THE BLOG
01/25/2017 11:56 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2017

Where Is the Love? Building Belonging in an Age of Divisiveness

There were many memorable moments at last week's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, from speeches by global leaders like Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to sparkling award ceremonies with international artists like Shakira, Forest Whitaker, and Anne-Sophie Mutter.

But for me, what set this year's WEF apart was a dinner discussion that took place beyond the headlines, exploring how, in a time of heightened insecurity and mistrust of "the other," we can summon the courage to welcome those who are different from us into our lives.

It was, to paraphrase Victor Hugo, a conversation whose time has come.

The event was inspired by a music video produced by will.i.am and the Black Eyed Peas, remixing their 2003 megahit, "Where is the Love?," and featuring images that warn us of where "other-ing" can lead, from a cameo of Valerie Castile, whose son Philando was shot and killed by a policeman, to the bloodied face and shell-shocked expression of a five-year-old in Aleppo.

I was invited to be a speaker because my life's work has focused on "where the love isn't," and on what we can do to bring it back by planting seeds, building bridges, and standing up for injustice, secure in the knowledge that there really is no other; the other is always and only us.

My lens is the pervasive, yet often unseen, problem of social isolation. Technically defined with academic detachment as "the absence of meaningful social connections," social isolation is a crippling condition that leaves its victims suffering in silence.

This is an entrenched problem. It has taken root over decades of our failure, as a society, to respect, recognize, and reciprocate the voices of our most vulnerable members.

And I am convinced that it lies at the core of many of the challenges our world faces today.

Why? Because, when we isolate and exclude other people; when we tell them they do not belong; when we segregate and stereotype our fellow human beings by age or income or ability level or the color of their skin or how they pray or who they love, we diminish what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called their "sense of somebodiness." We deprive them of their agency and voice. We send a message that they are "less-than."

This can create a negative feedback loop that weakens entire societies.

In Mozambique, for example, where I was researching multidimensional poverty, I met a woman who told me, "Poverty means being lonely and not being able to get things because you are lonely." She felt isolated because she was poor, and poor because she was isolated. And her internalized notion of being "less-than" was more debilitating than any lack of income.

This isn't just a problem for developing countries. We see the effects of "other-ing" everywhere, including in the United States and Europe, where populist leaders have stoked the fires of xenophobia, scapegoating, and fear. In the days following the Brexit vote in the UK, citizens reported over 2,300 hate crimes. Meanwhile, a Southern Poverty Law Center survey of more than 10,000 schoolteachers across the United States in the wake of the 2016 presidential election found that "Eight in 10 report heightened anxiety on the part of marginalized students, including immigrants, Muslims, African Americans and LGBT students"--what the SPLC calls "The Trump Effect."

So, what can we do about it?

The good news is, there are lots of programs and policies that can bolster belonging and stamp out isolation. But before they can work, we need the hope and belief and conviction that we are all one, and that every single one of us has an intrinsic human right to belong.

Let me offer three keys.

The first is striving to truly see each other, eye to eye. To actively listen. And to seek "common ground," as the "Where Is the Love?" video urges.

But the point of doing this isn't just to recognize shared vulnerability. Nor is it simply to sympathize with someone else's pain.

In genuinely seeing one another, eye to eye, we can celebrate one another's strengths. We can honor and value one another's contributions. We can demonstrate mutual respect.

And that gets to the second key: recognition of reciprocity. Connectedness is a two-way street. When we extend a hand to others, we are touched, as well.

To me, there is no better example of this than the Special Olympics movement. Special Olympics uses the power of sport to create inclusion and build community among people who have intellectual disabilities and people who do not. Its entire way of being is based on shared understanding, and on valuing every individual's unique gifts--an inspiring model that can be used throughout the world to bolster dignity and build belonging.

The final key is understanding that inclusion requires equality. As we think about how to bring connectedness and compassion into the policymaking arena, it isn't just about making sure that marginalized groups get a seat at the table; it's about ensuring that everyone at the table can be a full and equal participant.

Instead of imposing top-down solutions, we need to cultivate solutions from the bottom-up. Instead of leading from the front, policymakers should get behind the priorities communities identify for themselves.

Because, overcoming social isolation is always done with and not for.

It's when we value one another as equals that transformative change can take root. This is the path forward for our human family, and it's where love abides.

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