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Interview: Kim Samuel, activist, educator

24 February 2023

‘If someone’s belonging is being denied, I have to stand up’

I’m building a global movement around belonging. By simple virtue of the fact that we’re born, we all have the right to belong. It’s a birthright.


We’re at an inflection point where we’ve never been more connected yet disconnected at the same time. We have the power to change this, and I’m laying out solutions and possibilities that can bring this about. I see this as a calling, a mission to wake people up to what they’ve forgotten.


In May 2002, I met Nelson Mandela. He told me he never felt isolated, not even in prison, because he and his fellow prisoners were all working together with a common purpose. This moved me profoundly, and started my journey of understanding connectedness and social isolation.


I was also inspired by my father, a wonderful man who suffered a serious brain injury. During his rehabilitation, I witnessed the isolation he felt and how his identity in the eyes of others became defined by his disabilities and age. I also witnessed his grace and strength. He was never diminished.


I was educated at Trinity College, at the University of Toronto. My major was human geography — appropriately, the study of life and interconnectedness.


Honestly, a big part of my education came out of the losses in my life: my father in 2000, and my mother and sister in 2008. These tragedies helped define my life’s purpose in helping people discover belonging and connection.


My father was the inspiration behind the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness in Montreal. I wanted to start something that spoke to how isolating and stigmatising his experience was. The social isolation that he and my mother, as his primary caregiver, experienced, was hard to see. Turning someone into an “other” is an injustice for all.


The centre’s mission is to build connectedness within and between communities — through partnerships, research, programming, learning initiatives, and advocacy. We’re adding to the current conversation about social connectedness and how to combat shame, isolation, and humiliation. Our programming includes Common Threads, which works with asylum-seekers. Our global symposia bring together people and organisations to tackle global challenges brought by social isolation and lack of belonging. Our social-connectedness Fellows programmme empowers research that addresses these issues.


Everyone at some point feels isolated: that they’re not included, that they don’t belong. Most people experienced some form of isolation during Covid. The pandemic absolutely woke people up to this crisis of belonging, but it always existed. It’s a crisis that’s marked by the absence of agency and choice: you can’t exercise belonging without them.


Isolation has a profound impact on physical and mental health. Dr Julia Holt-Lundstad, at Brigham Young University, has researched the connection between health and social connection. She notes that isolation impacts health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Isolation contributes to a sense of being disenfranchised and unmoored from the world. The burgeoning youth mental-health crisis shows how important it is that we grapple with these issues.


Human survival depended on communities’ banding together. Even now, this reality remains the same: people need one another. When we truly belong in a place, whether a forest or a city street, we feel peace and connection. Ideally, it’s a reciprocal relationship: we care for our places, and feel a responsibility to them. Martin Luther King Jr defined power as “the strength to bring about social, political or economic change”. Having power to shape our future is part of belonging. A sense of purpose can help us discover the “why” behind our actions and belonging.


Almost every society has some form of “othering”, and there’s always cultural context. In Britain, for example, the class system is alive and well, and class divides are much more apparent. It’s the antithesis of belonging.


The idea of belonging isn’t exclusive to Christianity. Uniting behind this concept can bring people of different faiths together and bring out the best in us. The late Paul Farmer co-founded Partners in Health: a system of health-care delivery rooted in compassion. He believed in the “hermeneutic of generosity”, which means relationships need to be built on trust and honesty. He reminded us of the moral imperative we share toward one another as brothers and sisters, which is embodied in the teachings of all faiths.


One organisation that comes to mind is the Special Olympics, which provides sports training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Nelson Mandela called it “a telling testimony to the indestructibility of the human spirit”. Between one and three per cent of people worldwide have an intellectual disability, and often confront exclusion, stigma, and inequity every day.


Belonging exists when you don’t put people in boxes. Special Olympics is a good example. The Inside-Out prison-exchange programme in Canada and the US brings college students into prisons to take classes with incarcerated students to break down differences and highlight common ground.


We’ve so much further to go before people with disabilities and older people are truly represented in all facets of human-rights frameworks, workplaces, and communities. Likewise, we’re not adequately sensitive to the needs of caregivers, for whom disconnection and loneliness are a daily occurrence.


I’ve been following the Anglican Church’s recent debate about marriage, and I can’t imagine how hard the Archbishop of Canterbury’s job must be. It may seem overly simplified, but to me, love is love. God loves us all equally, and we can celebrate one another. When my brother married Kevin, so many people came, including my mum and dad’s friends, and we were all there to celebrate their love. If we believe in marriage, we should believe in it for all adults who are married and consenting.


They’re raising four children — their oldest twins are 19 now — and they are wonderful parents. For them the welcome of their church community is really important.


When I assert the right to belong, it’s not about making a new human right. It’s about human rights neglected round the world. Because I’m a Christian. Love thy neighbours as thyself. If someone’s belonging is being denied, I have to stand up.


I’m meeting a lot of church groups while I’m here in Oxford, to ask what faith has to do with belonging. On 5 March I’m giving a talk with Erik Varden, a Roman Catholic priest and monk from Trondheim, who has written about loneliness.


I pray for a larger conversation when we can ask: why is it when we pray or meditate or come to God, we’re not able in our everyday lives to recognise the importance of our belonging? Airbnb has a slogan: “Belong anywhere”. Do we take time to remember what that means?


I belong to God. I belong to my family, and they belong to me. I belong to nature, and feel a deep connection to its sacredness. I belong to my community.


I see belonging [as] a form of reciprocity with others, and, yes, this is a lifelong journey that should be taken with purpose. There’s suffering everywhere. I see isolation as the feeling of sitting all alone at the bottom of a well. Why should people go through this alone?


I had a happy family life growing up, and this continues through to this day. I’m blessed with a daughter and a granddaughter, nieces and nephews, and a brother, and many friends of all ages whom I cherish.


Being part of community brings me joy. I want to continue to share my experience wherever and whenever people feel I have something to contribute.


I was the funny little kid who sang hymns on the way to school. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t think God existed and there was both good and evil, but, in the end, good always triumphs. I feel that way to this day.


I describe myself as a person of faith. I love the communal experience of worship. I also draw strength and joy from worshipping in nature, especially in the forest and by the ocean. In my free time I hike and ride horses, listen to music, read books quietly and poetry aloud.


My beloved sister Tammy was only 11 months younger than me. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, and lived another four years. She held on, by sheer force of will, for her children, to be with them as long as she could. I want to be here as long as I can, too. I wouldn’t give up any day, not even the sad ones, because they’re part of life and living. Just being makes me happy.


Babies being born give me hope — they’re souls coming into the world. It’s an awesome responsibility to make a better world for our children.


I pray every night for my family, and the whole human family; for people who are struggling in life, knowing how much darkness there is in the world right now; for more love and compassion, knowledge and wisdom, and using it well.


My companions are always with me, especially Tammy. We’d hold hands. We wouldn’t need to talk, but she might turn to me and say: “Tell me, Sis, why are we sitting locked in a church, exactly?”


Kim Samuel was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

On Belonging: Finding connection in an age of isolation is published by Abrams at £18.99 (CT Bookshop £17.09); 978-1419753039.

“The Discovery of Belonging in an Age of Isolation”: Kim Samuel in conversation with Fr Erik Varden, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 4 p.m., 5 March. ophi.org.uk/ophi_events/discovery-of-belonging-2023

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