In February 2003, my mother, brother, and I arrived at JFK airport from Vietnam with six cardboard boxes. They carried everything we thought we needed to start our new life in New York City and served as little reminders of home: winter clothes that could not withstand the sub-zero weather, a dozen ceramic bowls, some chopsticks, a rice cooker, and two book bags filled with lined notebooks and pens.
With a job offer from the United Nations, my mother left all that she knew behind and came to the United States with big dreams for her children. Better education. Better job opportunities. Better chance at achieving what we knew of as the American dream.
We arrived during a winter storm. From our apartment window, my brother and I looked in awe at the snow blurring out the East River and other apartment buildings surrounding us. Here we were settling into our new lives: new weather patterns, new language, new cultures, new pursuits of happiness.
This is my story. It informed the way I moved through the world, from the friends I kept to the courses I took in college to the jobs I applied to after graduation. My mother’s hopes and dreams were present in many of the choices I made from my teenage years to adulthood. Deep underneath most, if not all, my decisions was the desire for our family to belong – to be heard, seen, and valued for who we were and the potential we had to become.
The path by which you come to your values and beliefs may be different from mine. Your story may be set in Tacoma, Washington, or on the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Your hometown may have skyscrapers or sleepy hills and lakes as far as the eyes can see. Your kitchen table conversations may be about the new lesson plans you created for your third-grade class, the next Little League game your grandkid is pitching in, or the few signatures you still need to collect to build a community garden. While we may never cross paths, I believe that we already share something in common: our reliance on meaningful relationships to enrich our lives and our desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
There are 331.9 million people living in the United States today. That’s 331.9 million stories that make up the sum of us: a multi-racial, multi-cultural, and multi-faith national identity. They allow us to collectively understand our past, make sense of the world we are living in, and decide how we want to build our future together. Those stories belong to you, to me, to the people we hold dear in our hearts, and to the people with whom we do not see eye to eye.
We are innately wired for connection — indeed, we need it in order to thrive. Yet, 40% of Americans report non-belonging within their families, and 74% feel excluded or unsure whether they belong in their local community, according to "The Belonging Barometer" report co-authored by Nichole Argo and Hammad Sheikh and recently released by Over Zero and the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council.
Our narrative change strategy at Einhorn Collaborative is born out of this deep desire to foster a culture of empathy, trust, connectedness, and collaboration for every person living in the U.S.: one where belonging is core to our shared values and responsibility.
But we cannot get there by ignoring our differences and conflicts or discounting our shared humanity. This moment beckons us to listen deeply and to courageously tell stories that affirm our dignity without diminishing that of others.
Over the past decade, our team at Einhorn Collaborative has supported a range of research, journalistic, and storytelling projects, including partnerships with media organizations like StoryCorps, the Solutions Journalism Network, Greater Good Magazine, Spaceship Media, and Good Conflict; nonprofits and initiatives supporting community-based work like Welcoming America, Ask Big Questions, Not in Our Town, and Belonging Begins With Us; and documentaries like The Antidote, Bully, and The Reunited States.
These investments lay the groundwork for our Belonging partnerships to come. Our new narrative change strategy will continue to explore ways mass media, pop culture, and creative industries can inspire human connection across differences big and small, mitigate polarization, and help us envision better futures for all of us. We will also actively seek out local journalism projects and emerging media that promote social connection and cohesion and help us be in good conflict with one another in the here and now.
Additionally, we are opening up our Connection Hub to feature more stories, research, and insights by storytellers, artists, musicians, culture makers, writers, creatives, and community leaders beyond our grantee and funder networks. If you have a story about how we can build relationships, embrace our differences, and repair interpersonal and societal ruptures, please send a note to email@example.com with a few lines about who you are and the narrative you want to share. I promise that your emails will be read and responded to by a human, and it’s me.
While there are many outstanding questions as to how we can strengthen a culture of belonging, we know that this work will take generations and that we are not doing it alone. We won’t change our culture overnight, but we can use the power of art and storytelling to relate to one another and see the world from different vantage points.
I often think back to my family’s arrival at JFK two decades ago, just 22 miles from Ellis Island, where more than 12 million immigrants entered the United States between 1892 and 1924. Their stories, similar to ours, were ones of hope, loss, optimism, and sorrow all woven into one; all deeply human emotions that can be felt regardless of where we were born, what we look like, and what we believe in.
I hope to be on this journey with you as we widen our circles of belonging together, one story at a time.