We All Just Want to Belong

As a nation, as a state, and as a city, we’re faced with issues where people are in direct opposition to one another. It’s easy to develop an “us” vs. “them” mentality about almost any issue. We can get caught up in the divide (pointing out how ignorant, selfish, or fundamentally flawed the other side is) or we can find a way to reach across that divide, find points of commonality, and work together to move forward. As I look specifically at land use issues — whether it has to do with transportation, housing or the use of common areas — an underlying theme that comes back to me over and over again is that of belonging. What kinds of vehicles belong on College Avenue? What types of buildings belong in our city and where do they belong? In some cases we even talk about which people belong.

When we belong, we have a say. When an object (a bike, a building, a trash can) belongs, then it has a right to be where it is. Belonging confirms value, rights, and relationship.

As humans, we all have an innate desire to belong to something. By belonging we know we fit. There’s a place for us. We have a purpose or a role or a value. When we know that we belong, we’re able to embed, to settle in, to abide. We’re no longer drifting or transitory or detached. And when we feel connected, that’s when we’re more likely to care about our city, to pick trash up off the street, to volunteer our time or donate our money to a local cause, or even just take time to get to know our neighbors.

But sometimes it’s the things around us — a new building, an overflowing trash can, even new signage — that can make us feel out of place, like we no longer belong. Our response might seem irrational, perhaps even to us. But these emotions often rise unbidden as a result of specific changes taking place around us.

When we feel that our rights are being infringed upon, or our value is being called into question, or we feel isolated or pushed out, we grow fearful, angry, and frustrated. We lash out. This reaction can achieve two things. It can alert others to the fact that there’s a problem. But it can also drive a wedge between the very parties that really need to come together and find solutions. If the problem progresses without being addressed, that’s when alienation and anger set in. When we feel like someone is pushing us out, or leading us astray, or alienating us, that’s when we either lash out or we give up. We begin to cut ourselves off from others, either because we push them away with our anger or by physically removing ourselves.

If someone steps right up to us and says, straight to our face, “You don’t belong,” that’s one thing. I’m not at all talking about that. But when a new building goes up, or a new public policy is enacted, or there’s simply new and unfamiliar people all around you, it can be unsettling. Sometimes it’s a change that we’ll get used to over time. Or sometimes it’s a change that we continue to struggle with. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I find this troublesome. This is why. Can we talk this through and see if the same goal could be achieved in a way that doesn’t make me feel so estranged?” (OK, so that might not be how you’d word the question, but that’s essentially what we should be asking when we find ourselves in a situation like this.)

When we feel estranged, we’re less likely to get involved. And when we don’t join the public conversation about what’s going on in our City, or we join in only to complain, then the problems very likely won’t be addressed, we won’t feel heard, and we’ll respond to that either with continued grumbling or by making some specific changes in our life. Often the changes we make only serve to further alienate ourselves from others. We may change our route home from work, send our kids to a different school, or perhaps even move away.

Every time a community goes through big changes, this question comes up for those most affected – Do I still belong here? Is there any reason for me to stick around?

Fort Collins is going through just such a time right now. People who grew up here can no longer afford to remain. For others, the look and feel of the city has changed so much that it no longer feels like home. Even the political climate can affect how welcome a person feels in a community that they’ve lived in for decades.

I hear people say, “I grew up here and I can no longer afford to live here.” In other words, “I used to belong. I should still belong. But I no longer belong. This place is no longer economically viable for me.” People can also feel like they no longer belong because the city has changed politically or philosophically. Or perhaps they just feel like the city has grown too large – it no longer feels like the smaller community that they enjoyed several decades ago. Whatever the reason, these people have been here awhile, but they feel like they no longer belong, and that bothers them.

At the same time, some of these same folks are saying it’s the newcomers who don’t belong. We need to somehow lock the gates. Keep people out. Circle the wagons! Unfortunately, unless we construct a wall around the city, there’s really not a whole lot we can do about newcomers. And that would be hypocritical on our part anyway since we were all newcomers at some point — if not when we moved here, then when our parents or grandparents did.

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I certainly don’t have all the answers. And I’m making some pretty sweeping generalizations in what I’m saying. But I think that this sense of belonging is important — both to understand ourselves and our own reactions as well as to understand others. And I think it’s a helpful lens through which to look at problems we’re facing.

So as we’re talking about issues as a community, whether it’s housing affordability, bicyclists using the road, or yet another apartment complex being built, let’s try to look at it through the lens of belonging. When we’re talking about people, and living, and traveling, we should start from a premise of “We all belong” and move then to a “therefore how can we find a solution that works well for all?”

Maybe not every type of vehicle belongs on every City street (although I’d argue that more belong than we currently allow). And maybe there are certain styles of buildings that feel out of place here in Fort Collins even though they might feel just fine elsewhere. And maybe certain activities are fine downtown and others aren’t. But no matter what area of city life we’re looking at, every decision should be made from a premise that people are the priority — not money or cars or growth for growth’s sake. We need to be making decisions for the betterment of the people of Fort Collins, all of the people of Fort Collins. We all belong.

So the next time you find yourself squaring off with someone online, or at a City open house, or in some other venue, take a moment to think about how belonging might fit into the discussion. Is the other person’s sense of belonging being threatened in some way? Is yours? Is there a path forward that would not only maintain your personal sense of identity within the larger community of Fort Collins, but is there a way to enable both of you feel even more connected and attached to this place? There may be no self-evident answer to this question. But even just considering it might help your conversation to be more productive and a solution more likely to be found.

We’re people. We long to belong. Let’s grow a city where people are connected to place — to this place.