Be­long­ing is about a will­ing­ness to en­gage, not ex­clude

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Lynne Agress Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Pro­gram of Johns Hop­kins, is pres­i­dent of BWB-Busi­ness Writ­ing At Its Best Inc. and author of “The Fem­i­nine Irony” and “Work­ing With Words in Busi­ness and Le­gal Writ­ing.” Her email is lyn­neagress@ao

For many young peo­ple, and some older ones as well, be­long­ing is para­mount. Whether the spe­cific group is an ex­clu­sive club at Har­vard or a gang in the in­ner city, be­long­ing is the most im­por­tant thing in their lives.

An oft-told story is that our 32nd pres­i­dent, Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt, ad­mit­ted to his wife Eleanor that be­ing re­jected by Por­cel­lian (con­sid­ered Har­vard’s top club) “was the un­kind­est cut in his en­tire life,” es­pe­cially since his dis­tant cousin Teddy (Theodore Roo­sevelt, our 26th U.S. pres­i­dent) had been a mem­ber.

With its first fe­male pres­i­dent, Drew Gilpin Faust, whowas ap­pointed in 2007, and Rakesh Khu­rana, its first In­dian-Amer­i­can dean, Har­vard has been try­ing to dis­man­tle the “fi­nal clubs,” as the ex­clu­sive, male-only (and largely white) or­ga­ni­za­tions are called — no easy feat, con­sid­er­ing that the clubs go back to the 1700s. Por­cel­lian, for ex­am­ple, was founded in 1791; its motto is “Dum vivimus vi­va­mus,” roughly trans­lated as “while we live, let’s live it up.”

To­tally un­sym­pa­thetic to them and their mot­toes, Ms. Faust con­tends that the clubs — and there are eight of them (down from 11 in the 1960s) — con­trib­ute to “gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, gen­der as­sump­tions, priv­i­lege, and ex­clu­siv­ity.” All of which comes down to be­long­ing.

Many, if not most, of the young men who are tapped for th­ese clubs come from lives of priv­i­lege. In­deed, many of their fa­thers were club mem­bers. Ar­riv­ing at Har­vard isn’t enough; sur­rounded by stu­dents as smart or smarter, per­haps bet­ter-look­ing or more ac­com­plished and richer, the need to be­long to a sim­i­lar group is strong.

On the other hand, or at the other end of the spec­trum, one could say, poor young peo­ple with few op­por­tu­ni­ties and from bro­ken homes may be drawn to gangs in or­der to be­long. We’re all hu­man.

Says Cameron Miles, di­rec­tor of Men­tor­ing Male Teens in the ’Hood, “When young peo­ple have no guid­ance at home, which of­ten angers them, they look for love and ac­cep­tance in all the wrong places.” They may suc­cumb to adult predators — that is, pe­dophiles or traf­fick­ers — but most likely they will join a gang, will­ing to sell drugs, even kill some­one, in or­der to be­long.

Isn’t that how ISIS gets its young re­cruits? Mike Morell, for­mer deputy di­rec­tor of the CIA, now work­ing for Hillary Clin­ton, stated dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view with Char­lie Rose that the youths who join ISIS are not so much em­brac­ing ISIS be­cause of its ide­ol­ogy but be­cause of their sense of alien­ation. ISIS rep­re­sents to th­ese dis­af­fected, un­happy, in­se­cure young peo­ple a chance, fi­nally, to be­long, de­spite know­ing they may be risk­ing death.

But the need for be­long­ing can be found among young­sters ev­ery­where. As I was writ­ing this piece, I thought back to my own youth. In sixth and sev­enth grades, there were four girls in my class who called them­selves “the clique.”

On the sur­face, each girl could not have been more dif­fer­ent. Mar­guerite was very smart; her par­ents were so­cial­ists — or com­mu­nists, as some said — and were nearly al­ways trav­el­ing or or­ga­niz­ing for some cause. Marta was over­weight and unattrac­tive. Her mother, known as a gourmet cook, was con­stantly en­ter­tain­ing. Guests were al­ways ar­riv­ing at or de­part­ing from the Prince­ton Junc­tion train from New York to New Jer­sey, to Marta’s house. Jenny was pretty and well de­vel­oped; she al­ways had a boyfriend. Her mother would sleep un­til noon, then play cards in the af­ter­noon and at night. Peo­ple said she drank. Fi­nally, there was Mary, who strug­gled might­ily just to learn the ba­sic cat­e­chism for her first Holy Com­mu­nion. She was quiet and shy and had four older sib­lings. Both her par­ents worked long hours in a gar­ment fac­tory.

Ob­vi­ously, what each girl lacked was a mother who would be there for her. And so, as dif­fer­ent as each was, be­ing part of a clique, shut­ting out and be­ing rude to ev­ery­one else, gave th­ese girls a sense of be­long­ing.

Sim­i­larly, many club mem­bers to­day feel threat­ened by out­siders, who they of­ten be­lieve will not un­der­stand them or whom they them­selves don’t un­der­stand. Nev­er­the­less, our so­ci­ety has grown more di­verse; our world, with the ad­vent of the In­ter­net, closer.

As a re­sult, our suc­cess will de­pend not on be­long­ing to a like-minded group but on our will­ing­ness to en­gage with peo­ple dif­fer­ent from us and in be­ing se­cure enough to reach out, yet stand on our own.

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