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Where does Belonging begin?

If the rates of loneliness and isolation are true, why don’t more people see the value in being a neighbor? Across the country, people who are working to create belonging and action in neighborhoods are asking that exact question. It’s confusing that many people don’t have the social support needed but won’t cross the street to meet their neighbors. We’re on a journey to understand this better so that we can build the resources and tools needed to create a culture of neighboring.

Join us in this series as we discover the spark behind belonging. What leads people to such a deep understanding of belonging that they’re willing to go out of their way to create it?

Part 1: Meet Jonna, Makya, and Robin

These three women are leading neighborhood organizing and connecting efforts in the West of Washington neighborhood in Holland, Michigan. As they’ve gotten to know each other and their neighbors better, they’ve realized how different their journeys to community and belonging are. Hear their stories below. 

I grew up in a small town in central Washington State.  By the time I started second grade, we had moved to the western outskirts of town, with mostly orchards around us. It was not a neighborhood. We lived on a main street, which eventually became a commercial corridor. But, when we arrived, nobody lived nearby. Then, no community, right?

Well, when I was about 7, my father, who was a lawyer, sent me (the oldest) out to connect with a man and his family who lived behind a nearby fruit ranch. I don’t remember what he told me was the reason because it soon became clear that it wasn’t just an errand. They were Seventh-Day Adventists whose children attended their own church school far from us. The point was, I think, to let them know that we were their neighbors and wanted to be connected, however informally.

This became an early foundation for my life. I learned then that a community gets created.  It does not just happen. Reflecting back, I was learning that neighbors are created by someone reaching out across an invisible line—spatial, cultural, generational, or other. 

During the last year of COVID, a community coordinator from Great Lakes Urban (Jonna) and I started meeting to strategize on how to build a sense of community where I live. With hand-delivered flyers, we began to inquire whether anyone was interested in getting to know neighbors for the sake of sharing and caring for each other. Happily, about 15 people said yes, leading to the formation of a group we call Pioneer Neighbors.  Since then, we have met regularly to care about each other and reach out to others with a newsletter, activities that include a sports evening with a picnic, as well as regular gatherings of people interested in crafts, watching movies, and going out together for coffee and conversation.

Barriers have been thrown in our way by the condo board and by the apparent preference of many for isolation over friendship. We keep “ringing the bell” for friendship because we know that isolation is not good for anyone and that each person here has something to give and to receive. This is our commitment to being a community in our neighborhood.

Growing up, I lacked the overall “push” of community. Although I did have a few friends I would play with outside or at school, I was always more of an introvert. This stemmed from how I was raised by my Mother, who too was an introvert and kept to herself. I don’t have many memories of going to a lot of huge gatherings as a child or having a lot of family and friends over. 

But, I’ve come to believe that community is something that is extremely important. I believe community is one of the things that make life better and more meaningful. It’s not that everybody must be widely involved in their community, but just having peers goes a long way. It is a part of the human experience and a connection that our bodies and minds need

It was the birth of my son that started to spark this change for me. I realized how important it was that he grew up with good support systems and love, and not just from me. It is important for him to grow up in a healthy community. Another thing that sparked this change was when I took a Community Connector course through Great Lakes Urban. This course really taught me not only the importance of community but also key ways to bring people together and asset mapping.

I grew up in an isolated bubble and was discouraged from making friends, building relationships, and connecting in almost any way. I didn’t realize I was in this bubble, and yet I knew that something was missing. One way I not only broke through this bubble, unwittingly!, and also began to understand the greater power of connectedness was through my ecology and sociology classes and experiences.

Life, to be possible, is inextricably interconnected. That is how the earth works. That’s how the universe works. That’s how we work. When participating with and paying attention to the earth, interconnected life is more tangible, visible, obvious. I grew up removed from the land, among other barriers, so I needed to learn about community and interconnectedness the hard way.

Beyond functioning, interconnectedness, or community, provide long-term stability, support, and a safety net that all humanity’s creativity, ups and downs, joys and opportunities grow from. I see lowercase community as a simple universal reality - inextricable interconnectedness. I see uppercase Community as acknowledging the threads and putting intention behind those interconnections to make the most of our web of life.

Experiencing a whole lot of interconnections slowly helped usher in this understanding. I found out that different people come with different recipes and ingredients and rules and expectations. Seeing other people doing things differently, unlearning and relearning, experimenting and trial and error, and traveling all over made me see a pattern emerge … community is what makes the world go round. Community is the solution. No matter the concern we want to address, no matter the joy we’re looking for, the fundamental, overarching, underlying experience is community.

Stay tuned in the coming months as we hear how people across the country found their spark for belonging.

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