Nikki Davis Discusses What It Means to Belong

Nikki Davis, Director of Belonging

Recently, St. Mary’s new Director of Belonging, Nikki Davis, spoke at Chapel on the South Campus about the importance of “belonging” rather than simply “fitting in.” Fostering a sense of belonging helps individuals feel seen, emphasizing that they are with us for a purpose and that each of us adds value to the community. Mrs. Davis leads campus programs and outreach to foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive school community. We invite you to read her Chapel remarks below.

I am here to tell you that you should never fit in. I know that sounds strange coming from the Director of Belonging but stay with me. 

When I was growing up, others often encouraged me to find ways to fit into the groups I thought I wanted to be a part of at school, at church, with friend groups, on sports teams, and sometimes even with my family. Being a good fit was important to me, and I must admit that sometimes, I mistakenly compromised my values for acceptance from my peers. This approach never really worked out in the long run. However, as I grew older, I realized my genuine desire wasn’t to “fit in” with these groups but rather to “belong.”

When preparing for this talk today, I thought about how I could describe the connection between fitting in, belonging, and the Bridge to Caring, specifically related to the theme of respect. Immediately, I was reminded of a powerful greeting that I once received from a stranger that changed my life. 

After college, I moved back to Memphis to help care for my parents, continue my graduate studies, and start my adult life. To me, that meant getting a real job, earning my own money, and having fun. I just knew that I was ready to be grown. I landed a fantastic research opportunity and couldn’t wait to do what I thought “grown” people did once they had a real job, like having cool work friends to hang out with after work or on the weekends. Graduate students or recent grads occupied most open positions at this new job, so I felt confident I would easily fit into the group. 

I had a rude awakening on the first day of orientation. I was the only African American in the group, one of only three females, and the youngest by several years. As an athlete, I was always a part of a team, and this felt nothing like that. Then I thought to myself, “Hey, no big deal…I’ve got this; at least we all like research.” You see, I have been the “only” on several occasions throughout my life. I’ve been the only African American student in my academic classes, the only girl to play the drums, the only team member to make curfew, and even my mom’s only child! But for some reason, this just felt different. As I continued with meetings and presentations during the morning orientation sessions, I became very nervous and honestly felt out of place. I felt forced to quickly figure out what I needed to do or what I needed to say to fit in with the groups that seemed to be forming all around me. Should I add my two cents to the conversation between a group of men about who was the best player in the NBA? Should I relocate to the table where the other two women were talking about the new clothing store, even though I hate shopping? Or maybe I should sit beside the table of people who were so focused on their computers and phones that they wouldn’t even notice I was there? Where did I fit in?

Then something happened. During the first break, someone different came in to meet the new employees. He was part of the administrative team or held an executive position. He did not address the new hires as a whole. Instead, he walked around and greeted everyone at their tables. I noticed that there were whispers and strange looks on the faces of my new coworkers as he walked away from their tables. He and I made eye contact, and then he walked towards me. At the time, I felt like I was in one of those movie scenes where you see someone from afar, and it seems like they are floating when they make their way to you. Yeah, that was happening, but I digress. After my morning, I felt like my day was about to get better. It did, but not for the reasons that I expected. 

With a smile, he grabbed my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “SAWUBONA.” 

I was caught off guard and did not know what to do. All kinds of thoughts were running through my head, and within ten seconds, I dealt with a range of emotions and questions that began with “What language is he speaking?” and quickly moved to “Did he just say something extremely inappropriate?”

I simply responded with a smile and a nod; however, I soon realized that he was genuinely trying to be friendly. He was just greeting me differently. He could have opened his mouth to say, “Hi, how are you?, or even “What’s up?”...but “SAWUBONA?” 

He explained that Sawubona is a traditional greeting from the Zulu tribe in Africa. Although he wasn’t of African descent, he embodied the meaning of Sawubona and made it a practice to be intentional with how he greeted people. He was intentional about belonging!

The traditional meaning of Sawubona is “I see you” or “We see you.” The conventional response is, “Yebo, Sawubona,” which means, “Yes, I see you too!” 

When using this greeting, you tell the other person you see who they are and what they bring to the space. It is an invitation into each other’s lives. With this greeting, he expressed that he had my back because we were there, in the same place, at the same time, for a reason. Just imagine how empowered I felt and how this greeting helped me shift my mindset about my new environment. 

Since that encounter, I began to look into what it means to feel included and a part of something. Social scientist Brene Brown, known as one of the experts on vulnerability, courage, and belonging, says that “fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are”. We must remember that belonging is our human right and is not dependent on our actions or the approval of others. Of course, we should be kind to others and help people feel included, but the real work of belonging starts from within each of us. As human beings, we innately desire to belong and experience feelings of love, meaning, acceptance, and purpose through belonging.

However, when our desire to belong causes us to alter our behavior to be who we think we need to be accepted, we have a false sense of belonging, leading to ongoing pressure to conform to societal trends and norms. 

Let’s compare it to the value of a diamond. Many of us would agree that diamonds are pretty valuable. We deem diamonds valuable mainly because they are rare, durable, and beautiful. However, what some people don’t know is that one way that jewelers can tell the real diamonds from the fake ones is by looking for flaws. Surprisingly, fake diamonds are perfect, while real diamonds tend to have flaws. I find that analogous to the idea that fake people (or people with a false sense of belonging) can appear perfect while real people have flaws and make mistakes.

Remember, belonging starts within. It encompasses respect, compassion, and kindness. Once we see ourselves as wonderful, beautiful, and unique, we can extend that same sense of belonging to others. One way we can foster belonging is by sincerely practicing those Sawubona moments. When we do, we will care more deeply about each other, respect each other, appreciate each other, and show more grace towards one another. Not every person or place will welcome you, but you can gain much fulfillment and peace by practicing true acknowledgment and recognition of others. 

So, here at St. Mary’s and beyond, let’s be intentional about experiencing more Sawubona moments. Let’s see people for who they are and what they bring to this world so that fitting in will not replace true belonging.

At a time in our world where groups and individuals are so divided, I would like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Mother Teresa:

“If we don’t have peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” 

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