Vanessa Mason is the founder of The Future of Belonging Project, which examines how we can redesign tools and remodel approaches to fulfill the basic human need for belonging. She is also research director at the Institute for the Future. Her future research explores how we can redesign and reimagine wellbeing and belonging across the business, social, and civic spheres. In this interview, Vanessa spoke with Ama Marston, Author, and Social Innovation Academy Advisory Board Member, about her path as a social innovator, how her work on belonging came about as an evolving example of innovation, and how it links to and enables other innovators in our rapidly changing landscapes.
When did you start the Future of Belonging project and what prompted it?
One of my intentions for 2020 was learning in public. I decided to share my thoughts and learning about belonging by writing about it weekly in a newsletter as a personal challenge and an experiment to understand and create frameworks to characterize how belonging may shift and contribute to the way we live, work, and innovate. Most of the earlier issues were prompted by conversations and experiences that I had at work as well as with friends that led me to various paths of inquiry.
The issue of belonging is one that I have been curious about for years. Many people don’t know that I grew up in Texas but never felt that I belonged there. I sought belonging through religion by living as a dedicated Catholic for years, later abandoning organized religion. After college, I thought I could find belonging by changing my physical situation, moving 10 times in five years. I didn’t feel as though my body belonged to me so I tried to “fix” it with weight loss and defining my personal style through secondhand shopping. In my career, I haven’t fit into boxes. When I haven’t been able to find the sense of belonging I needed, I cultivated it by building communities and bringing folks together.
And of course, in my work at the Institute for the Future we spend a lot of time scanning the horizon for things that are changing- those might be large scale forces that are changing- I saw a lot of loneliness, growing mistrust in institutions and misplacement from things like gentrification and climate change. It made me realize that I’m not the only one trying to understand where I belong and how I belong.
What does belonging mean to you and how does it feel?
I describe it in three components- the first being safety. So physical and psychological safety is foundational. If we feel safe and if we feel comfortable to be authentic, to be vulnerable, that is an element of belonging.
The second is emotional connection. Do we feel affection and experience witnessing from other beings that are around us whether they are close relationships or distributed relationships around us in society? Do we feel we can know, like, and trust people who are around us?
The third component is meaning and sense-making. These are the broader systems we live in. Think of the narratives and stories we tell, the values and norms we cherish and the ways that those get shared and propagated [whether] through the media, the way we hold on to or don’t hold on to history, and what is important, valuable or essential in culture. Those deal with belonging in terms of if we have a purpose and if there is a “why” behind why we are here and do other people fit into that as well.
Does the world feel like it makes sense and is reliable in a way that is valuable? That sense of “belonging” [or lack thereof] is something we are all feeling during Covid-19 where the world just feels like it does not make sense. There’s an element of belonging we don’t think about in the day-to-day, but when it breaks it is catastrophic and I think that’s why everything feels so disjointed and unsettling.
To me belonging feels like ease, openness, and on the larger scale trust that the world is turning properly…that problems are being addressed and taken care of.
In my work on transformative resilience we’ve seen that challenges and disruption can lead us to growth. How does that relate to belonging? And, can things like racial inequity and things that are inherently inequitable or exclusionary catalyze innovation or positive growth?
The pursuit of belonging drives us to growth… The stories we tell are important. Telling yourself that ‘I can feel safe again, that I can trust again’ is important. The focus on belonging gives us a lens to move through disruption and trauma in a positive way…
In terms of social movements and the disruption we’ve been seeing related to equality and “belonging” for people of color, they have gotten far wiser about narrative and storytelling and how those narratives get propagated across society. Color of Change, which calls itself the first digital racial justice organization, was instrumental in getting a lot of corporations to stop advertising on Facebook. Researchers have demonstrated that anyone could feasibly discriminate using Facebook advertising in apartment listings or job listings and exclude certain people from seeing those. That’s obviously illegal in a newspaper or on the radio but with social media and all the opportunities to target ads you can discriminate in covert ways. Color of Change saw an old narrative such as “people of color shouldn’t have this apartment or this job” married with new means of translating that belief into action and intervened where it could be most impactful.
It’s heartening to see a lot of academics and researchers at the intersection of technology and society examining how old stories about race live on. It’s not a human making this discriminatory decision anymore but rather technology scaling and automating a racist process across systems.
What are some of the things you’ve done with the project and what are some of the greatest outcomes?
I’ve written over 50 issues of the newsletter about belonging. It’s been an excellent way to connect with innovators, researchers, and other experts. This includes conversations with Courtney Cogburn of the Columbia University Population Research Center and Data Science Institute on belonging, digital public spaces, and race and with you [Ama] on the overlaps with transformative resilience. And, it includes my reflections on things like belonging, institutions, and innovative emerging alternatives such as Mutual Aid initiatives.
By searching for “signals of change — small or local innovations with the potential to scale size, impact, and/or geographic distribution — I’ve developed a number of frameworks and principles that better map the emerging landscape shaping the future of belonging, particularly at work. These signals serve as building blocks or evidence of the future that we can see today that when examined in multiples, inform stories of the future, or foresight that are plausible, internally consistent, and provocative.
I’ve hosted a number of reader meetups to connect the larger community and participate in interactive activities to build their futures thinking capabilities and create stories of the future that allow us to imagine innovative approaches to meet the needs and realities of the future. At the beginning of 2021, I hosted a 10-session event series focused on creating optimistic transformative scenarios of belonging at work with lessons that have been shared widely.
I’ve also collaborated with and been a part of innovation forums like SXSW bringing the conversation of the future of belonging to larger, and more diverse audiences with organizations such as Black and Brown Founders, and those working on things like technology and social innovation.
What are your plans and hopes for the future of this work and how can it contribute to social innovation?
I believe that engaging in collective imagination is a human right. I’m constantly trying to learn about different and better ways to have this conversation both about futures thinking and belonging. I’m working to build more resources in learning about these subjects through more of a members’ community that can direct focus and attention to specific topics as well as more mass public events for more casual, divergent exercises. The goals are to reveal new approaches to find the validation, support, affinity, and shared sense of identity that comes from belonging and to empower participants to become active creators and advocates of social connection and meaning-making in their communities, their work, and in the ways, they innovate in their own lives and social contributions. Trauma, civics and cities, mutualism, and public safety are a few of the topics that participants have said that they are eager to explore through the lens of belonging.
Ama Marston is a mission-driven leader, entrepreneur, and the award-winning author of Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World. She is the CEO-Cofounder of Type R Partners and is a Social Innovation Academy Advisory Board Member (see full bio).
Would you like to learn more from other inspiring social innovators?
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