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The power of belonging

The first Carolina Conversations session of the semester addressed the importance of how people treat one another, provide for each other’s well-being and facilitate personal success.

Becci Menghini, senior associate vice chancellor for Workforce Strategy, Equity and Engagement, and Gretchen C. Bellamy, senior director, education, operations and initiatives, for Diversity and Inclusion, at the Pleasants room in Wilson Library.
(Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

More than 70 students, faculty and staff came to Wilson Library’s Pleasants Family Room on Sept. 26 to join the first Carolina Conversations session of the new academic year.

The topic – Cultivating Belonging Within Workspaces – was a continuation and expansion of a conversation that the two facilitators, Becci Menghini and Gretchen C. Bellamy, began at the sixth annual THINKposium held last month.

From the start, Menghini, senior associate vice chancellor for Workforce Strategy, Equity and Engagement, and Bellamy, senior director for Education, Operations and Initiatives in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, made it clear to audience members that they were there not to talk at them but to listen to their ideas and share them with campus leaders.

“We hope we can have a spirited, active conversation that we can continue beyond today,” Menghini said.

They also urged participants to take responsibility for their actions.

“Creating belonging is really a responsibility of all of us,” Menghini said. “We want each one of you to be able to leave here today with a sense of what you might do to create a sense of belonging in your workplace and a list of ways you are going to hold yourself and your colleagues accountable for those actions.”

When Bellamy asked audience members to add to a list of things supervisors could do to create a sense of belonging, the suggestions from the floor came so fast and furious that they struggled to keep pace as they wrote them down on an easel board. The ideas ranged from authenticity to valuing differences to preserving dignity.

The series of Carolina Conversations is sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Rumay Alexander, associate vice chancellor and chief diversity officer who leads the office, said she thinks the topic resonated with so many employees because it is a subject everyone can relate to and understand.

“Most people’s definitions of diversity are too narrow and this is another way to expand the definition so that they understand it is about all of the parts of me, not just certain parts of me that you want to focus on because you have to check off a box,” Alexander said.

When it comes to a feeling of belonging, everybody is an expert on their own experience, she added.

“When people feel this is truly about me and my well-being, it makes the topic approachable and it makes it human,” Alexander said.

Bellamy said the Carolina Conversation session gave people an opportunity to draw insights from their own experiences to propose bottom-up solutions.

“I think that is why people are so engaged,” Bellamy said.

Menghini said research shows that when workers feel like they belong, they not only produce better work but are happier as well.

“I think it’s fair to say that belonging in the workplace isn’t necessarily part of the natural lexicon of higher education, or hasn’t been, but it should be,” Menghini said. “It is really important for our colleagues, but most importantly, it is really important for all of us.”