Speaker: john powell

Othering and Belonging

john a. powell is one of the foremost public intellectuals in the areas of civil rights, racism, ethnicity, housing and poverty.  He is currently Professor of Law, Professor of African American and Ethnic Studies, the Robert D. Haas Chancellor's Chair in Equity and Inclusion, and the Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, all at UC Berkeley. These are only the most recent appointments in a distinguished career, and yet powell spells his name in lowercase based on the simple and humble idea that we are part of the universe, not over it.  He has introduced into the public lexicon the concepts of “othering and belonging”; the Haas Institute publishes a journal and hosts an annual conference expanding the scholarship around this concept.

In his recent keynote address at the 2019 Conference of Othering and Belonging, powell describes how othering hurts not only people of color, but whites, women, animals and the planet itself. “Othering” is a process whereby certain people are not seen in their full humanity.  Out of this mindset arise such practices as segregation, separating children from families, and treating the planet “like a factory to exploit.” powell posits that “othering” is the global threat of the 21st century and that “how we do race will be consequential to the kind of society we have in the future.”

Detroit, Michigan was a bustling city in the early 1940’s, where powell experienced firsthand the ugly effects of racism on families and communities.  Factories tooled for the war effort drew in many African-American families from the South, upsetting whites who balked at sharing their neighborhoods with the newcomers. After World War II ended, so did the demand for workers. Many whites left and the city’s remaining people struggled for housing and jobs. john a. powell was born into this Detroit in 1947, the fourth son of sharecroppers from the South.  His parents struggled to find housing and keep the family together while he and his brothers before him were excluded in their integrated high school from sports and college prep classes. Fighting to “crack the color line,” powell graduated as valedictorian, sought to attend one of the elite universities, and was still met with resistance from teachers who did not want to write recommendation letters because of his skin color.

In spite of his lack of privilege growing up, powell earned a BA from Stanford University and a JD from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. He had been a public defender in Seattle, and in 1977, he received an International Human Rights Fellowship from the University of Minnesota to work in Africa as a consultant to the government of Mozambique. Prior to his current appointments at Berkeley, he was the Executive Director at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity (Ohio State University) and the Institute for Race and Poverty (University of Minnesota). For six prior years (1987 t0 1993) he worked as a national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

powell is a down-to-earth, soft-spoken speaker who easily puts difficult concepts such as structural othering and race as a social construct into easily understandable and concrete terms. He also projects hope, seeing it in the world’s changing demographics, connections helped by technology and a greater willingness to examine social and structural arrangements that disempower. In a 2003 PBS interview powell states, “We have to be willing to sit with the discomfort, and to examine what we can do to not be comfortable, but to call the world into being that we all want to live in.”

Recalling a South African phrase, “until I am seen I am not here,” powell explains that with othering, when a person is not seen they are stripped not only of access to equal rights, but of their very agency to act in and co-create the world. To move away from this, he says, “The opposite of othering is not saming, but “belonging.” Belonging is much more profound than access, “it’s a variation of King’s beloved community…. It’s about co-creating the thing you are joining” rather than having to conform to rules already set. He warns, “What happens if you just view me rather than see me?” Serious consequences for both the viewer and the one being viewed. And this is the beauty of powell’s vision:  racism has defined all of America, not just people of color. All have been harmed in this hierarchy of dominance and “pernicious forms of whiteness.”

Yet we all desire to see and love others.  He declares, “We all have each other, and we all need each other.” This “belonging to each other and to the earth” is a well to be tapped and is in in fact being tapped by many. powell insists that we need to look toward not who we were (“some mythical time when America was great”), but to who we will become. Othering, he explains, is born out of fear of the future – anxiety in the face of change – and we must each decide whether to perpetuate the othering response, or to evolve where our hearts want to go, toward belonging.  He offers bridging, or “creating ties to people unlike you in some important way,” as one way to create positive change so that “we not only open up to each other, but to changes in ourselves” and “participate in a society built on belonging.”

As a young boy, powell asked in church (where his father was minister) if all the millions of people who had never heard of Christianity were going to end up in Hell. Not liking the answer perhaps helped steer him toward the focus of his life’s work:  how a belonging paradigm can reshape our world for the better. powell is a co-founder of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council and serves on the boards of several national and international organizations. He led the development of an “opportunity-based” model that connects affordable housing to education, health, health care, and employment and is well-known for his work developing the frameworks of “targeted universalism” and “othering and belonging” to effect equity-based interventions. He has taught at numerous law schools including Harvard and Columbia University. His latest book is Racing to Justice:  Transforming our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build and Inclusive Society, published in 2015.

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