A lively crowd at the annual Kitchener Blues Fest.

Photo courtesy of The City of Kitchener.

In a world facing many social challenges, it is hard to sort through all the “need” and find the right place to start inciting change. It is understood that poverty, housing and food insecurity (to name but a few) are very real challenges.

We see them every day when we go to work, drive to hockey practice or take a walk in the park. The question is: how can we tackle complex issues like these if people are disconnected, isolated and indifferent?

How can we improve the quality of life for individuals in need when we do not address the underlying problems that led to them being marginalized in the first place? In other words, you can’t just supply food and housing without working with individuals to realize their value and importance to the community. People need to feel like they “belong” before they are driven to improve their own quality of life or that of others. 

Every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling “This is important! And this is important! And THIS is important! You need to worry about this, and this, and this!” And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, “No. This is what’s important.”
– Iain Thomas from I Wrote This For You (2007)

But what does “belonging” mean? And where and how does a community start to improve its residents’ sense of belonging? 

These complex questions have been at the heart of the work of The Kitchener and Waterloo Community Foundation (The KWCF) since 2013. As an organization focused on improving the quality of life in the Ontario cities of Kitchener and Waterloo plus surrounding areas, The KWCF’s work is often framed as “Building,” “Investing” and “Leading.” The foundation builds not only assets, but also knowledge of the community and relationships that are integral to getting work done. The KWCF invests in community for the betterment of community by leveraging their assets (dollars, relationships and knowledge), and they lead, not from the rooftops or the front of the line, but quietly from the back, connecting and collaborating to make change happen. 

Underlying this work is Waterloo Region’s Vital Signs®. The Vital Signs report is an annual community checkup through which The KWCF measures the vitality of Waterloo Region. It identifies significant trends in key areas critical to residents’ quality of life. The report informs all levels of The KWCF’s ventures – from the board’s work in setting strategy, to helping define and focus grant initiatives. It is also an instrument that the community can use for improving life in Waterloo Region. In 2013, The KWCF began its “belonging” journey because of what The Vital Signs revealed.

Statistics Canada has reported that there has been a declining trend among those feeling a “somewhat strong” or “very strong” sense of community since 2003. This is especially true for those aged 20 to 34.

This means our current and future leaders are feeling less like they belong to this community. Why is this important? Those who do not feel like they belong are unlikely to step up with time, talent and treasure when it’s needed most.

To tackle this challenge, The KWCF commissioned a report with the purpose of understanding the current state of belonging and developing an approach for improvements. 

Key findings revealed that “belonging” benefits individuals and communities. People generally agree on what it feels like to belong: happy, safe, content, relaxed, supported, valued and accepted. Based on participant input, belonging is associated with good outcomes, such as relationship building, self-growth, helping others, collaborating, being cared for and having fun. In addition, the report revealed the three elements or building blocks to belonging: authentic interactions, feeling welcome and shared experiences. 

It is also critical to understand social inclusion and social capital. 

In a socially inclusive society, all people are able to secure a job, access services, connect with the local community and have their voices heard, regardless of factors such as race, ability, family background, income, age, gender and belief. Social inclusion is an important place to start designing systems for belonging, but it is not where one finishes. 

The relationship between social capital and belonging is a close one. In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam defines social capital as “connections among individuals — social networks and norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” Putnam’s definition emphasizes social connections, which are also an integral part of belonging.

The effects of social capital and belonging on a community are similar. Putnam provides evidence that in communities with high social capital, children are healthier, safer and better educated. People live longer, have happier lives – and democracy and the economy work better. 

A sense of belonging is associated with a better quality of life. Research demonstrates a significant association between a sense of belonging and health. Both belonging and social capital are expressed through higher civic engagement.

In short, a community with high social capital will be a community where most experience a strong sense of belonging, and vice versa.

The KWCF used these findings to guide its community investments. In turn, this has sparked a shift in the local non-profit community. Organizations are infusing “belonging” into their approach, forming better relationships and having greater impact with their work. 

But the work has just begun. It is a marathon race in which we all need to keep working until all the racers are across the finish line. We each have a role to play in our community’s success. We are responsible for stepping up and making our community one where everyone feels like they belong and can make a difference.  

So, when we’re asked how dare we focus on a “first world” issue such as belonging? The answer is simple: how dare we not? 

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