Belans clearly elaborates the essential equity questions that should be at the heart of every decision a school leader makes. – Dr. Mahalia Hines, President, Common Ground Foundation; Board Member, Obama Foundation; former Board Member, Chicago Board of Education
A Sense Of Belonging
Linda Belans, EdD.
Why A Sense of Belonging?
What does this have to do with equity in coaching, leading, on the health and well-being of schools and organizations, and on the impact on teaching and learning? What does a sense of belonging have to do with our survival?
People have to feel that they matter. In order to cooperate, build teams, and embody active empathy, we have to have trust in one another. A sense of belonging is critical to developing, nurturing, and sustaining trust. This is because perceived isolation –– feeling alone ––can create a matrix of harm that undermines trust. Most frequently reported are a heightened vigilance for social threats, an increase in anxiety and hostility, and withdrawal. (Even poor sleep and daytime fatigue are consequences of a sense of isolation.)
Being alone and feeling alone or isolated can be related, but they’re not the same thing. We’re a social species with an irrepressible need for long-lasting positive relationships. We can feel alone, even or especially in a room full of people, or as part of a group or team.
This has short and long-term consequences when there is a chronic sense of isolation. The matrix of behaviors described above most commonly leads to false interpretations of the person who feels isolated: they’re not prepared, engaged, confident, or worse –– not smart enough. The most significant consequence is the assumption that they have no leadership qualities or potential. This impacts promotions to top leadership positions, perpetuating the cycle of predominantly white-led schools and organizations, and the propensity for the proliferation of white- supremacist organizations. And the unbroken cycle continues.
In schools and organizations, this occurs when there is not an active anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-LGBTQI, anti-ableist culture. Belonging means that we have to feel free to have a full voice, to participate and contribute in the design of the world we inhabit. It means we have the right to make demands on institutions without barter, fear, or retaliation. This cannot occur if we’re constantly scanning for threats, feel anxious, or managing hostility. People who feel lonely worry more about being evaluated negatively than those who feel a sense of belonging. So, the safest thing we do when we’re feeling isolated and threatened in a workplace is to withdraw.
Racism is more than actively excluding people of color from leadership roles; it’s a consequence of making assumptions about others when a working culture does not consciously and dynamically create a sense of belonging.