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Why Focus on Belonging & Civic Muscle

Visit https://winnetwork.org/vital-conditions for details

WIN (Wellbeing in Our Nation) Network Research Findings

  • Vital signs, like heart rate and temperature tell us what is going in our body. Vital conditions tell us what is going on in our community.

  • As depicted in the graphic above, they are properties of places and institutions that we all need in order to reach our full potential, like food, housing, and work.

  • "Belonging and Civic Muscle" is at the heart of the other vital conditions. When belonging and civic muscle are strong, residents are able to assess their vital conditions, identify resources, and work together to achieve a common future.

  • Belonging and civic muscle is under threat because of the growing epidemic of isolation and disconnection.

  • Few agencies and organizations are working directly to build belonging and civic muscle. (Great Lakes Urban is at the forefront of this growing issue.)

The state of belonging & civic muscle

  • the number of people feeling isolated has doubled since the 1980’s to 40% today.

  • The number of people who say they have no one to turn to during difficult times has tripled since 1985.

  • A third of people today believe that “most people can be trusted,” down from 50% in the 1970s.

  • The number of definable hate groups has doubled since the year 1999.

The impact of belonging & civic muscle

  • Social connections contribute to our individual needs, including enhancing mental and physical wellbeing, helping us navigate life's challenges, and result in our living longer and happier lives.

  • At the neighborhood level, social cohesion is associated with higher levels of trust and cooperation, lower crime rates, higher per-capita incomes and better long-term economic prospects.

Great Lakes Urban is committed to cultivating connection and change. Our framework for achieving this aim is based on our 14 years of experience as a community based organization, as well as on research, such as that of the WIN (Wellbeing in the Nation) Network. The WIN Network has conducted extensive vital conditions analyses.


Vital signs, like heart rate and temperature tell us what is going in our body. Vital conditions tell us what is going on in our community. As depicted in the graphic to the right, they are properties of places that we all need in order to reach our full potential, like food, housing, and work.


A key insight from their research is that "Belonging and Civic Muscle" rests at the heart of the other vital conditions. When belonging and civic muscle are strong, residents are able to assess their issues, identify resources, and work together to achieve a preferred future. In other words, it is the factor that makes improvements in the others possible.


Belonging and civic muscle is, “about having fulfilling relationships and the social connection people need to thrive. It's being part of a community, contributing to its vibrancy, and developing the power to co-create a common world.” While there are numerous civil society organizations and public sector agencies focused on health, safety, learning, a thriving natural world, etc., there are relatively few organizations focused on cultivating place-based and people-centered connection and change.


Great Lakes Urban fills that void. We are at the forefront of a growing issue, an issue that some have gone so far as to call an "epidemic of loneliness" (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/20/nyregion/loneliness-epidemic.html). Even before the pandemic, everything from increasingly divisive politics to worsening health indicators appear to be linked to increased social isolation, a lack of belonging, and a decreased sense of mutual obligation.


This is increasingly acknowledged in the field of public health. Earlier this summer, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review journal, Great Lakes Urban was highlighted by Healthy Places by Design as a prime example of the important work that can help build community connections and improve public health. (https://ssir.org/issue/summer_2022). Similarly, we were invited to speak by the US Surgeon General's office at the US Conference of Mayors on the topic.


So, how can we replace loneliness and isolation with hope and connection? Our experience is that the neighborhood--whether a city neighborhood, a subdivision, a high rise, or a small town--is the key unit of change. Neighborhoods are large enough that diversity exists, yet small enough to create the social environment in which a sense of community can thrive. When residents experience greater connectivity, they increasingly work together across differences to co-create a shared future.


Since 2008, Great Lakes Urban has been helping neighbors co-create a shared future using Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), a set of practices backed by three decades of research by the ABCD Institute. Community connectors--highly networked residents--are key to integrating ABCD into the rhythms of neighborhood life. Supporting and equipping connectors is the key to growing belonging and civic muscle, which is why it is the core of what we do.

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