Creating a Sense of Belonging

Young People Identify Ways to Build Welcoming Environments

Posted August 30, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Three young black men wearing backpacks stand close together, smiling at the camera.

Credit: Wide Angle Youth Media for the Casey Foundation

All young peo­ple should feel like they belong — that they are wel­come and rec­og­nized as human beings with strengths, poten­tial and aspi­ra­tions. Yet, this isn’t a giv­en for young peo­ple of col­or, whose cul­ture, his­to­ry and accom­plish­ments are often absent or unrec­og­nized by the peo­ple and places shap­ing their every­day lives. 

This post explores what it would look like to advance racial equi­ty in ways that would cre­ate places to live, work and play where every young per­son feels both wel­come and included. 

Belong­ing Research

Cul­ture, belong­ing and inclu­sion can direct­ly affect out­comes for young peo­ple, research indi­cates. Inspired by the work of schol­ar john a. pow­ell and the Oth­er­ing & Belong­ing Insti­tute at UC Berke­ley, the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion brought young peo­ple of col­or togeth­er with elders, thought lead­ers and youth move­ment orga­niz­ers to define what it takes to cre­ate a tru­ly inclu­sive envi­ron­ment for young people. 

We learned that cre­at­ing belong­ing doesn’t just hap­pen,” says Leslie Boissiere, the Foundation’s vice pres­i­dent of Exter­nal Affairs. It requires care­ful­ly con­sid­er­ing the expe­ri­ences that young peo­ple have and rec­og­niz­ing the unique val­ue of these expe­ri­ences. It’s also about ensur­ing that young peo­ple see them­selves reflect­ed in a place or a sit­u­a­tion and active­ly lis­ten­ing to what they have to say to con­tin­u­al­ly rein­force that they mat­ter and that this envi­ron­ment is designed to sup­port them and help them thrive.”

A lead­ing schol­ar on race equi­ty and the direc­tor of the Oth­er­ing & Belong­ing Insti­tute, pow­ell has described the root of racial, eth­nic and reli­gious con­flict explod­ing across the globe as a prob­lem of oth­er­ing.” He defines oth­er­ing as entrenched sys­tems of thought and behav­ior that under­pin per­va­sive and per­pet­u­al dis­par­i­ties. To counter these tac­tics, pow­ell writes, we must iden­ti­fy and advo­cate for inclu­sive places and new nar­ra­tives that pro­mote belonging. 

Such moves are crit­i­cal for healthy devel­op­ment, accord­ing to research. Young peo­ple are adapt­able to learn­ing and inno­va­tion, but the effects of tox­ic expo­sures — includ­ing struc­tur­al racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion — can cause last­ing harm to con­fi­dence and pos­i­tive iden­ti­ty devel­op­ment. The inter­play between biol­o­gy and the envi­ron­ment makes it imper­a­tive that the sys­tems respon­si­ble for guid­ing young peo­ple into adult­hood send an unequiv­o­cal­ly sup­port­ive message.

Key Com­po­nents of Belonging

The part­ners that the Foun­da­tion brought togeth­er iden­ti­fied sev­en con­crete ways to let young peo­ple know they belong:

  1. Mak­ing first impres­sions mean­ing­ful. When young peo­ple enter a place or a sit­u­a­tion, they should be active­ly greet­ed with cer­e­monies and words that both acknowl­edge them and engage them ful­ly and authentically.
  2. Being seen. Indige­nous youth told the Foun­da­tion that they feel invis­i­ble and want to be seen for who they are. Black youth felt seen—but in a neg­a­tive way—and expressed a desire for this to change. 
  3. Being affirmed. Young peo­ple of col­or have their iden­ti­ties affirmed when they learn about the con­tri­bu­tions, pow­er and resilien­cy of their people. 
  4. Valu­ing cul­ture. Cul­ture helps Black and indige­nous youth see them­selves in a pos­i­tive, racism-free frame. 
  5. Being heard. Young peo­ple need time and atten­tion paid to their sto­ries, ques­tions, ideas and ways of express­ing them­selves. What they have to say is of value.
  6. Hav­ing a sense of agency. Feel­ing able to con­trol your indi­vid­ual tra­jec­to­ry and cre­ate change in your envi­ron­ment is deeply con­nect­ed to pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment.
  7. Focus­ing on well-being. Orga­ni­za­tions and insti­tu­tions should hold them­selves account­able by track­ing well-being mea­sures in belong­ing, thriv­ing and flour­ish­ing. Assess­ments should cap­ture data on a young person’s con­nec­tion to land, nature, com­mu­ni­ty and culture.

More Resources on Belonging

Read an overview of what belong­ing looks like

Watch the Oth­er­ing & Belong­ing Institute’s video on build­ing an inclu­sive society

View the Foundation’s resources for advanc­ing racial equi­ty

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