What happens when you ask Black women and White women if they feel like they belong in Richmond?

Mapping Belonging and Inclusion in the City of Richmond

 Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to conduct focus groups with three separate cohorts of women from Richmond. One of our goals during these groups was to identify spaces on a map of the city where they felt a sense of comfort, belonging, inclusion, and safety.

Now, I’ve visited local establishments in Richmond on many occasions, either alone or with friends. While there are never any apparent symbols to suggest that I am unwanted or unwelcomed in these spaces, I often feel a keen sense of displacement; a feeling of emotional detachment from any of the activities taking place in the space around me. More times than not, unless my friends or I intentionally seek out environments where other people of color are the majority, we are among the few black people, if any.

During these focus groups, one of the conversations that emerged was the nuanced difference between being included and belonging, inclusion being where others work to make you a part of a space and belonging being a sense of emotional embeddedness in a space, where you possess shared values with those around you and feel connected to the people and the space itself. 

And it’s worth mentioning that belonging can only be achieved when individuals are not tokenized, are encouraged to lead the process for change and development, and when well-meaning but also privileged people get out of the way to allow this to happen.

The distinction between the two sentiments is important, as are the distinctions between say, tokenism and authentic community engagement. The former suggests that while the community may be invited to attend meetings or public hearings, their voices serve as a mere addition to an existing engagement process. Authentic community engagement, on the other hand, ensures that individuals feel both a sense of inclusion and belonging. And it’s worth mentioning that belonging can only be achieved when individuals are not tokenized, are encouraged to lead the process for change and development, and when well-meaning but also privileged people get out of the way to allow this to happen. Only then, can communities become the true vision of themselves and embrace the values that are important to them.

I say this to say: Community engagement work is not only about creating a sense of belonging, it’s about realizing the power of letting individuals and communities be self sufficient and lift up the things that matter most to them. In my focus group with Black women from the city, they mentioned there were many places where they felt included, but very few where they felt a sense of belonging, and the ones where they did were Black owned and operated.  For them, it was about being welcomed into a space, seeing Black art on the walls, or hearing music that reflected their culture and identity. It was also feeling a sense of community and being surrounding by others who look like them.

As we work with our clients around community engagement, I won’t lie and say these issues are easy to tackle or that there is a one size fits all solution for creating environments where marginalized groups feel a sense of belonging. In fact, there isn’t.  The whole idea of translating the ideas of belonging and inclusion into something tangible can be extremely difficult and only each specific community can figure out how these goals can be achieved in their community. But, I will say that it is worth it for organizations and businesses that have social missions to think creatively about how this can be achieved through:

  1.  relinquishing of traditional power structures
  2.  understanding that belonging can only be achieved when community voices are embedded in every part of the empowerment and change process.  

How can we help you design change that fosters belonging?