GYLI Team Blog: Matt on “Belonging”

GYLI Team Blog: Matt on “Belonging”

October 29, 2019 Uncategorized 0

Where do I Belong and does it matter? 

Where do I belong? What is my own definition of belonging?  Why does it matter? 

That question–”Where do I belong?”– is one of the driving questions for teens all over the world and from all backgrounds.  That question drives our choices of high school, college, work, activities and our group of friends. That matters because when we belong and feel that we belong, we learn and we retain, and we have a chance to apply our learning.  Gallup Education has done extensive research on K-12 education over many years and according to them, the two biggest drivers of success are Hope and Engagement.  Engagement and belonging go hand in hand—we are much more engaged if we feel that we belong to a particular group of people—a workplace, a neighborhood, a school or a city.  

Conversely, it is hard to engage if you feel you don’t belong for whatever reason.  

“You are not _______ enough to belong here”  Many times this is felt more than said, or re-enforced by policies, practices, privileges and prejudices.  In the independent, or competitive charter school world, the most often words to fill in the blank would be the words  “rich” or “smart.” We know that many adults and students in our schools leave elements of their identities covered, hidden, or blocked, because they fear that if others knew the truth, the sense of belonging would slip even further.  

Standing Circle

Because our adults and students come from schools, we know that we need to create a sense of belonging in our programs, that participants may not feel in their schools.  That begins from the moment of the first circle–where we stand present to each other in our full humanity. At GYLI we work hard to create a sense of belonging from the first moments of each program.  We begin with names, as there is so much common sense and science about the power of names. [NPR piece on surgery outcomes and names].   Our first step to belonging is to learn each person’s name as accurately and quickly as possible.  This includes their given and preferred names. We use name tags, especially self-created name tags, to give everyone a chance to show how they want to be called in the group.  We also use name games, name challenges, and name stories to get everyone to the key learning with much repetition.  

As a simple start to our thinking, –Who am I in this new group?  Am I going to be the same person I have always been or will I bring forward different aspects of my identity.  If everyone knows me and calls me by name, does it add to my sense of belonging. The 1980’s hit TV series Cheers had a theme song with the line, “Sometimes you want to go…where everyone knows your name, and they are always glad you came…”   Where are those places for us where everyone  knows our name?  If we have any places on that list, it is likely we feel a great sense of belonging there.  

5C’s as a tool of community

The second aspect of belonging is identity.  Of course this is multi-layered and always shifting based on context.  Our challenge is to invite everyone to uncover and share aspects of their identities at the same rate and roughly the same ways to deepen our sense of trust and belonging during a program.  Our tool for this work is usually the 5Cs of awareness developed by Dr. Ulric Johnson and Patty DeRosa. The 5Cs are: Color, Culture, Class, Character, and Context. Dr. Johnson and Ms. DeRosa both experienced difficult immigration challenges in coming to the US and they developed this tool to create a sense of belonging that they lacked in their own teen years.  We have someone present the 5Cs, and then we do a “inventory” conversation which provides the context for everyone to share and communicate about identity at the same time. The act of speaking and listening in this way creates a deep sense of belonging to our small groups and our overall GYLI colleagues.  

How do we know we belong to GYLI?  Can we recite the mission and 4 pillars? Can we recite the 5Cs of awareness? Do we remember which “watch groups” we were in and the depth of those conversations?  Can we recall the signs in the Dome at Lama Foundation (especially the one that reads “REMEMBER”)? Do we remember our host family in Costa Rica and what we learned at EARTH University? Do I belong to GYLI because I am now reading the monthly newsletter?  

Learning by doing

Knowing the importance of belonging and carrying some of these tools with me wherever I go, it is always great when my ideas about belonging are shaken up!  I recently attended a workshop in Milwaukee for educators and school leaders that was focused on Diversity, Equity, and inclusion.  

The facilitator was named Caroline Hill and her company is call Accelerator228.  

This was the definition of belonging that she shared with all of us: 

“Belonging is being able to participate in the design of political, social, and cultural structures and the right to contribute and make demands upon society and institutions (without violence to the body).”

This definition struck me for many reasons.  First it makes belonging into a verb, not just an adjective.  At GYLI we have also loved verbs–we know that the best way to learn is to DO.  But knowing the importance of belonging–what do I DO to create it. This definition also gives language to hold our institutions accountable, when they are not creating belonging for all.  

Perhaps more importantly, after we reviewed this definition, we did an activity that reinforced the difficulty of creating belong, and why we don’t automatically feel we belong to groups. 

The Belonging Activity

Stand, and find a partner.  You will do this as many times as possible in 3 minutes. Hold both hands of your partner and look at that person in the eyes.  Say “I belong to you.” The other person responds, “I belong to you.” The person who is historically, culturally or economically dominant should speak first.  

This was a challenging and somewhat awkward task for a group of educators and as individuals reflected on the activity there were a number of reactions and a common desire to make “the other person” feel more comfortable.  Do we need to feel comfortable to feel that we belong? Or can we be uncomfortable and express our dissent, or difference of opinion or our perspective that we know might make others uncomfortable? 

As we learn where we truly belong, we do that by challenging the institutions and making our voices heard in shaping those communities.  This becomes a two-way street because we are also shaped and held accountable by these institutions and groups. Shape and be shaped. Do the banks turn the river, or does the river push in to the banks.  Both of course. This moved belonging for feeling that we seek into a process that we can create with any group or community we are connected to.  We move from a receiver of hoped for positive energy, to an agent and author of that positive energy to create the communities we want to live in.  Communities that are radically inclusive of identity and experience. Communities where everyone knows everyone’s name. Where we can stand in a circle and celebrate the many joys and challenges of being human on this planet at this time.