This Guide is for everyone who wants to build thriving places of belonging.
Across our planet, people are looking for effective ways to build just, equitable, and inclusive institutions that serve and support everyone. Even more challenging, we’re looking for ways to do so without fueling the growing fragmentation that is separating us from each other and our sense of humanity.
The distinct belonging framework developed by the Othering & Belonging Institute (OBI) includes a set of principles and practices that can root out structural inequality and exclusion of all kinds while helping us turn toward, rather than against, each other.
Beyond a call for inclusion into pre-existing structures built to serve only some of us, belonging asks each of us to commit to co-creating new structures built for everyone.
This is no small task. But we believe that belonging is a rich, multi-pronged concept that is up to the challenge, in part, because it is emergent and evolving. It is not limited to being just a feeling, or a slogan, or a quick “to-do.” Its robustness comes from its roots in a range of fields including sociology, neuroscience, psychology, law, and political science, but it draws equally from the wisdom and experiences of community-builders, artists, and storytellers.
Belonging is powerful because it works as an aspirational north star that helps us declare the kind of world and communities we want to live in—vibrant and interconnected healthy ones in which everyone holds the agency, responsibility, and power to co-create the structures that serve the good of the whole.
While the term belonging is used to mean many things, here at OBI we think of belonging as the antidote to othering—the denial of a person or group’s humanity based on their identity, and the process of generating structural inequality found at every level of society (read more in The Problem of Othering). We also emphasize the role that structures play in either building or prohibiting belonging.
We developed this model of belonging because we know that if we continue to divide into smaller we’s, and prevent each other from fully contributing to the whole because of differences like religion or race, we simply will not survive as a species. Put simply—differences of all kinds should be celebrated, not turned into fictitious stories that sort people into hierarchies of value.
While we’ve done our best to create a set of principles that can work anywhere, we recognize that context and culture matter deeply. So whether you’re in Kansas City or Kyoto, Jacksonville or Johannesburg, or Boston or Buenos Aires, we invite you to be in conversation with these principles and to explore how you might adapt them for your part of the world. We look forward to learning how you made them work for you, and how your adaptations can help make them work for everyone.
If you’re ready to create a more just, impactful, and joyous school, workplace, or society, then join us on this journey of becoming a belonging-builder.
Belonging Design Principles At-A-Glance
Though the types of groups that are marginalized may be different in every culture and setting, we can identify a similar set of processes that gives some groups more access to goods, authority, opportunities, and rights than others. These hierarchies of value are presented as natural, usually through collective narratives, but are manufactured by those who have something to gain from division and treating others as less than equal. They also do the most harm when they become self-sustaining parts of structures, continuing to fuel inequity long after individuals cease holding bigoted attitudes. The solution to othering is not more othering. Nor is it what we call “same-ing,” in which we erase our diversity and claim we’re all the same. The solution is belonging.
While the work of building belonging includes interpersonal work, it must always involve transforming structures. That is because structures most often do the work of exclusion, regardless of the attitudes or identities of the people whose job it is to uphold them. Put another way, places of belonging go tough on structures and soft on people.
4. Recognize and address power dynamics
Power and power imbalances are woven into everything including the distribution of work, program design, collective histories, relationships, and much more.
Effective belonging initiatives are transparent about how power is distributed and how that distribution may need to change to create belonging. They also provide spaces for acknowledgment and repair of historical or present-day harms with the goal of advancing forward together.
5. Foster agency and inclusive co-creation
Individuals must be able to contribute to an initiative on belonging. This means they must have ways to express agency without elevating one person’s needs above the needs of the collective. The work must include mechanisms for making sure people are heard, and how or when spaces or projects can be co-created, and to what extent.
6. Embrace mutual responsibility
Belonging requires some form of co-creation, which means everyone has some responsibility for creating the whole. This includes being self-aware of behaviors, responses, and contributions to inclusive structure-building outside of specific work projects. All people hold responsibility for learning and growing together.
7. Celebrate and value diversity
Universal belonging does not mean everyone is or must be the same. We each have different histories, communities, needs, and ways of showing up in the world. Research shows that diversity leads to greater problem solving and creativity—we are better when we are diverse.
Belonging means that all of these differences are valued and respected, and that different groups, based often on deep histories of exclusion, may need different kinds of support to create an equitable place of belonging.
8. Prioritize and value relationships
No one is just one thing. We each carry multiple interests, identities, and relationships to power. This means flattening others into a singular identity is a way of reducing them. But it also means we can always find commonalities with each other because no identity is singular. Identities are fluid, complex and continuously evolving; they are not static or rigid. Belonging invites us into curiosity and connection across varying identities with respect and appreciation.
9. Recognize that identities are multifaceted and dynamic
Because we are interconnected, relationships are central to our transformation into places of belonging. Tough moments or conflicts are inevitable, and we can move through them when we are rooted in relationships.
In places of belonging, we exercise our bridging muscles, which means we get practice at moving towards each other with curiosity and a willingness to be transformed, rather than away from each other.
10. Harness the power of interconnection
No one is an island. Even if the impact is not immediately observable, our actions and choices impact others and can change the dynamics of a team, a structure, even the planet.
This principle of interconnection helps us understand the tremendous power individuals have to enhance or diminish the world around them. Because we are wired for and exist in relationships, both our problems and the solutions are also based on relationships.
- On Bridging: Evidence and Guidance from Real-World Cases,
Bridging is both an intention and a technique that helps strengthen relationships across differences so we can transform structures that exclude some groups over others.
- Belonging: A Facilitator and Practice Guide
This guide is a powerful tool for anyone looking to deepen their understanding of belonging and cultivate practices that promote connection, empathy, and community.
- Social Identity and Group Norms
Videos and overviews of group norms and social identity within the context of understanding conflict between groups.
- Journey of Inclusion: Interactive Tool for Organisations
Inclusive Activation Series Card Deck – For organisations seeking to be more genuinely inclusive to their employees, members, & communities
- Social Movements: Finding Your Place and Welcoming Others
How people can find a place within social movements where they comfortable, effective & supported, & how organisers can help them to feel so.
- Democracy Resource Hub
A wide range of tools and resources for anti-authoritarian and pro-democracy organizing in an easily accessible manner for trainers/facilitators, researchers, and practitioners.
- Justice, Diversity & Inclusion: Start Here
Find a comprehensive list of resources from The Commons Social Change Library on diversity, inclusion and solidarity in social movements.