As human beings, we seek purpose through working, exploring, and building relationships. At the heart of each of our journeys, is the desire to find the place where we belong.

Imagine a student’s first day at a new school. The teacher introduces them to the rest of the class, with the instructions to make them “feel welcome.” The new student may feel slightly more included, but when a few students take the initiative to sit with them at lunch or hang out after school, these actions help the new student to feel like they belong. While introductions are a caring gesture, people do not have a chance to feel accepted by their peers until they can engage beyond the surface level. Intentional actions to include someone is one of the key differences between “welcoming” and “belonging.”

Founder of The Mosaic Film Experience, Skot Welch created The Belonging Initiative to explore our nation’s cities, hear from diverse voices, discover what divides and unites us, and, ultimately, to create more belongingcommunities.

For nearly a decade, we have provided students with opportunities to tell their unique stories, build career preparedness skills, and uncover different perspectives from communities. Our established community involvement made us a natural partner for The Belonging Initiative’s work in West Michigan.

In support of The Belonging Initiative, we brought together our network of community partners, including West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology (WMCAT), The City of Grand Rapids, ArtPrize, Gorilla, and Carbon Stories.

The Belonging Initiativeincludes two parts. The Belonging Index seeks to quantify a community’s level of belongingness. Belonging Dinners connect community members through a shared meal experience and storytelling. In West Michigan, Calvin University’s Center for Social Research, with funding from Experience Grand Rapids and ArtPrize, is conducting research to related to The Belonging Index.

“Everybody has a story. As a human being, you deserve to be at the table not for what you have, but who you are,” Welch said. “Belonging goes deeper and makes a place at the table for everybody.”

In her third State of the City address, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss supported the idea of belonging.

“We all share a common goal of being a city of hope and love, compassion and opportunity,” Bliss said. “A city where people feel connected and where they feel that they belong.”

Just like the concept of belonging, the initiative’s collaboration with the West Michigan community is diverse and multifaceted. Belonging is part of this year’s ArtPrize’s Project 1: Crossed Lines, which explores the way boundaries affect our individual sense of belonging in our neighborhoods and city.

In partnership with ArtPrize, The Belonging Initiativewill gather community insights through a multi-part neighborhood project. Our work with The Belonging Initiative includes three aspects.

Part 1: Youth Voices Creating Conversation

We partnered with Gorilla to help local students produce a short film introducing Project 1’s theme of belonging to online audiences.

Part 2: Hitting the Streets

As part of the second phase, we partnered with WMCAT’s summer program, Idea:Lab – an eight-week paid student program for teens. Students conducted “man on the street” style interviews with community members, focusing on two Project 1 sites, MLK Park and Richmond Park. The collaboration produced a second video, with help from Carbon Stories, highlighting community members’ original stories and perspectives relating to belonging.

2019 is the third consecutive year that we have partnered with WMCAT and their teen studentson a community-focused project.

Part 3: Breaking Bread

We are collaborating with The Belonging Initiative on a pair of Belonging Dinners in West Michigan. With help from Project 1, funding from ArtPrize, and a variety of community nonprofits like, the new MLK Park neighborhood association and DisArt, we will bring people together to share a meal and their experiences as they discuss the feeling of belonging in our city.

“We aim to hear from diverse voices in our city and give them an opportunity to express where they feel like they belong and why that is important to them,” Welch said.

When individuals feel accepted as part of something bigger than themselves, they thrive.

Community partnerships invite the public to become a part of the process through engagement and collaboration. Together, we are working to build a better tomorrow by fostering a more belonging community today. Through our collaboration with The Belonging Initiative, we are looking forward to working with our Grand Rapids community partners to making our city more a more inclusive and equitable place for all.