Belonging: A 21st Century Challenge


Author’s Note: Here is an excerpt from a breakfast presentation sponsored by Metro Vancouver.  I had the pleasure of co-presenting with Catherine Clement and Lidia Kemeny, two leading philanthropists with the Vancouver Foundation. Illustration courtesy my talented Australian friend Paul Pholeros.













I call Belonging a 21ST CENTURY CHALLENGE for two reasons.


One …

It is a new, complex and unexpected situation — one that has taken many of us by surprise. We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible.

The challenge of Belonging, and connectivity or its absence is unprecedented. It crosses boundaries, across sectors, groups, and disciplines. It affects all of us directly or indirectly. Our traditional safety nets are not set up to respond.  It is not easily pigeon holed or categorized. It is ambiguous. We are not even sure how to define it (we feel it as much as anything), let alone solve it.

Here are a couple of quotes from an article in the May [2012] issue of Atlantic, Is Facebook Making us Lonely?

  • …Within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We are lonely in a different way.
  • A 2010 AARP US survey found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier. According to a major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans — about 60 million people — are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness. Across the Western world, physicians and nurses have begun to speak openly of an epidemic of loneliness.

Canada is not immune.

  • One million Canadian seniors living alone
  • Over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over now live alone
  • Studies show the health effects of isolation are more hazardous than smoking. (source, Tyze Personal Networks)


The second reason Belonging is a 21st century challenge

It will require moving out of our comfort zone; taking risks; being bold; admitting we don’t have the answers; exploring new ways to support each other.

The language of belonging is powerful: Belonging — the living ties that connect us to each other — our families, neighbours, friends, communities — and the earth — and all living things.

Belonging — the glue that holds us together, provides us with safety, security, and nourishment and gives our life meaning.

We know we feel, we intuit, we sense when we belong and when we don’t.

Hospitality, conviviality, celebration, resilience, joy, reciprocity, trust, friendship, empathy, pleasure, intimacy, fun, love.

These words and concepts don’t fit easily into a strategic plan, or the job description of a social worker.  It’s not simply a matter of allocating resources or developing programs.  A friend who has developed more housing for people who are homeless than anyone in America said recently, “We can’t build our way out of homelessness — we must also deal with the underlying epidemic of loneliness.”

These words and concepts will force us to confront our relationship with each other; with technology; with work; with time; with nature.

Our Belonging challenge is arising at the same time as our health and social services are under constraint. Our traditional safety net was not designed to nurture belonging or combat isolation.

New challenges that defy easy categorizations and response, less money, uncertainty about how to proceed …  Hmmmm.

If there was ever a time to do things differently, for all hands to come on deck, to bring our full creative power to bear, it is now.

To that end Vancouver is about to launch the world’s first Change Lab on Belonging.

On June 1st, public servants, educators, philanthropists, farmers, architects, environmentalists, planners, business and social service leaders will come together to:

  • articulate a common understanding about belonging and its value to each of us
  • bring in the best ideas from our past
  • generate new ideas, prototype and scale them.

Our goal: a Metro Vancouver where everyone belongs…



Here is a link to the full Video of Catherine (at the 2:50 mark), Lidia (at the 21:00 mark) and my presentations (at 37:30). I started my remarks about Belonging with a story and ended by describing a couple of exciting developments on the belonging front in Vancouver including the start of a Belonging Change Lab.


Re-posted with permission from

About the Lead Author

Al Etmanski
Al Etmanski is a community organizer, social entrepreneur and author. ( (@aletmanski ) His latest books are Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation and The Power of Disability: 10 Lessons for Surviving, Thriving and Changing the World. He is a faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD), an Ashoka fellow, senior fellow Social Innovation Generation and Co-Chair of BC Partners for Social Impact. Al is co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN), a family run social enterprise assisting families address the financial and social well-being of their relative with a disability, particularly after their parents die. He proposed and led the successful campaign to establish the world’s first savings plan for people with disabilities, the Registered Disability Savings Plan. John McKnight endorsed Al's book Impact by saying: Impact is a chronicle of the wisdom Etmanski has gained in exploring the keys to long-term social change. His findings lead us out of the past and onto a pathway for progress in the 21st century. Once describing Al as an Abundant Community Pioneer, Peter Block wrote: Al Etmanski is one of North America's best social inventors. He has looked beyond traditional institituions and their failures to create new means of achieving a better life. His analysis of the forms of organization that enable local communities while avoiding rigid hierarchies is groundbreaking. His book A Good Life is a wonderful and practical guide to the potential for neighbors to grow strong through the power of hospitality. Michael J. Fox said of Al's latest book, The Power of Disability: This book reminds us of what we have in common: the power to create a good life for ourselves and for others, no matter what the world has in store for us.

The Latest

Improving Health Equity through Asset Based Community Development

In May of 2023, a workbook was released on Improving Health Equity through ABCD (Asset Based Community Development) written...


More Articles Like This