An Interview with john a. powell

john a. powell is the director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, a research institute that brings together scholars, community advocates, communicators, and policymakers to identify and eliminate the barriers to an inclusive, just, and sustainable society and to create transformative change toward a more equitable world.

Read more about his work and ideas below in an interview between john a. powell and PACH Director Crystal Clarke.

Crystal Clarke: john, my first question for you is, broadly, could you tell me about the work you do in the Othering and Belonging Institute?

john a. powell: Ok, well the answer is fairly large. We have forty staff and then seven clusters organized around things as well as marginalized groups. We cover disabilities, addiction, gender issues, LGBTQ, race, and others. The idea is that at the institute, we look at what it would take to create a world where everyone belonged. So in some ways, I would describe it as inclusion 2.0 or exclusion 2.0, because under inclusion you are joining something that’s already there, and you’re joining as a guest and you have to make all the adjustments. The way to think about belonging is that belonging requires co-creation. You’re co-creating a thing to join it. And you’re not just co-creating it for yourself, but for everyone and for the container itself. So in a sense it’s a deeper way of thinking about inclusion and equity. I’m trying to do something where no one person is outside the circle of human concern.

We do that through a number of mechanisms: through research, policy, through convening, through conceptualizing new ways of approaching things. And part of that gets expressed in terms of bridging. We pick a lot of work that’s been done on bridging and branching, and we talk a lot about, how do you create bridging, the compassionate and empathetic presence, and listening associated with bridging? But we are also careful to say we aren’t talking about just interactions between people, but also between institutions and structures. In order to co-create to belong, you have to have agency, you have to have power, you have to have love, and you have to have responsibility. And we realize these things might not always be symmetrical; one group might have more power than another, but no group has no power. Instead of focusing so much on blame, we focus on responsibility. Everyone shares responsibility to co-create. We work with police, cities, private companies, governments across the globe. So that’s the framework. We work at a very conceptual level but also at a granular level.

C: Nice. I’d like you to expand on why you think it’s important to have both othering and belonging as a framework for addressing these issues.

j: We used to be called the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and a little over a year ago we changed our name. We have had a big conference the last couple of years called the Othering and Belonging Conference and it is really unique in many ways because it’s not thematic like one on housing or immigration. All those issues are expressions of belonging or othering. So we consulted stakeholders and people who use our work and there was a split. Some people thought we should call ourselves the Belonging Institute and others said no—because in some ways you sharpen the effort or solution, if you will, by naming the problem. And so in many ways, whether you look at right-wing national authoritarianism sweeping across the globe, it always has a piece of that as the othering process.

“The way to think about belonging is that belonging requires co-creation. It’s a deeper way of thinking about inclusion and equity. I’m trying to do something where no one person is outside the circle of human concern”

From the United States it’s organized around race, as anti-black racism. In India its organized around religion, especially in terms of being anti-Muslim. In Hungary it gets organized around immigrants. It can be organized around multiple things but all of those expressions are expressions of saying, “these people don’t really count,” or, “they are a threat.” So that’s the other very nice thing about it. It allows us to move across the globe, because when you focus on religion some people think, “well, we are not a religious country.” When you focus on race people immediately think about something like Rwanda, which is per-capita the largest genocide in the century. It wasn’t because of race—people were largely the same race and in many instances the same ethnicity—but they still found a way to deeply other and kill people. The othering actually sharpens that. I’m not looking at what I call transitory othering—when someone doesn’t speak to you on the street or doesn’t return your phone call or doesn’t invite you to a party. That is a different kind of othering. But we look at institutional, durable othering that’s organized through governments, that’s organized through the powers that be. And there’s a lot of literature showing that you can’t be healthy, you can’t have a whole self, unless you belong. The last thing I said is we all have to say that the solution to othering is not the liberal response of ‘saming,’ as if to say that we are all the same. Usually what that means is, “You’re all exactly like me, and I think you’re pretty cool but I don’t want to be like you.” So we say the solution to othering is not saming, but belonging.

C: I love what you said about how you sharpen the solution by naming the problem, and how important it is to do so. What I love about your approach is that there seems to be a larger umbrella where we can unify what we typically think of as separate issues or seperate struggles, but it’s really all the process of othering and belonging.

Can you talk about how your work fosters connection or common humanity? I know there’s so much going on at the institute but is there one initiative you could speak to in terms of the strategies behind fostering connections and common humanity?

j: A few things. First of all at some level, because I think this work can be very academic, very conceptual, very theoretical, it’s also very practical, it’s also very spiritual. And so from a spiritual sense you can say we are interconnected. You know, you don’t have to manufacture those connections, you just have to honor them. Part of it is creating space where we can honor them, we can talk about them, and we can make them real. One of the examples I’ve been using a lot is the story of lost connection.

“There’s a lot of literature showing that you can’t be healthy, you can’t have a whole self, unless you belong. The solution to othering is not the liberal response of ‘saming,’ as if to say that we are all the same. The solution to othering is not saming, but belonging.”

Two things in terms of how the work shows up. First, it’s malleable—whether we are talking about gender or religion, the framework works. That’s one of the powers of it. You know some people say that race is more important, gender is more important, disability is more important; and what that actually does, and that’s how people often approach equity, trying to figure out who is the most marginalized. We say, “No, we are trying to do something for everyone.” So we have these practical strategies. One is target universalism. Target universalism is stating what the universal is, and then we use targeted strategy based on how people are situated within strategies, within power, within culture, to help everyone get to that universal, while recognizing that it’s not the same. And so how you get a person to the third floor in a wheelchair as opposed to a person who is ambulatory, we’ll just say they can get on the escalator; an escalator doesn’t work for the person in a wheelchair.

But one of the things we call attention to is that structures actually can enhance our life chances, our belonging, or they can retard it. So we have people look at life structures, look at systems, as well as what’s happening inside our heads. Target universalism has been done now hundreds of times across the country, and we can look at it very granularly. For example, we started something called opportunity mapping so we can look at the distribution of opportunity and then where populations are in relation to that opportunity. Without anyone saying anything to someone, they can actually create a space for someone who was othered just through the opportunity structure. We call attention to that as well.

“We live in structures and structures live in us. We also tell stories and the stories we tell matter, and who tells the stories matter.”

We also call attention to narrative. We live in structures and structures live in us. We also tell stories and the stories we tell matter, and who tells the stories matter. Are the stories bridging stories? Do the stories invite other people in? Or are they breaking stories? Are they stories about “I’m important but no one else is,” or “I’m human, but no one else is”? We help people learn to engage in bridging practices where you are present with someone else—not to persuade them, not to show them you’re wrong I’m right, but to actually acknowledge their humanity. The work on that is phenomenal; it comes from the mind science and neuropsychology. It comes from health, it comes from education. Once we start looking for it, it’s like looking for a yellow Volkswagen. Once we start looking for it, it’s like “Wow I didn’t realize there are so many yellow Volkswagens, they’re everywhere.” The issue of belonging and othering shows up everywhere. It shows up in bullying. It shows up in the election. And so we said, lets say, playing off of W.E.B. Dubois’s othering is a problem of the 21st century, and the solution is belonging. Then we need to figure out what that means in concrete terms.

C: Absolutely. So much of what you said resonates, but what stands out is what types of stories are we telling. Are they stories that are disconnecting us, that are dehumanizing, or the other?

My next question is regarding what gets in the way of human connection. Oftentimes when we talk about the work of bridging, what’s often a more difficult part of the conversation is the othering part. It’s the structural, cultural, personal stuff that gets in the way of building these bridges. How do you think your work that addresses injustices in society that get in the way of building across social divides?

j: Well I think it’s orientation. A lot of people believe that breaking and not bridging is inherent in being human. That we are tribal animals. That we spent almost two million years in tribes, distrusting anyone who was not in our tribe. And you know, there’s something to that but it’s overstated. Because tribes were from 50 to 250 people. So when we talk about tribes of white people, you can’t have tribes of over a billion people. When we talk about a tribe of Muslim people, you can’t have a tribe of over a billion people. Tribes are very granular; they are like family. We have the capacity through stories, through imagination, to build larger and larger connections. So why do I feel connected to other Americans, to other Black people, to other men, to Christians?

“If my identity is bound up in being dominant, then equality feels like a threat. But if we learn to actually rest in love and celebrate our connection, we get much more.”

We have the capacity, the brain is plastic and constantly learning. We don’t know how far we can take it, but the aspiration is to build a world where everyone belongs. We used to say that if we were attacked by martians, then we would all be earthlings. And so it’s not mechanical. And so we got attacked by the coronavirus, and for a minute it looked like we might use this thing that was attacking the whole human race to tell a story that we were all in this together. But it’s dead. Now the story is that those people over there—whether it’s the Chinese or the Africans—they are a threat, they are bringing the virus. What I’m resisting is that it seems like the future is open, and the world is demanding we find a way to work together. Climate change is not a Black problem, not a white problem, not an American problem. It’s a global problem and it affects people differently. But it’s not a problem that can be understood or addressed on the individual or even at the group level. And increasingly, we are facing problems like that.

In some ways there is a certain beauty in the pandemic because it is very difficult to isolate yourself from a town in China that a year ago none of us ever heard of. And yet, what happens in China shows up in Los Angeles, shows up in London, shows up in Tanzania, shows up in Kenya. You know, it shows up everywhere. And so the human connection is there, and the virus is saying, “How do I spread? I spread from human to human.” So the idea of six degrees of separation needs to be rethought. Maybe it’s one degree of separation. Computers actually offer an opportunity for us to connect or disconnect.

So you think about George Floyd—what was different about George Floyd? One thing that was different was that more than a billion people around the globe within a day saw the police choke the life out of a Black man. That’s a terrible thing, but in a sense that’s an amazing thing that we can have that shared experience. Then the question is do we have shared meaning? Can we make sense of it? And that’s a different problem. So you have some right wing conservatives saying “George Floyd, he’s a criminal. Why do you care? We shouldn’t care about criminals!” But fortunately, a lot of people said, “He’s a human being.” They were trying to dehumanize him. So I think what we are learning from the mind science, what we are learning from new technology—we have a global economy—what we are learning from challenging environmentalism? There is, not just opportunities, demand that we acknowledge and create worlds in which we recognize our shared humanity. It was Einstein who said, “I have no idea what weapons we will use in World War 3, but I know in World War 4 we will use clubs and stones. The destructive power will become so great that unless we harness it for all of us we are headed back to the stone ages.”

C: I’m curious your thoughts on when we have the ability or proclivity to choose bridging, why we often chose breaking. What do you believe is at the root of our choices to dehumanize?

j: Well I think a number of things. One, I do think there’s something in the mind science. We have the amygdala, the reptilian part of the brain. It’s organized around fear and flight, and that’s been weaponized. And so we are told by the elites—not for tribal reasons, but for economic reasons—to hate each other so they can benefit. They’ve been playing that game effectively for a long time. When you think about wars, why are peasants in Europe going off to war? And when they come back, they’re poor. Why in the Hundred Years’ War in Europe, why were they sending people off to die who didn’t benefit from the war? They’re doing it for the elite, but they get something out of it. What they get out of it is a sense of belonging. So here’s the negative way of approaching belonging: I belong because you don’t belong. People want to belong, and they’re willing to trade their belonging in the place of someone not belonging. You’re better than those people. Again, Rwanda, what makes me better than those people? You have one more cow than they do. So it’s not anything inherent. It’s something in the stories we tell: you are better than those people. And they literally start calling people animals, cockroaches, they literally… There’s a part of the brain that lights up when you see another human being. When you deeply other people, that part of the brain doesn’t light up. But that’s manipulative. You can manipulate it—so you can’t see people as human, or you don’t? And we have to work at it because the oldest part of the brain, the reptilian part of the brain, is very fair. The new part of the brain, rational, even love, tends to be much slower.

“We are told by the elites—not for tribal reasons, but for economic reasons—to hate each other so they can benefit. They’ve been playing that game effectively for a long time.”

There’s a philosopher who had an idea that the oldest emotion is not love but fear. We trade in on fear, we weaponize fear. And to be honest, the whole Trump campaign is “be afraid of Mexicans” or “be afraid of those people.” And we are susceptible to it. And what you get for that, you get to belong to my club. Anew study is showing that 40 percent of Americans will experience a high degree of loneliness over the next couple of years. In some groups it’s over 50 percent. So here is someone coming along saying, “I know you’re lonely, I know you’re feeling like you’re life is meaningless. I’m going to give your life meaning. I’m going to let you join a group. All you have to do is hate that other person.”

The last thing I’ll say is much of our modern identity has been predicated on that. So the whole notion of racism—I get my sense of who I am, especially in terms of how we organize whiteness in this country, is about feeling superior, by being dominant. And so if my identity is bound up in being dominant, then equality feels like a threat. Literally there are people who argue, “I don’t hate Black people, they just are not as good as we are.” And again W.E.B. Dubois wrote about that. We are getting something out of hating; it’s actually doing some work. But if we learn to actually rest in love and celebrate our connection, we get much more.

C: Absolutely. The notion that we are trading the belongingness of others for ourselves just highlights how inherently needed this feeling of belonging is. It’s really a powerful thing and a call for us to challenge ourselves about how we build our own identities. Is it in the relationship to others who we believe are lesser or more than.

j: Right, and I oftentimes quote my friend bell hooks; she said, “Bridges are made to walk on.” By that she means that if you reach out beyond your group, you will not be trusted by the group you’re reaching out to, nor will you be trusted by your own group. “Why are you reaching out to those people? They’re not like us.” So once we have the title to challenge them, once it becomes the norm to challenge them, actually you risk something. You risk your belongingness. And you’re not necessarily going to be invited in by the next group. So I always say to people: Start with short bridges. Learn to work that muscle, and if you do it then you’ll get better at it. When you do it well and sustain it, you build new bridges and invite new people in. But it’s not easy work. It’s hard work.

C: Start with short bridges, that’s really powerful. I do want to zoom out and dig a bit deeper in your personal story, specifically about your work. Can you tell me about a time or a moment that specifically shaped your interest in doing what you’re currently doing? What’s your ‘why’, so to speak?

j: That’s a great question that comes up fairly often. There are two answers. I’ll give you the short answer for both. One, we actually don’t know why we are who we are, except that we know that we want a family, we know we want friends, we want a community. We know the impact of the ways before we even have words. And we know we have multiple stories and none of those stories are complete. In fact, the people who study authoritarianism say that to have a single story is actually a problem. It prevents you from pivoting, and the world requires that you pivot a lot.

“Once it becomes the norm to challenge them, actually you risk something. You risk your belongingness. It’s not easy work. It’s hard work.”

When you look at my family, I have an incredibly loving family. It’s a big family, I’m six of nine, sharecroppers. My own interpretation is I got a lot of what I got from my family. They would not necessarily agree, although they might, but also I had to leave the family because when I was 11 years old, I was growing up in a Christain church that taught that unless you were baptized—not as a Christian, but baptized in that church—you were going to hell. So we were ready to dismiss most of the world to hell for not believing like we believed. So when I was around ten, I started reading about people in other parts of the world. It became clear to me that Chinese were not going to be baptized in that church, and so in the end of every service the person who was preaching would say, “Do you have any questions?” It had never occurred to me that no one had ever asked a question. At the end of one sermon, he asked “Does anyone have a question?” I stood up, and there was an audible gasp. The minister said, “That’s alright, brother powell, what is your question?” This is in Detroit, in a low-income community in Detroit. I said, “What is going to happen to the Chinese?” Everyone said, “The Chinese?” I had never even seen a Chinese person! But I knew there were a lot of them, and they were not about to be baptized in the church that I went to. It struck me as fundamentally wrong to say that those people are so othered that they are going to hell. And with time, I still very much believe in heaven and hell and the church doctrine, but I never went back to the church after that.

In a way, you can say that started me on this journey, but I think it started before that. In a way, there are many other examples I could give. And I think in a way, all of us are trying, not just to find a home, but to make a home. But again, too often we make our home in opposition to everyone else’s. I have reconnected with my family and we now have a very loving relationship that we’ve had for most of my adult life, but that moment was very hard—because up until then, I had been nested in a loving family. And after that, I was on the outskirts of the family. I became a pariah.

C: I see. I may have missed it, but how old were you in this church moment?

j: Ten or eleven.

C: Yeah, that’s really powerful. At PACH we do a lot of work with students, too. And it shouldn’t be surprising at this point, but it’s always mind blowing to me how deeply they are aware of fundamental truths—what feels fundamentally wrong and how adults have silenced them.

j: I’m vegetarian, and I know a lot of young people would say, “When I found out that the chicken we are eating is the chicken I played with yesterday, I didn’t want to eat it anymore. But my family pushed me to.” And now they are eating meat. I think we do have these early epiphanies but we also need to belong; our early epiphanies get pushed down.

C: Absolutely, this need to trade what we know for belonging. My last question is one of legacy. I’m wondering if you’ve given any thought to what the change is in the world you hope your work leaves behind.

j: Well, I guess two things I could say. One, we have many stories and they’re all incomplete and they’re all co-authored. Right, I didn’t write my story. When I left my family, or when my family left me, it’s very hard. And my mother… I didn’t realize how hard it was for my parents. I know it was hard for me, but I didn’t realize it was painful for them as well. And one day my mother talked about how strange I was and then she said, “I guess you love me, you remind me of my father.” Her father was a full blood Native American. In fact, I was named after him, John Anthony. He would leave and wander and then go back to the tribe. I started doing that early, and didn’t know that he had done that—at least I didn’t have any conscious idea that he had done that. I guess what I’m saying is our stories are other people’s stories, as well. Our stories are part of something before us and something afterwards.

I hope I can contribute to really creating a world where we are not embarrassed to love. Where a stranger is just a friend where we don’t know his or her name yet. And that we can do that not just at an individual level, but at an institutional level—that we can learn to actually value vulnerability and that we can actually experience our connectivity so that when someone else is hurt, we are hurting too. I think that requires a lot of work and I think it happens at a lot of different levels, at a religious level, at a spiritual level, at a political level, at a psychological level. I want to push that as far as I can—not just as an idea, but as a real thing. I also want to live that. Sometimes I feel like there’s not many spaces to live it; it sounds idealistic, it sounds utopian, it sounds impossible. But Nelson Mandela said, “Things are impossible until they’re done, and then they are very possible.”

C: Thank you so much john.

To learn more about john a. powell’s work and organizations, visit the Othering & Belonging Institute or follow him on Twitter @profjohnapowell.

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