By Terah Clifford
The familiar dread filled me. How to answer the basic small talk question, an iteration of “Where are you from?” Usually, I deflect the essence of the question with less than a dozen well-rehearsed words that encapsulate my geographical locations over the years, wrapping the answer into a well contained package with a tidy enough bow on top that we can all move on to the other, obviously more important topics such as work, majors, actually yes, it is quite warm in here. But this time, the questions were posed as “Where do you belong? What is your lineage?” a string of inquires meant to push to the core. For me, these deeper questions of belonging, lineage, identity, are confused by too many things to explain in a few minutes, but sometimes I try anyway: immigration, multiracial, adoption… but ultimately, sometimes, we come to the answer with the most truth in it: unknown.
This lack of belonging, this sense of internal disorientation is hard to reconcile, especially when conversations like this arise. I know this situation is not unique to me. While this causes an opportunity for self-reflection for me, this lack of belonging has much deeper implications on a wider scale. During several sessions this week, discussions arose regarding the underlying motivations for joining street gangs. Issues of identity, belonging, loneliness, and security topped the list. A solution to the issue of violence, shootings, blood on the streets, does not start with expecting our police force to stop these explosions of violence at the moment of impact. Failing to address the fundamental issues that result in death and destruction is an act of violence just as profound but profoundly harder to quantify than killing someone with a bullet.
If we don’t want our youth to turn to a group that offers them security, training, opportunities for advancement, support, and financial provision but that happens to be classified as a gang, then we need to rewind and go all the way back to the root when we look at solutions. Providing after-school programs, food, social services is a start, and there are many agencies and nonprofits that are working hard and succeeding at providing these services. But if these are to be effective in lasting ways, then we need to address issues of identity, belonging, alienation, and loneliness.
While continuing to throw services and resources at the problem slowly moves the point of triage further up the system, it does not ultimately answer the question “Where do I belong?” And thus it can only quiet the emptiness that echoes back when there is no meaningful answer. While these issues may seem like questions better suited for therapists, counsellors, or religious workers, we cannot leave the completely on their shoulders. Healthworkers, service providers, and policy makers at all levels would do well to consider how these human needs drive systemic issues. While it is exciting to witness in recent years the shift in focus from the immediate consequences of violence further down the line to community, educational, and familial factors, this cannot be the final resting place. The next step is to empower articulation of these questions of identity and belonging and work together as communities to find answers. Because while a lack of belonging may merely result in momentary discomfort during icebreakers, it can have fatal consequences and therefore cannot afford to be ignored.