From Exclusion to Belonging
Listening to young people’s experiences of loneliness, exclusion, and belonging
Springtide’s™ intern, Emilie created spaces for conversation to thoughtfully listen to her peers.
In Belonging: Reconnecting America’s Loneliest Generation, Springtide undertook quantitative and qualitative research to understand the experiences of loneliness, social isolation, and stress in young people aged 13-to-25, revealing that young people are the most lonely and isolated generation that has ever existed.
As an intern with Springtide, Emilie has been able to further dig into this research on belonging and has created spaces for conversation to thoughtfully listen to her peers. With their permission, she is amplifying their perspectives and authentic voices in this piece.
At Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota, many students exemplify author Dr. Wayne Dyer’s sentiment, “My circumstances do not make me what I am, they reveal who I have chosen to be.” Over the last six weeks, I have conducted interviews with a variety of students at Normandale. We sit in study rooms in the library, and I invite them to tell me about their journey from exclusion to a place of belonging. The students I spoke with are often marginalized; their voices are muted or ignored in broader campus or societal conversations. My goal was to give them a platform in which they could be heard, and in return, they bared their hearts.
“It’s human nature to want to belong, to want to fit in,” said Ana, a 19-year-old first year. Ana experienced exclusion in a school over a series of moves at a young age; the move from Minneapolis to Seattle was the first. “I had just turned 13. I didn’t know how to cope with moving or anything because that was the first really big move that happened. And I did not talk to anyone at school for about a month; I ate by myself in the bathroom at lunch.” On top of that, the school she went to was predominantly white. “I’m half white. I never looked like my friends. That played a large role in my feeling of belonging. My mom was white. Sometimes I’d come home from school and tell my mom, ‘Mom, I wish I looked more like you!’” Ana described her mother as her closest friend and mentor; she passed away two years ago. Since then, Ana tries to be a mentor for her younger sister. “I try to be there for her because I know that our relationship with our dad has never been super great.”
Rose, a 20-year-old first year, experienced exclusion as a teen mom. “My dad is an alcoholic,” she began. When the father of her son came into the picture, that relationship provided a sense of belonging that she never felt at home or with friends. When she became pregnant, “people would call me a whore, a gold-digger, straight to my face. I really started to feel alone.” The relationship turned abusive as he pitted her against her friends. “That really secluded me. Then I got kicked out of my high school and AVID.” AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a nonprofit college-readiness program. No one believed in her or had any time to listen. The vice principal contacted Rose’s mother and explained that Rose’s teen mother status tarnished the school as well as AVID’s organization and they did not want to be affiliated with her. “I had a lot of suicidal thoughts,” Rose said. “I just wanted to fit in.” Things are getting better now that she is at Normandale, but she says, “To this day, I don’t feel like I belong.” Rose still sits in the margins of belonging.
Jack, a 19-year-old first year, said he felt like an outcast in high school. “I just wanted to belong at school – specifically in a group with other people, not just Jack by himself.” Experiencing exclusion helped him empathize with others who have felt the same and allows him to spot some dangerous behavior. “I tried to belong by conforming.” He did things that didn’t align with his character, including excessive drinking and smoking. His twin sister held him accountable. “My sister really looked down on that behavior; she really didn’t like that I did that. I was able to listen more to what she was saying about what I did that bothered her.” They grew closer afterwards because she challenged him to be accountable to himself and his own character. “To grow up with someone who has lived exactly as long as you, and had almost the exact same experiences as you – you can’t have a relationship with anyone else that’s the same as that.”
Another student spoke to me about their journey in the foster care system where they were placed at the age of two. (To protect the student’s identity, I’ve given them a nonbinary pronoun.) This student lived in 26 foster homes before the age of 16 and was abused in all of them. “I felt abandoned for a really long time. Even though I found a community I really enjoy being around, I never call them ‘family’ because the minute I do, it’s going to be gone. When good things happen it always goes away.” They eventually found friends through a Catholic church in southern Minnesota. “There’s a part in mass where they put their fist to their heart and [beat against their chest] three times. When everybody did that, it was the sound of a heartbeat. It was strong.” Months later, they decided to be baptized in the Lutheran church, and as such, faced rejection from many of their Catholic friends. “The rejection from those people really hurt. Eventually I found my own [faith] community.” This student was brutally assaulted, and in the aftermath, they were told that they were no longer welcome to take communion, a central practice within their faith tradition. “I thought I was dirty.” People blamed them. “They told me I couldn’t take communion, that I had to work through some things. They were very manipulative and toxic. Ever since then, I feel like I don’t deserve the body of Christ, that I don’t belong in the church. But I know that I do.”
The story of the last student is unique in that they were able to find belonging in a faith community outside of a traditional institution. The other students I interviewed all expressed that they were still on a journey to find an actual place to belong. Throughout these interviews, I was struck by how brave, open, and vulnerable each person was and by their desire to be understood and heard. These students have chosen to become better people because they have experienced exclusion firsthand – Ana makes an effort to mentor her younger sister; Rose carves out a place in the world for her son to belong; Jack seeks to include others who would otherwise be overlooked.
In the words of researcher and storyteller Brené Brown, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Blog post photo credit: Dollar Gill