An interview with Visiting Research Fellow Kim Samuel

As the end of the academic year approached, we took the opportunity to sit down and talk to Kim Samuel about her experiences at college, career to date and plans for the future.

Kim has been a Visiting Research Fellow at Green Templeton since January 2023. She is an activist, educator, and founder of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, a ‘think-and-do tank’ that partners with leading advocacy groups and research organisations to combat social isolation and build belonging on a global basis.

Three individuals seated on stage with two popups to side and audience all around

Kim Samuel (centre) with Matthew Bishop and Father Erik Varden spoke on ‘The Discovery of Belonging in an Age of Isolation’ at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in March 2023. Photo: Stone and Barrell Photography

Could you start by telling us about the reading group you led in college this year as part of your fellowship?

It was such an honour to be chosen for this fellowship. And the reading group was a dream for me. The focus of the reading group was on my book On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation (Abrams Press, 2022).

Still, I was there to learn from the students as much as they were there to learn from me. We had a good-sized group (in the 20s) – including people from all different countries and academic disciplines. I call them my students, but many are professionals in the midst of distinguished careers, including, for example, a transplant surgeon.

We had a guest speaker every week to amplify the conversation, but the best part of each session was in the conversations – the viewpoints they shared about diversity, about legacies of colonialism, about the environment, and about this very university and how hard it can be to, to feel accepted.

My book is about what it means to belong and how we can build a world of belonging. The book draws on leading-edge research as well as deeply felt stories to explore why belonging isn’t just a privilege or even a need. It’s a right that we all share.

So, the reading group was an opportunity for me to share the lessons I’ve learned, but, more than anything, to hold space for these extraordinary people to share their insights on how we can realise the right to belong.

I think we’re going to get the group together again soon because several of the people have reached out to see if we can keep going. We might meet in one of GTC’s beautiful gardens one day. I’m wanting to see how they take these ideas forward into the important work they’re doing in the world.

How do you think of belonging in a Green Templeton context?

There’s a simple and practical way I think about 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.

Kim Samuel In Conversation With Catherine Pope At Even With Guests Seated Theatre Style

Kim speaking at college in conversation with Senior Research Fellow Catherine Pope

I’ve held various academic positions, and GTC has given me the most profound feeling of belonging I’ve experienced in a university setting. I cherish getting to have my time here and be part of this community. I feel so welcomed, and I feel so at home in this place. The physical setting is such a blessing for me.

But it’s also the sense of alignment and shared purpose I feel with the people I’ve gotten to know here. I’ve gotten to know students and academics; I’ve gotten to know the Head Gardener.

There’s a feeling here of shared commitment to nourishing the piece of land we share and nourishing the intellectual life we share. People lift each other up. This place shows that belonging isn’t contradictory to high academic achievement.

Stepping back a bit, could you tell us how your book came about?

I was teaching a course on this topic at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and the students were encouraging me to write a book. I had my uncertainties – but I decided to do it. I realised I did indeed feel a calling to bring forth this message about belonging as our birthright and how we can embody it in diverse social structures.

I wanted to bring in a lot of substantive research – but, at the same time, I knew the heart and soul of the book would come through stories. Stories of people who I’ve met who have built belonging in their own lives, in their communities, and even in whole cultural systems out of unlikely circumstances.

I interviewed over 150 people about these topics of social isolation, social connectedness, and what it means to belong. We explored academic research in psychology, law, politics, and neuroscience as well as hard-won wisdom from campaigns and movements.

But I also got a chance to explore the personal experience of belonging with this distinguished group of interviewees – what it actually feels like to experience belonging.

A takeaway that shaped the structure of the book was, again, this idea that belonging isn’t only about our relationships with other people, but also our connectedness in terms of place, power, and purpose.

Two individuals on high chairs with microphones in and bookshelves and ‘Politics and Prose’ popup behind with guests seated theatre style in front

Kim in conversation with Tim Shriver at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC in September 2022. Photo: Jack Hartzman Photography

You had a fascinating personal journey to your work on belonging?

I come from what used to be a little town called Oakville in Ontario, right by the lake. After graduating from university, I set out with the goal of working on the Canada-US free trade agreement. Through an initiative I took on as an intern, to interview different ministers at the Embassy in Washington, DC, I was able to create an opening work for the Canadian government. I subsequently went on to work in Canada for the US government on the early implementation of the free trade agreement.

After a few years, I ended up working for the Mexican private sector on the NAFTA agreement, as the Canadian representative. That was really cool – my job was to help to bring the Canadian and Mexican private sectors together to build relationships, so, if that really big guy in the middle posed a challenge, we had good friendships either side.

When the first NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) came into effect I wondered why absolutely key areas – including labour and environment – were treated as side issues. Around that time, I had met a very distinguished Canadian, by the name of Maurice Strong, who created Earth Day. He mentored me and I started to do my first work in civil society, working on the Earth Council.

My first project was to help in the creation of a community garden in Toronto and the next was water quality monitoring partnership between an NGO in Canada and Brazil.

This showed me that we don’t have to look for vertically integrated careers. In fact, the pattern of my career has emerged through the quest for the right questions. That’s to say, I’ve been asking myself: What what’s the question that I really want to answer?
Over time, a series of experiences 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?

You then had some life changes with a big impact?

Yes, the work I’m doing now on belonging really began in about 1997 when my late father, Ernie Samuel, suffered a brain injury out of the blue. When he woke up from a coma and it was time for him to go to a rehabilitation hospital, we were told that because he had reached the age of 65, which was identified by the insurance company as his sundown years, he would not be eligible for funding.

Why would it be that someone at age 65 gets deemed to not be valuable enough to get care and rehabilitation? I should say that he had a lot of different disabilities when he awoke, but it wasn’t the disabilities that were causing those kinds of judgments to be made. It was ageism, and ableism.

We were actually lucky as my dad was so determined that he actually woke up and went on for four more years, but also that we could afford to provide the rehabilitation that he required, and most families could not do that.

I started thinking more deeply about social isolation. I realised: Most people have experienced it in some way. We all know what it feels like to be treated as though we’re ‘less than.’ But some people and some groups of people experience it most acutely.

You then had a second moment of awakening?

Indeed. In 2002, two years after my father passed, I was in New York City and I was very fortunate to have been invited to a small event in honour of Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel. Graca was already a friend of mine. And she asked me ‘How have I been doing since my Daddy died?’ And I said that I missed him a lot—and I described the realisation I had around that experience. I shared that all my work now was really aimed at calling out social isolation and destigmatising it and building pathways to overcome it.

And then I looked at Mandela, and said, of course, you would know all about isolation. To which he said ‘No, I’ve never been isolated’. After several seconds silence, I said, ‘not even in Robben Island?’ [where he was in prison for more two-thirds of the 27 years served under the apartheid regime in South Africa]. And he said, ‘No, because in Robben Island, we were all brothers working together with a common purpose. I was never alone.’

I thought about this paradox: that someone who was in prison, in solitary, for decades, never felt isolation. And on the other hand, somebody in the middle of a crowd of people, even among friends or family, can feel like they don’t belong, that they’re really isolated.

I felt this quiet affirmation: This is my mission – to understand isolation; to make people aware of it and to highlight solutions. I went on a 20-year journey to understand the deeper meaning of belonging and the most creative solutions for cultivating it.

So that set the tone for what you’re doing now?

Yes. I started teaching. I came to Oxford the first time in 2013 as a visiting scholar, with OPHI, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, headed by my great mentor Sabrina Alkire.

I arrived there with the goal of testing my ideas about social isolation and connectedness through an academic lens. We explored how the absence of social connectedness – isolation and stigma and shame – could be considered a missing dimension of the measurement of poverty.

I wrote a paper on this idea of social isolation as an aspect of Multidimensional Poverty and contributed to other papers on related topics. I’m grateful for the tremendous support I got at OPHI, and I’ve stayed associated with OPHI ever since.

I then went back to Canada and, in 2014, I convened the first ever global symposium on this subject of overcoming social isolation and building social connectedness.

In 2015, I was invited to be a Professor of Practice at McGill University and established a course called ‘community and compassion: overcoming social isolation and building social connectedness through policy and programme development’.

Just so you know, no one lets me give titles anymore! But, thankfully, the course received high marks from the students who took it – many of whom have become colleagues and partners in the growing movement for belonging.

We had guest speakers from around the world. There was a real feeling of community in the classroom – no barriers to entry. We had students auditing from different departments; when students’ moms would visit, they would come join the class. I realised my love for teaching. I found my passion, my métier.

Four individuals in big atrium surrounded by plants with bunting to right

At a UK book launch event at the Eden Project in February 2023. Kim (second from right) with Satish Kumar, and the Eden Project’s Peter Stewart and Sir Tim Smit. Photo: Tom Last

You’re spending some time in Oxford thinking about your next projects?

Yes. I’m starting my research for another book. Near the end of On Belonging, I talk about astronomy. I mention Copernicus, whose assertion that the earth and the humans that inhabit it are not the center of everything, was, at the time, blasphemous. There’s a message in his work for us today…

It’s not the placement of things that matters most, but rather the interconnectedness. We don’t have to be perfect, or the best. It’s enough that we are here, and that we belong, equally. As I say in the book: ‘We can and should learn to recognise different perspectives to our own as just that: different, but no less valid, since our thoughts and opinions are not the central anchor point against which all others must orbit.’

Here at GTC, under the Radcliffe Observatory, I’ve been thinking about astronomy – and this message from the book. I’ve begun a fascinating dialogue with Associate Fellow Charlie Barclay, and he’s given me a couple of others to meet to explore connectedness through the night sky. So, being here at GTC, I’m feeling inspired. Being amidst the books and libraries and conversations – in the world of ideas here – this is my happiness.

Created: 5 July 2023