Announcing Omidyar Network’s Newest Focus Area: Building Cultures of Belonging

Illustration by Studio J Lorne (Jason Lorne Giles)

Farmers and faith communities link arms with immigrant families. Musicians spread the story of workers who helped an entire region rebuild from disaster. Younger generations lead their city in a new direction after decades of segregation. Today’s struggles hold the seeds of a joyful future. That’s why Omidyar Network is investing in a third focus area, Building Cultures of Belonging, to support the innovators calling forth a more equal and deeply connected society.

At Omidyar Network, we invest to build more inclusive and equitable societies. We do this through a trio of focus areas:Responsible Technology, Reimagining Capitalism, and Building Cultures of Belonging. Each area presents major challenges which can’t be solved in isolation. Our ambition as a social change venture is to pursue several aims in tandem: a healthy digital technology system, an economy that works for all, and a society inspired to build belonging.

Our Newest Area of Focus

Building Cultures of Belonging is Omidyar Network’s newest area of focus. Over the next ten years, we will invest in the people and institutions equipping our increasingly diverse society to turn toward one another rather than against each other. They are the glue in every community: artists, faith leaders, students, parents, businesspeople, policymakers, coalition-builders, and healers moving us from the old playbook of being divided and conquered to the new playbook of multiracial solidarity. We see them as moral innovators because they creatively channel our need to belong to a more equal America.

“We will invest in the people and institutions equipping our increasingly diverse society to turn toward one another rather than against each other.”

Building Cultures of Belonging evolved from four years of learning and early investment. Along the way, we listened to over 60 different organizations and experts. We fielded a survey and 11 focus groups. We iterated. Our journey began with interdependence — the fact that our ability to thrive relies on many others. This reality should profoundly influence our institutions, but does not show us how that could be done. For that we turned to pluralism, a way for communities that hold different beliefs, identities, and loyalties to live together.

In the United States, the project of pluralism is inseparable from our ongoing pursuit of racial justice. Because of this, we began to see intersections between questions from our past, present, and future: How will we repair harms from centuries of racism and violence directed at Black and Indigenous communities? Why are cultural conflicts intensifying now? What does the future of human diversity hold? These questions led us to center belonging.

The Heart of Belonging

The more things change, the more we ask who belongs. We live in a time of swirling change: disruptive new technologies, drastic economic swings, disastrous weather patterns, and increased division. Many of us feel uncertain and anxious. More of us feel ready to blame, even demonize. As john powell and others have observed, these conditions cause the old questions of “who belongs?” and “who has power?” to become more urgent for more people in more places.

Part of the story is that we, too, are changing. The United States is just one among many nations attempting to navigate an increasingly multiracial, multigenerational, and multifaith future. There is a danger of falling into a vicious trap of aversion, hate, and violence. Already more than half of Americans see their fellow citizens as posing the biggest threat to the country.

Three stars to guide us on the journey. The path ahead looks daunting. Neil Diamond reminds us, “We’ve been traveling far / Without a home / But not without a star.” Indeed, when we surveyed Americans of every stripe to learn what guides them, three stars shone brightest: Equality. Connection. Respect. As we bring the Building Cultures of Belonging portfolio to life, these will also be our guiding stars. To belong is to feel equal despite being different, connected in relationships, and respected no matter how hard things get. It’s subjective, but it speaks to stories that we hold at a gut level. Four out of five Americans agree with a statement that begins, “We all want to feel we belong, and we… should make this a country where everyone feels welcome.” Our bet is that by beginning here, with belonging, new possibilities for how we reimagine broken systems will emerge.

“When we surveyed Americans of every stripe to learn what guides them, three stars shone brightest: Equality. Connection. Respect.”

Meet the Innovators

Our grantees are shaping the future of belonging. They work in different ways but all contribute to a bigger vision for change that stretches beyond today’s culture wars and election cycles. In year one of the Building Cultures of Belonging portfolio, we oriented on a flexible, networked approach. Flexible because innovations cut across many issues. Networked because progress will require many individuals and organizations working together like an orchestra. Here is a snapshot of their efforts:

Through stories, songs, and sermons. Love and imagination widen the path from where we’ve been to where we’re going. It is storytellers, artists, and faith leaders who speak powerfully to the deepest parts of our hearts and minds. Pop Culture Collaborative connects the emotional arc of entertainment with social change movements to stir our yearning to belong in a just society. Repairers of the Breach fuses moral analysis with advocacy and music to inspire coalitions across color and creed. Mia Birdsong is curating a new story about freedom rooted in kinship and community.

Through new leaders, networks, and relationships. Strong hubs for connection and collaboration play a pivotal role in the portfolio. Building Belonging weaves cohorts of belonging practitioners working in the U.S. and globally. New Pluralists brings together funders and field innovators and has launched an initiative called Healing Starts Here to support the leaders building trust across local divides. Welcoming America organizes a network of cities and counties that seek to enshrine their commitment to immigrant belonging in all areas of civic, social, and economic life. Liberation Venturesserves America’s Black-led racial repair movement and strengthens narratives that uphold its promise for all. Liberated Capital moves resources for liberation and racial healing to community initiatives led by Indigenous, Black, and other people of color. Resonance Network creates spaces to practice old and new forms of collective governance. Citizen University’s Youth Collaboratory connects and elevates students who are exercising civic power around the country.Civic Nation is equipping the next generation of leaders to solve problems across community divides. Equity and Transformation fights to put Black Chicagoans engaged in the informal economy at the center of decisions affecting their lives.

Through new ideas, evidence, and institutions. Our work under Responsible Technology and Reimagining Capitalism extends to rules and policies. Building Cultures of Belonging is no exception; this portfolio sees cultural and structural transformation as intertwined. The Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, is a vibrant hub for researchers, organizers, stakeholders, communicators, and policymakers working to achieve a world where all people belong. PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity, incorporating an all-of-government approach. Flowing from a report on what it will take to reinvent American democracy for the 21st century, Trust for Civic Infrastructure seeks to reimagine how we invest in the spaces, programs, and events that help people develop a stronger sense of common purpose.

Meet Our Team

We’ve assembled a talented team to steward the Building Cultures of Belonging portfolio. Our new team will work hand-in-hand with Responsible Technology and Reimagining Capitalism under the leadership of our Senior Vice President of Programs Michele Jawando: “While we trace our DNA to Silicon Valley and to markets, our newest focus area reconnects to the soul of who we are at Omidyar Network and the why behind it all.” In addition to expertise in cultural arts and strategy, community-building, public policy, social innovation, and the social sciences, our team brings multiple perspectives on the search for belonging.

Nicole Allred is a cultural straddler — a woman of faith, a British Jamaican who married into a rural farming family, a trail runner, and a mother. She’s often considering our multiple identities and the narratives that connect them.

Michelle Barsa was raised by her Arab immigrant parents, her queer community, the Catholic Worker Movement, a network of women advocating for peace, and scientists who helped her explore the psychology behind what unites and divides us.

Andrew Brennen lived in five states before his family settled in Kentucky, where he found his voice as a Queer, Black, southern student by helping other students raise theirs.

Fanta Condé has a heart for community healing and the power of storytelling that she traces to her West African heritage, her griot ancestry, and being a seeker in the Sufi Muslim tradition.

David Hsu grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles where Chinese and American traditions mixed, in Southern Baptist congregations, in the closet, and immersed in the us-versus-them wars before and after 9/11.

Vanessa Mason began imagining the future of belonging as a child in Houston, Texas with Black parents from LA and Miami via the Caribbean, informed by her spiritual evolution from Catholicism to spiritual questioning and grounded in love for people’s complexity.

“While we trace our DNA to Silicon Valley and to markets, our newest focus area reconnects to the soul of who we are at Omidyar Network and the why behind it all.”

Co-Creating the Path Ahead

We commit to sharing as we go. Through a process that will involve many of you as contributors, we will publish a Point of View (“POV”) distilling our initial strategies for Building Cultures of Belonging. This will join other Omidyar Network POVs such as “Our Vision for a Responsible Tech Future” and “Our Call to Reimagine Capitalism in America.” On the journey ahead, we will depend on a much wider circle of collaborators and funders to make progress. This is hard, delicate work. The more parched the soil, the bigger our moral imagination has to be. Together, in Joy Harjo’s words, “We will plant songs where there were curses.”

It’s Raining in Honolulu
By Joy Harjo

There is a small mist at the brow of the mountain,
each leaf of flower, of taro, tree and bush shivers with ecstasy.
And the rain songs of all the flowering ones who have called for the rain can be found there, flourishing beneath the currents of singing.
Rain opens us, like flowers, or earth that has been thirsty for more than a season. We stop all of our talking, quit thinking, or blowing sax to drink the mystery.
We listen to the breathing beneath our breathing.
This is how the rain became rain, how we became human.
The wetness saturates everything, including the perpetrators of the second overthrow. We will plant songs where there were curses.

This blog post was written by David Hsu and Nicole Allred in collaboration with Michelle Barsa, Andrew Brennen, Fanta Condé, Vanessa Mason, and Michele Jawando.