Building Belonging in the Age of Anxiety

Matthew Cook
January 2020
Legs dangling from a log over a stream

Where do you belong? Close your eyes for a second and ask yourself that question. Can you picture a place where upon arrival you feel totally safe, respected, and loved?

If you can picture the place and the people present in your memory, you should count yourself among the extremely fortunate. To have a place where you feel a deep and unquestioning sense of belonging is rare. If you’re struggling to identify the place and the people, you’re certainly not alone. Community engagement and interaction is an essential component to healthy child and adult development; however, experiencing a true sense of belonging within that community is becoming harder for our staff and campers to achieve. We often read reports recounting disturbing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) that quote the increasing incidence of loneliness, anxiety, depression, and suicidality among 10- to 24-year-olds. Since 2010, we’ve seen an unprecedented spike in mental health challenges among our camper and staff populations. I could use this platform to jump on the bandwagon and decry the declines in all sorts of prosocial indicators, and like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be, point a boney finger at a tombstone, creating a deep sense of foreboding.

However, that’s not where my focus is.

I believe in summer camp. I believe in kids laughing while mud squeezes up between their toes as they explore the edge of a pond. I believe in the absolute power that a game of Crazy-8s on a rainy afternoon has in creating real friendships. I believe that trying and failing and trying again at a consequential task prepares us for life’s best challenges. I believe that dropping your pack when you reach the summit, stretching your arms high overhead, and sounding your barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world is an important rite of passage. I believe that camp provides us with an extraordinary canvas on which to practice the brush strokes that create the true art of our lives.

Camp can act as a powerful antidote to much of what is negatively gripping our nation’s children, teens, and emerging adults. The two most important ingredients in a person’s ability to thrive are connection and contribution. Connection involves connection to people and place; there are people in our lives who validate our identity and who accept us for who we are, and we inhabit spaces and places too that are grounded in safety and well-being. Contribution has to do with the idea that we matter. How we perceive the contributions we make serves as the foundation to construct our efficacy, mastery, self-worth, hopefulness, and personal drive.

Understanding Belonging

So what do I mean when I use the word “belonging”? I would be remiss in not starting with the work of Brené Brown and her groundbreaking works on belonging, vulnerability, and shame. My leadership and teaching at camp has been influenced by her books and talks since she burst on the scene in 2010. At the time of this writing, there were 44,367,169 views on YouTube of her June 2010 TEDx Houston talk The Power of Vulnerability. Understanding the central premise of her work is recognizing that vulnerability is the core ingredient to living a full and “wholehearted” life. I agree with Brown that “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path” (Brown, 2012).

Real belonging means showing up authentically and being accepted for who you are. True belonging does not require us to change; that’s called “fitting in.” True belonging asks us simply to be who we are. We all need to feel a sense of belonging in our lives to enable positive forward progress. Psychologist Abraham Maslow called the apex of this journey, “self-actualization.” Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” theory, pyramid model, and subsequent texts form the basis of the modern positive psychology movement. Maslow places our need for belonging slightly above our needs for air, food, safety, and shelter (1943). That makes it pretty central to our being and becoming. Maslow’s and Brown’s philosophies are interconnected; to move up the developmental ladder toward our fullest potential, as Maslow would describe it, or toward what Brown calls “wholehearted living,” we must feel a sense of real belonging to our personal places, spaces, and groups (Brown, 2012).

Because you’re holding a copy of Camping Magazine in your hands or reading it online, I know I’m preaching to a member of the proverbial choir. I’m guessing you had some experience as a camper in your childhood or, like me, as a young adult staff member, where you found a deep sense of belonging at “your camp.” I also predict that you’ve dedicated your professional work, and a good portion of your heart and soul, to recreating that place of belonging for the staff and campers who sit around the fire with you every summer. Thank you.

The good news is that camp can provide an antidote to the mental health, sociological, and relational challenges our staff and campers face at camp and every day back home. The community we form around the lofty goals of safety, skill building, friendship, personal growth, and belonging creates a strong container, but the staff we hire and the campers we ultimately welcome into that community have their say in the process. How they feel about their own worthiness is a key to the whole thing. From her research Brown reports, “There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy” Brown, B. (2010).

Practices to Build Belonging

Is it possible for us to interview for worthiness? Yes. Can we create an environment for our campers that helps guide them more directly toward a sense of worthiness and ultimately to belonging? Yes. We accomplish this through inspiration, curiosity, and generative conversations. I’ve seen the power a well-planned and intentional hiring process can enact. I’ve also experienced individuals who arrive and struggle to find their place among the staff and quit before orientation is even halfway complete. We need to commit to investing in our potential staff members from our first phone or FaceTime call.

I’ve used some intentional practices to begin building belonging in potential staff members during the hiring process. The strongest techniques require the use of story in the interview process and developing a level of excitement and inspiration that will serve to increase the sense of commitment in the whole staff before individuals arrive for orientation. We need staff to commit to the mission that we’ve laid out before them. We want them to do the day-to-day work we need them to do with campers, but we also need to commit to the adventure and growth experience they are about to have. So how do we get them ready between the moment we offer them the job and the handshake when they arrive for orientation?

The Art of Conversation

French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Teaching staff to “long for the sea” has to do with introducing them to the endless potential of the lifelong contributions they can make to the campers’ lives. This is accomplished through a conversational style of interviewing I call Discovery Conversations™. These conversations start with a clarification: “This is not an interview. I really dislike interviews.” I explain that interviews put the organization and individual at odds; the interviewee’s goal is to win the interview (be offered the job), and the interviewer wants to make sure the interviewee is capable of doing the work. Instead, I explain that camp is all about relationships, and it’s more appropriate that we have a conversation about our community and our values to mutually discover the “fit.” I share that working at camp has the power to supercharge our personal and professional growth if we approach it with the right mindset and expectations. I don’t sugarcoat anything; instead, I simultaneously provide stories about how camp can be challenging and frustrating, and I share stories of growth and transformation.

While I’m telling stories I’m also listening to see what this potential staff member is noticing and emphasizing in their reactions and questions. I also ask them to share meaningful stories that relate to what I’ve shared. By the end of the conversation we know each other better than if I’d been asking a bunch of scripted questions. I refer to this kind of listening as “tuning your ear,” and it takes time and patience.

Starting the relationship off like this encourages the staff member to believe they’ve found a caring place where they may belong. If we stay on the surface in the interview and emphasize efficiency over understanding, we end up paying the price in setting ourselves up for an awkward arrival at staff orientation. Discovery Conversations are just the first step, and they do take more time — but the payoff is enormous.

Pre-Summer Engagement

I’ve spoken to dozens of camp directors about the use of technology in connecting with their summer staff pre-summer, and an important area that continues to flummox many is the creation of an online portal to engage staff prior to their arrival for staff training and orientation. The reason most often given for this is the sheer busyness of their days, weeks, and seasons.

What if I told you it’s far easier than you’ve ever dreamt? Creating a place where you can introduce your seasonal staff to the history, mission, ethics, values, policies, and even the fun of camp is a fantastic way to keep a generative conversation going from application to orientation. This is also a place where you can upload:

  • Your own welcome video shot from your phone every week
  • That TED Talk you love
  • Year-round and seasonal staff bios
  • Articles that move your soul and inspire your mind

And it lands right in the hands of your newly hired staff. The content is all out on the web, and posting links to talks like the one I referenced by Brené Brown will frontload community building in a format your staff is already intimately comfortable with — their smartphones. Ask your staff to reply to posts with a short paragraph or even a text about how they feel and what they think. This way you’ve created a relationship around the ideas and inspiration that move your community, and your new and returning staff members will arrive in May/June feeling like they’ve been in a three-month conversation with you; their belonging has already begun to blossom. The time you invest here in the beginning will have a profound effect in the long run. Sites like Wix.com and SQUARESPACE.com are a good place to start on your portal.

The Big Picture

These steps amount to the pre-summer section of a much larger plan that encompasses everything from the hiring interview through exit interview, and even into the post-camp season for your staff. The guiding ethos here is that helping your staff to develop worthiness and belonging are the necessary first steps in creating the same for your campers! If you take the time to build supportive relationships with your staff, then they’ll learn to do the same with their campers.

If we help staff and campers discover their worthiness, then they will find the sense of belonging they need to live wholeheartedly and harness their potential. When camp ends, they will carry their sense of belonging home with them and continue to build their identities on a rock-solid foundation.

Your campers and staff are included in the CDC’s and NIMH’s worrisome statistics reflecting the sharp rise in anxiety, depression, and loneliness among children and young adults. By helping them build belonging you are addressing the crisis head-on. Our children need this kind of direct approach. We have a lot of important work to do. Together we’ll help the next generation face whatever the world throws at them with empathy, authenticity, creativity, and courage.

References

  • Brown, B. (2012, September). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Avery Publishing.
  • Brown, B. (2010). The power of vulnerability. TEDx Houston. Retrieved from ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability
  • Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), pp.370–396.

Matthew Cook, MSW, has spent the last 27 years in the camp industry, 19 of those as a camp director and executive director. Matthew started his professional camp career as the camp director at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a position he held for 13 years. In 2015, Matthew took on the position of executive director at Teton Valley Ranch Camp in Jackson, Wyoming. Matthew is a trainer and facilitator who has presented workshops all over the country and abroad. He consults on and teaches teambuilding, program development, safety and risk management, staff training and support, and his own Behavior Development Approach™ to help campers and staff reach their highest potential in their time at camp.

Photo courtesy of Camp Granite Lake; Golden, Colorado.