The Working Community and Maslow's Need to Belong

Posted on April 9, 2012
The Importance of Belonging

According to Abraham Maslow, satisfying the need to belong is a prerequisite to developing self-esteem and confidence, which in turn is a prerequisite for self-actualization - the motive to realize one's fullest potential. These higher order needs require a social context, which is why belonging supports self-esteem in Maslow’s pyramid.

The need to belong is driven by evolutionary factors. It is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation. Belonging helps people in times of trouble. It provides a place to share good and bad news and to avoid loneliness and feeling unloved. It’s the place to get the information and the real interpersonal rewards that build confidence and self-esteem. Belonging’s powerful effect on productivity is well-studied and understood in business and industry forums all over the world.

Understanding the importance of belonging, present day thinkers and mental health program planners want all programs and services delivered within the context of the general community, with specialized professional support from case managers.  The rationale is threefold: 1) all people have the right to belong to the general community 2) learning that occurs in segregated facilities doesn’t translate to the general community and 3) the presence of role models in the general community facilitates learning necessary skills.

Acceptance: A Crucial Component

This approach may be useful to some who have serious mental illness or other disabilities, but for many there is a problem. A sense of belonging - what Maslow states is the necessary prerequisite to self-esteem and fulfillment - requires acceptance. How can people develop a sense of belonging to a community if they don’t experience basic acceptance by that community? The literature is replete with examples of stigma and the resultant isolation that happens to many people with serious mental illness living in the general community.

Although it is true that all people have the right to belong to the general community, the reality is that the general community establishes conditions which must be met before full acceptance is achieved. This is why immigrants to America established their own communities and subcultures in which they prepared themselves and their children for general community participation. Is it possible that planners are proposing this unrealistic, idealized notion of general community belonging as treatment because they have no idea of how to create programs that offer satisfaction of the need to belong?

Adults with serious mental illness who choose membership in a Fountain House-like, intentionally-created working community achieve basic acceptance, a sense of belonging and being needed, social and emotional support, and pragmatic opportunities to increase self-esteem and confidence. They are in a place of acceptance, a place to prepare for total general community participation.

What is a Segregated Community?

Today’s planners think that the Fountain House approach is a segregated community lacking general community role models. Before responding to this notion we must understand what a segregated program - or for that matter, a segregated community - is. Segregated communities or programs have distinct boundaries and do not offer their participants bridges to the general community for one of two reasons: 1) they do not hold a value for general community participation, as in the case of the Amish in Pennsylvania or 2) they do not believe that their participants are capable of successful functioning in the general community, as in the case of special education classes in the public school system. Few of these participants adjust in the general community, so they fail to motivate their peers through any realistic or appropriate modeling.

How Is Fountain House Different?

A Fountain House-type working community program is a social context where hope, respect, opportunity, and support facilitate the confidence to successfully adjust to the general community and to fulfill one’s talent and potential. The Fountain House model values general community adjustment and believes that most all of its membership can achieve it. In practicing this belief and value, all of its programs have specific programmatic bridges to the general community.

  • In employment, transitional employment and supported employment are two programs that represent bridges to the general workforce.
  • In education, tutoring programs and in-house classes give way to university classes and degrees.
  • In wellness, an onsite fitness center and training program leads to subsidized memberships at a local YMCA.
  • In housing, supervised and supported housing evolves into living independently.
  • In artistic creativity, an art gallery showing members’ art holds exhibitions and events and competes as part of the New York City art scene.


The nature of the Fountain House working community makes the modeling of staff - who work side by side with members in all community groups, committees, and activities - a powerful motivator. Even more powerful is the modeling of other members who are visibly engaged in varying stages of general community activities.

In conclusion Fountain House should never be equated with a segregated community program because it holds a value for general community adjustment, it believes in its membership’s ability to achieve it, and it offers an environment filled with role models and pragmatic programmatic bridges to assist its membership in their quest for personal fulfillment. Program developers must learn how to create these working communities so that everyone who chooses can experience belonging and the personal benefits that flow from it.

Read Julius's previous post on Creating a Community.

Julius Lanoil
Education and Wellness Consultant, Fountain House 

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