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The Power of Belonging

Tricia Raikes

I recently joined former Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas at the America’s Promise Alliance Summit for America’s Future for a discussion about the importance of young people feeling a sense of belonging. The daylong event, which brought together leaders from all sectors, helped reenergize my own commitment to creating the conditions children need to succeed in school, community, and life.

At the summit, I reflected on how inspired I am by people I meet in my work at the Raikes Foundation.

While belonging is an idea we all understand generally, it has specific meaning to the scholars who study its importance—it is the belief that one is respected, valued and fits in culturally in one’s environment.

Ensuring young people feel that they belong has direct impacts on how they perform in school and beyond. A study by the Center for Promise showed that low-income youth in workforce development programs found relationship-building with mentors to be the most valuable skill in forging strong career pathways, proving there is an economic imperative to making sure young people can connect to caring adults. And a report by the Mindset Scholars Network showed that programs that help mitigate questions of belonging in college reduced racial disparities in grade point average, reduced gender achievement gaps in STEM courses, and even improved African-American students’ health outcomes.

I’ve seen firsthand the extraordinary transformation that can take place when adults commit to kids who are vulnerable by creating a sense of belonging. Tukwila, Washington, a suburb just outside Seattle, has a student homelessness rate more than double any other district in the region. Despite this hardship, homeless students in Tukwila are graduating at a rate of 79 percent, dramatically surpassing the statewide graduation rate for homeless students of 53 percent. Tukwila credits its success to three key interventions:

  1. Knowing each homeless student’s name and understanding their circumstances;
  2. Crafting a robust community engagement plan to surround students with specialized supports such as transportation and academic help; and
  3. Having a supportive school board who made thoughtful, transformative investments in students’ needs, including hiring social workers and counselors focused specifically on dropout prevention.

Every student has a unique story, and to succeed, young people need to know they are supported and that others want to see them thrive. That is the essence of belonging. Making sure our communities are inclusive is the only way we can create a just and equitable society where all young people have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. As adults – whether you’re a parent, coach, mentor or teacher – we all have a role to play in fostering belonging for young people in the classroom and beyond.

In the twenty years since America’s Promise was founded, we’ve made notable gains for children and young adults, but there’s still a long way to go. Though graduation rates have risen nationally, there is still a large gap in graduation rates between historically underserved students and their peers, and the college completion gap between white and black young people has widened, not narrowed. There are many reasons for these disparities, but by ensuring those who are vulnerable know they are respected, valued and belong, we can all take a promising step toward a more equitable future.

This blog is part of the #Recommit2Kids campaign, marking the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and calling the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth.