This story is based on an interview for 180º of Impact, a social change interview series. To hear the interview in full, listen to it on a podcast platform near you! In addition, if you have 15 minutes, we invite you to fill out our survey on belonging in social impact at lets.care/belonging.
Imagine being a high school senior on graduation day. Your entire life has led up to this moment. Your body and mind are full of a rush of emotions, so much nostalgia… but also anticipation. You’re equipped with a dream of what the future holds. You don’t know how you’ll get there, but you know what it’ll feel like. You’ll feel like you belong.
So, you wonder, where do you belong?
By the end of her high school experience in 2006, after spending time in Ghana, Bayyina Black knew exactly where she belonged… but she wasn’t quite sure how she’d get there.
]At that time, social enterprise wasn’t as prevalent and visible as it is now. Fortunately for Bayyina, a free cross-cultural experience, visiting an orphanage and distributing backpacks of school supplies to the children she met, would leave her with an understanding of where she belongs in the world.
“I felt so connected to Ghana,” Bayyina reflected. “I feel like this is when I first felt and discovered my spirit… When I came back from that trip, I felt so inspired to give back and do something for the people I came across.”
When she returned to the United States, Bayyina created her own proposal for a social venture, Backpacks for Africa. While her proposal was denied by the school board, her passion for doing good while making a living never left her.
In 2011, Bayyina’s life took a turn when, two weeks after she was in a car accident, a close friend of hers died in a car accident of his own.
That experience shocked Bayyina’s world, and she was motivated to live the life she wanted: “I can’t be a ‘woulda coulda shoulda’ person. I’m going to travel. I’m going to do all the things that I want to do. So I did that for 5 years.”
That drive to embrace the places she belonged led Bayyina to 32 countries. She became a YouTuber, worked in the venture capital world, and became a certified drone pilot, among many other things. That led her to where she is today, as Global Sustainability and Impact Manager at R/GA.
“R/GA is a company who celebrates side hustles… We don’t need just very traditional, straight path, linear people. We need people who do other things and have other passions so they can bring it to work. That’s one thing I love about working at R/GA, that all that I am fits within that space.”
These words are a symbol of belonging for me. According to belonging and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown, belonging is the opposite of fitting in.
“Fitting in is assessing a group of people and thinking, ‘who do I need to be, what do I need to say, what do I need to wear, how do I need to act?’ and changing who you are. True belonging never asks us to change who we are; it demands we be who we are.”
Bayyina says that now she feels an incredible sense of belonging, but it hasn’t always been that way.
“This belonging is something I’ve been seeking for years. The reason why the ‘where are you from’ question bothers me so much is, I don’t feel connected to the places I grew up,” Bayyina explained. “Not the way I feel connected to Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica.”
She spoke of her first experience in Brazil. “This sense of belonging was so overwhelming. I felt so welcomed and so loved and the people in Brazil, despite everything that they’ve been through, they have this, we call it “alegria”. It’s like bliss… It has its troubles and I definitely don’t want to romanticize Brazil but, for me, it was how it made me feel.”
Bayyina shared that being a black woman has also influenced her view on belonging.
“Belonging to me is very much a feeling of acceptance and of feeling comfortable and safe. Especially being a black woman traveling the way that I have, safety is definitely an issue and security.”
She continued, “I feel comfortable in my own skin. I don’t think so much about how I show up in the world; I can just be and exist. That is huge for me because freedom is what I value the most out of anything… For me, belonging means where I feel most free.”
For Bayyina, a tragic car accident and loss in 2011 thrust her into a five year journey of meeting herself and meeting the world. In the process, she found the places where she belongs.
What does it take to experience true belonging and, even more, create it for others? That’s one thing we’re still figuring out.
While not everyone feels such a strong sense of belonging in social impact spaces or in general, Bayyina’s example reminds us that it is indeed possible, and that’s a good place to start.
Do you want to help create a better understanding of belonging in social impact? Complete our 15 minute survey at lets.care/belonging.