How to create a sense of belonging

When people know and trust each other, shared delight, mutual purpose, tolerance, and productivity social discourse continue. This is true even when we inevitably have moments of disagreement.

But in Canada, as in most developed countries, our social institutions are fraying, relationships are becoming more transactional and intermittent, and interpersonal support systems are weakening. According to the Community Foundations of Canada’s most recent Vital Signs report, 29 per cent of people do not have close friends in their community. People who have experienced discrimination are 2.75 times more likely than those who feel they have someone they can trust. And too often, our society erects barriers to belonging for older people, newcomers, indigenous peoples and people with disabilities, and other minority groups.

The implications of disconnection and marginalization have profound personal and broad societal impacts. The results are declines in early childhood development and civic engagement and rising levels of substance use disorders, distrust, and polarization. As noted by Kim Samuel, author of On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation, “This 21st century problem requires a radical rethinking of what we choose to value as a human species. Our only path back to wholeness – as individuals and as communities – is to build belonging for ourselves and for others.”

What do we understand by belonging? As two people whose passions and professions involve the power of place, we think about belonging in geographical terms. We do our best when we feel connected to a place and the people who inhabit it. These feelings motivate us to develop an aspiration for its roads, buildings and economy, but also for its shared institutions, collaborative work and reciprocity. A sense of belonging makes us feel like we are an important part of something bigger than ourselves.

At the local level, belonging depends on the strength of our personal relationships at home and in our neighborhoods. The more attached we are to our family and neighbors, the more we feel involved in our little society. It becomes easier to shape associations, schools and other institutions in our communities and generate empathy, understanding and support when necessary.

At the national level, belonging depends on the ties between groups and how well people feel seen, heard and appreciated by society at large. This depends on how our social networks, politics, and access to opportunities shape how we feel; the stories we tell and hear about our communities and the groups that make them up; and the strength of civic infrastructure – how easy it is for residents and leaders of all groups and generations to come together to leverage strengths and opportunities and address common challenges.

How could we develop and improve these levels of belonging?

Canada offers many examples.

In Montreal, Que., 31 neighborhood round tables allow residents to shape neighborhood developments. People build strong social bonds and then use trust and connection to identify and prioritize key local issues and develop action plans to address them. In Saint-Michel, for example, residents have used this local infrastructure to repurpose an old quarry and better respond to the community’s needs for housing, food security and mobility.

Given the racial and economic segregation that characterizes most Canadian neighborhoods, it is important to do social repair work to reach all zip codes, write Seth Kaplan @Tamarack_Inst and Danya Pastuszek #PartnershipDevelopment #LocalCollaborative

And in rapidly densifying Cambridge, Ontario, every resident is part of one of eight neighborhood associations. The city funds the associations and residents have significant power to determine how the space is used. Instead of focusing on providing services, these centers invite residents to imagine and organize activities that interest them.

In Alberta, Edmonton, Saint Albert, and many other communities have fostered block parties, neighborhood connectors, and government offices that support neighborly relationships and a culture of care and connection.

Michael Woolcock of the World Bank’s Development Research Group suggests that the prospects of any group of people or area depend not only on government policies but also on the “relationships within and between” that group and other parts of the world. society, including the government.

Given the racial and economic segregation that characterizes most Canadian neighborhoods, it is particularly important to carry out social repair work that spans all zip codes.

The place matters. Efforts to improve belonging require what we call “lateral action,” neighborhood by neighborhood across the country. And every small effort can start a chain reaction, whether it’s attending events organized by local indigenous friendship centers, organizing a campaign to fund mutual aid societies, organizing a Jane’s walk or coordinate a neighborhood party.

Actively and consistently offering our donations to strengthen relationships and neighborhood groups is one of the most valuable (and rewarding) forms of social repair work. At national and local levels, institutions shape the nature of social interaction: uniting or dividing, uniting or isolating, and shaping norms and values.

Relationships are the basis of everything. Only by incorporating them into strong social structures can we hope to address Canada’s crisis of belonging and its symptomatic social problems.

Seth D. Kaplan, professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of the new book. Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time.

Danya Pastuszek (she/her), winner of the 2023 Schwab Foundation Collective Social Innovation Award, is the co-executive director of the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, which has launched a National Belonging Plan

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