Banner image: "We Are Closer Than We Think" by Ed Dingli.

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In Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, “belongingness” sits just above basic physiological requirements like nourishment and safety, perhaps the clearest acknowledgment that belonging is a fundamental need for all of us. At OBI, our interest in belongingness is guided by the question of how we can embed belonging within the systems and structures that shape our lives. Our focus on structures reflects the reality that interpersonal work alone cannot fix systemic and structural othering, as illustrated by the wide disparities we see in public health, housing, and educational outcomes across a variety of identity groups.

At its core, structural belonging requires mutual power, access, and opportunity among all groups and individuals within a shared container (such as a society, organization, club, etc). Operationalizing belonging means that all groups and individuals can contribute to the evolution or definition of that to which they seek to belong, which may entail a profound transformation of the container itself, not just the inclusion of individuals within them. 

Indeed, in contrast to important concepts related to equity like “diversity” or “inclusion,” belonging is not merely a transactional solution, such as filling seats at a table or being included in existing structures. Rather, belonging is about the transactional and the transformational: it’s building the table together—or maybe deciding we need something other than a table to meet our needs altogether. 

Bridging is a project aimed at crossing identity-based lines and is an essential tool for building belonging. To bridge involves two or more individuals or groups coming together across acknowledged lines of difference in a way that both affirms their distinct identities, and allows for a new, more expansive identity. Bridging addresses tensions or “breaking” dynamics that sustain division, in order to develop a new “we” that is not only more inclusive, but cohesive, durable, and consistent with bringing about belonging and greater social justice. The new “we” that results need not agree on everything, or even very much; but its members should have a shared empathy and lasting stake in one another. Bridging rejects all strict “us versus them” framings, but without erasing what is different and unique in each party.

The Othering and Belonging Institute partners with community-based organizations, research institutions, and policymakers to expand the possibilities for enlarging belonging in our country and beyond.