Director of Belonging: An Interview with Cat Moore

The power of presence and connection in lonely spaces

People in coffeeshop seated.

Faith+Lead is grateful for this interview with Cat Moore, innovator, consultant and the Director of Belonging at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. This is part 1 of 2.

Faith+Lead: How does one become a “Director of Belonging” and what does your position entail? How might you imagine such a position would be similar or different if embedded in a faith-based organization or congregation?

Cat Moore: You too can become a Director of Belonging by following these simple steps: 

1. Spend the first 24 years of your life being chronically lonely to get a real first-hand, inside-out experience of how horrible it is. 

2. Try to study your way out of loneliness in college by reading a lot of Plato, Kerouac and Virginia Woolf and asking big questions about how community works and why it doesn’t seem to work for you. (Also, apprentice yourself—like you’re clinging to a life raft—to a philosophy professor who has actually become a wifi hotspot of belonging everywhere he goes.) 

3. Get married to try to solve feeling alone and then get pregnant to really try to solve it by being tied to another human by a cord. 

4. Proceed to sitting in a stripmall Starbucks in Los Angeles for ten years. In the Starbucks as a new mom, you’ll listen to the life stories of real estate brokers, veterans and aspiring undertakers and come to realize your power to connect and create belonging for everyone around you through the unglamorous, repetitive acts of being present, listening and caring. And it will not only be a fantastic new discovery of interpersonal thriving, it will actually save your life. And many others. 

5. Then organizations that are numb with disconnection of all sorts will see your unlikely community spilling out of Starbucks into the soil of a gentrifying neighborhood and be like, “What on earth is she doing?” Then you’ll have to sit for a while and try to figure out what on earth you were doing. You then take those guesses and arrange them into a catchy framework called CLICK and see if you can intentionally replicate it in radically different settings. 

6. And you can! Because people are people everywhere, and we all need to experience belonging in order to live and move and have our beings. It’s a very promising career path that nearly no one will pay you for, so be prepared for living on bananas, which, you’re correct, is bananas.

But seriously, what you do is this: devote your life to being present in the places you already are with a simple process of attending to and caring about those around you. Or as my mentor, Dallas Willard said, “Being with each other as we are, where we are is everything; yet we organize our lives to death to avoid this simple thing because it requires that we slow down and risk being known.” Everything you need to know to help others connect essentially comes from an examined, embodied experience creating belonging in your own life. I wasn’t hired because of my academic or professional credentials; I was hired because there was an urgent, life-threatening, scary-scale need and I had become the kind of thing that could help people experience a sense of belonging in their own skin, in their real spheres of influence. 

At USC I am still figuring out what I do. I usually don’t know what I do until I’ve done it. They essentially called me in from the cafes and said, “Well, go at it!” And then they were like, “What do you want your title to be?” And I asked for a tiara and the title, “Director of Belonging,” and they said, “Ok.” I was at least sure that we needed to focus our language and vision and labor on creating the thing we hoped people experience—belonging—instead of focusing on the gnarly tentacles of the loneliness beast that results from its absence. I also thought it was ironic to state that someone could “direct” this sort of thing because all my strategies and tactics involve denying my guru status in the room and shifting agency back to the humans in front of me. Creating belonging is a universal capacity and need, yet how it’s woven over time is hyper-contextual. 

But practically speaking, I created a 5 week workshop called CLICK that stands for the organic methodology I worked out in the cafes for making meaningful connections: 

Connecting As Is, Listening first, Investigating Qithout Judgment, Communicating Kindness, and Keeping in Touch. 

Remove any of those elements and relationships don’t start, fizzle, plateau or explode. Then with the relationships I formed with students in CLICK and otherwise, we generated stuff like: 

  • Walk + Talk (a walking group for international students to get to know each other and their shared context) 
  • Chat + Chew (a cafeteria pilot to nudge making new friends through question prompts) 
  • The Friendship Tree (an interactive public art experience in the center of campus)
  • SPARK (a student-driven design lab for projects in connection) 

I also build up the relational connective tissue across the UAX universe, respond to concerned parents, advise student group leaders, and so on. But I’m only there 10 hours a week, and I’m pretty sure Jesus already multiplied the fishes and loaves with those hours.

I have a friend who replicated my title at a church in Encinatas—I think she mainly does missions, outreach, and congregational care. I don’t know if church structures are designed to hire for this as a stand alone role—generally the women at the church would be absorbing the relational labor in informal ways and not be paid for it. Or churches might bring in a workshop or do a retreat for their staff around cultivating community. I did a 6 month thing with a local congregation, for example, and that was cool, but they didn’t create an ongoing path for reinforcement of the themes oe dynamics and no one on the inside of the church had bandwidth to invest in formal carry through because the roof needed reshingled and such. 

I think what needs to happen is for belonging to be understood as the foundation on which all other church activities are built and through which people are empowered to respond to the opportunities and needs around them. It’s not some separate focus, it’s the matrix. Pastors and leadership continuing to message, embody, and create real opportunities for discussion and experimentation around meaningful connection within the church and the member’s spheres of influence is where I’d start. And I’d start paying anyone who is doing relational labor—the “catalysts” of the work whose very presence makes people feel like they belong.

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