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Inspirational Female Founder Spotlight: Kim Samuel

Kim Samuel is an activist, educator, scholar, and leading voice in the global movement for belonging. She is the founder and Chief Belonging Officer of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness (SCSC), a “think-and-do tank” that partners with leading advocacy groups and research organizations to combat social isolation and build Belonging around the world. Kim is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), University of Oxford, and a Fellow at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, and recently served as the first-ever Fulbright Canada ambassador for diversity and social connectedness. Kim is the author of “On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation” (Abrams Press, 2022), an exploration of the crisis of social isolation and our Right to Belong, published in 2022.

Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?

I grew up in a lovely town called Oakville in Ontario, Canada – being a part of that community gave me joy. After graduating from university, an internship led me to interview different ministers at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC, after which I worked for the Canadian government. I subsequently worked in Canada for the US government on the early implementation of the free trade agreement, before I moved into civil society working at the Earth Council.

These roles and a series of personal experiences that followed brought me to this question: What does it mean to Belong? And the follow-on question: How do we build Belonging in an age of isolation?

As part of my quest to build the global movement of “Belonging”, I founded the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness in 2017 – a “think-and-do tank” that partners with leading advocacy groups and research organisations around the world to combat social isolation. I’ve been fortunate enough to interview over 150 people about social isolation, connectedness and what it means to Belong for my book “On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation” (Abrams Press, 2022).

I am now mostly based in London where I am building on a movement in the UK, engaging and partnering with as many people as possible – including the public, media, and key political, regulatory and cultural figures – to raise awareness of what it means to Belong in our collective society.

How did the idea come to you for the company?

The work I’m doing now really began in 1997 through experiences with my late father, who suffered a severe brain injury, after which he fell into a three-month coma. He was as whole as ever, and met physical and social challenges with determination and grace. But I witnessed the isolation from the system and people struggling to see him as a whole person. People treated him with sadness and as if they were sorry for him. This shocked me.  

I began to imagine social isolation as the feeling of sitting all alone at the bottom of a well, enveloped by damp air and impenetrable walls, unable to escape the darkness. Many people who are socially isolated experience feelings of invisibility and hopelessness, as well as a lack of agency and choice over their situation. My father craved to be treated as an equal, to feel like he Belonged. That sparked my life’s mission: to help others find Belonging themselves.

How did you achieve awareness?

I have written in national media on topics such as loneliness and community – recently looking at the impact of the closures of pubs, train ticket offices and High Street banks – to raise awareness of practical ways to build a sense of Belonging for all people including the young, older people, and those who are disabled. My focus on practical actions that need to be taken to make Belonging a birthright led me to create a simple and practical framework, which underpins all my work.

I’m also a columnist for “The Power of Belonging” in Psychology Today.

Through the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness Centre I convened four global symposia, sponsored 87 fellows serving 29 partner organisations, and launched innovative service programs — all to identify, employ, and scale best practices for addressing the modern crisis of isolation and its many dimensions including inequality, loneliness, and environmental degradation.

An important part of my work has been to join lectures and speaking engagements to have dialogue about the Right to Belong, particularly in grassroot local communities and universities.

Meeting with key political, cultural, and religious figures in the UK and around the world to share the deeper meaning of Belonging and creative solutions to cultivate it has also been vital to raising awareness. A rising tide lifts all boats.  

What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?

Dr. Sabina Alkire, the director of the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative, has been a colleague and friend for many years. As Sabina and I have discussed, when it comes to belonging, it’s difficult to pin down the data. She summed it up perfectly when she said, “One of the challenges for thinking about Belonging is that it seems to mean quite different things to different people.”

In other words, people’s need for Belonging has to do with their personality type, so arriving at a definition of what it means to Belong and what could take that feeling of Belonging away has been a challenge.

This led me to a simple and practical framework for the meaning of Belonging. It’s our connection to what I call the four P’s: people, place, power, and purpose. Belonging is the experience of being ‘at home’ and feeling wholeness in the social, environmental, organisational, and cultural contexts of our lives.

What are your plans now/for the future?

I want to campaign for real change. I am launching the largest-ever piece of research into the state of Belonging in the UK which will lead to the creation of practical policies that are designed to help people to own their Right to Belong.

Ultimately, my goal is to establish “the Right to Belong” to sit behind established international human rights – a modern moral framework that inspires and informs social movements that spans diverse sectors of society.

Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?

You don’t have to look for vertically integrated careers. In fact, the pattern of my work has emerged through the quest for the right questions. Ask yourself: what’s the question that I really want to answer? And go from there!

Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?

I interviewed over 150extraordinarily wise and compassionate people when writing my book so it’s hard to choose just five! But some which particularly stand out…

Back in 2018, I met psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda on a Friendship Bench (a creation of his own) at the World Economic Forum, where I was inspired by his story and work on inadequate mental health resources in Zimbabwe. This inspiration manifested itself into a partnership, and our work has been interwoven ever since.

Emina Cerimovic is a distinguished lawyer, public activist, and researcher in the Disability Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Overcoming barriers as a result of being a child of war, an internally displaced person, an asylum seeker, and a migrant refugee is truly inspirational, and a testament to her character as a warrior.

Graça Machel, a compassionate leader, peacebuilder, and fierce advocate on behalf of children and women around the world, whose leadership and wisdom inspired me to launch the Social Connectedness Programme in southern Africa in 2009.

Josina Machel, a fighter against gender-based violence, is another phenomenal woman with an indominable spirit, whose bravery inspires me every day of my life.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a persistent and inspiring woman who envisioned the Special Olympics as a safe place where those with disabilities could find courage, joy and friendship with others. She broke down barriers, leading with her heart, and did the hard work to build Belonging.

What are your favourite inspirational/motivational quotes?

Nelson Mandela, who spent almost three decades in prison with long periods in solitary confinement, told me in 2002 that “I have never been isolated”. He told me that even on Robben Island, they were all “brothers working together with a common purpose”.

Here was a man who had been physically isolated in the starkest of conditions, yet more than twenty-seven years of imprisonment, he stayed connected with his community through a shared sense of purpose.

That conversation with Mandela has continued to change and motivate my life and work in ways I could not foresee at that time. 

What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you?  

  1. Kim Samuel | LinkedIn
  2. Kim Samuel (@kimsamuel_belonging) • Instagram photos and videos
  3. Kim Samuel (@kim_belonging) / X (twitter.com)
  4. Samuel Centre For Social Connectedness (website) and https://onbelongingbook.com/