On Tuesday February 12th, Professor Kim Samuel from McGill University’s Institute for Study of International Development discussed her work on social inclusion and the right to belong, during a lunchtime talk at the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. In his introduction of Samuel, Professor William Alford touched on her commitment to inclusion and advocacy, noting her tireless work on the Special Olympics International Board.
Samuel is a pioneer in the emerging movement for social connectedness. She has partnered with numerous and diverse communities across the world to foster networks of social connection, from Canada’s indigenous populations to South Africa’s children and caregivers. She founded and leads the Samuel Center for Social Connectedness (SCSC), a nonprofit organization that facilitates innovative strategies of connectedness, through research, programming, learning initiatives, and advocacy. Among various other appointments, Samuel also serves as a member of the Board of Special Olympics International, a Director of Synergos Institute, and a Member of the Disability Rights Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch.
In 2014, Samuel organized the first Global Symposium on Overcoming Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness, bringing together influential leaders to brainstorm pathways to belonging. She also designed and taught the world’s first academic course on social connectedness at McGill University, and launched the Social Connectedness Fellowship Program.
During Tuesday’s talk, Samuel drew upon her extensive experience in this field, and outlined core concepts from her forthcoming book. She emphasized that social exclusion lies at the core of many of the world’s most pressing human rights’ abuses, such as the shackling of individuals with psychosocial disabilities, the practice of solitary confinement, the denial of a birth record to members of ethnic minorities, and the statelessness and forced migration imposed upon whole populations due to climate change and other forces. Samuel called for the enactment of a “right to belong”, which would incite governments, organizations, and communities to recognize and prioritize each individual’s right to feel included. She said that she chose the framework of “belonging”, due to its strong emotive capacities.
Samuel explained that this right to belong would not only take the form of legal protections that abolish the most egregious forms of social exclusion. It would also entail the establishment of new societal norms that we all must choose to live by. These could include providing a minimum standard of medical care, constructing welcoming public spaces, and closing down nursing homes that leave elderly people in a state of dejection and isolation.
The achievement of a right to belong will require reimagining society’s basic values and prioritizing community connectedness and belonging over economic growth and competitiveness, Samuel said. She ultimately left the audience to ponder over several questions: What would it mean to view the work of human rights through the lens of belonging? What would it look like to build a public policy towards the aspiration of ending social isolation? How can we envision and enact a right to belong?