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Recap and Reflections on the 2019 Global Symposium

The 2019 Global Symposium on Reimagining Community in the 21st Century was held at Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto from October 28-30, 2019.
December 12, 2019

The 2019 Global Symposium convened activists, advocates, policymakers, innovators, and other changemakers from around the world to share ideas and deepen partnership around a vital mission: building the Right to Belong. In this article, Lorraine Coulter—a U.S.-based journalist, poet, and public policy consultant—shares reflections on the gathering in Toronto and hopes for the future of the movement.

Belonging is a state of wholeness: the experience of being at home in the social, environmental, organizational, and cultural contexts of one’s life. Belonging is beloved community, rootedness in a place, a feeling of ownership in shared outcomes, and a sense of shared mission. It’s not just human contact—it’s care.

—Kim Samuel, Founder of the Samuel Center for Social Connectedness

Over the last five years, beginning with the first Global Symposium in Toronto in 2014, a diverse group of activists and changemakers from across the world have been engaged in intensive visioning, problem-solving and collaboration around the issues of social isolation and human connection. Through the course of these explorations, it’s become clear that a new paradigm is needed to address these issues—one that centers around belonging. 

The concept of belonging, as set out by Kim Samuel in her opening remarks, envisions a connection to people, place, power, and purpose. These facets of human experience shape the ways we’re able to navigate our relationship with ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Attention to these ways of being-in-relation calls for an awareness not only of our connectedness, but of our interconnectedness. 

Kim Samuel giving opening remarks. “Building belonging requires active recognition of the inherent worth of each and every human being, starting with one’s own self,” she said.

We’re moving toward an awareness of just how interconnected we are as the effects of climate change manifest themselves across the world in increasing intensity and breadth—effects which know no boundaries, and on a planet whose intricate ecologies form the basis of our survival and our flourishing. Our social, economic, and political systems will be profoundly impacted. So too will our communities and our collectives, our hearts, and our minds.

2019 Global Symposium - Photo by Gabriel Li
Circle of participants.

“The way forward,” as Kim stated in her opening remarks, “is a global agenda to restore our connection to people, place, power, and purpose. The path forward is to enshrine our Right to Belong.” 

At its heart, Kim Samuel’s vision of the Right to Belong calls for changing the values and norms that drive our societies so they evoke and empower care, reciprocity, and interconnectedness. It’s an ancient idea with profound modern implications. 

At the 2019 Global Symposium, advocates, activists, scholars, and educators from around the world explored how to understand the ways in which the Right to Belong can be enshrined as an inalienable and universal right. We examined how belonging can be forged in legal frameworks, policymaking, and practice. And through shared research, stories, songs, drumming, and art, we considered how it can be elevated as a cultural value that informs human perspectives and behavior. 

Yolanda Sankobe performing her poem, “I Love Your Fruit.”

Belonging: Restoring Our Connection to Purpose

It’s important to have a sense of why we’re here, where we should be headed, and what’s right and good.
—Kim Samuel

The vision set out over the course of the 2019 Global Symposium is nothing less than a reimagining of our world and the narratives that guide our lives. Envisioning a world that honors expansive forms of belonging and inclusivity requires deep attention to how we think about our purpose in the world. 

Our sense of purpose – that which constellates our intentions and forms the ethical, moral, and spiritual ground of our view of our role in the world – influences all of the ways in which we seek out meaning and belonging in our lives. The Symposium asked us to examine the values and norms we hold, and how we cultivate and transmit them—whether through shared stories, legal frameworks or organizational policies, or simply the way we walk in the world. 

In his remarks, Eskasoni First Nation Elder Albert Marshall spoke to one of the values important in Mi’kmaq culture which might inform our collective vision as we navigate the challenges and opportunities for cultivating belonging in our societies and our lives. Albert shared the concept of Two-Eyed Seeing, or Etuaptmumk in Mi’kmaq. Its essence is important to Aboriginal ways of knowing, and expresses a way of being that honors belonging, reciprocity, and care. 

“Two-Eyed Seeing is a guiding principle of how I should co-exist in this wonderful Creation of ours,” Albert said. “It reminds me that my responsibilities have to be seen as paramount over my own individual needs. How can we bring together our different ways of knowing so we can leave the world a better place for the next seven generations?”

Albert Marshall speaking about Two-Eyed Storytelling.

The concept understands belonging to a greater whole as a central orienting principle that invokes responsibility for oneself, others and Mother Earth. “When we talk about family, we’re not just talking about our human family. Embedded in our consciousness is an awareness of how we are interdependent and interconnected with every living entity. From that flows responsibilities to maintain the ecological integrity of our environment.” 

It’s this call for expanding our consciousness to include all beings in ever widening circles of care that captivates this movement to restore our sense of connection and belonging in the world. 

Albert also spoke to the ways in which Two-Eyed Seeing expresses the capacity to integrate both Indigenous and Western knowledge; to draw from both the rational mind and the intuitive mind, the heart and the spirit. Its summons to integrative ways of collaboration and co-creation of knowledge and learning made it an important frame for the Symposium as we came together to map out a visionary path to restoring belonging in ourselves, our communities, our nations, and our planet.

Graphic recording on movement building.

The acknowledgement of our interconnectedness and receptivity to multiple ways of seeing opens up the potential for drawing connections across peoples, sectors and fields to coalesce diverse efforts to gain and protect rights related to belonging into larger unified movements. 

One of those movements has been the campaign to establish the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Dr. Kenneth Atsenhaienton Deer, Director of the Indigenous World Association and Secretary of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, spoke about the complex process of coming together with a diverse body of Indigenous peoples from Latin America, Scandinavia, North America and Africa over the course of twenty-five years. 

“Even though we had different languages, came from different regions, different life experiences, we all had something very much in common,” he said, “and that is the dispossession, the disempowerment, the victims of genocide and oppression. That’s what held us together. That’s what gave us so much strength and solidarity even though we spoke different languages.”

Dr. Kenneth Atsenhaienton Deer.

Difference and diversity is often crucial to the success of coalitions and movements. Dr. Musimbi R.A. Kanyoro, former CEO and President of the Global Fund for Women, spoke to the power of intersectionality of causes and the gathering of momentum and awareness that occurs when disparate movements collaborate.

“Every women or person who experienced domestic violence thought that they were crazy by themselves. But then this became political. People began to hear it from others through [different] movements, and they began to reframe it: ‘It’s not about me being crazy. It’s about something wrong happening to me.’ Today, there is no part of the world where you will not hear about gender-based violence being spoken out in public, in the villages, in parliaments, at the UN, etc.”

Belonging: Restoring Our Connection to Power

Belonging is connection to power: It’s our capacity to contribute, to help shape our circumstances, to give our gifts to the world.
—Kim Samuel

During the Symposium, Kim offered a bold vision for achieving the kinds of transformations in power that are needed to achieve a formalized recognition of the Right to Belong as well as the restoration of our sense of belonging in practice: a Charter for Belonging. It proposes to be participatory in its very formation and development, a living document, an aspirational set of principles and ideas that would serve as a road map for the work of belonging. Belonging becomes both a process and an outcome of the Charter.

Graphic recordings on the Charter for Belonging and Rituals of Belonging.

One of the most important ideas given voice at the Symposium was the idea that rights don’t come from governments or legal structures: they are inherent to us as human beings. 

Bill Alford, Chair of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, argued, “I think that rights emerge from our core humanity, and as such they transcend what states do or don’t do,” he said. At the same time, we must also often work with existing institutions and frameworks to bring about acknowledgement of those rights. 

What does the Right to Belong look like in practice? Bill laid out the main steps toward codifying a right to inclusion and belonging, as well as challenges and opportunities to implementing it. 

“Some people may react by saying, ‘We can’t order people to embrace others unless they already want to,’” he said. “But inspired by Kim and others, I would suggest that we think of it differently. What we can do is, as with disability [rights], use the idea of a right to push changes both in the societal structures that shape behavior, so that they can better facilitate real inclusion in how people think about their responsibilities to each other. So that inclusion is not seen as a luxury or favor or charity, but as something to which all of us are entitled by virtue of our humanity.”

Group discussion during a breakout session.

How do we restructure society to be more inclusive? If societies are to honor belonging and inclusion in practice, processes of decision-making and power must be transformed. On the one hand, this means existing processes must become more participatory. Traditionally marginalized groups need a seat at the table at every level of decision-making, for instance, from local government up through the United Nations. As Yukon Regional Chief Kluane Adamek of the Kluane First Nation observed, “The people whose rights are being dishonored or not respected are not included at all in the systems that are creating them.”  

“We should have a prerogative as an Aboriginal person to be able to integrate who I am into this system,” agreed Albert Marshall, “so that we will no longer see ourselves as just looking in the window. Rather we will become a contributing member of this community that we are supposed to be talking about.” 

On the other hand, decision-making and participatory structures themselves may need to be built anew to hold space for more robust processes of belonging and inclusion that honor multiple ways of knowing and seeing. Often this requires cultivation from the grassroots up. 

Participants highlighted the importance of community-driven and designed projects that were also receptive to other forms of knowledge as one of the ways connections to power can be restored through grassroots structures. 

In Zimbabwe, Dr. Dixon Chibanda, a professor at the London School of Tropical Medicine, founded a project called the Friendship Bench which harnesses the role of grandmothers as custodians of local culture and wisdom to reach thousands of people to avert suicides and treat depression. Through the program, “community grandmothers,” who are trained in the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy, make themselves available on park benches in the community to create spaces of healing and connection for people suffering from mental health issues.

Dr. Dixon Chibanda and Jocelyn Mackie, Co-CEO, Grand Challenges Canada discuss the Friendship Bench. Cluster randomized controlled trial studies found that the program was more effective than psychiatrists at treating depression in project communities.

In the context of Zimbabwe, where most professionals had fled amid a crisis situation in the country at the time of the program’s founding, grandmothers were the most important resource left in most communities. The program has been scaled up in other countries across Africa, a testament to its ability to refine project formats according to local kinship norms and cultural values.  

“What you’re seeing in this simple example is how innovations from low-resource settings can be transformational for our world,” Dr. Chibanda said. “I’m constantly trying to remind decision makers about the simplicity of interventions that are human-focused and how we can learn from them here in more resource-rich settings.”

Showing program impact and potential through data- or evidence-driven research can serve to open channels of power and strengthen linkages between grassroots institutions and higher-level decision-makers who hold policymaking capacities.  

Ramona Herdman, Head of Tackling Loneliness for the government of the United Kingdom, noted that research findings were a significant factor in catalyzing the UK government to take a stand to combat loneliness in the country—the first government to do so through the formation of an entire department dedicated to the issue. “The reason the government acted is because of public demand. Government listened, made an effort to understand the new data, and acted.”

Speakers on the Panel: What Do We Value? Toward Human-Centered Policy Making. Ian Skelly, Mary Davis, Honourable Rehmah Kasule, Ramona Herdman, Sabina Alkire, and Mary Gordon.

In her address to the United Nations Security Council, Syrian refugee Nujeen Mustafa, a Youth Advocate on Refugee and Disability Rights, pointed to the crucial role data—what kind is collected and what kind isn’t—plays in decision-making. The data collection process itself is a locus of power.

“There is very little data on how many people with disabilities live in Syria or have fled to neighboring countries, and what our needs are,” she said during her testimony at the UN. “And without this data, the programs and policies just don’t meet our needs. We are invisible.”

Emina Ćerimović, Nujeen Mustafa, and Nisreen Mustafa.

Storytelling is also crucial to nourishing connections and understanding of different kinds of knowledge and life experience. Two-Eyed Seeing is again informative here, and grounded by the sharing of stories. “We are constantly wondering and striving not to be just acknowledged as just the original inhabitants of this hemisphere, but [also] we are dying of loneliness,” Albert Marshall said, “because we are not being given the opportunities to share some of the stories and the wisdom that has been passed down to us from our ancestors.” 

It isn’t just political or social systems that require transformation if we are to build belonging through restoring our connection to power: it’s our economic systems as well. As Kim proposed in her opening remarks, we need to create economic systems that build our shared wellbeing and resilience. 

This requires that we reconsider what “progress” should mean, and how it should be measured. “While GDP is a good indicator of our industrial output,” she argued, “it says almost nothing about the elements of life that underpin our belonging.” What we measure reflects what we value, and determines what elements in our societies are incentivized and invested in.  

Devising indexes and incentives to support economic systems built on the value of belonging requires a radical shift away from valuing people only in relation to their economic productivity and towards valuing them for their inherent worth. It calls for indicators that reflect non-economic aspects of connectedness, inclusiveness, and care. 

Ncazelo Ncube, CEO, PHOLA.

Dr. Sabina Alkire, Director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, spoke about an alternative national indicator system, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index (GNH), which has been an exemplar of moves to develop alternative systems of valuation and economic governance.

The GNH has been important in guiding Bhutan’s economic and social policies. Over the last several years, as modernization and urbanization in the country has brought about increases in prosperity in economic areas of life, it has nevertheless been accompanied by declines in community vitality. Including indices for both types of well-being in the index has enabled the government to understand these trends and to respond to them by creating more time for ritual and ceremonial activities, Sabina explained, one of the main ways communities maintain and deepen collective bonds and a sense of meaning in their lives.

Belonging: Restoring Our Connection to People

Imagine if we measure our material lives not just on what we deposit in our individual bank accounts—but rather what we deposit in our collective Bank of Resilience.
—Kim Samuel

Graphic recording on the Bank of Resilience.

Many speakers and participants pointed to the importance of nourishing relationships and supporting relational aspects of individual and community development in building a “bank of resilience” in communities and the wider world.

Marlene Ogawa, Acting Country Director at Synergos in South Africa, observed that many organizations attending to children and youth in South Africa focus on addressing material needs of children rather than on emotional psychosocial support. Synergos works with those organizations to raise awareness about the importance of social connectedness, both within the care-giving organizations themselves and within local communities.

Marlene Ogawa.

“Unfortunately, we live in a world that defines us differently, where other people, other communities have more rights to belong or to have access to certain amenities compared to other people,” Marlene said. Programming that connects multiple levels of community and civil society—from children and youth to community leaders to care-giving organizations—strengthens networks of care and opens channels of reciprocity.

“The gift of the work has been how it shifts organizations—from the staff to the people they work with [in communities]. It shifts their levels of strength and resilience and agency. Agency for us is really important because it really gives people a voice in communities where often they feel voiceless.”

Coming into her own voice has been a journey of resilience and transformation for Loretta Claiborne, Chief Inspirational Officer and Vice Chair, Board of Directors at Special Olympics International.

Growing up with a developmental disability—she didn’t walk or speak until she was four years old—and as one of seven children in a poor African American family in the 1960s, Loretta faced social isolation and bullying in her youth. Her world changed when a few key adults in her life persisted in their efforts to guide Loretta into the Special Olympics when she was an adolescent. “It saved my life,” she said.

Loretta Claiborne. “Never, ever underestimate the power of a person. We all deserve the right to live in this world. It’s one world, but many people,” she said.

The community support system and the diligence and courage Loretta developed in her training through the program have helped her forge a path to becoming a six-time gold medalist in the Special Olympics and a champion for people with intellectual disabilities. She is now a leader who inspires and fortifies those around her, and an advocate for the power of inclusion and building accepting communities that support people with disabilities to find their full potential as human beings.  

Artists created graphic recordings on each of the Symposium sessions.

How do we build belonging in places where community is stifled and barriers to connectedness are part of the physical, socio-economic, and political infrastructure? Places such as prisons, psychiatric institutions, orphanages, and nursing homes are among the spaces where social isolation is most pernicious and building community is most difficult.

Bethany Brown, a researcher on older people’s rights at HRW, spoke to the challenges these institutions pose to respecting human dignity and wellbeing.

Bethany Brown speaking during the Right to Belong panel.

“All of these places share the same risk to human rights,” said Bethany. “By putting someone in a box, by putting someone in a facility away from the rest of society, you create inherent risks to their humanity, to their dignity, and you take away their connection from the rest of society. You take away that community. We have a right to live in the community on an equal basis with others in our old age. We have a right to that community.” 

Ensuring the Right to Belong is honored in these spaces would require that norms honoring empathy, care, and belonging are reflected both in institutional rules and vision statements as well as in societal regulation of these bodies. Advocacy and educational campaigns like those initiated by HRW—as well as rights enforcement mechanisms—are important measures for shifting public perception to uphold norms related to belonging and care in institutional spaces. 

Belonging: Restoring Our Connection to Place

Having a home should mean having a sanctuary—a place of safety, where you can be understood by others… When we feel a sense of belonging in a physical place or a natural ecosystem, we feel an intuitive commitment to preserve it.
—Kim Samuel

Lorraine Johnson and Seana Irvine leading the Nature Walk around Evergreen Brick Works, a reclaimed brick making plant in the Don Valley, Toronto, where the 2019 Global Symposium was held. Evergreen is a leading example of adaptive reuse, brownfield remediation and ecological restoration and functions as a demonstration site and community gathering point where the public can experience sustainable practices that enable flourishing cities of the future, as it states on its website.

Refugee populations face some of the most daunting challenges to re-establishing a sense of belonging once they have been forced to flee their homes, their communities, and their countries. Refugees with disabilities face even more complex barriers to belonging.

Emina Ćerimović, Senior Researcher at HRW, herself a Bosnian refugee, spoke with Syrian refugees Nujeen and Nisreen Mustafa about their experience fleeing the war in Syria and their fight for refugee and disability rights.

Nujeen was born with cerebral palsy, unable to walk. Although people fleeing war situations often leave behind family members with physical disabilities, Nisreen did not. She accompanied her sister Nujeen over 16 months and 3,500 miles, by foot, boat, and bus to reach Germany from Syria.

Before fleeing Syria, Nujeen was confined to the fifth-floor apartment in Aleppo where her family lived. She never went to school. But her ardor for learning drove her to learn English by watching movies and documentaries. These language skills have been important on her path as an advocate for refugee and disability rights: in April 2019, Nujeen became the first person with a disability to testify before the UN Security Council. She was also the first Syrian. It was due to her testimony that the UN adopted a resolution to protect refugees with disabilities in armed conflicts.

Emina Ćerimović, Nujeen Mustafa, and Albert Marshall.

“If someone can talk about the right to belong, I honestly can’t think of anyone else who can talk about it better,” Emina said. “They have always been the minority. Nisreen and Nujeen were a minority as Kurds in Syria. As Syrian Kurds now in Germany where they live [they are also minorities] as women. And for Nujeen, [she is] a woman with a disability.”

“To me, belonging is losing that label of “refugee,” Nujeen said. “I would like people to look at me and see what we will become in the future, and what all refugees could do without going back to that first oppression or label. That’s the kind of belonging I wish for all refugees around the world, that they are accepted for their uniqueness and celebrated instead of being just put out on the corner and staying there.”

Both sisters suggested that more education in host countries on people in other cultures is needed to cultivate openness and inclusive views, as well as creating ways for host communities and refuges to have more exposure to one another.

“Both groups need to get to know each other more in the sense that the unfamiliar becomes familiar, and therefore accepted,” Nujeen explained. “You don’t fear anything that you recognize and feel comfortable with.”

Elders from Mi’kmaq communities taught participants about the principles and importance of weaving in Mi’kmaq culture.

Restoring a sense of connection to place must also include the strengthening of rights of Indigenous peoples to live on their lands, speak their languages, and practice their rituals.

Yukon Regional Chief Kluane Adamek suggested that international rights frameworks must be honored as a basic first step towards belonging. “It’s so important that as a collective we ensure that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples is honored and respected,” she said. “That is a really key tool in us supporting and advancing our communities to be able to assert, be able to honor, and be able to continue to grow and have healthy sustainable communities.”

Kim Samuel and Becky Cook with two students in the Misipawistik Pimatisiméskanaw Land-Based Education Program. The program is intergenerational and draws from the experience and oral histories of elders to transmit land-based traditions and skills to younger generations, particularly in places where disenfranchisement and dispossession of lands has created social isolation and a deterioration in social fabric and sense of shared histories and stories. “In shattered communities,” said Becky Cook, who coordinates the program, “each person in the community has a piece, and we rebuild.”

Restoring our sense of belonging, reciprocity, and interconnectedness with the natural world becomes an urgent concern for all citizens of the planet as climate change comes to increasingly impact all aspects of our lives.

Regional Chief Kluane Adamek made a plea for holding the rights of the planet as foundational to any conversation on rights of belonging and inclusion. “If we don’t start acting and ensuring that the rights of the planet are honored and protected, then where are we going to be? We’re thinking about the animals, the two-winged, the fish. The reality is that we are at risk of perhaps not having a planet in the next 50 years.”

“What rights does the planet have, Mother Earth?” she asked. “My concern is that if we don’t start having real discussions about taking care of the planet and our response to climate change, then what are we really leaving behind?”

Speakers on the Panel: Right to Belong. Justin Talbot Zorn, Regional Chief Kluane Adamek, Bethany Brown, and Jean-Nicolas Beuze.

And yet there is hope, as the gathering of extraordinary efforts of all of the changemakers at the Symposium showed us. Through evidence-driven initiatives, heart-centered approaches, and integrative ways of co-creating knowledge and learning, a vision for a way forward continued to emerge over the three days of the Symposium. It’s a vision of belonging, resilience, and care.

On the morning of our last day together, Gabrielle Hughes of the Wampanoag First Nation led us in song and drumming. The song was called “The Longest Walk.”

Gabrielle Hughes leading drumming and song on the last day. “We show our power not by the wealth we accumulate but by what we give away,” she said earlier, sharing what she was taught from her Mi’kmaq elders.

“This is a song about courage,” she said. “For what we’ll do afterwards, after we leave this symposium, we’ll need courage. The beat of the drum is the heart of the Earth, the heart inside us. It’s a remembrance that we care. It’s for courage.”