This is the first in a five part series featuring the staff of HILSC and their experiences with belonging.
Vickie Giambra – In my first week at HILSC, the entire team sat together and watched a webinar called “The Belonging Barometer: The State of Belonging in America,” which presented findings from a survey by Over Zero and the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council. The findings and resulting discussion left quite an impression on the HILSC team, sparking a conversation about belonging and how it impacts the work we do.
What do we mean by “belonging?” The Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) first entry for “belonging” is “an affinity for a place or situation.” This is expanded by the OED’s second definition of the verb, “belong,” which includes to “be a member or part of (a particular group, organization, or class).” The “Belonging Barometer” report quotes social psychologists Greg Walton and Shannon Brady, who define belonging as “an evaluation of who I am (or can become) and what the setting allows (or can allow)…It is a more general inference, drawn from cues, events, experiences, and relationships, about the quality of fit or potential fit between oneself and a setting.”
What does this actually mean in practice? And what does it mean for the immigrants we work with? As the daughter of immigrants, in my experience, determining if you belong can be a very fraught question. I have often felt that I did not belong fully in my country of birth (the United States) nor in my country of origin (the United Kingdom). Whenever I visited the U.K., I was too American to be “really” English and there were certain things I didn’t understand (one memory was asking for a restroom while at a restaurant and getting blank stares as they thought I wanted to sit down, not use the bathroom). But in the U.S., despite being privileged to be the child of white immigrant parents and therefore not “looking” like an immigrant, I was still considered different in a conservative Texas suburb because my parents had “unconventional” beliefs, were not familiar with sleep over parties, and could not fathom “why on earth someone would want to be a cheerleader for American football.”
All joking aside, having lived in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, I have never felt I fully belonged in any one place. No matter where I am, a part of my heart, of my identity, remains in that other place. This experience of being somewhat on the outside shaped who I am and what career I chose. I became an immigration attorney for many reasons: in recognition of the privilege I had as the child of English immigrants in the U.S., to help other immigrant families navigate the incredibly complex U.S. immigration system, and because I think one of the best things about the U.S. is its mixture of people and cultures.
But perhaps most importantly, being an immigration attorney has given me a sense of belonging. I have done immigration work in firms, working with corporate clients, and in non-profits, working with families at or below the poverty line. Regardless of the setting, I became a part of a group of people that respects and appreciates immigrants and fights for them and their rights. I joined HILSC to continue that work, to help bolster a network of people like me, and to help immigrants feel more like they belong here in the United States, with me.