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Creating structures for belonging or a belongingness policy agenda, while necessary, is also insufficient. As important as many of these structural interventions may be, in some respects they remain too shallow. Such structures are necessary ballast for societies that do not have belonging at their heart or are ambivalent about inclusion. Although legally potent remedies, many of these reforms are weak prophylactics for cultural change.

In addition to institutional or structural policy interventions designed to gestate social trust or extend societal concern and regard more widely, belonging requires deliberate practice. One of the critical steps toward reducing othering and promoting belonging is a practice known as “bridging.” Bridging is a particular form of social capital which describes connections that link people across a cleavage that typically divides society (such as race, or class, or religion).

Bridging is a practice where members of different social groups are not only brought into contact, but build social connections and rapport. Thus bridging activities can be as simple as an interfaith dinner or a multicultural concert or as complex and institutionally embedded as a leadership training program or an experiential course on cultural differences. The point is that members of different social groups are compelled, through bridging, to extend their attention and build connections across the boundaries of difference.

The heart of bridging is listening to and learning from and about the person perceived as different or even as “the other.” Listening means hearing their story, not to confirm their facts or perspective, but to affirm their humanity. Listening is sometimes confused with agreement, although the former does not require the latter. The simple act of being heard has a powerful impact on both the speaker and the listener. Active and empathetic listening is perceived and felt as a form of caring and regard, and it builds trust. Remarkably, it may have a greater tendency to induce change or shift opinion than listening for purpose of persuasion, to change a person’s opinion. Listening to persuade is not bridging, because it does not convey care or build trust.

The emphasis in bridging practice is centering stories and narratives rather than facts and data. The goal is not to arrive at “truth,” but rather to better understand how another group sees itself and express what is important to it. Thus the groups do not necessarily have to agree on a set of facts, but they should strive to better understand each other’s perspective. They should seek to recognize the identity of the group they are bridging with, even if they dispute the claims that accompany that identity narrative. We can acknowledge each other’s humanity even in our disagreement.

One notable example of a bridging effort is the New Baptist Covenant, a movement launched in 2007 to bring Black and white Baptist churches into conversation and, ultimately, into covenant agreements. But in the initial phase, the idea was that the congregations get to know each other, learn more about their shared histories, and engage in projects and trips together.

The practice of bridging requires a curated space, a set of ground rules, and a strong moderator or facilitator. In its initial stages, bridging is not about resolving conflict. Over time, the practice of bridging will build the trust needed to negotiate such matters, and ultimately create the connections and trust that engender a wider sense of belonging. As groups get better at bridging, they will find it easier to bridge with more groups—even across longer bridges.

Bridging is one of the pillars to create a culture of belonging. Belonging calls for being heard and seen. The deliberate practice of bridging strengthens our capacity to hold and maintain an empathetic space, something our societies desperately need, and people broadly want and desire. Too many of the spaces we inhabit—neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, politics—are defined by zero-sum competition and status-seeking rather than mutual recognition. We must inculcate bridging practices within all of our critical institutions. The more we do it, the better we will get, and the more the benefits will become manifest.

Critically, however, bridging does not mean that any individual or group must give up an identity that is meaningful to them. It is a practice for increasing empathy, compassion, and common ground that begins to erase lines drawn between groups on the basis of fear. It does not deny difference, but rather recontextualizes and softens it.

The necessity of bridging does not mean that bridging is possible in every social context. Bridging would be impossible or unreasonable in a context in which one group is threatening another with immediate violence. Similarly, bridging does not mean one cannot take a political or moral position against a particular practice or ideology. While we embrace the practice and concept of bridging, we reject the ideology of group-based supremacy and dominance. This is a fundamental guardrail in any ideology or practice relating to group-based affiliation.

Bridging is an important form of social capital identified by social scientists, but it is not the only one. In addition to “linking” social capital, another common form of social capital is known as “bonding.” This is when members of a group turn inward, and focus mainly on each other and themselves. There is also a practice we call “breaking,” which goes further than “bonding,” and is actually the antithesis of social capital—it is where members of a group not only turn inward, but explicitly push members of other groups away. Bridging is the only way we will turn back the tide of a world of breaking, where social capital is degraded and destroyed.

We call for a world where everyone belongs; where we belong to each other, and ultimately, where that circle of widening concern extends even beyond the human realm, including to the earth itself.


Editor's note: This blog post is excerpted from Belonging without Othering: How We Save Ourselves and the World by john a. powell and Stephen Menendian, published by Stanford University Press, ©2024 by john a. powell and Stephen Menendian. All Rights Reserved.