The vision behind Building Belonging

We are a commitment to: Accountability, Bridging, Co-Creation, Diversity, & Equity

Over the last four years I have been nurturing what I have referred to as an “emergent collaborative,” that is now Building Belonging.

This post is an effort to articulate my aspirations for the Building Belonging initiative, and to name and make explicit the hypotheses that frame how I’m thinking about it. There are five components, and a big leap from the first to the fifth :-) My hope is to tap into the collective wisdom of this emergent collaborative to help figure out how best to move forward amid conditions of tremendous uncertainty... or indeed, to shift course if that's what's called for.

The current moment of a global call to action around racial justice, set against the backdrop of a global pandemic… raises the stakes on what was already an era of intersecting crises (climate collapse, forced migration, rising authoritarianism, deepening economic and social inequality, and a system of global governance clearly inadequate to the task). This is a moment of tremendous challenge and perhaps unprecedented opportunity. How we respond is everything.


I left the Gates Foundation in early 2016 with what I call the "billion dollar question." That is: if you had a billion dollars to spend to make the biggest difference in the world on the issues you care about, given your unique skill set and self, what would you spend it on? I didn't have an answer, nor the time to think... which is why I quit. But I had an intuition about what I was looking for, and for me it was the center of this Venn:

A word on definitions. When I say “scale of the problem,” thinking in climate terms, e.g.: “holistic” means not only reducing carbon in the atmosphere, but also addressing biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, water scarcity, soil deterioration, etc. “Comprehensive” means the solutions are commensurate to the scale of the problem rather than merely incremental (e.g. I’m not interested in reducing our rate of emissions; I’m interested in lowering the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere to a point that doesn’t cause global warming).

Two things were clear to me from the beginning: (a) this may not be possible and (b) I only want to work with people who are trying. Building Belonging is my answer to the billion dollar question, in the context of the Venn above. 

An invitation to co-creation

I partnered with john powell in the fall of 2018 to launch the first phase of this emergent collaborative: an invitation to co-creation, framed around this Concept Note (itself iterative and evolving, and a response to the two years of feedback and learning I’d done since leaving Gates). We held our first round of "salons" exploring the concept of belonging as a unifying thread to connect disparate realms of practice (small group conversations deliberately curated for diversity in DC, Berkeley, Seattle, and Boston). I captured my initial conclusions and takeaways in this newsletter post from June of 2019, beginning to identify what seemed to me the emerging pillars of transformation.  

We held a second round of "salons" at the end of 2019 (in Berkeley, Detroit, and NYC), this time framed more explicitly around emergence, and providing more direction and intentionality to guide the conversation (adopting the Purpose to Practice exercise from Liberating Structures). 

This current initiative is an evolution of the work to-date. It is an effort to respond to the unique moment of COVID, coupled with the emerging reckoning around race and state-sanctioned violence. Here is how I'm thinking about connecting the dots.

1) Co-define the "state of the art" around how transformation happens. 

It starts with the recognition that all levels of transformation are interdependent: change at any level of the system interacts with all other levels of the system:

This is an effort at two levels: to define the state of the art within a defined topic or domain (the potential of narrative as a catalyst for transformation, say) and to connect that domain to other aspects of transformation (network weaving as a tool for accelerating transformation). I often turn to a martial arts metaphor: offering an opportunity for black belts in a specific discipline (karate, say) to practice and train with each other, to explore and hone the state of the art... as well as an opportunity for cross-disciplinary exploration (with black belts in tai chi, taekwondo, jiu jitsu, aikido, judo, kung fu, etc.)

This is about documenting and codifying what we’ve already learned, naming our current hypotheses, and identifying the most urgent questions that remain unresolved. It is an effort to illuminate both the path up to this point (shortening the learning curve for the rest of us; let’s not reinvent the wheel) and crowd-sourcing intelligence to illuminate the path into the unknown still ahead.

The primary vehicle for this right now is a series of virtual Zoom “salons” we’re curating called Conversations on Transformation; you can catch up on past discussions and join the latest via our YouTube channel. The narrow hypothesis is that our individual practice will be enhanced, AND our collective intelligence and capacity for action will also be enhanced. The broader hypothesis is that together we can...

2) Co-create the fractal: what does this look like at small scale?

A core hypothesis underpinning this work is that the process of transformation is inherently relational, and best-supported in small groups (as a "container" for transformation). This is a core premise of the concept of Emergence, as defined by adrienne maree brownPeggy Holman, and others (emergence is how transformation happens in nature). They conclude that the small is the large, that the microcosm actually IS the whole. The fractal is where the different aspects of transformation come together… AND therefore how we think about scale (the first Venn diagram above).

For me this means the site of intervention is at the level of the small group, and even more specifically about the interactions between people (patterns of relationships). There are two components.

First, Building Belonging is about how we create an experience of embodied belonging... online. At the fractal level. This is a collective experiment with what it looks like to build intentional virtual community that can enable effective self-organizing.

Second, it's about how we provide effective structure to guide that self-organizing. I often use the metaphor of the "10 essentials" when you head into the wilderness: the things you need to have in your backpack if you want to increase your likelihood of survival and success (compass, food, water, pocketknife, first aid kit, warm clothes, etc). So it's not just that we turn people loose into the wilderness and hope for success, but can we apply our collective learning: what do we need to have in our backpacks?

What are the necessary and sufficient conditions to enable emergence? The Conversations on Transformation define what has emerged for me as those fractal elements through four years of intentional exploration, but this is a question for the community: can we co-create and define, at the fractal level, those conditions?  The hypothesis is that those "right" conditions have something to do with integrating and representing the entire arc of transformation: at the level of I, We, and World (transformation of self, society, and systems).

3)  Form small groups, intentionally curated for diversity.  

I love the framework for how emergence happens offered here by Movement Net Lab. Small groups is about "clustering." Historically when we form small groups, we tend to "bond": to connect 'like' with 'like.' While understandable, this instinct is inherently limiting.

I think for example of the women's liberation movement in the U.S. in the 1970s. The instinct to gather in small groups based on trust and relationship (often in living rooms) was exactly right. But the natural tendency was to bond. Invariably, the conclusions a group of heterosexual, middle-class, cis-gender white women might reach will be true as far as they go, but inherently limited by that perspective. Introducing a black woman, or a queer man, or a trans person... would necessarily influence the conclusions of the small group and offer a fuller picture of reality (and of course we all hold multiple identities; we need diversity at every level). Natural ecosystems thrive when they are diverse; too much homogeneity leads to stasis and decline.

After an extensive search, we decided to use the Mighty Networks platform to support Building Belonging. I am deeply skeptical of technology that seeks to commodify our relationships and/or our data (ahem, you know who you are), and Mighty Networks is by far the best platform I’ve found that combines community building, democratizing control, and allowing for self-organizing. The platform offers us a space to form small groups (Circles), both organically (self-organized) and intentionally curated for diversity. We can experiment with different ways of forming the fractal, and test some of these hypotheses in practice.

Returning to the Movement Net Lab model, this is about more actively cultivating emergence. To take a gardening metaphor: we know that no matter how much we yell, the fruit tree won't grow any faster. But it doesn't mean there's nothing we can do. We can create conditions conducive to growth (watering, ensuring adequate sunlight, proper nutrients, good soil), and we can combat threats (removing weeds, ensuring no poisons, etc). I think of this at every level: it's about intention when we cluster, intention when we build trust, intention when we bridge, intention when we learn, intention when we take action... all in service of increasing the probability that the emergent outcomes will be consistent with our shared aspiration of a world where everyone belongs.

4) Connect the small groups: to each other, and the larger whole. 

In the 1970s there was no way to connect small women's groups in Berkeley to groups in Maine, much less to Kerala or Capetown. We had no choice but to rely on large centralized organizations to offer some coherence to the bigger picture (hence, the National Organization of Women). Today for the first time in history we have the technology to connect groups to each other in real time. This is an effort both to cultivate requisite diversity (there is a limit to how diverse groups can be when geographically defined), and to rapidly improve our collective intelligence. If someone makes a breakthrough in Nairobi, how does that innovation make its way to Lima, to Lahore, and to Los Angeles?

I'm influenced here by the work/thinking of the network weaving community (as discussed in our May 18 Converation on Transformation): it's not just about network connections, it's about the dynamic flows through those connections. It's at least three steps: (1) form the small groups (2) connect them (3) move information/resources through them. And it's not just about connecting the small groups, it's about co-visibilizing and co-creating the whole of which we are a part. This is the work around narrative, around a bigger "we," around an emerging collective consciousness.

To be transparent here: we haven’t figured out how to do this. This is very much a growth edge for the fields of network weaving, complexity science, and digital democracy.

5) Build a world where everyone belongs. 

This is the core premise: everyone should have a say in the things that affect them. This is the promise of belonging: it requires agency, and co-creation. 

I like the metaphor of hospitality here: inclusion is you come over to my house and follow my rules. Belonging is we agree where to meet, and co-design the shared dinner we want to enjoy. Bridgit Antoinette Evans had a beautiful exploration of this metaphor (which operates as a deep subconscious frame for most Americans in the context of our immigration debate) in our Narrative Conversation on Transformation.

I am confident that we can create an experience of embodied belonging at the fractal level (a group of 5-7, say). The challenge is to preserve that experience of agency and belonging at progressive higher levels of scale: fifty people, five hundred people, five thousand people, five million people, five billion people.  Can we create the governance structures capable of enacting that experience at global scale? What might that look like? Miki Kashtan offers one such model for local-to-global governance (glocalization?) that I find attractive, and groups like Richard Bartlett’s Microsolidarity are rapidly prototyping different forms of community building in this context.

I recently wrote a reflection on the nature of Power that offered this formula: Agency + Belonging + Power = Democracy? To some extent this entire enterprise is an effort to enact true democracy (where we all have agency, belonging, and power) at every scale.

This — all of this — requires technology. We don't yet have the tools to do this "right." Mighty Networks is a step in the right direction (in my opinion) but it's not the answer. There are new tools emerging (I'm inspired by applications like and the vTaiwan experiments)... but to be clear no one has figured out how to do this yet.

So that’s the hypothesis. We’re intentionally trying to scaffold the efforts so that everything we do is “no regrets” and offers value on its own merits: the Conversations on Transformation will be a net contribution to collective learning even if they go no farther. And we are committed to being as open source as possible, sharing everything we do and encouraging folks to use and re-purpose content they find helpful for their own networks/communities.

If this vision resonates with you, there are currently three ways to get involved depending on your bandwidth/level of interest:

1) Just the highlights, please (the sampler plate): we’ll be putting out a Mailchimp newsletter highlighting content co-created within Building Belonging. Right now this is primarily to share highlights from the Conversations on Transformation series, but we’ll also be sharing other good stuff that gets produced. Subscribe here.

2) Occasional deep dives (the rotating special): you’re in the right place! I’ll be using this Substack newsletter to continue to explore themes that feel relevant to living into a world where everyone belongs (patriarchy! power! democracy!) If you haven’t already subscribed, feel free to do so.

3) Full co-creation (grab a chef’s hat and come in the kitchen!): you can sign up via our landing page at Building Belonging. This is very much a “building the plane while we’re flying it” kind of effort. Trying to decide if this is for you? Since we are endeavoring to build belonging, relationships are our first, second, and third priorities (as Grace Lee Boggs said, it’s about critical connections, not critical mass). We are looking for people who share a commitment to ABCDE:

Accountability: to ourselves and each other, to keep our relationships at the center.

Bridging: to connect across difference, listen to understand, be curious and open.

Co-Creation: we are each responsible for creating value; you get what you give.

Diversity: our strength is in our difference; we need diverse viewpoints.

Equity: we all hold different identities and social locations; we are mindful of that reality as we seek to share power and enable belonging.

In these early days my priority is current practitioners: people who have already been experimenting with different forms of building belonging in their own communities and networks, and want to learn from and practice with other kindred spirits (you don’t have to be a black belt, but you probably are already attending a dojo, in the martial arts metaphor).

Ultimately we hope to find ways to engage everyone, and to avoid vanguardism and elitism in defining “who belongs” at this stage… this might look like online curriculum and practices to help shorten the learning curve for those at earlier stages of practice, and deliberate spaces to capture voices that might otherwise remain marginalized (not everyone has equal access to the internet, the English language, etc.)

We look forward to finding ways to build together.