Expanding the We: The Framework of Othering & Belonging

by Sara Grossman, Communications and Media Specialist, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society

Stories are critical to our shared survival, john a. powell told an audience of more than 1,100 scholars, activists, policymakers, and other changemakers gathered at the 2017 Othering & Belonging Conference. Narratives, powell explained, allow us to empathize, reach out, and expand the boundaries of our “circle of human concern.”

“How do we build bridges?” he asked. “We must hear other people's suffering and stories.”

Opening up the second day of the conference, held April 30-May 2 in Oakland, powell, who is the director of UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, the conference organizers, sought to contextualize the impetus for a three-day conference on understanding and engaging with othering and belonging: At a time when toxic nationalism, xenophobia, and racism are on the rise—and when human rights and democratic values are under attack—how can we envision and advance a society rooted in love, belonging, and compassion?

And compassion, powell said, “means to suffer with others” through stories. While many of the speakers centered their discussions on history, politics, culture, or organizing strategy, powell anchored much of his talk on the ontological, the notion of the self, our concepts of who “we” are, and who the “we” are in our collective imagination. In his speech on “Practicing belonging in a period of deep anxiety,” powell provided a closer critique of exclusion in US society through the entry point of a very simple American phrase: We the People.

Who is “We,” he asked, and who is considered “People”? For too long, that “we” has only included a small few, excluding groups like indigenous peoples, Blacks, immigrants, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ community, and others. powell argued that stories about who “we” are remain critical to reimagining a more inclusive whole. For too long, he said, social “we” stories have been exclusionary, highlighting only the triumphs and suffering of a small group, with everyone else lumped into the secondary role of “Other.”

The key role of narratives was highlighted by a number of other speakers during the event. Speaking on the first night of the conference—and on the hundredth day of the Trump presidency, in a moment where “it feels like we might all fall apart”—speaker Jeff Chang reminded attendees that it is not too late to reimagine a society grounded in belonging. And artists, he said, “have the potential to be stewards of validating the righteous humanity of marginalized people.”

Chang, Executive Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, was just one of more than two dozen distinguished speakers at the conference, all of whom sought to provide clarity and context on the strained moment the world finds itself in today, or, like Chang, offer a provocative reimagining of what could come next.

Chang, who said we are currently facing “the struggle for the soul of America,” concluded that it is the job of artists, and of changemakers more broadly, to inspire people and to “manifest the idea of a nation that is yet to be.” Attendees heard not only from artists who are doing just that—notably photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier and Moonlight playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, both of whom discussed the role of the artist in elucidating and expanding notions of belonging—but also scholars, policymakers, activists, and others, each offering diverse expertise to help guide the fight for belonging.

Echoing Chang’s conclusion, #BlackLivesMatter Co-Founder Alicia Garza noted during one panel that her work as an organizer is to “cultivate the movement that I want, fully understanding it is not yet here.”

Another speaker, Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, emphasized that it is important not only to look forward, but also backwards in order to understand that the divisions we see today—especially with rhetoric used to demonize people of color and other minority groups—are nothing new, ”just the most extreme version of what we've seen  recently.”

McAdam was highlighting a truth underscored by a number of other speakers at the conference: that the divisions President Trump embodies are a continuation of America’s legacy of exclusion, and, secondarily, that the fight opposing the president’s policies are just one part of a larger historical fight for justice. Renowned changemakers like former Greenpeace head Kumi Naidoo, scholar Saskia Sassen, and Color Of Change Director Rashad Robinson all echoed many of these sentiments from varying vantage points during the conference.

The conference concluded with an electric speech from scholar and activist Melissa Harris-Perry, who warned of the counterintuitive dangers of seeking to eliminating some forms of Othering altogether.

It is problematic, she said, when Belonging may be only understood as simply “fitting in” to the status quo. Those in society who have long been considered “the Other” hold valuable and honest truths, and their insights can make us stronger. “Never forget the artistry and power of the Other,” Harris-Perry concluded.