Belonging and Stewardship: Two Hallmarks of Authentic Community
I recently participated as a featured speaker for CMX Connect DC. The evening’s theme centered around community and belonging, which gave me an opportunity to step back and reflect on my 15 years of community engagement experience. To help provoke and guide my reflection, I asked myself:
What have I learned about the essence of authentic community and what does it mean to be a steward of authentic community?
This post summarizes my reflections and connects them to my experience within the broader Art of Hosting community since 2009.
I believe we need community now more than ever, because it literally invites us to “come into unity.” This is the antidote to the contemporary cultural lie of a separate self that we see resulting in so much separation and traumatization across our country and the world. I believe the relational practice of being authentic community is a necessary pathway through the social, spiritual, and political crises we’re living amidst today. As beloved author Margaret Wheatley reminds us:
“Whatever the problem, community is the answer.”
However, not every group that shares space or gathers for a common purpose is a community. And not every group that claims to be a community actually behaves as one. In fact, the reality can be far from it. Too often I see and hear “community” becoming a popular buzzword, used as feel-good marketing to appeal to our very real human need to feel connected to a social group. But just being in the same room or group does not mean we are relating – and authentic community is always rooted in the relational. Also, relating is not synonymous with ease or harmony. Relating can look and feel uncomfortable, but it involves a commitment to staying connected through relationships in service of the whole. There is a vast distinction between these two versions of community; I’ve noticed the presence of two important hallmarks throughout my experience of living and working in authentic community. These are belonging and stewardship.
Belonging has two reciprocal meanings that embody its essence. The first can be thought of as a “longing to be”…to be a valued part of, to be seen, accepted, understood. When you feel this way, you feel at home. One sign that you belong to an authentic community is that it feels like home.
The second aspect of being authentic community that tends to get less attention is that as much as you belong to an authentic community, you also feel as if it belongs to you. When something belongs to you, you act as an owner of it; you care for it and choose to take responsibility for it.
The global Art of Hosting community is one community where I experience this fullness of belonging. I feel like I belong to the community because I’ve felt the same sense of being “at home” while attending AoH gatherings everywhere from Rochester, Minnesota to Spetses, Greece to Washington, D.C. While the people participating in these AoH gatherings have been different individuals from different backgrounds and experiences, there’s a similar quality of feeling welcomed, embraced, and seen among the community. This isn’t a result of individual relationships with longstanding histories, but rather a manifestation of shared practices, the authenticity of the community itself, and a culture that continually tends to a sacred center. The sacred center is a focal point for awareness and connected relation. This focal point also holds a shared intention and the highest collective possibilities within and for a group or gathering.
Equally strong, I feel the global AoH community belongs to me – I hold a strong sense of responsibility both to and for it. Because I value it and believe in it, I act as a co-creator and contributor when I can, which is one reason I’m committed to growing our AoH community here in D.C. This acting doesn’t come from a sense of duty or obligation; no one has asked me to do this. Rather, it comes from a true desire to act as an owner and take responsibility for what belongs to me. Of course, this community doesn’t solely belong to any one person or group, yet many individuals and groups care for it, nurture it, co-create its emerging future, and take responsibility for its livelihood simultaneously.
It’s incredibly inspiring to witness how this global Art of Hosting community belongs to thousands of practitioners acting in fellowship, all across the globe. The community not only sees itself as a living system, but embodies that in how it exists and evolves. One important way the community has grown organically is that stewards have emerged and stepped into holding the field with particular intentionality. It’s no wonder then that the presence and practice of stewardship is the second hallmark of authentic community that continues to surface as important for me.
What does it mean to steward authentic community? I believe stewardship can look (and feel) quite different in different contexts, but at its heart, stewardship is an intentional practice. It is the art and practice of holding the sacred center of a community and caring for the whole. To illustrate how this can look and feel different, I’ll share examples from two communities that are sacred to me. First, from Saipan, where I acted as a community steward for two and a half years in a disaster recovery context, and next, from the global AoH community, where I’ve been witnessing and learning from the communal stewardship practices for the past 10+ years.
Disaster recovery work and stewardship in Saipan
I lived in Saipan for three years beginning in 2015. Saipan is part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a small U.S. territory in the South Pacific near Guam. Here I served as the Director of CARE CNMI, a disaster recovery nonprofit I helped found and lead after living through a catastrophic typhoon. I acted as a steward through the formal responsibilities of my position, however, my stewarding was rooted in and grew from my commitment to the long-term wellbeing and resilience of the community that I had come to call home. Initially this stewarding began through my grassroots community organizing work immediately following the typhoon, and the stewarding then evolved as I moved into a more formal role focused on long-term recovery.
My stewarding here took the shape of caring for the whole by:
Designing and putting “structures of belonging” into place. This was about the architecture to support aligned communal collaboration. It was held in form through organizational committees, different access points for volunteers (i.e. trainings, specific volunteer roles, youth and adult programs), and engagement opportunities designed for different stakeholder groups, such as donors, partner agencies, and client families;
Tending to the broad relational field. This field consisted of relationships between board members, government partners and donors, and the broader community who influenced the narrative of our work. This not only included my own relationship with each of these stakeholders but also the relationships between them. Oftentimes this “tending” manifested through how we gathered for meetings, chose to include and invite participation, prioritized storytelling and communication, and designed avenues for both listening to and engaging stakeholders as co-creators in our work;
Holding space for myself and others in a traumatic post-disaster context. This required me to first prioritize centering and caring for myself, and managing my own stress so that I could show up more present for others amidst grief, suffering, and ongoing chaos and uncertainty. From this center of awareness and groundedness, I was then able to offer kindness, compassion, and unrelenting support to others despite the challenges we were experiencing together; and
Continually drawing us back to our sacred center. This is the core where our shared commitment and intention to build a resilient and united Commonwealth resided. This center also held our vision that all our neighbors could be lifted from disaster through the strength of our network.
Stewarding is integral to hosting community
The Art of Hosting is a community where I witness incredible stewardship among elders from across the globe. The stewards of this community are not self appointed, elected by others, or acting from formal positions of power. In this way, it is different from my previous Saipan examples. There I eventually held a formal position that came with some inherent positional power. Rather, in the AoH community stewards emerge and are embraced by the larger community; they then choose to step into stewarding in ways that are unique to each person but also maintain a similar quality and care.
Their stewarding takes the shape of caring for the whole by:
Contributing to shared learning, growth, and communal longevity through mentorship and co-hosting with apprentices. I’ve had the opportunity to both apprentice and co-host several AoH trainings, and this is one reason I feel like I am an active contributor and integrated part of the broader community;
Modeling a way of being. This is alive through their personal presence, personal practices, and how they hold space for the full range of emotions without trying to change or control others. They are also masters at asking profound and unassuming questions, fueled by curiosity and humility;
Creating beautiful containers that allow for social resonance. These stewards tend to both the visible and invisible “field of the collective” in their hosting. They will astutely name that which is present but invisible if it threatens the integrity or well-being of the whole, or if it provides an opportunity for collective learning; and
Drawing attention continually back to a sacred center and to spirit. They often remind us of the importance of practice, ritual, and ceremony as part of communal life. They help us recognize and honor that which is sacred, essential, and connected to source.
I am forever indebted to the elders and stewards who have embraced me as an apprentice and collaborator. Their presence and guidance continues to have a lasting impact on the way I choose to be in relationship with myself, and in community with others.
Reflecting on these hallmarks of authentic community – belong and stewardship – reminds me how important it is to truly embody them as we begin to envision what is possible as a local AoH community of practitioners in D.C. We’re still early in the germinating stage of development, not yet sure how this community will grow and evolve, or even specifically who and what life wants us to serve. But it’s never too early to tend to the quality of the soil in the social field, which is what we’re doing now. I’m excited and honored to be in this work together (with you!) at a moment in time that is calling us back to the integral practice of becoming and being authentic community.