Belonging and Inclusion

There is a lot of talk these days about social inclusion. We know that inclusion plays a big role in the health and resilience of both individuals and communities. Research has shown that people who feel included, who have rich and diverse social networks, tend to be healthier, happier and longer-lived than people who are isolated. They also have more opportunities to participate and contribute to their communities. Thus social inclusion benefits communities, too, by bringing them a wealth of knowledge, energy, talent and skills that might otherwise remain untapped.

But inclusion is experienced in such a personal way that we need to understand what it means to feel included. Otherwise we run the risk of reducing a very concrete experience to an abstract concept. In a report for the Laidlaw Foundation, Catherine Frazee asked a group of Canadian youth, "What is inclusion?" Their answers paint a vivid picture of what inclusion meant to them: Giving each person the opportunity to join in whatever activity is going on. Friendships. Treating each other with caring and respect. Seeing people's abilities rather than their disabilities. Supporting people to help them achieve their full potential. Making people who are isolated feel included.

Above all, inclusion is about acceptance and belonging. As one young woman put it:

"To me inclusion is belonging...being with everyone else, and feeling a part of what they're doing. It is acceptance, and knowing that you 'fit in'... You're no different than any of the others. You feel safe, secure, strong there. You can be yourself."

Belonging. It's a powerful word. Maybe one of the most powerful words there is. It taps into something very deep within us - the yearning to be part of something larger than ourselves, to be accepted and loved by others with all of our gifts and limitations. Jean Vanier says that belonging does for human beings what soil does for plants: it nurtures us, and enables us to grow and to blossom. Catherine Frazee takes it even further, describing belonging as a fundamental pillar of citizenship:

"Citizenship means having rights, but it also means belonging. Belonging in schools and universities, in places of work and places of worship, in politics, art and commerce; belonging in family, community and nation. Our rights as equal citizens, arguably, should get us in the front door. But once we are inside, our citizen's place of belonging assures us (or ought to) that we will be valued and heard"

The desire to belong is universal. Yet despite what we know about the importance of belonging, too many people experience its opposite: loneliness and isolation. For these individuals, "belonging" remains a tragically elusive goal. People with disabilities are perhaps the most vivid examples of social isolation. Far too many individuals with disabilities are alone except for the people who are paid to be with them. And isolation is pervasive among other groups as well: the elderly, immigrants and refugees, many young people...and just about anyone who is perceived as "different".

One of the first principles of a caring community must therefore be to end the loneliness and isolation in its midst, and to do everything in its power to nurture human connection and belonging.

To advance this goal, Philia has joined with several groups across Canada to form The Belonging Initiative, a national coalition to nurture belonging. Informed by our experiences with people with disabilities, The Belonging Initiative is guided by a belief in the importance of human connections and the possibilities for mutual enrichment that arise through these connections. Ending isolation will stem the profound loneliness and vulnerability to poverty, abuse and sickness that many people with disabilities experience. Belonging will enhance people's sense of personal control and lead to greater safety, security, well-being, contribution and citizenship. And solutions to end the isolation of people with disabilities will ripple outward and improve the situation of other vulnerable members of our communities. We believe that collectively we can develop a groundswell that will lead to a society in which everyone belongs!

Here are some other initiatives devoted to nurturing inclusion and belonging. Please send us links to any others you know about or are involved in!

Everyone Belongs  - A public awareness initiative launched by the Developmental Disabilities Resource Centre of Calgary (DDRC) to  promote the inclusion of all people in our communities.

You've Gotta Have Friends - A program sponsored by the Langley Association for Community Living that is working to ensure that citizens in Langley, BC - including those who live with a disability - have caring people involved in their lives with whom they share friendship and a sense of connection and belonging.

L'Arche - A worldwide organization dedicated to honouring the contributions of people with developmental disabilities, ending the loneliness and isolation of vulnerable people, building networks of belonging, and building an inclusive and compassionate society where all citizens can contribute.

The Quilt of Belonging - A collaborative textile art project that celebrates our common humanity and shows that there's a place for all in the fabric of society.

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