What Lasts Longer Than a Program? How Communities of Belonging Change the Narrative

Pursuing educational equity, the Back2Back Cincinnati team created resources and relationships, and saw a difference within weeks. Children once projected to fail were now reading complete sentences.

Two young eyes peered through a small window in the door.

“Do you want to go in?” 

Nine-year old Tabitha* shook her head no at the Back2Back staff member. “I’m too scared. No one will like me.” 

Right on cue, Ella* laid down her coloring pencil and walked to the entryway, reaching her hand out. “Come on in. It’s fun, and you can sit next to me.” Tabitha took her new friend’s hand and entered. She walked into a new community – one where she experienced she would belong.  

Ella and Tabitha represent an area of Cincinnati that has long experienced hardship and isolation. The road to community interdependence and economic independence is long and full of unknowns. Educational disparities can have lifelong consequences.  Reading levels are directly related to incarceration and the risk of human trafficking. Ella and Tabitha, however, will not become statistics. 

Pursuing educational equity, the Back2Back Cincinnati team created resources and relationships, and saw a difference within weeks. Children once projected to fail were now reading complete sentences.  This effort intensified over time and today, is an integral part of Back2Back’s work. There are multiple safe adults across each child’s life advocating for their educational, social, and emotional well-being. 

Each student feels a sense of belonging as they gather with others for tutoring, social and emotional growth, spiritual conversation, or physical development.  Multi-ethnic groups of children find and use their individual voices. Once that initial summer program ended, the children were disappointed, leading staff to ask what lasts longer than a program? 

Belonging. 

Relationship. 

Staff then challenged themselves to create communities where children and families can be empowered, forever. 

Author Peter Block wrote, “Without the freedom to say ‘no’ to something, our yes has no power.” This statement is reflected in spaces of disparity, division, poverty, abuse, and neglect. Behavior is the response of a child who has lost their voice. Being sent home from school, suspended from after-school programs, or missing out on extra-curricular activities is often the result of a child’s trauma or lack of felt safety. We are building a community where people have the choice to gather and this allows those within the community to feel known and loved. 

We belong when we feel safe within the spaces we experience life. 

We belong when we’re connected to safe people. 

We now have 12 communities that gather weekly to grow and learn together. Some are teenagers who play basketball, eat, and learn from one another. Others are specific to a felt need, like tutoring, play therapy, or strengthening parenting strategies. All of the communities utilize some need as an entry point, while keeping community interdependence the goal. Several children in the tutoring community are exceeding expectations – they may not need help reading anymore, but communities don’t cease to exist when we meet a goal, instead we celebrate and find a new reason to stick together.

Ella and Tabitha colored and connected at the tutoring table. Next to them, two other young girls giggled as they shared their drawings with each other. 

From a distance, two Back2Back Cincinnati staff caught each other’s attention. One mouthed, “Everyone belongs. Did you see what Ella just did?” 

The other nodded. Just six months ago, Ella was reclusive, isolating herself, today she’s confident enough to create safety for those around her. 

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