regardless of their race, gender preference, disability status, class, sexual orientation, etc. That world sounds great. So how do we get there and what work do we have to do to create this?
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to join some of the SESEC team at the Othering and Belonging conference focused on understanding and conquering this societal challenge.
The conference featured incredible speakers, performances, breakout sessions and dialogue that focused on creating vision, understanding impacts, and building power to create belonging.
For me though the biggest take away was how I, as a member of society start to create a world of belonging. As an individual, I know that I have a social and moral responsibility for creating a safe space that is inclusive of all people. If I want to live in this society of belonging I must engage in a way that is both meaningful, powerful and inclusive. And so in order to create this world and society I have to start with myself.
I started thinking about what I learned and put it into tangible steps I could use to start to build those connections and relationships with people in my life that I view as the “other.” I created this simple chart to better understand my visible pathway:
Step 1: Acting
Tarell Alvin McCraney conference keynote speaker (best known for his playwright and basis of movie Moonlight) said, “The practice of being someone else (or acting) is the art of empathy.”
Meaning for us to get to a place where we can empathize we sometimes need to pretend. This acting allows us to practice, to understand and to acknowledge someone else’s experience/feelings/thoughts/views. It’s through living into these experiences that allows us to begin to understand.
Step 2: Empathizing
Empathy can be defined as “understanding and sharing the feelings of another.” Once we have practiced the acting we can start to live into the understanding. It no longer becomes acting but the act of empathy. And once we have begun to empathize with others we begin to create connections. It is these connections that are most important for us to create a society of belonging. I would consider this the most important step to moving towards racial equity.
Connections are what unites us, and what starts the idea of belonging. Without this connection and empathy, we can’t move on in a truly powerful way.
I think of think of these connections as acts of respect. In order to create these connections, we need to truly listen. Through listening we gain understanding and we gain empathy. Just because we listen and understand it doesn’t mean we still share the same opinions but it creates the opening for more dialogue.
Step 3: Loving
Love (n). a(1): strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties
a(3): affection based on admiration, benevolence or common interests.
It is empathy that becomes our entry point to loving. During the conference, author Jeff Chang spoke about cultural wars and how we can imagine our way into transformative justice and freedom. He also defined love as “thinking about others.” When we start to empathize, we start to think about others, and ultimately we start to love.
Step 4: Building (Community)
It’s this love that builds community creating a center of trust. This space allows us to continue dialogue where we can begin to challenge each other’s opinions and views, but remember our connection and the relationship(s) that have been built.
Step 5: Belonging
When you have community, you have belonging. You become part of something larger than yourself. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that we all need belonging and love. Through friendship, intimacy, trust and acceptance, we affirm that we are part of a group. When we create a world of belonging we remove the othering, but we accept the differences. It’s this acceptance piece that is critical.
I think Bell Hook’s says it best, “Where do we find that space of connecting, of belonging? If you have love, you have the community of belonging that comes with it.”
Since the conference I have challenged myself to continue to engage in those hard conversations in my life to create a world where we all belong but in a new way. And with each conversation I start with step one.
It hasn’t been easy but I have discovered myself finding deeper and more meaningful connections with those I didn’t think I would have anything in common with. I hope that ultimately together we are creating a little more understanding and a society where we can each be our own genuine unique selves and all belong.
Jill Leahy is the Program Director for Communities in Schools of Seattle.