Outsiders and Belonging

May is Asian and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander heritage month. Use this month to learn and reflect on Asians and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders in your community.

Street art mural: girl with outstrtched hand reaching for a red heart shaped balloon, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” Art found online, unknown creator

Earlier this week I was listening to a panel of educators talk about family engagement and what they had done at their school to transform it. I know the insides and outsides of their story and knew how hard they had hustled to create systems to take care of their families during COVID and continued that even now. One of the speakers from the school’s Black Family Council talked about how he built relationships with the families. He also shared his personal story of growing up in different places and how his job took him around the world before landing in Seattle. As I was listening to him speak, I had the spark of realization one of the commonalities of people I enjoy are they understand what it is like to be an outsider AND they use their positions or power to create belonging with others.

Outsider status

At some point in everyone’s life they have most likely experienced being an outsider. Maybe these moments are because of a core part of who you are: being the only POC in a predominately white community growing up, or being the only Muslim in school for your entire childhood, being an immigrant and not understanding the dominant language, being left out because of a disability, being held back for some reason.

There are also little moments where we’ve been the outsider – starting at a new school or job, taking your kid to join a sports team and realizing you don’t know any of the other parents, or moving to a new neighborhood.

These moments as an outsider shape us. The loneliness and feeling of not knowing are hard and create feelings that are foreign and unpleasant. These feelings are important. Humans are wired to want connections and to seek safety by being with others. Historically being alone was dangerous – predators could find you, you’d be less likely to stay warm, knowledge wasn’t passed to people who were alone – being alone wasn’t as safe as being with others.

Yet these moments of feeling like an outsider are important to shaping our work in building community and trust.

Using Personal Power to Create Community

My favorite people understand and remember what it was like to be an outsider. Some even embraced that time in their lives as being an outsider, and now use that time to create belonging among others. They remembered what it felt like to be an outsider because of a core part of who they were. The feeling of being othered shaped who they are and they now work to create spaces where that feeling is lessen.

Creating a sense of belonging is a learned skill. While we are innately drawn to being with others, being together does not come seamlessly. When I facilitate, I try to remember the purpose of the gathering. It is easy to fall into patterns or formulas of our time together, but it is important to get back to the core reason of creating connections. For me many times the purpose is to build relationships between POCs and decision-makers. While anyone is welcome to attend my first priority is to create a space welcoming and comfortable for POCs. Second priority is to share information and build connections with others.

My colleague and friend from the Black Family Council shared with the group how he creates belonging among the families he works with. He intentionally asks and listens. He asked the families when and how they want to be communicated with AND he follows through on this. Many of the families he works with asked to be contacted on the weekend when they had time to talk not when they were rushing home from work or preparing dinner for young kids.

Another friend, a Black young man, talked about how a misunderstanding over a food delivery with an Asian elder immigrant led to upset feelings but very little way for the two to communicate through the situation. The following week my friend made sure he delivered food to the Asian elder. While they can’t communicate through words, they both have created a sense of belonging to each other through these actions.

A friend who works in disability justice reminds me inclusion isn’t just about physical inclusion (e.g. wheelchair ramps, elevators) or access to a meeting (e.g. interpretation, online access), it is about feeling included as whole people.

Challenge – Be an Outsider

After I had this realization about outside and insider power and inclusion, I had a thought about how I need to challenge myself to be an outsider more. I’ve grown comfortable in being with people who I like and are easy to be with. My challenge now is to be an outsider at times and remember that feeling so I can bring it back and create more belonging among people who need that space and comfort. I need to start accepting invitations where I am not in the majority, where I know few people. It is ok to be uncomfortable growth comes through stumbling forward (another lesson from a wise friend).

Creating belonging also means understanding what it means to be on the outside. The last thing we should do is create clubs that exclude when we mean to create belonging of people who are constantly on the outside.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.