By Lisa Pryor
Belonging has taken on a very important meaning in DEI work, especially over the last 3–5 years. The importance of belonging can be found on most school and corporation websites under their commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I personally think that it is great. But I am also very aware that just because you profess something doesn’t mean you actually put it into practice. Everyone knows that belonging is important. How do we get there? What does belonging even mean?
I, like Nikki, am a big Brené Brown fan. I came to know her work back in 2012 when Daring Greatly had just come out. I was at the Diversity Leadership Institute, which is an engaging, trusted community of practice that helps educators meet today’s challenges and transform them into opportunities for innovation and strategic change (according to the NAIS website, that is). It was a life-changing week, and I remember one of the first things we did as an entire group was to watch Brené Brown’s TEDx talk on Vulnerability. From that moment I knew I wanted to learn as much as I could about these things she talked about, especially shame, because I knew I suffered from some deep-seated and very personal shame. I was curious about it because I could feel that this would be what would help to set me free.
I began teaching the thing I most wanted to learn about. I incorporated the same TEDx talk into my curriculum as a health teacher and had some very deep conversations with my eighth graders. One would think that this might be over their heads, and let me tell you, they knew exactly what was going on. We learned so much from each other during those years. I ended up taking a Brené Brown course on leadership and continued to explore the stuck feeling I had for the majority of my life and where it was coming from. This practice went on for some time. She authored more books; I read them all. I knew there was more for me to bring to light, so I went looking and I found a really amazing therapist. She is trained in a practice called Brainspotting, so we began to brainspot what was deep down in regard to belonging—we began to deal with my childhood.
It was here that so many pieces of this puzzle started to be revealed to me, pieces I didn’t know existed. I realized I am a recovering Division I athlete in many ways. I had gone to college looking for belonging and reluctantly realized I did not ever feel as though I belonged on that team. I spent four years trying to fit in and it took a toll on me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Yet, I knew this is not where it started. Go back further to when we moved from my hometown of Zanesville to Columbus, Ohio. This was so difficult for me as a twelve-year-old trying to find my identity. I very clearly remember wondering why so many people didn’t like me. I think I am pretty likable, yet nearly every day I found myself being what we now call bullied. There was one conversation I had with my sister, who is four years younger than I am, when she asked me: “What are you going to do? I heard them say they were going to beat you up.” She was clearly shaken and upset, especially at eight or nine years old and not experiencing that before. My response to her: “Run. I know I am faster than any of them.” She laughed, but I knew I didn’t belong in that school and those were not “my” people. Yet, even in the midst of all that, I found a few pockets where I did belong. My school principal at that time, Mrs. Knight, was a bright light in darkness. I remember going to her office—willingly! I was never in trouble—I just liked her company and she actually saw me. She also happened to be the first Black woman I ever saw in a leadership role, creating space for where I might belong in the future. Her presence in my life has stayed with me. My English teacher, Mrs. Rolwing was the same way. I believe my classroom was designed much like hers, except for dumping water on a student’s head, I never did that and never will. It’s a funny story, though. Thinking back, this was the case for me even in elementary school. I always found myself feeling safer, more seen and known by adults, not my peers. I was the office helper in sixth grade and would go there every day after school. I can’t now recall the secretary’s name, but I still have the angel figure and the heart she gave me as a thank you. They meant a lot to me growing up and I’m forever grateful to those people for creating those spaces for me. But that’s not where this longing to belong began, either.
In February 2019, I found myself in a really amazing coach training program. In this program, we were asked to identify the moment in our lives when we knew something wasn’t right about us (that may not be the way the question was phrased, but that’s what the gist of it was). At first I thought it was the death of my grandfather when I was seven years old. My therapist and I have brainspotted this, and yes, it was significant. However, the more I sat with the question, one memory just popped into my mind. One that I had clearly not wanted to think about for some time, so it was interesting that it seemed to come out of nowhere. It was centered in a wondering of who do I belong to?
Some of my earliest memories are of blood tests to prove where I belonged and who I belonged to. See, family legend has it that my father didn’t really want to pay child support. Because of the numerous times he petitioned the court, they needed to do a paternity test. . . . Every. Time. It makes no sense, because if it was 99.9% the first time, it was going to be that the second, third, and fourth time, too. Nevertheless, I can distinctly remember walking down a hallway and my mother meeting a woman in the hall who took my hand and led me into a room. In that room she would say, “I’m sorry if I hurt you, Lisa.” I would say back to her, “It’s okay, I’m used to it.” Talk about a metaphor for my life, but that’s another blog post for some other day. After all those tests, I never felt like I belonged to him, even though I 99.9% do.
There were people in the midst of my childhood that I did feel as though I belonged to. My family. My mother. I knew I belonged to her because she told everyone so and she still does. I asked her once how she looked at me because I looked just like my father as a small child. She said: “You were my baby and that is all I saw.” And, even though I knew they all loved me very much, being a closeted gay kid in a very religious family made me wonder if I truly belonged or if they wouldn’t love me anymore when they found out who I “really” was. Remember that shame part I talked about earlier? Yikes!
Looking back, I can clearly see how all of these situations played out and combined to create the adult I have become. And, it took one very intense situation to completely break me down to the point of really figuring this “belonging” thing out. See, I had looked for belonging in other people my entire life. I tried to find it with sports teams, with school teams, with friendships, and most of all, with romantic relationships. And, it never worked out. I finally figured out why. In my teaching, I started my class every year with Socrates and his “Know Thyself” quote. I didn’t understand that—although I was learning—I still hadn’t quite gotten to a point where I completely knew myself. This was the work for me to do. I dove into that work full force. I had my therapist and my coach and we were doing simultaneous work on the past and the future. One major thing that came from this work was that I needed to stop making Little Lisa wrong for her ways of being. I needed to show up for her as though I was her parent now. I needed to reassure her that I had her back no matter what, I would love her unconditionally until the end of time. She belongs to me.
I have come to realize that I had been looking for where I belonged for a long time. It wasn’t until I started to belong to myself that I was able to stop looking. Now I know where I belong. Belonging is more of an inside job than an external one. My greatest lesson in life has been to learn that I belong to me.
What I have noticed is that in my quest to belong, I was creating little pockets of belonging everywhere I went. My classrooms, teams, and even my volunteer work at Brooke’s Place are geared toward helping others to not feel what I felt as a child, young adult, and adult. And if they do feel that way, they have a space and a person to talk to about it. I became the thing I needed, in so many ways. As I’ve learned to accept myself, it is easier for me to identify where I belong and where I don’t. Getting clear on this is helpful because now I don’t have expectations about how I should feel in certain spaces. I am free to move and not stay in a situation or place or with anyone that is not for me.
Who do you belong to? How do you model belonging for yourself and others? What if you were 1% more intentional about creating spaces of belonging?
My Little Lisa and Big Lisa thank you in advance.
**I love the song “I Belong to You” by Lenny Kravitz. Imagine singing this song to yourself instead of another person!