|The human condition is one about belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship. --john a. powell|
Building Belonging: Being an Ambassador to the Earth--by Tami Simon, syndicated from resources.soundstrue.com, Aug 31, 2021
Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self compassion regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more, or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.
You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is john a. powell. john is the director of the Othering & Belonging Institute, and professor of Law, African American and Ethnic Studies at the University of California Berkeley. He previously directed the Kirwan Insitute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, and the Institute on Race & Poverty at the University of Minnesota. john and I talk about belonging, and what I can tell you is that his warm presence is such an elegant invitation for all of us to become ambassadors of belonging, to build belonging, to become belonging activists in our lives. I’m so grateful I had this chance to talk to john a. powell and to share this conversation with you.
john, I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation. Just the preparatory work that I’ve done has already been illuminating for me. I’ve learned so much, and I’m so grateful to have this chance to share you and your wisdom with the Sounds True audience, so thank you.
john a. powell: Thank you. You’re welcome, Tami. Look forward to the conversation.
TS: So, to begin, you’re the director of the Othering & Belonging Institute, and I wanted to start by bringing forward your explanation of these words that are very powerful: othering and belonging. I noticed both of these words bring up a lot of feeling for me, a lot of energy. You talk about othering as a process, so let’s start there. Why do you call othering a process?
jp: Well, something that we do in practice, and we can do it ourselves, or we can have it done through the arrangement of our institutions and cultures. It’s not necessarily personal, interpersonal, although it often is. And basically, it’s denying someone their full humanity, and denying mutuality, and it’s a gradient. And that practice, so we can refuse say hello to someone, refuse to shake their hand in the old days. We can refuse to see someone. We can also lock them up. We can tell stories about them, make up stories about them. We can deny their voice. Or even more explicit, we might say they’re less than. They’re not part of the “we.” They’re not to be accorded respect or empathy. There’s something wrong with them. And oftentimes, that’s associated with—they’re a threat, and the reason my life is not better is because of them. So, that’s the othering process, and again, there are sort of soft expressions of it to extreme expressions of it.
Belonging, and sometimes when people look at othering, the process, they think the solution to it is saming, right? To say, I’m going to accord you respect and dignity because you’re just like me. Well, maybe I’m not just like you. So, it can’t be that the price to pay to get rid of othering is saming. And I often like to tell the story about James Baldwin, when he was invited to [inaudible 00:04:56] club, and this was back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, and they said, “Mr. Baldwin, we recognize you’re a profound writer, and so we want you to join our club.” And he wanted to join the club. And they said, “But you know, you don’t have to bring up that you’re gay. And a lot of your friends,” meaning Blacks, “are riffraff, so they’re not really welcome here. But with those caveats and a few more, you can come.” And Baldwin declined the offer and went to France instead, and wrote a book called The Price of the Ticket.
So, sometimes we have kind of a conditional—you come along as long as you don’t talk too loud, as long as you don’t remind us that you’re Jewish, as long as… in the military, right? Under President Clinton, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. So, if you’re gay or lesbian or trans, we’re not going to ask you about that, and we don’t want you volunteering that information. The other extreme is that we say these people don’t deserve to be on the face of the earth, and we commit genocide.
And so, belonging is when our full humanity, as a group and as individuals, is embraced. We’re seen as of value. You know, it’s interesting. I was teaching a class, and I referred students back to the Declaration of Independence. We set up the country as kind of a bad place, so we forget that there are these powerful aspirations associated with the country, and they may be further removed from us than ever, but they were there, and they’re still there. So, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths self-evident.” Self-evident. Then it goes on to say, “That all men—” obviously today, we’d change that. “All people are created equal.”
What does that mean? That means that it’s given. You don’t have to prove that you’re equal. Just by being human, it’s God-given, from the Declaration of Independence, and it’s just there, and you have rights because you’re a human. You’re part of this human tribe, this human family.
Now, that’s not how we live our lives. That’s belonging. And belonging says, yes, you’re part of the “we,” and as part of the we, you get to define the world that we live in. You get to have a voice, and I accord you human dignity. I accord you respect. I accord you acknowledgement of your humanity and equality, not because you’re smart, not because you have a lot of money, not because of your race, religion, but just because you’re a human being. You’re an expression of life.
And South Africans have a word called Sawubona, which means “I see you.” It also has been interpreted to mean, “The God in me, or the Divine in me, sees the Divine in you.” And the response is, “I am here.” So, that’s a sense of belonging, to be recognized, to be really seen.
TS: You know, I find this so powerful, john, and maybe I find it so powerful because for the longest time, just briefly being confessional here, I didn’t feel like I belonged on Planet Earth. I always felt like I came out of some kind of alien spaceship and landed here, in terms of the things I cared about and the ways that I wanted to relate to other human beings. I just felt like a total outsider, and it’s been a huge journey to feel a sense of belonging as a human being. It took me decades. And I would love for everyone to feel that sense of belonging, so I’ve been so inspired by your work, and your commitment to that.
Part of what I learned in studying your work is this difference in using the language of inclusivity and the language of belonging, and so I want to check this out with you, because part of what I learned is that it’s one thing for me to say, “I want to include you. It’s my game, it’s my world, I want to invite you in.” And it’s another thing to say, “We belong together and we’re going to co-create this, and you have power and agency.” And that’s a real journey, because we hear a lot about, for example, a business being inclusive or an academic setting being inclusive. But what I learned from you is, it’s different if it’s a situation of belonging. So, I wonder if you can underscore what that difference is.
jp: You’re exactly right, and there’s… Some people argue or assert that we should stop saying that the United States is an immigrant society, and instead, they want to rewrite history, or their form of history, is to say we’re a settler society, and the settlers were the ones who actually created the mold and the conditions for belonging, if you will, and everyone else who comes is a guest. And because they are guests, if they don’t adhere to those norms and conditions, we should not be embarrassed to tell them to leave, to tell them they’re no longer welcome.
So, that’s inclusive, right? Is that you can come as a guest, but here are the rules. And you say, “OK, great, john. Where do those rules come from?” “We made them up a long time ago, and you don’t get to mess with the rules.” So, as long as you obey the rules that I get to make… I might, I as the settler, I as the host, I can change the rules occasionally, but you can’t. And so inclusion, the way it’s generally practiced, whether it’s a business or a community, “This is the way that we do things here.” Interesting. Who’s the “we”? “We don’t like your kind.”
So the thing about belonging, it’s exactly what you said, Tami, but it even goes further, because we say we are striving for belonging without othering, and our responsibility is not only to co-create a world and a space where I belong, but a world and a space where you belong. Our responsibility goes beyond ourselves. We have responsibility, and I would even say obligations beyond ourselves.
And I would also say that the people who are othered because they don’t have the right clothes, or they show up at the party, but there are other people that are othered, what’s called durable. No matter what they do, they could change their clothes, they could change their crew, they could change their hairstyles but no, you still don’t belong. And it’s imposed by the state. It’s imposed sometimes by laws. It’s imposed by norms.
But I would also say that many people, when you examine it, have a sense of: this is not really my place. When you scratch the surface and talk to young people, often… In fact, a recent survey, 70 percent of Americans said, in a sense, they didn’t feel like they belong. 70 percent. So, who does? Who feels like they belong? Almost nobody.
And it’s no wonder. It’s like, I’m sitting here in California, worrying about the wildfires in May. It’s like, when I see the way we treat each other, whose world is this? It’s not my world. It’s not the world I would want to live in, but it’s the world I’ve been consigned to for now. And so, the responsibility becomes, how do I actually help this world come into being, where both I belong and you belong?
TS: So, I’m going to make a leap here, and I’m going to make an assumption that the vast majority of people that are listening to this podcast, the people who listen regularly to Insights at the Edge, the Sounds True podcast, want to create a world of belonging without othering. That’s what’s in their heart. That’s what they want. They want to create that. And now, to speak for myself, I’m not making any assumptions here, I want to be a belonging activist.
jp: All right.
TS: After reading and studying, I was like, I want to be a belonging activist. That’s good language for me. And you talk about how there’s a personal level to this, and there’s also a structural level, and I want to talk about both of these things together. The personal level feels a lot more achievable, and like I can start doing that. The structural level, and structural interventions, belonging interventions if you will, they feel harder for me to know how I’m going to be part of that, but I want to see if we can illuminate some of them for our listeners. So, let’s start off. I’m a belonging activist now. What are the personal actions I can take?
jp: Well, there are a lot of things that people are doing now. It’s really kind of beautiful to see it happening, both in the United States, but also around the world. I’ve actually gotten requests from as far away as China and Africa, people saying, to use your phrase, “I want to create belonging. How do I do that?” And many of us went to school where, at some point, we were outside the clique. And a clique is basically saying, these are the people who belong. If you’re not in the clique, you don’t belong. What are you doing here?
So, part of it is, I sort of say we could almost be ambassadors to Earth. It’s like, welcome to Earth. It’s not my planet, but it’s our planet, and Earth itself. Welcome to this beautiful planet. And I actually did this with a young friend of mine that I was mentoring for a while, because he felt like he didn’t belong. He felt awkward. It’s like, you know what I’m saying? A lot of people feel that to various degrees. And one reason we feel that is, it’s almost like we’re all walking around feeling a little bit like, I’m not being noticed. And so, I said, let’s try something.
So, I picked out this older woman, even older than me, and she looked like she was with someone, like her husband. She had on a hat, and I walked up to her, and she’s White, and I’m Black, and people in the United States don’t oftentimes talk to our fellow species members on the streets. And I walked up to here, and I said, “Excuse me, Miss. What a beautiful hat. Where did you get it from?” And the sun just came out. She just beamed. She told me, “I made it myself!” And then she went, and it’s like, it wasn’t the hat. It was that it was human connection. It was that she had been seen. And then she just chatted me up.
So, I did that two or three times with my young friend, and I said, “Now, you try it.” And he said, “No, no, no, I’m not going to do it.” And I said, “OK, this is the thing. It’s a little awkward, I know that, because we have these norms in our society. Do it with your sister when you go home. Just ask her about her day. Give her some attention. Ask to hear about a story.” So, just connecting.
And because we live in a habituated life, whenever we break habits, it feels awkward. We always go home the same way. If we change our route, it kind of feels strange, right? If we always take that first step on our right foot, start with your left. This is like that. Just start doing something a little bit to extend yourself to others, to recognize others. And then, interestingly now, the research is quite powerful. It’s not only healing for them; they’re more likely to recognize you.
And I sometimes refer to some aspects that are called bridging. So, we can become bridgers, and the heart of it is empathetic and compassionate listening. Paying attention to others. Paying attention to the Earth. One of my happiest, or most joyous moments on the planet was spending an hour and 15 minutes watching a spider spin a web. I don’t know if that spider was joyous that I was…
jp: But it was something. I felt connected. And part of being a belonger, building bridges, is connecting with people and situations where it’s not necessarily the norm. And there’s all kinds of personal expressions of that, just, what do you mean? They do it now in the activist context, called deep canvassing. And deep canvassing, unlike traditional canvassing—traditional canvassing is two, three, five minutes. “Here’s my issues. Here’s what I think is important. Here’s the candidate I’m going to vote for. Who are you voting for? Here’s some literature I read.” Right?
jp: Deep canvassing, which acknowledges to some extent that building on work that we do in others around bridging, and about empathetic and compassionate listening, it goes something like this: “Tami, how was your day today? Do you have any struggles? How’s your family? Are you worried about anything? Is anything of any concern? What are you dreaming? What do you want to happen? How’s your heart?” Right? And they found… And that’s a much longer discussion. It can take an hour. But they found that approach, and this is somewhat of a contradiction, moves people 100 times more than traditional canvassing.
Now, the reason I say it’s a contradiction is because when you really are listening, when you’re engaging with the other, and of course, there really is no other, but when you’re engaging with the apparent other, you’re not doing it for instrumental reasons. You’re not doing so you’ll vote for my candidate. So, I’m only really listening, I’m only pretending to be interested in you because I want something from you. Well, I know organizers, and we just came out of a big political brouhaha, so we do want… I wanted it to come out a certain way.
But at its core, deep listening and engaging has a spiritual dimension to it, has a healing dimension to it, and you’re not trying to convince the person, OK, great, so become a Christian. Become a Buddhist. Become a vegetarian. Maybe you want… That’s persuasion. That’s not empathetic and compassionate listening. Let’s let the person waffle.
TS: Now, I want to ask you one more question at the personal level, because in the last couple of years, one of the things I’ve heard from a lot of people that I know and work with is that their biggest pain, when it comes to belonging, has to do with their own families, especially when within their families, there’s differences on the political spectrum, where I can’t talk to my uncle or my cousin or whatever, because we just see this so differently. I don’t even feel like I belong within my family.
jp: Right, right.
TS: What do you have to offer, in terms of building bridges in that specific context?
jp: Well, I think it won’t surprise you, but I had many of those experiences growing up myself. My family was just a lovely, lovely family. I love them to death. They’re very conservative Christians, and long before Trump, I was made to feel othered. Literally, when I stopped going to church as young man, young kid, 11 years old, I would be left. I had eight brothers and sisters, and as the family would go off to church on Sunday and Wednesdays, they would leave a list of chores, because they wanted to make sure I wasn’t having fun. And my youngest sister, who’s 13 or 14 years younger than me, she went, as I got a little older, went off to college and would come back, she would follow me around the house crying, and I’d say, “What’s wrong?” And she said, “I don’t want you to go to hell.”
jp: So, we worked through—and I call these short bridges, but they may not feel very short. And I call them short because there’s already this well of love and connection and affection that we’ve acknowledged. Even in the midst of that pain, I never stopped loving my family. In fact, part of the pain was that I was being removed from the space of love. And there were many breakthroughs. But just to share one with you, I came home from college one time in the middle of some big political thing, and my dad, who was a Christian minister, took one position. I took a very different position. And we stayed up all night talking.
Here’s the thing: we didn’t try to convince each other. We tried to really understand what’s beneath that. He was quoting the Bible. “The Bible says this.” But it’s like he was also letting me lean into his heart. And the next day, I came down to breakfast late, from being up all night. My mom said to me, “What did you and Marshall talk about? He was so happy this morning.” He wasn’t happy because he had convinced me. He was happy because we had connected.
And so, part of the thing is that if we—and, well, it can’t be a thing of check the box, you do these three things, you win—but if we can really step back from, “What’s your position on climate change?” As opposed to, I have a good friend who’s a minister here named Ben McBride. He said, if you ask him what you should do, it’s the wrong question. The question is who you should be, and how you should be, so we can be present with each other. And it’s interesting. Again, my father and I and the rest of my family worked most of those things out. But it’s because we reconnected and reminded ourselves just how deeply we loved each other.
But oftentimes, we start with, “What’s your position?” You know? “What’s your position on X? This is my position on X.” And I’m not saying those things are unimportant. Climate is radically important. Earth itself is radically important. But again, to bridge.
And I’ve talked to, not only my own family, and I’m not a Trump supporter, but I’ve talked to Trump supporters about the Affordable Care Act, and there is something you can do. So, I’m there, I’m flying down to a rural place, and it was Arkansas, to talk about trying to get them to sign up for Medicaid so they can—I walked in the place, and my guess is everybody was a Trump supporter. There wasn’t another Black person in the place. There wasn’t an Asian in the place. There wasn’t a Latino in the place. It was all White. My guess is, most of them were evangelical Christians.
They all had their arms folded, and there was about 300 of them, and I wondered, why did they come? Because they obviously don’t want to be here. And I lied, because I opened up my talk, and I said, “It’s good to be here.” Not really. But what happened over the next 20, 30, 40 minutes, I asked them to tell me about themselves. I asked them to tell me about their pains, their suffering, their losses around health care. And they told stories about kids dying. They told stories about their spouse getting cancer and not having insurance. They talked about doctors prescribing medicine and insurance companies saying, “No, you can’t have that medicine.”
And I said, “How did that feel?” And by this time, no one has their arm folded, and people are just being very effusive. They’re talking loud, but they’re not yelling. I’m their friend now. I’m their friend because I’m listening to their pain. And then I pivot, and I said, “All these things are wrong. These things are not treating you as a human being. They’re seeing you as a statistic.” I could have said, “They’re seeing you as other.”
And I said, “Those same phenomena is going on in the Black, Latino communities.” I didn’t lose one person. But if I’d started with, “We need to support the Affordable Care Act, especially in the Black and Latino community,” I wouldn’t have gotten one person.
jp: So, I started with their pain, and not just their position, but what’s underneath it. What is it they really fear? What do they really aspire to? What do they really hope for? And how are they similar and different to me? And once they really felt I could hear them, it was just phenomenal how much they opened up, and the host was amazed. He said, “A person was here a few months ago speaking on the same issue and essentially got booed off the stage.”
TS: Well, I have to say, my heart feels so, it’s swelling, listening to you. It’s actively swelling. OK, I’m going to keep our conversation going to the next point, which is this notion of making a difference as a belonging activist when it comes to the structures of our society that actually promote othering. They currently promote othering. And I’m wondering if you can give some pioneering examples of some of the work that people are up to in this category.
jp: Sure. That’s actually very important. So, first I’ll give some negative examples. I just read a story by a friend, Naomi Klein, about the Paradise fires out here in California, and it was a couple of years ago, and the wildfires were just terrible, and thousands of people lost their homes. The result of it is that people opened up their homes, people who still had homes. And some people became unhoused, and so Walmart actually let people camp out on its parking lot. And people brought food and water and diapers, and just came to check on people to see how they were doing. It was this real outpouring, this real empathy, if you will, this real compassion.
And what Naomi writes about is that two years later, Walmart’s parking lot is now occupied by cars, and the people of the town are like, “We’re tired of people sleeping on the streets.” And so, the interpersonal effort to extend oneself didn’t last. It didn’t create any institutional support to help people do things. What institutions do by and large is create habits. They create collective habits. They create norms. They create collective norms. And they make it easy.
So, habits are important in life, good, bad or otherwise, but if we had to think about everything all the time, instead of things being habituated, we probably would not survive as a species. So, a lot of what we do, think, and feel is actually habituated. That’s what the unconscious about us, it learns by habituation. So, structures is one of the forms which allows us to habituate and, on some level, we don’t have to think about things, even though maybe we should.
So, take, I was old enough to have started school when virtually all of the schools in the United States were formally segregated. That’s a structure. It was not thought about, “Well, I think I’ll go to the White school today.” You know? Someone might call the police, because the police was there to enforce the laws. And when you first bump up against the structures, it’s very awkward, even more awkward than the personal things, like, “Why are you doing that?” And we see this all over.
I have a very good friend. He is African American, as I am. His son came out 10 years ago, or something, as gay. It was really hard for him. He struggled. He loved his son. He still loves his son. And at one point, he said, “You know what? I figured out the problem was not my son, the problem was me. I’m the problem.”
TS: That was a good discovery.
jp: Very good discovery. He worked it through, and with help. He had counseling. It wasn’t easy. And he was very happy to go to his son’s wedding. His son is now married to his partner. Then I was talking to him maybe two or three years ago, and it was like, “OK, I get that I was basically being an SOB around the gay and lesbian issue. But this trans issue? When does it end, john? When does it end? I’ve already….” I said, “It doesn’t.”
So, part of it is that when things change, it’s not easy, and one of the things that helped a lot in terms of the marriage equality was not just people working on a personal level, it was our leaders, our courts, our military, also doing things at a structural level. It made it harder to stand in the face of that, when you have—OK, I like my Apple watch, and Tim Cook is gay? Hmm. OK, I still like my Apple watch.
So, I think we have to do things on both levels. If we don’t do things at a structural level, the structural level will undermine what we’re doing at a personal level.
TS: In one of your presentations, you told a story about going to the University of Texas at Austin campus, and some changes they made as a result, it sounded like, from maybe some contribution that you and others made to help raise awareness around the campus. I wonder if you can tell that story, because for me, that was very illuminating.
jp: Yes. I was being recruited to come down there, and they were happy to the prospect of getting me there, and I was relatively happy about going. And I went down there. It’s a beautiful campus. It’s the flagship college in Texas, in Austin. And as we were walking around, there’s all this Confederate memorabilia. And I grew up as a kid, sort of Davy Crockett, and thinking of all the stuff down there. But anyway, as I’m walking around, I’m feeling uncomfortable, and my host I think at some point senses it, and he sort of turns to me, he says, “Don’t worry or pay attention to all of this Confederate stuff. We fought on the side of the South. We were a slave-holding state. But that’s our history.”
And I know from doing work in mind science and spiritual work that my unconscious was screaming, like, get the hell out of here. And the people were nice enough. The structures were doing some work. And I didn’t go down there, but not because of that, mainly because of my granddaughter. But later, students start talking about it, and the Black and Latino students were not doing well. And interestingly, again, it wasn’t that anyone said anything. It wasn’t that anyone did anything. It’s just, you had this constant reminder, and the people who felt a little more comfortable with it for a while couldn’t understand the discomfort. You know, what’s the big deal?
But those things actually do matter. And it’s so interesting. They matter in both directions. They matter in terms of saying to people, “You don’t belong.” But in a distorted way, they also matter in terms of showing a particular type of White identity. Now, this is tricky and hard, because when you think about, OK, what about all those Confederate monuments? Shouldn’t we just take them down?
First of all, most of them didn’t happen right after the Civil War. They happened more recently than that. But it is true, we get attached to things, and not just in, “I like them,” but on some deep level, they’re actually helping to constitute who we are. So, if I’m taking down your monument, can I have any empathy for you? Even though your monument may be disrespectful to me?
And we see this all over. OK, just one other example. In the ‘70s, when women were coming into the workplace in large numbers, they were going to the workplace, and there would be lewd, if not pornographic pictures of women all over the workplace.
jp: And women complained. And the men was like, “We’ve always had these pictures.” Well, you’ve always been a male-dominated institution. And it’s not that they weren’t nice to their wife back at home, or they were mean to their daughter, but the daughter and the wife had a place that was consigned to them. And the women were saying, “I’m coming in here, I don’t want these pictures. I don’t want to be having to face pornographic pictures all day.”
The first response was, women could put up their own pictures. If you want to put a picture of a naked man, that’s fine. If you want to show a man with his genitals, that’s fine. But interesting thing, this actually was still a male-dominated response, and that case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and a moderate Republican justice wrote the opinion, and said, no, this was a hostile workplace. And that’s where that concept came from. And they were saying like, why was it hostile? It had been there for 50, 60, 70 years. Very few men complained. But when women complained, the first response is, “What’s wrong with women?” You have to adjust.
Now, no one would even think about doing that. Or very few people, I should say. Maybe some of them would. But structures matter. Symbols matter. And while I think that decision was completely right, the men felt a loss. They felt something that they’d valued was taken away from them. And that may be still the right thing to do, but it’s also, I think, appropriate to understand that people may feel a loss for the Confederate flags, for their pornographic pictures, for their symbolism of Black statues on the front lawn.
I went to Stanford. When I went there, it was called the Stanford Indians. They finally changed it to the Stanford Cardinal. But some of the alumni who were giving money said, “I’ll never give money again. You’ve taken away my symbol.” OK, but your symbol was dehumanizing Native populations. And still, I understand, OK, you have some pain around it, but I think it was the right thing to do.
TS: I’ve noticed, I’m feeling much more invested in the belonging gain than I am whatever the losses are involved for people. That’s not—you seem much more sensitive and empathetic to the loss. I’m a little bit like, “Come on, we’ve got to go!”
jp: You’re right. Well, I think you have to do both. I gave a talk this morning. I talked about the trial in Minneapolis. Derek Chauvin was convicted, appropriately. Keith Ellison is a friend of mine. He’s the Attorney General. He’s the one who structured the trial. He’s the one who actually orchestrated it, and he was being interviewed on television, and the announcer said, “So, how do you feel about this?” And he said, “I’m not even sure we achieved justice.” He says, “The right thing to do was a step. We’re talking about a system, not just a bad individual. We’re talking about a system, the way we do not just policing. The way we make laws. The way we do courts. The way we do—it’s a whole number of things, but it’s a step in the right direction. And the verdict was the right verdict. This guy did something terrible. He has to be held accountable.”
And then he did this interesting thing. He said, “But I still feel a little bad for him.” And the interviewer said, “What do you mean, you feel a little bad for him? This guy—” Keith Ellison is African American. He had a prosecutor, was Attorney General. “What do you mean, you feel a little bad for him? This guy killed someone with people watching all over the world. And yes, he probably, maybe was a racist.” And Keith said, “I think that may be true, but he’s still a human being. He’s still a human being.”
And so, the thing that we sometimes miss, in terms of compassion, empathy, and bridging is that we think—we misunderstand it. We think it means you forgive the person, or you don’t hold the person accountable, right? You still have to hold the person accountable. In fact, some people will say that’s an act of respect, when I hold someone accountable. But you also hold on to their humanity. And if you hold onto… A lot of times, when people lose with a symbolic loss, or a more material loss, what they’re also saying is that “I’m being told I don’t count. I’m being told I’m bad. I’m being told I am less than.”
And we have to be careful, because I sometimes talk about White supremacy, and I say that the operative word is not White, it’s supremacy. What we have to be really dogged in challenging is the notion of supremacy. Any kind, whether it’s religious supremacy, gender supremacy, racial supremacy, national supremacy—all of those are problematic.
So, I think, in fact, there’s some data to suggest, people are more able to move if, when I say, “Get out of this place, but here’s another place for you to go.” Right? It’s that we still are holding on to your humanity. White man in the workplace, we recognize you have some pain. Yes, this has to change, but we recognize you have some pain, and we want to… Restorative justice, that’s partially what it’s about. And if that’s done, then the possibility of change is actually much greater. But if you say, “Not only do your statues have to go, but you have to go with them, and you’re morally bankrupt and evil and bad.” Well, no one can swallow that.
TS: You know, this whole topic that I opened up for us about the structural changes that are needed so that we can have this future of belonging, it’s so huge. It’s so huge, and I wonder, when you look at it, do you have a sense of the priorities? When you think, this is my work in the world, this is what I do, I’m on this mission, I’m the director of the Othering, here are the priorities that we have to address.
jp: Well, fortunately for us, we have a pretty decent size, and we’re working with people all over the world. I think, it’s sort of interesting, the core is recognizing that everyone counts, that everyone belongs, that everyone has a voice that can participate. But now, to make that real, it’s more than just saying that. For example, if I say everyone belongs, but you can’t vote, you can’t go to the store, you don’t have a house, you don’t have a pot to piss in, right?
There’s two political philosophers, one named John Rawls, and one that’s Amartya Sen. Amartya Sen was also an economist. He says that in any given society, there’s things you need to actually be part of it, a full member of that society. And those things will change. It could be a cell phone. If you don’t have a cell phone in some societies, you don’t belong. And what I said, and I’ve written about this myself, is that the first and most important thing is full membership. And in that full membership, you decide what those other things are and how they should be distributed.
And so, to really recognize someone’s full humanity—there have been friends sometimes who would say to me, “You’re a professor at Berkeley and look at you, you dress like a homeless person.” And I said, “Are you being disparaging toward people who are unhoused? The assumption that those people…” And we know this from the work of people like Professor, Dr. Fitz at Princeton. In our society, we don’t see homeless people as belonging. We don’t see them as human. There’s a part of the brain that lights up when we see another human being. As a collective, as a society, when we see homeless people, that part of the brain does not light up. For many Americans, a returning citizen, African American, that part of the brain does not light up.
And I’ve written about this, that it’s no way for us to get to good policy for people that we don’t see as human. So, we have to hold on to that humanity. We have to hold on to our interconnectedness. And it’s not always easy. But then, we have to make sure that our policies are right. And they’ll change. I oftentimes give the example: I’m in a wheelchair. I come to a building, and there’s no ramp. I’ve just been othered. I’ve been institutionally othered. I’ve been told, “You don’t belong here.” Even if people pick me up and take me in, I’ve still been othered.
And so, we need to actually constantly engage this. And I would say multiple levels, but it’s like, wherever you are, start there. Wherever you are. You don’t have to be someplace else. You don’t have to go across the world. Start where you are, and go as far as you can. And to me, this is actually a life journey, and it’s a beautiful part of life.
TS: One of my favorite quotes that I got from you is, “Is it the journey? Is it the destination?” You know what I’m talking about here, john? “Is it the journey? Is it the destination?” I was like, it’s definitely the journey! It’s not the destination. But then, you had the punchline.
jp: It’s the company.
jp: It’s who you’re with. You know, the people that you… The work I do is hard sometimes, but I have a really great group of people I work with. I get to meet wonderful people. And that’s what resiliency is. We sort of confuse that. We think it’s like, he’s tough. He can deal with anything. It’s like, no one’s tough in that sense. But we are, sometimes we have this community. We have this family. We have this company. And with that, you can go all the way through life, and without that company, as demonstrated with the pandemic, when we’re isolated from each other, it doesn’t matter if you have a big house and a nice car. Literally, I have a friend who’s quite wealthy. He’s rich, not even wealthy. Private jets and the whole thing. He lives in New York, and he said, “I miss seeing people on the subway. Not friends, but just, I miss human contact.”
And so, I would like to see us, and one of the things that might happen as a result of the pandemic is, here in the Bay Area, I’m sure in parts, people are out on the streets, and now restaurants have people sitting on the street, and there’s something very nice about that. Sometimes I literally just drive or walk down the street just to see other people out doing what people do.
TS: Well, I just want to take a moment right now, because I feel blessed to be in your company, and I think our listeners probably feel the same way. And so, I just wanted to take a moment to underscore, thank you. Thanks for—on the journey, the journey to greater belonging, for being in our company.
Now, there’s one other big topic that I want to make sure we get to, because there’s a section of your book, Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society—this is a collection of essays that you’ve written, all in one book, and the very last section is a chapter that’s called “Lessons from Suffering: How Social Justice Informs Spirituality.” And this section was particularly meaningful to me, as someone who for 36 years now has run a publishing company all about spiritual wisdom. I immediately turned to this section, and what I got from it, a couple of things that I wanted to make sure I talked to you about. And one was this idea that you put forward that by engaging with the suffering of people, by engaging with the poor, by engaging with people who have been othered, our spiritual journey as individuals will be given an ingredient that we absolutely need. It’s critical. If we don’t do that, we’re missing something. And I wanted you to talk more about this, and how you’re so convinced this is true.
jp: That’s for the question, and it’s a delight to be in your company, be on this journey with you. I came to that, I wrote that for a couple of reasons. I feel like, having been part of spiritual communities for a good many years, oftentimes it’s the idea that people who meditate and do yoga and different spiritual practices, that they should help the activists, because activists sometimes are stressed out physically and emotionally, sometimes burning up with their own anger. It’s like, we could help, right?
But there’s oftentimes not an appreciation that people who are engaged with the suffering of others have something to teach those of us who organize around spirituality. And much of the spirituality of the West, in many respect, is quiescence. Like, I want to get away from the noise of the world. I want to go out to nature, because nature’s everywhere. I want to go out to nature, and I certainly don’t want to get involved with politics. I mean, that’s really dirty stuff.
jp: Yeah, exactly. And if you think about the lotus flower, right? And what’s the representation of the lotus flower? It’s growing out of a muddy pond, this beautiful flower. And really think about Mother Theresa, or Gandhi, or Buddha. They weren’t withdrawn from the world. And in fact, for the time Buddha was withdrawn from the world, at least by some accounts, he apologized when he came back. It’s like, “Yeah, I left my family. That was my code.”
And so, it’s so interesting, when you look at the major religions—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, all of them—they have these deep origin stories that very much deal with suffering, the thing that sort of drives people to religion in a way, even in quote-unquote “premodern” society, is that the suffering that comes with being alive. And we have different strategies for those. Some, it’s like, well, you can suffer now, but later you’re going to get everything you need and everything you want and you’re never going to get old and it’s going to be so cool. It’s like, OK, do I have to wait so long? Yeah, you have to wait and then you have to die and then it happens, right? But people are hungering for something.
And so, I wrote that piece for two things. One, to say that wisdom is all around us, and if we can only be wise in the peace, in the quiet sanctuary next to a stream, we’re fooling ourselves. We’re fooling ourselves. It becomes so precious that everything disturbs it. Oh, there’s a bird that’s messing up my silence. There’s a car that just went by or my kids are crying. I’m trying to be enlightened. I’m trying to be quiet. And not to knock anyone’s practice, but I feel like, as I’ve been in my own practice, things come through. I don’t necessarily have to grab onto them. It can be whatever. And I can be angry and still have joy and love.
Dr. King talked about righteous indignation. Righteous indignation. So, what is that? Well, the way he explained it, as I understand it, is that God is sometimes angry at the way we’re treating each other and nature. God is angry because we are, what I call, visiting surplus upon each other. And we should be, too. When we see how we treat kids at the border, or how we treat Asian Americans, or how we treat Muslims in China, we should be hurt and angry.
And there’s something there, and it’s not, I think, when we put things away, right? When we push the suffering away, when we push the feelings away, we’re pushing all the lessons that go with it. And so, I’m saying there’s lessons in suffering. There’s a way in which we can actually be in a relationship with suffering that teaches us. And so, it’s not just to get away from it, it’s to learn from it, and that sometimes what we think of as spiritual is really just an effort to get away. It’s close to escapism.
TS: What capacity do you think it takes to be with suffering, and to not just be like, “Please get me away from this ASAP, thank you very much.”
jp: I think it helps… We all, everybody needs somebody. And sometimes suffering is personal, right? It’s like, something happened to me. And sometimes it’s collective. There’s very good data showing that when a Black person is killed, the Black community in the immediate area of that whole country goes into trauma. But part of, from my perspective, part of the family, part of loved ones, part of the spiritual community, is to help us get to that. So, we help each other, and that’s what I mean by our resiliency, is the collective support.
I remember going to talk to my dad, and it was one of those days when I was feeling burdened and overwhelmed, and I said to my dad, “I just can’t do this by myself.” And my dad’s response was, “You’re never called to do anything by yourself. God is with you.” And he’s a theist and a Christian minister, but still, that was very comforting to me through it all. I said, yes, I was closed to my own little circle, and I maybe had some hubris, thinking I had to do it by myself, and recognizing that there are other people, some of them I know, and some I don’t know, who are on the same journey. Somehow that was very helpful for me. And so I try to remind myself that, is that there are people, things larger than us that are engaged in the suffering. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but there are a lot of people, a lot of energy, a lot of life that’s leaning in the right direction.
And so, before we close, though, you said when you were growing up, like, you didn’t belong. I wonder, if you feel like you belong now, what happened to change it, if you do feel like it?
TS: Yes. I’m happy to share that with you, john, and then I’m going to ask a challenging question. Not challenging you; challenging me and our listeners. But to answer your question, I think when I discovered meditation, and I started feeling like I could inhabit my body, and I could handle intense, painful emotional states, and I started developing a real relationship with the Earth and my very own body as being part of the Earth, I started feeling like it was OK to be here, even if it hurt a lot.
jp: That’s great. That’s beautiful.
TS: Now, here’s my question. In my own life experience, and in the experience of plenty of people I know, through spiritual practice, there’s been a recognition of our interdependence. You could say that I’m here because you’re there. The tree doesn’t exist without the soil and the sun and the water. Everything’s connected. You watched a spider for an hour and a half. The web of life. I get that. Yet, for many people, it hasn’t been necessarily an intuitive leap to engage in all of the structural ways we other. It’s been like, yeah, I get it in my meditation. It’s a cosmic web of life. But that hasn’t translated into being a belonging activist. What do you think has been the gap there?
jp: That’s a great question. I think there are a couple. One, I think for many of us… I spent a lot of time, I lived in India for a while, I lived in Africa. I spent a lot of time in Latin America. And I think the individual ideology in the West, particularly the United States, even when we engage a spiritual practice, is very strong. It’s like bodhisattva—we’re not bodhisattvas, right? We want to be enlightened. We don’t want to be bodhisattvas. I get, bodhisattva is like, I could be enlightened, but I’m going to stay here until everyone’s suffering is relieved. I take that on. It’s like, nope. I want to get rid of my suffering, and I’m done with it, I’m out of here. I care about other people, but…
And I think the ideology of individuality as separate sneaks in in really insidious ways. I’ll give you just one example. It’s like, how do you know if something is true? I feel it, right? The source is still hyper focused on the “I.” And I think that’s hard to break. And so, I don’t think there are many… There are growing examples. There’s like peace fellowship. And I read a lot about Buddhism and other religious expressions. Almost all of them have the danger of being captured by the dominant society. The Samurai, the warriors, but they were also religious. So, what happens in different countries when the Buddhists attack the Muslims, and Muslims attack the Buddhists?
And so, I think there’s something that’s easy to sort of veer off into. Into myself, whatever that is, or into my tribe, whatever that is. So, I think it’s hard. I don’t think there are many—there’s some—but many powerful lessons. And we’re constantly… There’s this story that’s supposedly true, where a holy man in India in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Americans were making the trek to India, and the holy man says, “Why are so many Americans coming to India? We’re a poor country, and it’s dirty.” And the American says, “We come here looking for God.” And the Indian person responds, the holy man responds, “No God in America?”
So, I think the impulse… I don’t know. Tami, I’m just meeting you. I’m glad I met you. It’s been too long. When you talked about becoming a sense of belonging, it was through connection. It’s like connecting to your body, connecting to Earth. I think a lot of people’s spiritual journey is, without being judgmental, but it’s escape. It’s like, there’s too much pain, there’s too much this, so I need to get away from it, as opposed to holding space for all of it. And I think if you’re pushing things away…
There’s a song by Leonard Cohen. I’m trying to think of the line. It’s something like “You who leave everything that you cannot control, it starts with your family, and then it comes around to your soul.” And I think for a lot of us, we’re leaving things. We’re still trying to get away from the suffering in the world. And I get it. There are still times that I feel this overwhelming—so much sadness, so much pain. So, I think that contributes to it.
TS: OK, well, I said I was going to ask a question that was challenging for me and our listeners, but now I’m going to ask one that I think would be challenging for you, but we’ll see how you go. It’s our final question. We’re embedded in each other. We’re interdependent. Given all of that, how do you, john, now answer the question, what is the self?
jp: Well, I think the self is largely an illusion. It’s not that there’s not something, but it’s certainly not what we think it is, and if we pay attention to it, it’s like, you don’t have to read a book or whatever, you see that. You see that this image keeps changing. No matter how hard we try to hold onto it, it keeps changing. And then, we construct… People oftentimes ask me, “How did you get into this work?” And my response is usually, first of all, I don’t know, and secondly, why wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t everybody get into this work?
But I’ll also say that sometimes I construct a story. I like to say, when I was three years old, I knew that I would be director of the Othering & Belonging Institute. Not. But there’s a piece of me that actually believes that, right? There’s a piece of me that’s like, when I tell the story of my life, I stitch all these threads together, so they seem continuous. But I also know that’s not quite real.
And so, I think that living together creates this sense of this permanent, stable self, and that if we are attentive, if we are a little quiet, we actually see that there are gaps in these [inaudible 01:02:27]. And then, we can actually start seeing them even faster. And then, they become interesting. It’s like, OK, what’s happening when there’s not the john that I normally project into the world? What happens when there’s this awareness, and there are no thoughts, and there are feelings, and they’re just… But within language and stories, and our society basically really believes in a permanent self.
I have a friend who’s an accomplished psychiatrist, and he says, “No matter where I am, I’m the same person.” And I said, “I don’t think that’s true.” I think when you’re in different situations, you’re actually slightly, and sometimes radically different people. The ideology in America, it’s like, no, I see myself. And it’s actually coming together now with the mind science. As we study the unconscious, we find out that there’s a whole bunch of things going along that we never become conscious of, that affects the way we feel, the way we think. And we can measure it. We can see.
And for a lot of Americans, it’s very uncomfortable to suggest that there’s part of me that’s working behind my conscious back and affecting the way I feel and see the world. And to me, that’s one of the potentially beautiful things about a mindful practice, is that you get a glimpse of some of that.
TS: OK, I’m going to sneak in a final question. What was going on for you when you were watching that spider? What was happening?
jp: We were spinning a web. I mean, I think, like anything, when you’re deeply engaged, that space shrinks. It was just lovely. It’s a feeling. There’s a video, which I suggest your listeners try to find, but it’s this mother takes her baby to a zoo, and this just happened the last couple of days, and there’s an ape in the zoo who just had a baby. And the ape is like, so loving. There’s the glass between them, but the ape is trying to stroke the baby. There’s not too much objection. You can see the joy in the ape’s face of recognizing. And then, the ape go gets its baby and comes back and shows him to the woman. It’s like, I’ve got a baby, too!
And I think when we are living those connections, and not just an idea, then it’s hard to know where things stop and start. It’s hard to know where the spider stopped and where john starts. So, I think in those moments, something happens. We don’t have a good language for it, but it’s a wonderful feeling.
TS: All right, I’m going to let you go. john powell, you are so warm and gorgeous. What a gorgeous human being. It’s been such a great joy to get to spend some time with you. Thank you so very much.
jp: I appreciate having time to spend with you. It’s like another part of life has sort of unfolded, so thank you.
TS: john a. powell, the director of the Othering & Belonging Institute. Thanks, everyone, for being with us, and I know, I feel it, being belonging activists together.
Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast, and if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.
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We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
Will Durant (translation of Aristotle)
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