Become a passionate force for belonging in a world that needs it

What drives your passion for social justice? 

In one form or another, it's always been there for me. When I was a kid, I'd feel it pretty intensely anytime I saw someone being judged, excluded, or bullied for being different, by both teachers and students.

Sometimes I'd get pissed. Sometimes I'd feel scared, and sometimes I'd feel nauseous. It wasn't until I was older that I connected the dots, and saw how that strong reaction was linked to my own experience of feeling like a misfit. 

And every now and then, I'd find the courage to take a stand.

I think I was about ten years old, the time that I stomped out of a playdate because my friend said something horrible about black people. I was so disturbed by what she said that I never played with her again, though she was my only friend at the time. 

I was reminded of all this a few weeks ago, when I joined a gathering of a thousand organizers, academics, and other movement folks at a conference about othering and belonging.

And at one point, we were invited to explore the possibility of “Being Belonging.” I was intrigued.

Because we all have an idea of what it means to belong.

It’s that warm feeling of being welcome, just as you are. So you can relax and be yourself. It’s feeling essentially safe and loved, so that we are free to try things, be goofballs, and make mistakes.

We all need to feel we belong. It is fundamental to our humanity.

And we all know what it’s like to not belong.

Because the US is a country that has a dominant culture of whiteness, maleness, heteroness, cisgenderness, American-born-ness, light-skinned-ness, and so on, many folks experience not-belonging in a more enduring way.

And for many black and brown-skinned children like 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, being seen as “the other that doesn’t belong here” can be fatal.

For many of us, not-belonging is the norm. It’s the air we breathe. It is the experience we don’t even recognize, until and unless something shifts in our environment or within ourselves, and we notice this strange feeling of belonging.

And we find ourselves breathing a little easier.

And sometimes that relief is mixed with grief and anger at all the time we’ve spent holding ourselves in check.

And that pain of not-belonging has driven transformative social movements. It has also fueled brutal wars. In fact, one can tell a version of this country’s warped history that is a story about a search for belonging. And though that search was minor in relation to the barbarism of our nation’s founding, the quest for belonging plays an outsized role in our mythology.

Our admirers in 19th century France saw that myth in us from afar. And perhaps in a fit of romance, they sent us the gift of a colossal stone woman. The Statue of Liberty was their attempt to solidify this image of America: a home for the misfits of the world.

And isn’t it interesting that through this gift, we celebrate the relationship between freedom and belonging?

So what does it mean to “Be Belonging?”

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

These are the most famous lines from “The New Colossus,” a poem by Emma Lazarus, which was once displayed on the statue’s pedestal. On their own, they are an invitation that resonates with compassion.

But the complete poem gives us a fuller picture of what it could mean. 

She is a “mighty woman,” holding a torch of “imprisoned lightning.” Her “mild eyes command” the harbor, as she dismisses the “storied pomp” of empires. She doesn’t whisper, but “cries out, with silent lips” her welcome to those huddled masses. And let’s not forget, she is 150 feet tall, made of metal, and standing on an 89-foot granite pedestal.

This, to me, is what it means to “be belonging.” It is compassion, held with the power of a declaration, the strength of granite and steel, and the passion of a flame.

Be your own “Colossus”

Who is it that decides whether I belong? God? My parents? My family? My colleagues and friends? The popular kids at school?

Would anyone even want that responsibility?

Perhaps not.

I have learned, and continue to relearn, that my belonging starts with self-acceptance. I have to be strong for myself first, before I can stand on my rock and shout into the wind my welcome to others.

Below is Emma Lazarus’s entire poem. Imagine now, as you read it, that you are speaking it to your own soul. To the parts of yourself that have been sent to the darkness of exile. To the hurt, the loneliness, and dejection. To everything in you that feels insignificant, deficient, and unworthy.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We start with ourselves. We find freedom in being our own belonging.

Then we throw the gates open. We create, by passionate declaration, more belonging for everyone who seeks it. 

I shared a story of one of the first times I took a stand for belonging. What is your story? I'd love to hear it in the comments.