A Sense of Belonging: A Conversation with Skot Welch

Back to Spring 2021: Volume 110, Number 1

Skot Welch, founder and president of Global Bridgebuilders, works with cities, nonprofit organizations and businesses to develop diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. He recently launched a new effort known as the Belonging Initiative to develop a “Belonging Index” to measure the ability of communities to inspire a sense of belonging. National Civic League President Doug Linkhart interviewed Skot Welch in April.


 Q: What got you interested in the concept of belonging?

A: What interested me is, being in Grand Rapids, I began to see people come into our community, but they didn’t stick, and I just knew that there was something going on. It seemed like the pieces were there in order for them to stick to the community, but they kept leaving. I just said., “we’re missing something.”

I think that dinners are a powerful opportunity for people to just communicate with each other. So, it started out with these Belonging Dinners. Different people came in from around the community, and over time I began to understand that there was a difference between welcoming and belonging. That drew me in further into doing more work to distinguish the difference.

Q: And what was that difference? Did you start with welcoming and move to belonging?

A:  People think they are synonymous, but as people began to make me smarter in these dinners, I said, “wow, they are distinctly different.” I used to think of as welcoming versus belonging. Now I say that welcoming is on the continuum towards belonging. Welcoming can be done with a sign, but you can only belong through other human beings. One of the things I began to develop in my mind is that people who only feel welcomed leave, and people who belong stay.

To me welcoming opens the door, but it doesn’t actually invite the person into the room. I think that organizations, communities, school districts and companies should have a belonging strategy that is connected to their HR. Something that is articulated by the most senior leaders of the organization. The senior leaders need to articulate their goals in terms of making their organization become a belonging organization.

Q: Grand Rapids is part of the Welcoming America program. Have you persuaded the mayor and other leaders there to move beyond welcoming to belonging?

A: Yes, in fact, we started out with five sponsor organizations through which we could do the initial research that takes us through this index that is being structured. Having a great mayor in Rosalynn Bliss and [City Manager] Mark Washington, our city has wholly adopted the Belonging Index that we’ve created along with the template for the Belonging Dinners. We are going to begin to share that with other cities in the hopes that other cities will be able to compare and contrast their belonging strategies and plans.

Q: Tell me about the Belonging Index.

A: In 2005, I worked with a magazine called DiversityInc, a magazine that looks at the Fortune 500 and their diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. I was vice president of benchmarking there, and, at the time, we had a benchmark for companies. And then we began to look at cities, but as I left the organization the idea still stuck with me, and I thought, if we could benchmark cities with the most diversity, let’s look at another index for belonging.

I thought this was something cities could benefit from. So I called around to some of the leaders in our city and got some underwriting, and I was able to employ the services of Calvin University and their Center for Social Research  team, and that’s when things began to happen.

One of the things people would say is that no one has ever measured belonging before. My way of thinking is, OK, that means someone should. When I sat with the team I said, “Here is what I’m thinking. I need someone who is just bold enough and imaginative enough to go with me down this path.” And they did.

And so, the index is a series of questions that we are putting online for other organizations and cities to take and ask some very rich questions to find out how individuals feel within their communities, whether they define their communities as city, corporation, medical system, whatever that might be.

We will be able to compare different cities and at some point, and we will have a Belonging Conference whereby we can share best practices with each other. It’s friendly competition, because the goal is, if a city or organization can be stronger, their citizens are happier. If they are more dialed into belonging, it makes for a better citizenship experience. That’s why we want other cities to go along on this journey with us, and that’s really the crux of the index. We’ve had it translated into Spanish, I’m sure we’ll get it into other languages. It’s a very comprehensive look, and we desire that people simply take it as we build our database. From there we can find out how cities compare to each other.

Q: Are the surveys something that would be done collectively or individually?

A: Individually. And we allow the person to identify as an employee or as a citizen.

Q: You mentioned diversity. It seems like some people would say that diversity makes creating a sense of belonging a challenge. How do you see the two connected?

A: Diversity doesn’t make it a challenge. It actually makes a city healthier.  When you begin to look at certain specific elements of diversity, whether it be ethnic or gender or generational, what I’ve found is that when people who are different can find their space in their city, that diversity actually contributed to more people being able to find their space in that city. I think a great example is Ann Arbor, Michigan, or San Diego. We find that people can find their own little enclave of friends, and they can get connected to things, and if you can really drill down and have people from different ethnicities feel like they belong, you’ve really done something. Think about it. It’s one of the reasons we go to New York City, because, you have options there, and so diversity and belonging really coexist very well.

Q: Do you run the risk of people living in their own bubbles, in their own enclaves?

A: Yes, but not if the city is committed to creating space for people to come together. None of this happens by chance. Great culture in a community, that’s intentional. When you have a city that is actually trying to build bridges between people so they can connect and maintain their identities as individuals, the city is stronger through collaboration. That’s when it gets very interesting and very rewarding. You are not trying to cause assimilation. You actually want people to have a multicultural experience, and you are encouraging them to connect and go to other parts where they may not have other members who think like them or look like them.

Q: You are the CEO and founder of Global Bridge Builders. Tell me a little bit about the organization and how it is connected to your belonging work.

A: At Global Bridge Builders our mantra is innovation through inclusion. We believe that heterogeneous groups are more innovative, and we also believe that when you have inclusion in an organization, it means better products, better services to the outward facing population, and also better relationships inwardly. Having worked with the magazine and with the Fortune 500, I saw that many of those organizations had diversity programs, but programs don’t last.  You have to go about it as a process.

Q: What can cities do to promote a better sense of belonging?

A: First of all, I would love to have cities take this survey, but I also think they should be creating those spaces where people can have dialogue. When we do begin to hide in our enclaves, it’s not as healthy for the community. When we don’t talk, we don’t communicate, there’s no idea exchange. We end up with these myths about each other. When you have people who are different from you in your circle, it makes every person in that circle smarter. So, when you take that same principle and expand upon it, whether as a city or as an organization, it makes for a richer experience.

To take the Belonging Survey use this link for English speakers and this link for Spanish speakers.

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