by Karl W. Reid, Ed.D.

Dr. Karl Reid

I recently was given the privilege to share the transformative work we are doing at Northeastern that prioritizes belonging. The symposium, entitled “Transforming Academia: Stories of Inclusion and Belonging” at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, was sponsored by a grant-funded partnership between the University of Massachusetts, Boston and the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center to advance work on cancer and cancer disparities science through research, training/workforce development and outreach. 

In addition to my talk, the panelists and I held roundtable discussions with the participants to explore solutions to creating more diverse, equitable, and inclusive research pathways and workplaces.

In my experience hosting dozens of listening sessions like these, contributors tend to dwell on their challenges, and more freely, their frustrations. It is important to recognize that this catharsis is an important part of the process towards developing workable solutions. Systems thinking, an approach to which I adhere, suggests that stakeholders gain a shared understanding of current challenges as well as the perceived causes. One story I heard at the symposium, which is all too familiar, was about the lack of response to concerns raised by faculty and research scientists at an institution about their workplace conditions. In this case, without explanation, a decision was made not to respond to the recommendations, leaving the task force members feeling powerless and insignificant. Here, the lack of communication between leadership and the researchers could be structural, cultural, or both. The participants’ takeaway was simple: they were not heard.

While it is critical to have a shared understanding of the current state, it is more important that stakeholders transition to envisioning their future. This is a difficult pivot for people who have been historically harmed by systems of racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of discrimination, but it is an essential step toward achieving positive impact.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to initiate this pivot during the roundtable. One participant asked how they could foster belonging where they were. I asked her, and the other participants, to share an experience where they felt a sense of belonging. One talked about her work with students. Another recounted being welcomed into a new church after relocating to Boston. A third discussed attending a conference with other researchers who shared her discipline.

I then summarized what I heard, verbally testing my interpretations and inferences along the way. Not only did they agree, they also took notes!

Here’s what we learned about the conditions that promote belonging from participants’ lived experiences:

  • A shared identity. One researcher at our table talked about attending an association meeting for those who share her discipline. In describing how she felt being among like-minded and more collaborative colleagues (than those in her more competitive workplace), I noticed her demeanor change during this brief exchange, from one that began tense (“I have to prove myself here”) to a more relaxed and reflective expression that wrapped up with a smile.
  • A shared sense of purpose. The head of a graduate program spoke about spending time with her students. Seeing them thrive at a recent event during which they showcased their work reminded her of her own sense of purpose. Here, she was connected to the impact she was having, the effects on one’s personhood of being in a community of people who share a mission, and how that shared mission could inspire us to thrive through our own centeredness.
  • A warm and welcoming environment. A postdoc spoke about relocating from the western US to Boston, and how he and his wife were welcomed into a church community. He described – and literally demonstrated—the open arms with which he remembers being greeted during their first visit to a congregation in which they’ve remained. Here, an inviting and welcoming culture matters, a commitment to which we’ve aspired here at Northeastern.
  • Authenticity. Several members of our table talked about experiences they’ve had when people with whom they interact were genuine and trustworthy. I took from this that the colleagues to which they were referring were vulnerable and transparent.

The beauty of this exercise was its simplicity; it took only 30 minutes! And yet, in that short time, we tapped into something intrinsic and powerful, a shared sense of belonging. Most importantly, anyone can lead such an exercise.

If you were to try this exercise with your team, the next step would be to brainstorm about how to activate these attributes in your setting. For example, for this group, we could explore the shared purpose or the mission of their department, unit, or institution: who are we and what’s our “Hedgehog Concept” as Jim Collins describes: 1) What are we deeply passionate about; 2) what can we be the best in the world at; and 3) what drives our resource engine?

We can become more intentional about onboarding and welcoming new staff, faculty, or students by assigning peer and leadership mentors, building cohorts, and helping new members of our community articulate their “authentic best selves or signature strengths.” Finally, we would encourage the team to form informal affinity groups for shared identities, such as by discipline, favorite movie genres, hobbies, or racial identities as we’ve done university-wide.

These “wise interventions”, as Joel Brockner and David Sherman review in their paper, have been found for example to increase African American and first-generation student academic and professional success (long after they graduate), reduce workplace conflict, increase customer satisfaction ratings, self-efficacy (confidence), and the likelihood that workers would engage and collaborate with each other, to name a few positive outcomes. 

Creating space to share moments where they felt a sense of belonging is a simple first step to creating a climate in which individuals feel valued where they are.

If you haven’t already done so, check out our new website. Among other valuable information such as an overview of Northeastern’s Affinity Groups and other important ways to build community, you can also access learning resources to explore these topics more thoroughly. Enjoy the journey!

Warm regards,

Karl W. Reid, Ed.D.
Chief Inclusion Officer
Northeastern University