Cultivating a Culture of Belonging

Culture, though not seen, holds a lot of power as it directs and shows what a gathering of people value collectively, acceptable behaviors, and customs. Addressing culture can be intimidating because of the efforts it takes to transform it and support excellence in a group or organization. Though it is hard work, it is imperative to take intentional actions to create and sustain a culture you want to see, such as a culture of belonging where everyone feels welcomed, seen, heard, and valued for who they are and the skills and talents they contribute, which is a driving factor for psychological well-being. A culture of belonging when referred to in terms of the workplace is linked to an increase in job performance, and a drop in turnover, and a reduction in sick days.1 Cultivating a culture of belonging is important for leaders of various movements whether organizational leaders, leaders of community groups, or any gathering of people working to advance racial and social justice.  

At CSSP our anti-racist intersectional frame keeps a shining light on where power is held in institutions and systems as well as the oppression that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) experience and an approach for working with and in communities to create a more equitable society.2  Shifting to a culture of belonging helps to reimagine the norms, values, and customs that support individuals of an institution or group and maintain this culture with policies, practices, and procedures that can significantly eliminate oppression and redistribute power more equitably. 

ProInspire, a non-profit organization in Washington, DC teaches through their Self to Systems: Leading for Race Equity Impact model, which we love at CSSP, it takes changes at many levels, self, people, organizations, and systems to advance racial equity. What we have observed over the years working with many institutions and groups is the need to be in accordance with who the organization/group says it is and does and aims to be and impact, which has a lot to do with building and sustaining a culture of belonging. That is individuals working on themselves and their interpersonal relationships, aligning with values, norms, and customs that speak to the people of the group to foster a culture of belonging as well as fortifying this shift with equitable policies, procedures, and practices. Ultimately, rounding out an environment where people can thrive and do their best work aligned with the core values and carry out the organization’s mission with hopes of actualizing its vision. Let’s explore this some more. Please note that we will transition to referencing institutions knowing that some of these strategies can also be useful for other spaces where people gather for a collective purpose. 

Cultivating a Culture of Belonging

  • Work on the smallest unit of change: the individual

Culture is created when groups of individuals gather under shared values, norms, and customs. The smallest unit of change in this scenario is individuals. Every person that is a part of a culture is responsible for cultivating and sustaining it. Leaders especially, due to their positional power, have a duty to ensure the culture is beneficial to all those it serves. Transformation of self includes exploring one’s identities to disrupt harmful belief systems. The Ladder of Inference shows us why it is important to test our observations, interpretations, and assumptions before we draw conclusions.3 If not we have harmful implicit biases that shape what we think and therefore how we behave.4 Being able to look within and reflect allows one’s self to understand who their true self is, what areas need healing and growth so there actions mimic what they desire to see in themselves. In part supporting their wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others because they are more aware of their beliefs and actions and can begin to prioritize learning about different perspectives. Organizations can encourage and make time available to staff to learn about their implicit biases through the Harvard Implicit Association Test5 with a desire to spark further exploration of individual beliefs, and how they understand, make decisions, and act in this world based on their ideologies. As well as some individual reflection activities from this Collective Impact’s Racial Equity Toolkit to look within with hopes of continuing on with the collaborative sections of the toolkit to ignite conversations among the colleagues.

  • Strength and repair interpersonal relationships

Interpersonal relationships are strengthened when individuals work on themselves. Helping them to navigate through varying stages of relationships, such as building connection and intimacy with others, being attentive to differences in identities when communicating or working with others including navigating challenging conversations, and lastly restoring relationships. Organizations can support growth in these areas by creating opportunities for connection (note: engagement before learning or working together is always helpful) such as check-ins with staff during each meeting or gathering, sharing perspectives using storytelling, eating together, etc. Leaders can also support healing and repairing from harm by addressing conflict when it arises, offering employee assistance programs that provide mental health services for a variety of social issues, encouraging wellness practices (including time away from work), forming and/or encouraging the use of temporary or permanent employee resource groups (also know as affinity spaces) as well as offering restorative justice practices, such as talking circles that allow folks to express regret, share the impact of harm, understand the impact of harm, and potentially reconcile and strengthen relationships.

  • Create or re-evaluate shared values, behaviors, and customs

As we stated earlier, when people gather, a culture exists. Shifting culture requires a variety of perspectives, especially in roles that hold positional power. A culture of belonging requires intentional actions to ensure that there are shared values, standards of behavior, and practices that support staff wellbeing, and therefore the work you do, benefiting the people you serve. A critical piece to the shared values or purpose is understanding who the organization is and what it does, and who it aspires to be and impact. A way to tackle this is to create or re-evaluate the core values, mission, and vision. Doing so can help determine what is important and meaningful to the organization and the work it does, and how you want to be experienced by the people you serve. It is important to have these values embodied in all that is done, for example modeling and referencing within internal and external meetings and the services you provide, as well as using the values to evaluate how staff (including leaders) are living up to these factors. If these values were upheld, organizations could see glimpses of their vision for the people they serve within the sphere of influence of their mission.

This is also a time to think about standard behaviors that support these values. For example, behaviors such as providing clear direction, feedback, and updates and being open about what can and can not be shared due to confidentiality or other constraints is in alignment with an organizational value of transparency. Organizations can use this worksheet as a starting place for examining and pivoting to standard behaviors that would benefit all staff and stakeholders. Things to consider when transforming these norms are whether there are racialized consequences for using the practices, the standard behaviors being used to dominant people, considering what is at the root of the use of the practice, etc.6 Another component to culture is the traditions or customs that are in alignment with shared values and norms of the organization. Perhaps, leadership weekly shares important organizational updates, information, and encouragement of wellness practices to staff. It is effective for people in organizations to move in accordance with their culture (values, behaviors, and customs). By doing so it is a continual reminder to check on the culture to ensure it speaks to who an organization says it is, what it does, aims to be, and impact.

Sustaining a Culture of Belonging

Establishing a culture of belonging provides the criteria (based on your values, norms, and customs) to identify strategy, which policies, practices, and procedures are needed to sustain the culture. The often-easier place to start when addressing equity is to focus on the strategy piece, in essence policies, practices, and procedures. But because culture is not seen, if there is no attention and effort to create a culture of belonging the organization will continue to operate as is despite efforts to implement equitable policies and practices.

All of what was shared is interdependent. Individuals must disrupt internalized oppression (individuals with marginalized identities) and/or internalized superiority by raising their self-awareness and cultivating inner well-being to help foster more meaningful and trusting relationships with others and help to navigate through disagreement or conflict with care. Therefore, when individuals gather, they can cultivate and uphold values, norms, and customs of belonging that are then enforced by equitable policies, practices, and procedures. At the same time, it is important to note that culture and strategy that make up the environment of an organization or group can significantly negatively impact or positively affirm who an individual is and therefore how they show up. It is not enough to solely focus on one of these areas if you want to develop and sustain a culture of belonging and create sustainable changes.

Who is CB&LD: We work with partners and communities to advance racial justice through capacity building and leadership development.

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