The Practice of Belonging

March 21, 2011 9 Comments

Several years ago I worked with a friend who is an outdoor educator to put together an orientation session for a group of high school students who had signed on to be part of a youth activism project I was directing.  The program invited young people to explore issues in their community and to select and address those that spoke to them.  As part of our orientation, my friend put together an “alien test,” something he learned from the tracker and educator Tom Brown.  Just before the session we scoured the school grounds gathering leaves and bark, plants and nuts, a bird’s egg, soil, and other sundry items and brought these into the classroom where we met after school, along with a series of prepared questions.  One by one, my friend laid the objects and questions out in front of the students: What is this? Is this plant edible? Can you tell me whether this soil is healthy or not?  Where does your water come from?  Do you know which, if any, of the items you ate for lunch today was locally grown? There was a marked silence after most of the questions.  The point was made poignantly clear – in many respects we are aliens to our immediate surroundings.  For us to do meaningful community change work, we suggested, it behooves us to really get to know our community, or as someone once put it, take a step towards inhabiting it not just residing there.

It seems this is a strong call in our change work writ large.  The consequences of our disconnection from community and place are evident in many ways.  Some colleagues and I (and we know we are not alone) have posited that a critical step towards making the kinds of changes we need is to cultivate a “practice of belonging.”  Belonging is that deep feeling of fitting in, the grounding knowledge of how we and others fit and are linked together.  As my co-conspirator Danny Martin says, “It is in this belonging that our [deepest] longing is realized. . . .  In belonging, individual longings are held together in a way that allows life to happen.”  Life requires community (and water).  This is the root of resilience and of regeneration – being intimately and intelligently in connection and collaboration with our environment so that we can adapt and evolve.  Belonging is all a part of becoming.

And belonging for many in our day and age seems to require intention.  We can lose ourselves too easily, get distracted from what is most fundamental.  So belonging can require effort . . . and skill.  We know those moments that have created a deep sense of connection to others and the world around us.  We know these, but do not always practice them in a consistent way.  Cooking meals, breaking bread with friends, digging our hands in the dirt, singing together, being a part of a spiritual community, walking in the woods, doing service with others.  What is your practice of belonging?  And what does/would it take to help others to commit to practicing belonging?  That is the question I am most eager to explore, with some inklings: promoting a big picture/systems view, crossing boundaries, creating space for dialogue and conversation about values, telling and gathering stories, pointing to the patterns underlying events.  What else?

The quality and extent of our becoming would seem to depend upon the quality and scope of our belonging.  And so, as my colleagues and I have considered, if we are to survive and thrive, we will need to create “systems of belonging” that point us in the direction of what we are collectively called to become.  And for discerning what exactly that looks like, we are definitely going to need your help.


  • Gibran says:

    Beautiful and timely Curtis. I know I belong to my spiritual community – we chant and meditate together. I know I belong to the community I grew up with – it was an intentional one, they brought me up. I know I belong to a community of people who share in a passion for social transformation – we support each other’s work. It seems social isolation is one of the worst forms of poverty. I agree that this is a muscle we need to build, a most natural human trait that we need to reclaim. Please count me in!

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, G. And wondering what you think the connection is between networks as we have discussed them and systems of belonging.

  • Katherine says:

    It’s good to see that there’s a growing interest in building environmental literacy. However, it’s also important to be aware of the reasons young people have other priorities.

    The blog post below focuses on practical approaches for making these connections.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks, Katherine. I think you make some good points in your post. I agree that what we have modeled for young people is what they often mirror. All the more reason to cultivate practices of belonging to pass along. This is not purely about environmental literacy, but also “teaching” other forms of fulfillment.

  • Katherine says:

    I’m interested in hearing more about what some of the other forms of fulfillment are.

    The article mentions some activities that build stronger communities. That can make a noticeable difference in improving people’s quality of life. It is related to the social motivation I mentioned in the blog post.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    I think, and there is research that suggests, that the push towards extrinsic forms of fulfillment has been a major culprit in our unsustainable ways of living. In “Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity,” Tim Kasser and Tom Crompton talk about how environmental messages can use framing that is either extrinsic/ materialistic or intrinsic/self-transcendent. This shows up as the difference between presenting “green” initiatives as being good for the bottom line versus highlighting global and moral imperatives to act more sustainably. We can lift up what serves self-interest or what serves shared interest. Perhaps not so surprisingly, research shows that the former leads in the long-run to less environmentally sustainable behavior. The push towards consumption suggests that something “out there” will fulfill us, and this has deleterious effects for us individually and collectively. Positive psychology is showing us that what we used to know about fulfillment is still true – connection, meaning, and generativity are what matter most. Interested to hear your reactions to this, Katherine, and other thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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