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Right-Sized Belonging: Six Practices For Organizers

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“If we believe that we need all of us to build the power necessary to win, we need to understand how a belonging-need shapes actions and steers motivation. We need to see this as part of our organizing, not outside of it.”

Belonging is a fundamental human need that shapes our motivations and actions. In a social movement context, belonging can be defined as people feeling that they are seen, valued, and recognized as part of a larger system or organization. 

Belonging is nearly invisible to us when it exists. Just as with other basic needs such as safety and dignity, our need for belonging is most heightened when we feel its absence. The severity with which this absence is felt influences what we do and why. Crises of belonging (or dynamic belonging) can be felt in different nested dimensions: internally, in interpersonal relationships, in communities, and in broader ideas. 

We show up in movement expecting belonging. Movements need to be spaces that get good at belonging, cultivating belonging, because we want to be an invitation, and we want to be a sanctuary, and we want to be a space that can hold and grow the future.”

 –adrienne maree brown, Distinguished and Singing

Our movement’s ability to create the conditions for belonging, without perpetuating subordination and coercion, will determine our strength and cohesion moving forward.

Right-Sized Belonging is a web-based toolkit for organizers. It represents the culmination of a lifetime of wrestling with belonging and a decade of organizing experiments with transgender and queer Asians and Pacific Islanders in Lavender Phoenix. Over the last 18 months I’ve spoken with over 25 organizers, leaders, facilitators, and strategists across the so-called United States. From these conversations and reflections come the six suggested practices for organizations to implement in their own bases and spaces. 

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My backstory

At 17 I was convinced that there was no place for me in this world. Growing up working poor, mentally ill, queer, gender nonconforming, and mixed race–I was told, implicitly and explicitly, that I did not belong. 

This understanding remained central even once I got involved in social movement work. As I started to get activated by anti-imperialism organizations and labor solidarity groups, my actions, my drive, my attempts to be perfect were influenced by the fear that I would be cast out at any moment. My belonging was so fragile I felt like I had to perform in order to earn my spot to stay. 

My fear-based sense of accountability deeply impacted how I moved throughout the work. I avoided conflict, acted as a people-pleaser, swallowed my emotions and analysis, made excuses for others’ misaligned behavior, and minimized myself. 

When I joined Lavender Phoenix in 2013 to organize with other transgender and queer Asian and Pacific Islander people, I finally felt a sense of fullness and belonging. We came together as queerdos, gender outlaws, leftists amongst liberals, heart-forward softies, and introverted leaders. We formed relationships as the basis of our organizing, learned how to tell our stories, and emphasized the need to ask for help. The work was personal in the ways that second wave feminists taught us: the personal is political. 

And yet, even though I felt a great sense of belonging in our work, to the organization, and with a community that taught me how to trust, it all still felt fragile. Many of the people that came to LavNix questioned their ability to belong anywhere, holding the weight of painful exclusion from families or other political spaces. As staff and core leaders who knew this same pain, we focused our efforts on holding our base in a supportive community. We wanted people to belong so badly that we feared the impact of any discomfort or rupture. We feared that if we held people accountable, said “no” in favor of a stronger “yes,” or drew firm boundaries around our work, we would break the belonging that we worked so hard to build. This over-prioritization didn’t serve our work. It also didn’t serve our members, or the broader community of people that we fight for. Instead, we were left with the very fragility we tried to avoid.

By 2018, LavNix was near collapse. Our staff were burning out and our core leadership felt disempowered. Over the course of the following year, in partnership with the Wildfire Project, our staff and core reflected on our tendencies and addressed our fears head on. We needed to address how we balanced purpose, belonging, accountability, rigor, and care. We made hard asks of our volunteer leaders, gave up parts of our work to strengthen our core programs, and grew our ability to give critical feedback and take accountability. 

Through this process, our belonging expanded from being about comfort and identity to instead being about honesty, resilience, and dedication to seeing things through. This newly cultivated belonging was a grounding force to do the things we were most scared to do–interpersonally, in the organization, and in our broader world. Our belonging reminded us that even through mistakes and disagreements, we always had a purpose to return to, with people who care about us. 

Why we should think about belonging 

We’re living in a belonging-starved culture, where alienation and individualism are in full force. People are either struggling to find belonging due to very real constraints on their time and energy (working multiple jobs, constant upheaval, etc.), or they’re finding belonging in fear-based economies (conspiracy theories, alt-Right and neo-fascism, men’s rights groups, etc.). 

Historically, neoliberal and nationalist forces have manipulated belonging in order to coerce oppressed people into assimilation and conformity to colonizer nation-states, heteronormative family structures, and genocidal governments. Over the past few decades, infrastructure to create resilient belonging in our schools, meeting places, organizations, cultural hubs, and broader communities has been dismantled. 

At the root, the layered violences of capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy have severed our inherent belongings to the land and to each other. Violence continues through forced migration, family separation, displacement, and economic scarcity. People come to our movements believing that they don’t belong in their schools, communities, and families–their current pains built on a chain of broken belonging that goes back hundreds of years. These wounds make it so that many are fearful of the ramifications of the type of vulnerability that could meet this need. 

Despite all this, we know that people need each other. 

No organization can tackle this fundamental wound on its own–no one organization can create ultimate belonging. And, we do have a duty to right-size our response to this very real rupture and need. Who people belong to, how they belong, and where they belong is profoundly political. If we believe that we need all of us to build the power necessary to win, we need to understand how a belonging-need shapes actions and steers motivation. We need to see this as part of our organizing, not outside of it. 

Cultivating right-sized belonging

When I talked to organizers, leaders, and facilitators about the nature of belonging in their work, they spoke to common themes of conflict, boundaries, shared expectations, trauma, and transformation. Across movements for workers’ rights, environmental justice, disability justice, housing justice, sex worker rights, and trans justice (to name a few), many cited a tension between over- and under- belonging.

In groups where belonging was under-prioritized, it looked like: 

  • An ongoing sense of urgency, that the work is always behind or never ending
  • Members (and staff) constantly burning out or leaving the work
  • Emphasis on numbers, turnout, or one-time events rather than relationships
  • Fear, hesitation, or inability to be emotionally vulnerable or hold space for emotions 
  • Avoiding or brushing off conflict as a distraction
  • A felt sense of disposability when making mistakes or adjustments 

In groups where belonging was over-prioritized, it looked like: 

  • Reluctance to name or address conflicts, out of fear of alienating certain individuals (sometimes to the detriment of others) 
  • Constantly saying ‘yes’ to more ideas or tactics, even when it detracts from the core organizational purpose 
  • Never ending conversations about process, structure, or interpersonal dynamics that halt any externally facing work 
  • Discomfort with giving feedback or holding people accountable to mutually agreed upon responsibilities
  • Organizations taking up an inappropriate role in tending to the mental, spiritual, or physical health of a member, when needs should be shared by a wider ecosystem 
  • Built-up resentment for work not shared equitably 
  • Constant shifting of timelines or goalposts due to inability to give feedback or hold others accountable 

Between those poles, we can find “right-sized belonging” – a type of belonging that is properly balanced, so that people in our organizations feel both their internal agency and humanhood AND a resilient commitment to a collective purpose. 

Cultivating such belonging is more than making people feel comfortable or included, it’s a set of practices that are politically necessary to create deeply democratic and resilient communities. These practices can be transformative, show people that generative conflict is possible, and give folks a sense of life-saving purpose. 

The toolkit and website try to answer the question, how can base-building organizations cultivate right-sized belonging in service of strategy and sustainability? 

Practices that create belonging 

“A culture of belonging recognizes that we are always in a state of dynamic action and reaction. Belonging is never done and will constantly have to be remade. We’re in the midst of constructing new ways to see and new ways to be. This is not always comfortable, but it is part of our human experience.”

–Evan Bissell, Notes on a Cultural Strategy for Belonging

Belonging is a verb. It’s not a static destination, but rather something that is cultivated and cultivated again through iterative practice. Simply talking about belonging, an idea full of abstractions, isn’t enough. To enact change in our groups and create opportunities for belonging, we must commit ourselves to practices that become our culture. 

Intentional practice interrupts conditioning and constructs new ways of being. Just as we consider dialectical materialism in our organizing, we must see the dialectical processes of our groups. Each of us must create a hypothesis of how we need to grow right-sized belonging, test it through practices, evaluate our culture, and test it again. Our world and our work are always in motion, and our practices towards belonging must reflect this motion. 

Practicing belonging should be integral to the fabric of our organizations, not an additive to our work that fuels non-profit culture and never-ending ‘bureaucratic inertia.’ Rather than creating new work on top of our ultimate goals, I’m asking our movements to consider what a belonging-based approach to organizing looks like. When our staff, leaders, and members engage in these practices, how does it improve our ability to build trusting relationships and meet our goals? 

The toolkit presents six practices that can cultivate belonging. For each practice there is a brief description; lists of risks and opportunities; assessment questions and suggested implementations. Although this is geared towards base-building organizations, each of our groups will be different in terms of goals, size, and constituency. Folks are encouraged to spend time adapting to their unique location and culture. The six practices are:

  • Anchor your purpose: Ground people in an organizational purpose that is clear, motivating, and aligned with the material needs of your membership.
  • Approach problems with collective governance: Meet collective challenges with cross-organizational practice, ensuring there are ways to collectively hold different parts of the work.
  • Set boundaries and expectations: Evaluate and communicate organizational boundaries that define what you work on, how you operate, who you are accountable to, and what you will or will not do.
  • Understand trauma and build emotional skill: Meet the emotional moment by understanding the ways trauma impacts key membership, and clarify how the organization addresses and holds that trauma.
  • Increase conflict resilience: Create conditions that enable people to practice disagreement and generative conflict.
  • Connect to a broader movement ecosystem: Build strong organizational connections with other groups, healers, and resources to strengthen our movement ecosystem and widen belonging.

Conclusion: cultivating culture

These practices are designed so that organizations can build a culture in which belonging is a consistent throughline. Ultimately, our future success in being able to grow our power and sustain a resilient movement depends on the intentionality with which we build the culture of our organizations. 

If we are not intentional about our culture, it will be formed from the conditioned tendencies and habits that we have learned through capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the resulting traumas that come from such violence. It is not enough to rely on culture built from tradition–as our conditions change, we must be able to truly examine ourselves, see our weaknesses, and implement practices that make our movements worthwhile and irresistible. 

Practicing belonging is but one element of a strong organizational culture. When Lavender Phoenix took a hard look at ourselves in 2018 and peeled back the facade of niceness, we found ourselves face to face with our own fears. We had to recognize that for people to truly belong, we needed clear expectations for what that belonging meant. We had a duty to get more specific about our strategy, build skills to say the hard thing and disagree, and let go of the idea that we could be everything for everyone. 

Over five years later, as new people join the organization and many of us who were involved in 2018 cycle out, I’m reminded that the work of creating culture must happen iteratively. The dormant forces that refuse our inherent belonging are strong. Memory can be short. We’re learning how to tell the story of our work to people who haven’t experienced it themselves. I watch from my role as an alumni of the organization with excitement and curiosity. I know we can do it, because we’ve done it before. And I know that we, as a movement, can do it, because we must. 

For the complete toolkit, see; for a recording of the panel discussion that launched the kit, click here.

Featured image: Belonging Quilt by shurjo mukhi.

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