Giving Thought: Moving beyond inclusion toward belonging |

Giving Thought: Moving beyond inclusion toward belonging

Allison Alexander
Giving Thought
Allison Alexander
Courtesy photo

Belonging is a fundamental need for all humans. An expanding body of research supports the importance belonging has on mental health and well-being. Our brains are wired seemingly to form and sustain relationships with others. Some experts suggest that the need to belong is as important for humans as food and shelter.

In recent years, the call for more diversity, equity, and inclusion has risen to the top of our collective social conversations, and yet, many of the actions and efforts have fallen short. Some believe these efforts have stumbled because they are missing an important piece: belonging.

How does inclusion differ from belonging? Inclusion implies ownership of a space or circumstances by one group or and their inviting in of another diverse group. The intention of inviting in belonging in theory is to shift some of the ownership and power dynamics. It is to create spaces to share power and increase understanding of different perspectives and worldviews.

While there appears to be a rising recognition of the importance of belonging emerging in conversations across communities and organizations, it seems to be a concept that is hard to put into practice. Why is that?

Perhaps some of the struggle comes from the subjective way it is defined. According to the American Psychological Association, belonging is defined “as being accepted and approved by a group or by society as a whole.” This definition focuses on the sense of belonging, placing the burden on the individual being included.

Other explanations of belonging focus on the idea of place, meaning the creation of space where all are welcome and encouraged to be themselves. A place-based understanding of belonging is complicated by the fact that no two humans are the same, and therefore, what a safe and supportive place might look like between individuals is likely to vary.

When trying to decide how to define belonging, perhaps a combination of definitions might elicit the desired impact allowing more individuals into spaces and opportunities with a felt sense that they are safe and accepted as well as have shared ownership in their experiences.

In our region, there has been an increasing interest, rightfully so, in ensuring that members of our culturally-diverse population feel as though they are included in our communities and have equitable access to opportunities. The efforts have been launched and executed with varying degrees of success.

Earlier this month, at the State of the Arts in the Roaring Fork Valley hosted by Carbondale Arts at The Arts Campus at Willits (TACAW), the daylong summit featured a panel titled, “Latinx Involvement in the Arts Barriers + Breakthroughs.” The panel featured six members of the Latinè community and explored the challenges experienced by this community and sought to understand their unique experiences.

Interestingly, it was pointed out by an audience member that when this panel took the stage, there were almost no other Latinès left in the audience, raising the question of how do we create more opportunity for both inclusion and belonging beyond named panels.

Panelists agreed unanimously that to ensure that members of their community feel like they both belong and are included, they need to be asked how they want to participate and then allowed to participate in ways that feel natural and culturally appropriate to them, not those who are organizing.

Several panelists noted the importance of authenticity and trust-based partnerships, inviting in members of the community and then asking how they would like to participate. By removing how organizers might think others want to participate and instead genuinely asking and providing opportunities to community members can go a long way. Other panelists said that culturally, volunteering is a preferred method of engagement in their community.

Gabriela Galindez, program director at Art Base, shared in that same panel that while she appreciates her inclusion as a Latino artist in shows and on panels designed to showcase Latinè artists, she also hopes for and appreciates opportunities to be included generally in spaces due for her talent, expertise, and artistry, not just as a token representative.

Another panelist, Bryan Alvarez-Terrazas, project manager at MANAUS, said that they desire more spaces that recognize the Latinè experience is not a monolith. They shared their unique experience having intersectional identities as a member of both the LGBTQ+ community and as a Latinè.

Experts on belonging encourage humility, curiosity, and inquiry, with a recognition that there will be stumbles on the journey to broader community belonging.

MinTze Wu, executive director of VOICES, asked the panel for clarification on preferred language. She noted the inconsistencies in the use of the terms Latino, Latinx, and Latinè, seeking guidance on preference. What she (and the audience) learned was that the answer depends and to ask when you are unsure. It was noted that older Spanish speakers often do not understand the term “Latinx” and cannot say it using the Spanish language, which ultimately can create a sense of exclusion rather than belonging. Latinè was shared as a term that is both recognized and honors the diversity of gender identities beyond binary.

Through candid responses and audience inquiry, the panel ultimately went beyond the stated intention and offered an opportunity for all present to consider how to better consider efforts of inclusion and cultivate belonging.

As a community and culture, we are undoubtedly better off seeking to advance our efforts around inclusion and belonging. At the same time, mistakes will be made, some of our attempts will fall short, our intentions might not align with the outcomes, and uncomfortable conversations will need to be had. May we all find the humility and curiosity needed to move forward rather than shy away from trying.

Allison Alexander is the director of strategic partnerships and communications for the Aspen Community Foundation, which with the support of its donors, works with non-profits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.