Illustrations by Veronika Stoszak.

Humankind is an inherently social species. Not only do positive relationships reduce stress and feelings of loneliness, but they also result in long-term happiness and good health. A sense of belonging plays an important part in this social phenomenon. 

When we feel we belong within our group of friends, our family or community, we believe we can comfortably contribute and share. What ends up happening is that more is accomplished than what is possible by one’s self. 

However, in our ever-changing, fast-paced world, it can be easier to disconnect than to belong. This poses a challenge for social justice and environmental organizations alike – how do we foster a sense of belonging within new and old community members, and how do we make it last? 

With this in mind, A\J asked four Waterloo Region organizations for their thoughts on belonging and how they integrate it through their projects and programs. Here’s what they had to say.

 

rare – Charitable Research Reserve 

“The key to belonging is a connection to place and space, the lands we live and work on, the foods we grow on it, [and] the communities and relationships we build on it,” says Dr. Stephanie Sobek-Swant, executive-director of rare. 

You’ll find these kinds of connections at rare’s 900-acre Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge, Ontario. Research and education play key roles in its mission to preserve, protect and restore the environment of its lands. Numerous programs engage the public, everything from the Every Child Outdoors program, which helps train and inspire future environmentalists, to the Turn the Map Green Campaign, which gives individuals a sense of ownership by letting them adopt a square of land. 

The Springbank Community Garden at rare also creates a sense of home. “Giving [people] space to connect with the land, and grow the foods they know, is a great learning and sharing opportunity for everyone and really accomplishes a sense of belonging,” says Sobek-Swant. It’s comfort food – straight from the garden. 

What may be most important for solving the environmental and social issues in this land is to listen, Sobek-Swant says. To illustrate the point, she passed on a quote from First Nations writer Lee Maracle, who lived in rare’s North House as the 2015 Eastern Comma Writer in Resident: “No one in Canada has their original landscape.” So as “newcomers,” we need to work together on strengthening our bond to the land while being open to doing things differently. 

“All of us working together to protect what we have or trying to bring it back to what it should be, through ecological efforts as well as through reconciliation – that to me, is what our work can really contribute to belonging,” says Sobek-Swant.
raresites.org

The Working Centre

From its conception in 1982 in downtown Kitchener, the Working Centre has been a sanctuary for those seeking help and advice. The centre offers countless opportunities for workers and volunteers to engage in the community. 

The Working Centre’s Market Garden, located at Kitchener’s  famous Hacienda Sarria, has more than 100 volunteers and is currently training five interns. Another project called Recycle Cycles repairs worn-out bikes – and teaches people to repair their own bikes. Last year Recycle Cycles took in about 1000 bikes and resold a little over half of them.

Joe Mancini, the director of the Working Centre, says they follow a “Community Tool Philosophy.” 

“Firstly, we ensure that those using the tools can do so in a way that best expresses their skills and abilities” he says. “Secondly, we shape the tool so that a community need is addressed such as helping fix a bike, recycle furniture and build a market garden. Thirdly, this work is enhanced when the experience builds social co-operation. All together this approach develops a culture of shared tools.”

“The projects grow when a spirit of hospitality and neighbourliness are at the center of the work,” says Mancini. “Community Tools aim to reduce isolation by teaching the benefits of using tools in a shared environment. Organizationally, we are not trying to protect our space, but rather we open up and welcome people to share the resources and make them their own.” In the end, this strengthens belonging in their community.
theworkingcentre.org

WREN – Waterloo Region Environment Network

When asked about belonging, the first thing Stacey Danckert, the Co-Director from the Waterloo Region Environmental Network (WREN) did was quote a proverb: “If you want to go faster, go alone. If you want to go further, go together.” 

Indeed, one of WREN’s main goals is to create a web of connections among environmental organizations in Waterloo Region.

Danckert says WREN’s strategy “combines the use of 1) an online “hub” where the community can easily access relevant information, volunteer recruitment, as well as share projects and skills; 2) a physical space that can be shared by members; and 3) event opportunities that provide shared learning, mentorship and collaborative opportunities.”

In the past, WREN has hosted project-sharing events where others can share ideas, as well as make connections with similar projects, volunteers and skills. Currently they are in the midst of refining and expanding their reach, however WREN makes it clear that a community can’t survive without a sense of belonging. 

“When people take part in a solution,” says Danckert, “they are more likely to feel connected to it.… WREN creates more ways to connect amongst members and with the community, increasing the network of support and improving the collective success and the sense of belonging within Waterloo Region.” 
wrenvironetwork.ca

REEP – Green Solutions 

For REEP – Green Solutions, belonging means feeling pride for where you live and having a sense of ownership.

To accomplish this, REEP has a number of projects. For example, The Rain Ready Neighbourhoods project aims to help homes in two neighbourhoods to become more flood-resistant, sustainable and beautiful. Homeowners will feel a sense of accomplishment as they form a plan with REEP. 

Another project is the Front Yard Makeover contest. This is a fun and friendly contest where neighbours can compete for the best-looking yard. Mary Jane Patterson, the executive director at REEP says, “Something like this gets neighbours talking to each other.… It builds community.”

In an email, Patterson and her team described their work this way: “Our goal is to foster collective action. When people work together they naturally share their ideas and experiences, which strengthens their relationships, and contributes to an environmental ethic. By participating in incremental improvements in their neighbourhood, we hope people will develop a sense of contribution and genuine pride in what they accomplish with their neighbours.”

REEP is a part of the greater environmental movement. As more people join the movement, they amplify the impact. It’s this collective action that strengthens social bonds and builds community at the same time. 

In the end, when people feel like they belong, it can inspire environmental action. “The hope is that there’s a domino effect, strengthening the sense of belonging that participants feel as they take action,” says Patterson. 
reepgreen.ca

 

Veronika Szostak is a student at the University of Waterloo in the Environment and Resource Studies program. She is a volunteer at A/J and aspires to become a journalist, artist, and environmentalist.

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