A Place Where We Belong: A Multiverse of Community Engagement

Back to Fall 2022: Volume 111, Number 3

By Wendy Willis 

A few years ago, I put up a Facebook post asking who might want to talk with me about belonging. I filled the post with questions: “When do you feel like you belong? Like you don’t belong? How does it feel in your body when you do or don’t belong? What does it mean for democracy, this shifting sense of belonging?”

It was a message that hit a collective nerve. Dozens of people replied—in comments, in private messages, by text, by email. Clearly, people responded for a reason, but none of them reached out to say that they felt an abiding sense of belonging. Some people said they had experienced a sense of belonging at some point, but now they felt abandoned—by their family or their church or their country. Others shared that they have always felt as if they don’t belong.

The full weft and warp of those conversations is a subject for another day, but two things became clear very quickly: 1) people yearn to belong; and 2) many people feel as if they don’t belong in the places that matter most to them—in their families, in their schools, in their communities, in their democracy.

They—or actually we (for certainly if asked the same questions, I share some of that same longing)—feel on the outside of the places and institutions where we should most belong. There are many dimensions of those longings and why they are not fulfilled, but for the purposes of this article, I am motivated to ask: “Where do contemporary democracy and belonging intersect? Where do they diverge?”

As an obvious starting place, in the United States, democracy is most often associated with voting, which, for the most part, is a winner-take-all enterprise. Candidates raise an unholy amount of money, compete to the death, and try to deliver on their promises to donors and supporters. Those who find themselves on the winning side are always looking over their shoulder, while those on the losing side often find no room for their concerns and priorities. Between election cycles, winners and losers become increasingly enmeshed with their own ideological camps until the next election cycle provides an opportunity for a reversal of fortune. And even that slim promise applies only to those who can vote—those who are over 18, citizens, and not convicted of a felony. That boom-and-bust cycle and the positional animosity it feeds are antithetical to feeling that our needs are recognized by those we elect to represent us and the sense that we fully belong in our communities and our country.

This narrow and transient path to belonging has a good deal of danger in it. If we can’t belong by conventional means, other more nefarious opportunities emerge. In a recent Brookings study about the QAnon movement, for example, the researchers noted: “The Q community provides its members with a seductive combination: a fight against an existential threat, a strong sense of belonging for those in the community, and the understanding that any one of its members can make meaningful contributions to what is seen as a righteous crusade.” So, while the practices of liberal democracy are undermining a sense of belonging among citizens (and here, I use that term to mean anyone living in a liberal democracy regardless of immigration status), those who are threatening democracy with disinformation and sometimes criminal conspiracies are explicitly extending a wide-open invitation to both a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging.

For those of us who work in participatory democracy or community engagement or any of the other activities that involve self-governance between elections, this widespread yearning for belonging should capture our attention and our imagination. While contemporary campaigns are sharply divisive and unsatisfying to most people, our on-the-ground work in communities not only provides the opportunity to improve public decision making by ensuring that elected officials and public managers understand the needs and desires of the whole community, it also offers an opportunity to meet human needs by considering which practices nurture a sense of belonging among community members and which practices do not.

In this article, I rely on the lessons we have learned over the past decade in our work at Oregon’s Kitchen Table (OKT), as well as the experiences of friends and colleagues who work deeply in communities, particularly communities that have traditionally been left out of public decision making. I also owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to john a. powell and his colleagues at the Othering and Belonging Institute at University of California, Berkeley. Their deep research on belonging and what it means to a functioning pluralistic multi-racial society and their sense of possibility have been guiding lights for our work and the work of countless others.

One of the traps that can prevent us from nurturing a robust and authentic sense of belonging in our community engagement processes is equating belonging with “inclusion.” Even in our most basic shorthand, we refer to DEI— “diversity, equity, and inclusion”— to describe what we aspire to in our workplaces and our communities. For the purposes of this article, a discussion of the terms “diversity” and “equity” can be left for another day, but “inclusion” sets us up—as government officials and community engagement practitioners—to be hosts and suggests that it is our responsibility to invite people to a party at which the menu, decorations, music, and dinner conversation have already been decided.

That framing of our role often leads to disappointment on the part of the inviter, and as result, we frequently hear the lamentation of “we invited such and so group to our meeting and they didn’t come…we even offered food and childcare.” A spiral of assumptions can then follow: Members of such and so group are too busy working three jobs and raising kids to participate in community life; members of that group don’t care about public issues; members of that group prefer to stay in their enclave; and on and on. It can be tempting for decision-makers and practitioners to mollify their own disappointment by saying: “Well, we included them, but they didn’t want to come.”  Check, check, check. Obligation fulfilled.

But that is where “inclusion” and “belonging” collide. Inclusion—without considering belonging—can have a kind of assimilative spirit. It suggests that we are all invited to that party, but the party looks and feels like the dominant culture. It suggests that Black people, Indigenous people, other people of color, people whose preferred language is a language other than English, people experiencing a disability, people whose gender or gender-expression aren’t binary or gender-conforming, immigrants, youth, poor people, and a whole host of others are invited to the middle-class, English-speaking, college-educated, white-people party and that’s enough.

But belonging is something else. As a reference guide from The Culture Group says, “Politics is where some of the people are some of the time. Culture is where most of the people are most of the time.” And for community engagement practices to extend from inclusion to belonging, culture must be at the heart of those practices.

The nuances of all those practices could be—and undoubtedly are—the subject of numerous books. And again, I would refer you to several of the monographs published by the Othering and Belonging Institute, particularly “Four Essential Practices of a Cultural Strategy for Belonging.” But one example from our own work also comes to mind.  Last year, we at Oregon’s Kitchen Table were part of a campus-wide effort to reimagine the public safety system on a university campus. For nearly a year, we worked with campus-based organizers and organizations to host conversations about what made students and other members of the community feel safe or unsafe on campus. As we worked with culturally specific clubs and organizations, we learned that there was a university policy requiring on-campus groups to use the university food vendor, which offered relatively mainstream and dominant-culture fare (sandwiches, chips, etc.).

There were exemptions available, but the exemption process was relatively onerous and time-consuming, particularly for student-run groups. In the end, OKT staff worked on the exemptions and asked the students to choose the food for their community conversations. They often chose culturally meaningful food from small vendors, turning a policy conversation about safety into a community gathering. Over and over, we heard how much participants appreciated the food choices. In the end, we recommended that the university abolish the internal catering policy in order to foster more of a sense of belonging for students gathering on campus.

Of course, there are other cultural practices that we observe and recommend that our government partners observe—everything from ensuring that communities can have single-sex gatherings if that is the religious or cultural practice of the community to showing up at important festivals and events. Most often, we work with community organizers with deep roots in their own communities. When we meet a new organizer, we talk about the public decision that is being considered, listen to them about how the decision might affect their community, and then ask them—what would you like to do? Then we do our best to support the organizer in carrying out the plan in whatever way works for them.

Some of these practices may seem purely aesthetic, but those aesthetics matter as an entry point both for engaging community members in the decisions that affect their lives and for fostering a sense of belonging. One of the biggest complaints we hear from community members—particularly community members who have been left out of conventional decision-making processes—is that government institutions are nameless, faceless, and cold. By inviting community members to gather in the ways that most makes sense to them, community engagement and governance itself becomes a more human enterprise.

In a pluralistic community, these processes can look fragmented or even a bit chaotic. But from that chaos, organizers and community members co-create a culture of belonging that is unique to that community and its residents.  In “Four Essential Practices of a Cultural Strategy for Belonging,” the Othering and Belonging Institute quotes writer adrienne marie brown as saying: “‘All organizing is science fiction’ because organizers are engaged in the effort to create a world we haven’t yet experienced.”

How and what information is presented as part of an engagement process is also critical to whether it fosters a sense of belonging or undermines it. In addition to ensuring that information is provided in accessible and non-technocratic language, it is important to consider the content of what is presented. Because so many engagement processes require some kind of baseline understanding of the public policy issue or question at hand, the agency or elected official seeking the input often offers some version of “how we got here.” Presenting a codified or singular version of events can be fraught, particularly for communities that have been harmed by government decisions.

There is a temptation to summarize the past in a rush to move forward into the future, even a more just and fair future. That summary and the resulting framing of the issue at hand, however, might either not fully reflect the story of the entire community or it may actively cause harm by presenting a version of the past that erases the experience of some community members.

In instances where there is a contested or harmful history, we have tried a few different approaches. One is to conduct a series of “community connector interviews” before beginning any formal engagement activities. We focus the majority of those interviews on communities that have been historically excluded from public decision making or have suffered harm at the hands of government or other dominant-culture organizations. In those interviews, we listen with a keen ear for contested versions of the past and for tender places where particular community members might have suffered harm or trauma. Based on those interviews, we help decision makers more fully understand and ultimately embrace a more complete picture of the events leading up to the current question or decision. When the process begins with a more robust back-story, community members can see themselves in the problem at hand and may be more eager to participate in co-creating a solution or some aspect of it.

In addition, if there is the opportunity, we begin the process itself by working with communities to co-create a multi-faceted or prismatic version of the narrative that ultimately will inform the public decision. Often, we rely on the tools and practices of “Popular Education,” a teaching and learning methodology developed by Paulo Freire and others, which invite community members to bring their own knowledge, expertise, and lived experience both to the creation of the public story and to the ultimate decision. Among other things, Popular Education values each person’s experience, fostering a sense of belonging, efficacy, and joy in the participants.

In the end, a collectively created narrative gives elected and other public officials a deeper and more accurate sense of history and a more well-rounded sense of the lives of those that they represent. One example of this type of narrative-building came in a project we did some years ago involving the redesign of a public schoolyard. On the surface, it was an attempt to create a collaborative management plan between the school district, families with children attending the school, and a number of local nonprofits that had agreed to partner with the school on redesigning and maintaining the yard.

Almost immediately, a conflict arose. Newer neighbors, who were mostly white, and several of the partnering non-profits assumed that the chain-link fence surrounding the school would come down. After all, neighbors and others would need to be on and off school grounds to work with students and to replant and maintain the schoolyard. Families who had been in the neighborhood for a long time—who were mostly Black—argued that the fence needed to stay up in order to protect the students during the day and the building and schoolyard itself during off-hours.

After many circular conversations based on fence-up or fence-down positionality, members of the community began telling their stories. Long-time residents shared that the school had always been a safe haven in a neighborhood that had experienced waves of violence. They also shared their grief over the gentrification of their neighborhood, which had been the heart of the Black community since the end of the Second World War. As those families shared those stories and their feelings about them, the question became less about whether the fence should stay up or come down and more about what might make everyone in the neighborhood feel safe and how the project might honor and respect those families who were experiencing a deep sense of loss.

While it is important to design community engagement processes to be both culturally relevant and narratively rich, the most critical aspect of fostering a sense of belonging comes from recognizing, respecting, and amplifying the power and agency of individuals and communities. Authentic belonging honors the power and responsibility of everyone involved. As john a. powell and Stephen Menendian put it in their report, “Belonging: An Introduction to Othering and Belonging in Europe,” belonging “is perceptual and tangible; it is a feeling and a practice. But belonging requires more than accommodation; it also demands agency.”

In other words, respecting and fostering belonging is not simply impeccable hospitality. Rather, it is rooted in power-sharing and letting go of control of both the process and the outcomes. Sometimes we think of it as reconstituting the “we”; in other words, expanding the subject, rather than the object of the community’s story. Oregon’s Kitchen Table staff recently encountered this question in a community engagement process that we were peripherally advising. After a series of conversations with dozens of community members, the team we were working with created a summary, identifying one of the challenges the city was facing as “including newcomers” in the community.

While this may have been the challenge conveyed in some of the conversations, it was not the challenge that several immigrant leaders and leaders of color identified in their conversations. Their version of the challenge was that long-time residents of the community—who were overwhelmingly white—did not want to share power, and they did not want the community customs and distribution of resources to change. Rather, those in power just wanted to scoot over and include people at the same old table. The question for the team we were advising became how to frame the challenge so that everyone involved was included as an actor who had the power to improve their community.

A community engagement process in which everyone is invited as a co-creator is an intensely human activity. It will feel messy. People will argue with the premises of questions. They will hold community conversations in mosques and bars and longhouses. They will provide feedback to decision makers on napkins and through audio messages and angry phone calls. They will refuse to participate unless public officials show up to listen to their concerns. They will refuse to proceed if powerful officials are in the room. They will talk to the media. They will walk out of community centers and libraries and into the mayor’s office. They will run for office themselves.

And they will also share stories that they have never shared with anyone. They will make suggestions that no one in power has ever considered. They will knock on doors, interview their neighbors, and urge them to attend a gathering or fill out a survey. They will host community conversations in their homes. They will invest in the process with their scarce time and their best ideas. The process will become their process.

If that is not enough to consider, there are a few cautions to offer with this approach. First, the input to decision makers comes in multiple forms. It will not look or be scientific, precise, or completely coherent. It will come in many languages, and it will come through a wide variety of entry points. People will devote different amounts of time and attention. Some people will go all in on particular aspects of the original questions. Some people will ignore the original questions altogether. When you bring people together—no matter how clearly you think you have defined a question or set up a discussion—ultimately, they will talk about what they want to talk about.

Occasionally, this approach to community decision-making can be designed to be consensus-seeking, but those approaches are expensive and are saved for the biggest and most consequential decisions. Most often, it will be the job of the decision-maker or the community engagement professional to make sense of and interpret the input, as well as apply a policy lens to it.

Second, belonging is not purely procedural. Even if a community engagement process is executed perfectly, considers the cultural multiverse, and shares power and co-creation, the process is not the end. Belonging is not static, and any sense of belonging that might have been fed and watered by the process surely will be scorched either by an implementation process that disregards the input without explanation or—worse—continues policies that benefit dominant-culture groups and disregard or harm others. Ultimately, belonging will be measured by whether the outcomes are fair, and whether individuals and communities are able to fulfill their own aspirations.

Finally—and most significantly—committing oneself to fostering a sense of belonging is not for the faint of heart. In those early Facebook-catalyzed conversations about belonging, there was a kind of soft-focused filter over the idea. Even the word—belonging—had a kind of cozy nimbus surrounding it.

But belonging in and to a pluralistic, multi-racial democracy is not—or is at least not entirely—a cozy experience. In the early 1980s, the Black composer and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon gave a speech at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival on the necessities and resulting trials of coalition politics. She warned: “Coalition work is not work done in your home.” She went on: “And you shouldn’t look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition, and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there. They’re not looking for a coalition; they’re looking for home.”

The same is true for belonging in and to a pluralistic democracy. Yes, we do want participants in our processes to feel relaxed and cozy some of the time, but as discussed above, belonging is at least as much about exercising agency and responsibility for the collective decisions in our communities and our country. So, while belonging sounds nurturing and tucked in, it is not always so. More agency means more points of view, more ideas, and more cultures to consider. Fostering belonging can be evocative, wild, frustrating, creative, and endless work.

We often talk about the importance of considering trade-offs in public policy conversations. When we add fostering a sense of belonging to what we are trying to accomplish through community engagement processes, other trade-offs reveal themselves. On one hand, we ask community members to share their own very specific interests, desires, and preferences. But on the other, we know that they—that we—feel increasingly alienated from our institutions and from one another. We yearn to belong. So perhaps by explicitly valuing and fostering a sense of belonging in our community engagement processes, we are opening up the tradeoff between absolute self-interest and a sense of being a part of a whole. Perhaps we are inviting individuals from all walks of life to co-create a community that is human and imaginative and messy and where answers are more difficult to discern and where no one gets everything they want. But in that invitation, perhaps we are also inviting people to find a place where they truly belong.

Wendy Willis is the founder and director of Oregon’s Kitchen Table, a program of the National Policy Consensus Center in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, and Executive Director of the national non-profit Kitchen Table Democracy. She is also a poet, essayist, and a member of the National Civic League Board of Directors.

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