Building Communities of Belonging in the Face of Othering — Reflections on my conversation with john a. powell
“Where are you from?”
That was the first question Grace Lee Boggs asked me. I had been told to invite her to a conference at which time one of the organizers turned to me — the only person of Asian descent in the room — to say, “Kevin, you must know Grace. Why don’t you call her?” I did not know Grace, but I used this moment as an opportunity to meet someone I had long admired.
“Where are you from?” When a Chinese elder says that, I knew the proper answer wasn’t, “I’m from Sacramento.” Grace wanted to know where my people were from. “My grandparents came from Taishan,” I answered, referring to a small county in Southern China.
She chuckled, and I felt her smile through the phone line. “My family is from Taishan too,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
From that moment, I became a part of Grace’s circle of belonging, forging a familial bond that lasted for over a quarter century.
I revisited the notion of building communities of belonging in these times of othering during a recent conversation with john a powell. john is a philosopher, teacher, and visionary on race, justice, healing, democracy, and civil rights. He currently serves as the director of the Othering and Belonging Institute and professor of Law, African-American, and Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He has influenced my own philosophy and practice, and I consider him a mentor.
During our talk, topics ranged from the Democratic and Republican conventions, to how we can expand our circle of belonging to include those who don’t have shared identity and values. You can view a video of our conversation in English, French, or Spanish.
Here are five key lessons I gained from our conversation:
I. Who Belongs? The Mirror and the Lens
Establishing and maintaining relationships with those who see the world as we do is relatively easy. As a result, our circles of belonging consist, by and large, of people who look, think, and live like us.
Recall a time when you went to a place where you didn’t know anyone. As soon as you entered, you scanned the room, sorted everyone into categories, and gravitated toward people like you. You might have sorted the room by: gender; age; race; skin tone; language; body size/type; ability; sexual orientation; or even their choice of shoes. The scan took a few seconds. Once completed, you moved to the group that made you feel most safe — where you belonged
Maslow described belonging as one of our most basic human needs.
Studies have shown that, when we have a feeling of belonging, our bodies manifest physiological neuropathways that lead to feelings of compassion, comfort, and connection. Likewise, when we feel othered, our bodies manifest physiological neuropathways that lead to feelings of danger, discomfort, and isolation.
The 2020 political conventions were perfect examples of othering and belonging. Each side characterized the other as an enemy, and ran programs that seemed to ask “who in their right mind would want to be a part of them?” They were strategic about whom they chose to represent their agendas on stage. The unwritten rule of these events was to emphasize who belongs and who does not. They sought to frontload their participants with a visceral reaction to the assumptions and ideas of the “other.”
For example, both sides knew that suburban white women, especially those in battleground states, were key in determining the outcome of the election. These women would vote for the party that makes them feel like they have a voice, like they belonged. The lineup of featured women speakers on night 3 of the Republican and Democratic conventions reflected their strategies and narratives about the importance of reaching this particular subgroup.
If you tuned in to the conventions, you might have asked yourself which party was more effective in creating a sense of belonging for suburban white women? You might have felt a physical or emotional sense of belonging toward one convention over the other. Based on your feelings of belonging, you might have felt called to action or you might have felt profound aversion.
Depending on how we define our circles, our need to belong incites a response, perhaps for positive change or for social warfare. In these times, both are happening at once. In her book, “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century,” Grace Lee Boggs writes –
“Normally it would take decades for a people to transform themselves from the hyper-individualist, hyper-materialist damaged human beings that Americans in all walks of life are today to the loving, caring people we need in the deepening crises. But these are not normal times. If we don’t speed up this transformation, the likelihood is that, armed with AK-47s, we will soon be at each other’s throats.”
As people who are committed to values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, how can we keep our minds and hearts open to engaging with “the other” during these trying times?
II. The Path to Belonging
Sometimes that sense of belonging happens in an instant, as it was between me and Grace. And, sometimes it takes a while.
Take Kamala Harris, for example. When she was named the Democratic candidate for Vice-President, the country scrambled to figure out how to describe her. She is of Jamaican and Tamil descent, but she identifies as Black. She was raised in Oakland, CA. and Montreal, CN, by her single mother, but has ties to her family in Jamaica and India. She attended a Historical Black College and University (HBCU) and is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), a traditionally African-American sorority. Her husband, Doug, who is White and Jewish, was born in Brooklyn and raised in Southern California.
Among other issues surrounding Senator Harris, pundits on both sides wondered whether she was Black enough? Was she too Black? In her 2019 memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” Senator Harris writes — “As a family, we went to a Black Baptist church and a Hindu temple. My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters…and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”
So many lenses! So many mirrors!
I admit that I had some trouble placing Kamala Harris in my circle of belonging. While I interacted with her professionally when she was the District Attorney of San Francisco, I never felt a true kinship with her. So, when she became a candidate for Vice-President, I joined millions of others in flipping through my many lenses to see where, and if, I could really “see” Kamala in my circle of belonging. For me, that lens was cooking.
A couple of weeks ago, I came across a video of Kamala Harris and Mindy Kaling cooking masala dosa. Thirty seconds in, Kamala marvels at how Mindy’s spices are stored in Taster’s Choice containers. “You have no idea, this is how my mother kept all her stuff,” she says. While my family preferred Ball canning jars for storage, the feeling was close enough. I saw my reflection in Kamala Harris.
She goes on by listing the food that she was raised on — rice and yogurt, potato curry, dal, idli — in essence, her soul food. Senator Harris reveals that she knows the secret to chopping an onion, taking three more steps into my circle of belonging. What clinched it for me, however, was when Mindy’s father enters the kitchen. Senator Harris gives him a hug, and says “Hi Uncle!” In that moment, Kamala Harris became my kinfolk.
III. Othering as the status quo
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” — 2016 Presidential candidate Donald Trump
“You know, just to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.” — 2016 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton
In many ways, these two statements have defined the social and political discourse of the past four years. Both parties — with the support of biased media sources on the left and the right — have perpetuated these narratives. Exacerbated by social media, “othering” has become the status quo. It is so easy to throw shade, label, caricaturize, and demonize the other in order to feel strong.
john powell created this diagram that depicts how humans respond to change, or as he puts it, an increase in diversity. This can be personal — a new baby enters the family — or social — such as a new population arriving in a community — be it new immigrants or gentrification.
The natural response to an increase in diversity is anxiety. “Aaaah, what’s happening?” People look to those in authority for a meta-narrative, asking them, “Is this a good thing or a bad thing? How are we supposed to respond to this change?” The person in authority can choose a narrative of Breaking (which leads to fear and othering) or Bonding and Bridging (which leads to compassion and belonging).
Consider the narrative of a new baby entering the family. The adults determine the narrative for an anxious older sibling who is distressed about their sense of security and belonging in this new family structure. If the adults frame the narrative through a lens of bonding and bridging, the sibling will embrace the baby in their circle of belonging. If not, it will establish a lifetime of breaking, exclusion, harm, and even violence. These narratives will not only last a lifetime, but can extend through generations.
Now imagine how this plays out on a societal level, when a new group of people arrives in a community. What was the narrative when the Europeans arrived on the North American continent? Or when the enslaved arrived from the African continent? Was is our current narrative when people from Central and South America arrive at our borders? How does that narrative differ from people who arrive from Western Europe? Some of these narratives were established hundreds of years ago, yet their legacy of breaking or bridging is still manifested today.
IV. Bridging with the Devil
Building a bridge with Kamala Harris was a fairly easy task for me. We already had a lot in common in terms of values, life experience, age, where we call home, our sense of style. As john would say, “Kevin, that was a short bridge.”
How do we build longer bridges with people that don’t have shared values, life experience, and cultural identities?
The Republican National Convention provided a perfect opportunity for me to try it out. Within 15 minutes of tuning in on the first night, this is what I heard –
“We may not have realized that at the time, but Trump is the bodyguard of Western civilization. He was elected to protect our families from the vengeful mob that seeks to destroy our way of life, our neighborhoods, schools, churches, and values…The American way of life is being dismantled by a group of bitter, vengeful activists who have never built anything in their lives.” — Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA.
“They’ll disarm you, empty your prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door…We settled a continent. We know the frontier, the horizon, even the stars belong to us.” Rep. Matt Gaetz (FL)
It would be so easy to go to judgment and write people like Charlie Kirk and Matt Gaetz off. But as a person who is committed to values of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, I have to try to keep my mind and heart open to see if I can find common ground — or perhaps even higher ground — with them. As I see it, that’s our only way forward.
The following night, I tuned in by radio (in part to continue the thread of self-preservation and to practice the deep listening that john talked about.) In the spirit of compassion, I made sure to say something positive about each speaker.
As I listened to the much-maligned Eric Trump, I concluded that this is a son who truly loves and admires his father. When Melania Trump spoke, I acknowledged her for her courage — as a non-native English speaker, and as a person who did not ask to be put in the position that she is in — to speak before the nation. It could not have been easy, and she did a good job.
What I could not reconcile was the content of their words. Just about everything the Trumps and other speakers said was an exaggeration of facts or a bold-faced lie. While I will not deny their humanity, they have no credibility or respect in my book.
The first rule of bridge building is to assure that the ground is firm on both sides. When comparing the facts and the administration’s track record to what was said that the Republican National Convention, all indication is that their ground is quite shaky. Any attempt at bridge building will be precarious from the start. Am I going to try to build a bridge with the far right? No. But even though I might disagree with them, I will also not dehumanize them by calling them names, demonizing them, or posting memes, and caricatures.
For those of us who value, diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and, justice, we have, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, to keep the porch light on. “I won’t go chase the segregationists,” said john, paraphrasing King, “I won’t go chase the racists, but I’ll keep the porch light on. I’m always open, if they every want, to sit down and talk.”
Perhaps I was too ambitious to assume that I was going to build a bridge with Eric Trump. While I won’t call him the devil, I am clear that we have no common ground. For now, I will take a few steps back and work on building bridges with folks on the right side of the political spectrum who do stand on firm ground. In the meantime, I’ll strive to keep the porch light on.
V. Building the Bridge. Being the Bridge.
As we closed our conversation, I asked john — “Being a bridge builder is hard work. What advice do you have for us to stay in this work for the long haul?”
Here is what he said —
What I learned from my conversation with john is that I can only build strong bridges when I am standing on firm ground. For me, that means having the support of my community to confidently stand in my power and proclaim my truth, bringing all of my gifts and contributions to bear in ways that don’t harm myself or others.
In thinking on how my partners and I are facilitating virtual community healing circles around the country, we continue to step away from those experiences more focused, more unified, more inspired, and more hopeful than before. Unlike breaking, the process of bonding and bridging is rejuvenating, strengthening bonds that will build a better world where everyone belongs.
For Reflection and Discussion
1. What steps can you take to promote narratives of bonding and bridging vs. breaking? What do you need?
2. What was the longest bridge you have had to build? What did it take for you to build that bridge?
3. Think about an unlikely person who is part of your circle of belonging. What was the story that led you to include them in your circle?
Here is the video of my conversation with john —