Birthing a Book on Belonging
4 Lessons I Learned from Spending Time in Vibrant Communities
With the upcoming release of “The Practice of Belonging” just around the corner, I've been reflecting on what I've learned from time spent with vibrant communities and telling their stories. I now know that the calling to write about living a more connected life, placing community at the center, was a natural and necessary extension of my earlier writing on living an intentional life. Building practices around the lessons below will help us live a more integrated life that contributes to an inclusive and loving world.
1. Everyone Has Gifts to Share
There are two essential things we need in order to experience ourselves as an integral part of a community. The first is a recognition that we are valued and have gifts to share that our communities need. Second, just as we have unique gifts, we also have unique challenges for which we need to receive community acceptance and support.
The way we see positive attributes, competence, and strengths is filtered by a culture that too often marginalizes people and fails to recognize tremendous human potential. For example, in a culture of ingrained ableism, vast amounts of creativity and competencies are left untapped to the detriment of us all. When we can’t perceive and support the potential gifts that we all have to offer, then our failure of imagination needs to be identified and overcome.
Vibrant communities are ones that understand that everyone has gifts that are needed and commit to lifting them up. For example, spending time in a community that celebrated the gifts of people with disabilities opened my eyes to the radical potential of true acceptance, and offered an affirming glimpse of what is possible when gifts and abilities are recognized in the myriad of ways they express themselves.
2. Under the Radar Moments Matter
There are communities in “The Practice of Belonging” that have a certain “wow” factor, where what they have to offer attracts wider attention. Yet communities are vibrant because of the many moments of building connection, often in ways that fly under the radar of outside awareness.
In “The Practice of Belonging”, one example of a community with a wow factor is a 500 member choir in Columbus, Ohio (where the waiting list to join is in the hundreds.) Those of us who have sat in the audience of its biannual concerts are believers in the power of community to lift up voices and connect us across our differences.
Yet in private conversations with choir members, it was the quiet moments of connection that they shared as examples of how the community worked their magic on them.
There are two conditions for membership in this inspiring choir: One is showing up for choir practice, and the other, equally as important, is giving time to community service. And it is the moments of working on service projects throughout Columbus neighborhoods, with other choir members as well as people from neighborhood organizations, that most deepened their sense of connection and belonging. By working side-by-side planting trees, picking up garbage, and painting curbs or murals, choir members share personal stories with people they probably would never have known and bond over common values.
3. Telling Other People’s Stories Responsibly is Important
For many of us, the narratives we have heard about communities have too often downplayed, excluded, or misrepresented important, diverse stories. The stories in “The Practice of Belonging” will hopefully add to a larger, dynamic narrative made up of diverse voices, models of leadership, and inclusive ways of fostering healthy belonging.
Telling other people's stories (whether in conversation or for a book) requires empathy and self-awareness, but that doesn't mean we don't have blind spots. Even when telling a story with empathy and integrity, sometimes we don't get it quite right. It's important to recognize that we filter the stories of other people through our personal mental frameworks.
An essential part of sharing the stories of these communities, and the people creating them, was to get their feedback. Sharing other people's stories is an honor and a responsibility, and the process takes time, unfolding at the speed of trust in relationship.
4. To Build Community, Start Where You Are At!
The very act of focusing on the question "What is vibrant community?" for an extended period led to a personal awareness that it is within my power to foster such communities. Every one of us can. It is tremendously freeing to know that we do not have to wait and hope for conditions to change before accepting the invitation to practice and prioritize living in healthier connection.
Right now, we can commit to a life where we relate to each other from an understanding that we already belong, and belong to each other. Making vibrant community central to our lives is no small undertaking, yet it is our greatest hope, revolutionary in that it will create an unstoppable force of care and ingenuity, nurtured in human connection.
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