December brings another year to a close and often stirs emotions unlike any other month. It marks the kickoff to the winter holiday season. The winter solstice ushers in short days and long nights. It is a month of reflection as we look back on the outgoing year and forward to a new one.
The Decembers of My Childhood
My Decembers are vivid with the colors of New Mexico — green and red chilis, turquoise blue skies and memories of my mom that are painful and joyful, intense and lighthearted, but all interwoven with feelings of belonging. I am the fifth of six children born to Spanish-speaking parents in a family that has lived in New Mexico for many generations, maintaining strong Native American, Mexican and Spanish cultural traditions. I still have warm memories of my family sitting around the kitchen table next to the wood-burning stove, preparing dozens of tamales for Christmas Eve when extended family would gather at our home in rural Tome, New Mexico.
Unfortunately, my first day of school did not provide the same sense of belonging that I felt around my mom’s kitchen table. Like other kids in Albuquerque at that time, I did not have access to kindergarten. When I first entered school in the first grade, I was almost a year younger and much smaller than my classmates. It was my teacher who made me feel welcome, the same teacher who taught my older brothers and sisters before me. She was a bridgebuilder – one of the first I encountered.
I remember a cold December day following my older brother’s murder, the tragic result of fear and misunderstanding. My younger brother and I were kept out of school for weeks while my family tried to piece together our lives, which would end up taking decades to stabilize, but never fully recover. A teacher at our elementary school reached out to welcome us back to school. As my brother and I stepped into choir practice at 7 am on our first day back, the kids and teachers clapped, and then we all sang Christmas carols together. My older brother had been killed because of otherness and subsequent exclusion that bred hate, but in that moment, I knew what it felt like to belong.
To lose a child or see them harmed because they did not belong is devastating. As a youth-serving organization with a commitment to diversity and inclusion and a strategy to advance equity for all, Ys work tirelessly to prevent such an outcome. We strive to ensure that everyone, no matter their background or lived experience, can reach their full potential with dignity. We define ‘belonging’ as “the shared experiences of co-created unity that ground identity and transform otherness into togetherness.” Our most important work is making sure that every young person we have the power to reach finds that sense of belonging.
The shared experiences of co-created unity that ground identity and transform otherness into togetherness.
In a multicultural world, bridgebuilders are critical. To build bridges, we must get out of our comfort zones and make ourselves vulnerable so that we can better understand others. We need to listen, withhold judgment and be open to learning and broadening our perspectives. Bridgebuilding requires us to meet others with empathy.
Everyone feels excluded at times in their lives, but we all have the power to welcome anyone who is within our reach. The Y’s organizational commitment to global diversity, equity and inclusion requires us to lean into openness and vulnerability. Our leaders seek to learn rather than judge, acknowledge rather than disregard, move absolutism to curiosity and otherness to togetherness. This is bridgebuilding. It opens conversations and spaces for creating relationships. We also know that our collective commitment can motivate others to become bridgebuilders who are inspired to promote belonging.
As we prepare to close out another December and welcome a new year, may we all seek opportunities to build bridges with those who are different from us. May we reach out to those who feel isolated, alone or whose minds and hearts are pained. May we contribute to cultivating a sense of belonging for the young people we encounter, just as those teachers did for me. Experiencing a sense of belonging can be rejuvenating and healing. I have experienced both and this is, in part, what I believe to be a role the Y plays within our communities, our nation and our world.
Read more "Advancing Equity for All" entries.
Access these resources to assist personal or group bridgebuilding:
- Cultivating Contact: A Guide to Building Bridges and Meaningful Connections Between Groups – A practical guide to fostering positive social contact produced by the University of Massachusetts, Welcoming America, Intergroup Relations and Social Justice Lab.
- Belonging Begins with Us – The national messaging campaign produced by the Ad Council in partnership with American Immigration Council and Welcoming America to promote a message of community connectivity and build a nation of neighbors.
- Belonging Begins with Us Community Toolkit - This resource provides a roadmap for organizations and group leaders to create a sense of belonging within a small group setting.
- Expanding the Bridging Impacts of Volunteering and Service Projects - A collection of insights and recommendations on leveraging volunteerism and service to foster intergroup contact between diverse communities.