Reflections on belonging

In the last couple of weeks, the UK, and the world, has experienced the death of Queen Elizabeth II. This has been a moment, like many others in life, that has been accompanied by an unspoken, and spoken, expectation that we would, and should, all be feeling the same.

When those reacting in the ‘accepted’ way have been confronted with views that questioned their own, were in difference to, or in total opposition to the mainstream reaction, this has been ignored, dismissed, branded disrespectful. Respect and deference have been the order of the day, whatever ‘silly’ form it takes, and however ‘significantly problematic’ it becomes (Olusoga, 2022).

In a Nourished Collective podcast, Angela Browne once spoke of how isolating it can be when staffroom discussions in schools turn to last night’s football match or the latest episode of Bake Off and there is an expectation that everyone has seen it, enjoyed it to the same degree, or at the very least has an opinion that won’t put an end to the conversation (2020).

As someone who doesn’t drink alcohol – and hasn’t for more than 15 years now, when conversations at work turn to the subject, I feel my heart beat a little faster, my mind race a little quicker. I choose to keep a neutral face in the hope that the conversation will soon move on to something else. This is a space in which I’m on the margins. I do not belong here, where everyone has an amusing anecdote to share. There are numerous reasons for choosing not to drink, mine is a fairly simple choice, for others it might be a religious commitment, or perhaps a step in a recovery process, each of these dimensions affecting the distant margin on which someone is situated in conversations such as this. When I do decide to share that I don’t drink, it often evokes a silence rarely experienced when in the company of others – or it attracts an equally unpleasant barrage of disbelieving questions.

What is acknowledged, is prioritised

When the murder of George Floyd led to protests around the globe in 2020, speaking about racism was suddenly mainstream. Workplace conversations erupted in a way I’ve certainly never seen before in my working lifetime.

When war broke out in Ukraine, workplaces rallied and united in compassion in a way I’ve not witnessed for the victims of conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Myanmar, or Ethiopia, for instance.

In the last couple of weeks, conversations everywhere, including those in the workspace, have been inevitably dominated by the mainstream news of the death of the Queen. Some workplaces will have had the emotional maturity to handle this in ways that sensitively and robustly acknowledge the spectrum of emotions this has evoked in their colleagues. Beyond the recognition that the Queen’s death will have potentially brought up reminders of the loss of loved ones for their colleagues, I’m wondering how many workplaces will have, at the same time, recognised other deaths, both historical and present day, that may have affected their colleagues in the last couple of weeks:

historically, at the hands of colonisation

at the hands of flooding in Pakistan

at the hands of the police.

I wonder how many workplaces have acknowledged the trauma, the despair, the hopelessness, the anger, the action that has resulted from Chris Kaba’s killing in London on the 5th of September. I wonder how workplace reactions have compared to those witnessed in 2020.

It strikes me that in the UK, citizens and the media seem to be disproportionately absorbed by violence and injustices that happen in the US. This is a convenience to those in denial of the extent of racism in the UK as they can point to the ‘unique’ challenges in the US from a distance and absolve themselves of responsibility for violence and systemic racism in the UK.

In workplaces, colleagues who may have begun to feel a sense of belonging at the recognition of systemic racism in 2020 are likely to feel even further forced to the margins in recent weeks as individuals and experiences are once more erased, dismissed, unacknowledged.

Defining belonging

Belonging is a word that I’ve seen conflated with diversity, inclusion, equity and yet it’s often used without full understanding of what it means to belong or how climates of belonging might be created in the workplace. Sharehold suggests that there are four different types of belonging, though as I understand it, none work in isolation, instead they inform, influence and are reliant on one another.

  • Foundational
  • Self
  • Societal
  • Group

For the purposes of this blog, let’s take a closer look at societal belonging. So important is this area that, when societal belonging is low, it ‘compromises or puts all other types of belonging at risk’ (Sharehold, 2021).

‘Societal belonging is the experience of the greater world affirming our value and acceptance. This refers to how we fit in with, relate to, and are accepted within society and culture at large. It extends to how our economic system, government policies, and greater cultural forces influence our sense of foundational, self, and group belonging’ (Sharehold, 2021).

‘At work, societal belonging means that our experience “in the office” is influenced by current events and the greater business and social context of our country and the world’ (Sharehold, 2021).

At no point are these current events described by Sharehold as just those listed at the top of the BBC News page.

Whose belonging is prioritised?

In a workshop for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Dr Muna Abdi reflected that without recognising the different experiences of safety in the room, a space can’t be made comfortable for everyone. We should always be asking, ‘whose understanding of safety is centred in the creation of an inclusive space?’ (2021). When conversations about current events occur in the workplace, whose experience of life is being centred? Whose safety is being prioritised?

The conversations that are had and prioritised in workplaces are often those that feel safe to those leading them.

Against a backdrop of a global conversation about black lives mattering, discussing race in the workplace began to feel safe.

Against a backdrop of national mourning and love for a queen, conversations about the legacy of empire do not feel safe.

In a country where the existence of systemic racism has been rejected by the government, a conversation about the killing of a black man by the police does not feel safe.

The safety prioritised here builds further societal belonging for those who already feel they fit in with, relate to, and are accepted within society and culture at large’ (Sharehold 2021).

Earlier on today, I listened to an episode of the Hurry Slowly podcast with Sherri Mitchell, a member of the Penobscot Tribe, an Indigenous rights attorney and activist, and the executive director of the Land Peace Foundation. The conversation was about showing up in fullness, an act that seems impossible when spaces are not created safely for all identities and experiences.

Sherri said, ‘when I think about myself in terms of who I know I am in relation to my world view, my cosmology, my ways of knowing and being in the world, it’s really about understanding my interconnectedness, my responsibility towards all other life. We’re very quick to claim our reward and we’re very quick to claim our rights. What we have failed to do is claim our responsibilities. We fail to understand that our responsibilities are the foundation that all of our rights stand upon…And so we can’t claim anything for ourselves, whether it’s a reward or a right, without ensuring that exists for all others’ (2022).

When workplaces choose to acknowledge wider cultural, political, and current events, this comes with responsibility. A consideration must be made of who is being prioritised, whose experiences and identities are being honoured, whose sense of belonging is heightened, and whose sense of belonging is further diminished.

References 

Abdi, M. (2021) Educational inequity: Language Matters. Paul Hamlyn Foundation. 6 October 2021.

Browne, A. (2020) Nourished Collective Podcast Episode 4.

Mitchell, S. and Glei, J. (2022) Showing up in fullness. Hurry Slowly. Available at: https://hurryslowly.co/410-sherri-mitchell/ (Accessed 18 September 2022).

Olusoga, P. (2022) Good Grief! Available at: https://myblackface.wordpress.com/ (Accessed: 18 September 2022).

Sharehold (2021) Redesigning Belonging. Available at: https://www.sharehold.co/redesigningbelonging (Accessed: 18 September 2022).

My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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