Skip to Content

john a. powell In Conversation with Carmen Rojas: Building Bridges and Belonging Through Comms at ComNetworkV21

ComNetworkV21 Keynote

Dr. john a. powell, Director, Othering & Belonging Institute, and Dr. Carmen Rojas, President & CEO, Marguerite Casey Foundation discuss the importance of building bridges and creating spaces of belonging through communications.

Below, watch the video, listen to the podcast, or read the transcript.

Watch

Transcript

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Hi everyone, I’m so excited that I get to be part of this keynote conversation with Dr. john powell, really digging into these the big questions I feel like of our time about othering and belonging. I first want to thank ComNet for inviting me, inviting us to be in conversation and I definitely want to thank you john for making the space friendly for me to grapple, for us to grapple with this moment in time. These questions of belonging and what happens when we actually actively leave folks behind. john powell is an internationally recognized expert in civil rights and civil liberties works on a whole range of issues centered around race, structural racism, and ethnicity and is the Director of the Othering and Belonging Institute. And I’m Carmen Rojas President and CEO of the Marguerite Casey Foundation. The reason we thought this conversation would be an important peak, end to this convening that’s been happening, is really that they’re, we’re at a what I believe is a critical juncture of trying to define who is in movement and who is not in movement. And I will say it’s something that I’ve been really grappling with that as john has heard me say over the last couple of weeks, I come to this work really trained as a fighter. And that has served me up until now right, the ability to name the opposition, the ability to name those folks who benefit from the pain, the harm, the hunger in our communities. And I’m realizing that that while that is a helpful and true endeavor that it has atrophied my ability as a leader to actually see the ground for what is possible, to like lean into what Robin Kelly calls freedom dreaming. And I think that that’s a real opportunity that people in philanthropy and people in our sector have, and it’s a muscle that we often don’t we don’t work out. And my experience of being in spaces with john has been that he has the spaciousness like the curiosity and the questions to be able to do that. So I I’m just going to jump into questions john if you’re if you’re ready you’re open to it.

Dr. john a. powell: I’m more than ready and been looking forward to it. It’s a delight to be in your company and I’ve already used many of the things that you’ve said in subsequent webinars and speeches and more importantly in my own life. [LAUGHTER]

Dr. Carmen Rojas: We’ll find the opportunity to bring up love, we’ll find the opportunity to bring up love. Tell us about the genesis of your work on belonging.

Dr. john a. powell: Well you know, it’s interesting the, I started the Institute almost 10 years ago. It was called the Haas Institute for Fair and Inclusive Society. And we have multiple sectors, multiple clusters of dealing with LGBTQ, dealing with gender, dealing with race, dealing with socioeconomic, dealing with religion, dealing with disability, and so on. And one of the things that was clear first of all is that everybody was actually grappling with being other. And so that became one of our themes of sort of addressing othering. And I often say that the solution to othering is not saming. So you don’t melt everybody into the one big pot, but you actually recognize their humanity as it is, unconditionally, and that they get to participate in shaping the world in which they live and that’s belonging. And so that became like a central function of what we’re doing. And about three years ago as we’re growing we decided to go through a name change. And one of the things that’s interesting is that a lot of people felt like don’t say othering because that’s negative, just say belonging just go straight to belonging. But other people especially people from the community said no we need to sharpen belonging by stating what the problem is. This, yes belonging is important, but we’re reacting to deep othering that’s happening all around the world. And Carmen you know, like a lot of things, I remember when I met Joanna Macy years ago she said, so tell me your origin story and I said well you know Joanna we have many stories, and none of them are completely true even if they’re not false. And she said, I know I know, just pick one. So I feel like we do tell stories about ourselves about our community and stories are quite important. And so I’d like to think, I started belonging quests when I was five years old playing marbles in Detroit, but I think that’s probably not accurate. I think it’s more recent than that but I do think the thread, if not the worst, the thread of belonging is just so central to having a healthy life, having a loving family, having friends, that even if we don’t use the word, that we’re actually I’d say all of us actually are in a space of trying to belong if not. And to think about the last thing is that we’re literally born in the world attached to another human being. Yes not a metaphor right, it’s like, it’s there physically.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Yeah, was it easy, was it easy to…. what are the challenges, what are the what are the things that you have needed to confront, to, I don’t know if surrender is the right word but it’s the word that comes to mind for me to surrender to the idea that belonging is something that we can choose to live into? What are the things for you, the draw of othering is great?

Dr. john a. powell: Yes well it’s interesting, when I was probably in my 20s and early 30s I was, and even younger ,you know I think about my relationship with my parents, I was full of piss and vinegar, and like you know you get a certain charge from othering. And so we talk about the circle of human concern where no one is outside the circle. including the earth. So it’s not just human concern. Now people say that’s not possible and that certainly goes against the teaching of people like Sal Alinsky, who is sort of one of the Godfathers of modern organizing, where he says you know, you create conflict, you create tension, you want tension, that’s a good thing you take that energy that comes from the fight and use it. And you do get energy from fighting, you do get the energy from calling out the other. And to some extent, I was very much into that. And then I had a couple of things happen to me that actually shifted that. Part of it was frankly, a meditative practice, and seeing sort of the anger, and othering inside me without an object. Just seeing that anger and realizing to some extent, it has, I’m not saying anger is always bad, I’m not suggesting that at all. King talks about righteous indignation, but he talks about the indignation that God feels. So we’re feeling indignant in behalf of God, but a lot of indignation that we experience it’s just petty. You know road rage, someone, there’s nothing righteous about it except it feels good. And so like, I said, I would say, the thing that sort of guided me to this, both spiritual practice but also just, being around people including my family, that I don’t always agree but I profoundly love. To deal with the fact that you can profoundly love people and not agree with them.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Oh God like the, you know, when you hear something and it lands on your heart in the right way but your whole entire body rejects it that’s. I’m in that moment and so for folks who are listening to this conversation, I confessed in our prep conversation with john then I’m like really grappling, and I said this at the opening with this idea, because I know that one of the gifts of running a foundation in this moment is that we have an opportunity that we don’t have the excuse of resource, we don’t have the excuse of access, we don’t have the excuse of power, of not having these things in service of belonging and I’m trying to make sure that I am watching and living towards the future possible, and not in like the present or the past petty. I’m gonna take these, take the petty all the way through as a as an organizing theme, because I think you’re right. And the place for me that I’ve been really struggling is, you know, I am an abolitionist like, I don’t believe that first that prison should exist, that policing should exist. I think both personally and community wide have seen the deep deep harm committed by policing on our communities and so I intellectually understand that we need a new way to address harm, a new way to address hurt, a new way to reconcile. So I know that in my in my heart and I think many of us know that and also experience the deep satisfaction when a police officer is sent to prison. And it feels like the most the truest contradiction of this moment right, where we have people who are on the one side saying that these systems don’t work and on the other side wanting these systems to hurt the people that we feel like are hurting our community. I’m wondering, for me like the meta question is that, we are confronting a set of very clear structural and systemic expressions of white supremacy in this moment and I am very tempted to both call out but also to penalize those people who have made these systems work and my hunch is that you would caution against that. Is that right?

Dr. john a. powell: I definitely would caution against that. So we’re in a very complicated space and the space is both made more complicated also but made much more beautiful that were in it with each other. And so Carmen, you talked about being an abolitionist. And, you know, policing has goes back to the United States to slave patrols, to our love with guns, go to reconstruction, and the enslaved people becoming free and then white people arming themselves. And so our country is actually like a lot of countries, what was called the American dilemma. A country that sort of purports to really care about freedom, really care about equality, and yet built on the backs of enslaved people working stolen land and annexing a third of Mexico. I mean, so it’s like, these contradictions and part of it is to hold these contradictions and people are in different places. So we did a survey with Prosperity Now on looking at the issue of abolition, the issue of defunding and abolishing the police, in part because we felt like it’s such an important issue, but it’s also an issue that is not just dividing the people of color and white communities, dividing the people of color community itself and more specifically the Black community. And what we found is that people were all over the place. There was some general deep consensus that something transformational needs to be done. What that is, is actually complicated. And it should be complicated, we’re a big country of 330 million people, the size of a subcontinent with different life experiences, people with different age, different… there’s not gonna be one voice. And so part of the thing is, can I have my convictions but still listen? Can I still be curious about someone else. Part of belonging is listening to the other and of course the other is largely not real. The other is largely a fabrication and everyone from the police to the Trump supporter to the Bernie supporter to the returning citizens to the immigrant to the refugee, everybody’s trying to belong. And can we actually imagine creating belonging where we don’t have to other. So we don’t take joy in someone else’s injury. It’s not saying we won’t have to start a fight with people, that’s not saying to everything, but can we hold on unconditionally to each other’s humanity. And the only way to do that in any real way is to be willing to listen to each other. And that doesn’t mean agreeing. And so it’s important for me, for you to know, what your value is, what your foundation is, but that’s just to start because then it’s important for you to know what someone else’s value and foundation is. And if we go more deeply we find that, not only am I not in always in agreement with the other person, I’m not always in agreement with myself. And I have multiple selves and part of belonging is not just belonging to each other and belonging to the earth, it’s belonging to ourselves, to multiple parts of ourselves, which othering flattens, not only the quote-unquote the other but also flattens us we become two-dimensional.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Yeah, I feel like you are extending such a generous and gracious invitation to me john. Truly, I really do. And it’s a hard invitation because I think many of the features of our structure and our sector in particular are wholly oppositional. I recently read this amazing start of a book where they describe it as problematizing the problem, like we are so good at like naming the harm, naming the problem, excavating the villain and the culprit, the beneficiary of our pain, and we’re not as good at dreaming and seeing what the future possible, what the portal to the future actually looks like of setting the groundwork for that. And my hunch is that you probably spend a lot of times in time in rooms where people are like you’re just so much better than I am. [Laughter] Even via Zoom, there’s like a deep calming and concise nature to your presence but also a like a very clear, you’re clearly so morally clear about what’s necessary for this future that we want and I wonder for us in this moment you know, you in our prep talked a lot about like the opportunity for narrative to be a guiding force. I want you to tell us the story about where you saw belonging happen, like what is the story that you tell people that makes belonging a possibility and an option.

Dr. john a. powell: Well there are many stories and I, one of the things I hope is communicators on this webinar, that people who tell better stories and right now there’s similar arc to stories. It’s like there’s a tension villain there’s a challenge and then you overcome the tension and you conquer the villain. Well do we have to have a villain. You know, and what we do you, mentioned earlier Carmen about White Supremacy, White Supremacy is real and it’s deadly, not just to people of color but to White people into the planet itself. The problem is in a way that we largely equate White Supremacy with White people. That’s a mistake. White Supremacy is an ideology, an ideology that actually shapes much of this country, shapes many of our institutions, many of our practices, many of our world views, and it actually affects all of us, not equally but it affects all of us. And all and most of us, including people who are phenotypically White are the victims of it. But so, I helped to say we need to be hard on structures and more generous toward people. We tend to be either generous on structures or soft on structures and hard on people. You know so.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Why do you think that is john? Like what is what makes it easy? You would think that it would be easier to be hard on structures and systems because they are, there is no human tension, right like, you’re not hurting something, you can’t hurt somebody. So I’m wondering like, what you think it is that makes it easier for us to be hard on people?

Dr. john a. powell: Well, that’s a great question. I think part of it is that we are, what Charles Tiller called, methodological individuals, that’s a big phrase, but what he’s basically saying is that we don’t see structures. Part of our narrative makes us blind to structures. We talk about being race blind which we’re not, we’re structurally blind. So we don’t see all the things, even in our own lives, and there’s a whole lot of research to support this, of what people call attribution error. They did a thing where they asked people, where they had people come in and watch a basketball team shoot baskets. And they told them before they came in, that it was bad lighting, the basket was at the wrong height, the floor was uneven. And then, the team shot and missed a lot of baskets and they asked them to explain why the team were missing so many baskets. Almost no one made reference to the structures. “This team is just a bad team; they don’t know how to shoot.” So we’re just blind to structures and that’s part of American individualism and it’s actually frankly even part of the narrative, that you know, that we’re all can do and be whatever we want to be. And so, here’s a story, there are many stories and um…tell you two quick stories.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Yeah.

Dr. john a. powell: I think it’s Maddie who’s the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Most, I guess, is many of the listeners to engage in social justice don’t think of the military in this way. But he’s the top military person in the United States. He just did something. He called his counterpart in China and basically said—I think this was I think in December, but then again in January. China was afraid, afraid maybe is the wrong word, concerned that the United States was planning on attacking it, a secret attack. And Maddie, if I’m saying his name correctly, General Maddie, he was concerned that China might do a preemptive strike before we struck them, and essentially start a war. What did he do? He calls up his counterpart. He calls up the person, who is institutionally the number one enemy of the United States, and he says to him something to the effect of, “You know me. You can trust me.” “I can trust you?” “You can trust me, we’re not getting ready to attack you and if the United States decides to engage in a secret attack on China I will personally call you myself to tell you. You can trust me.” He’s saying, “Why should I trust you? You know, you have hundreds of missiles pointed at us and we have thousands of missiles pointed at you. We have a whole fleet of, you know, guns and war planes, and ships all surrounding the South China Sea, every day we’re in some kind of tension.” He’s saying “You can trust me as a human being.” And it worked. And now and as the news hit the United States, some people were saying, “Phew. We dodged that bullet, literally.” But other people were saying “This guy should be impeached and court-marshaled and maybe executed, this is treason, he turned his back on America!” And in some ways he’s saying “I’m being a patriot. I love this country and I don’t want us to fall into a needless war.” But the point is, is that he had a relationship with this guy who institutionally is his enemy.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Yeah.

Dr. john a. powell: He went outside the box (some people say outside the box, some people say it was in the box) to call him up personally and say, “You know since I got your back, I’m not going to let the United States engage in the secret attack on you.” And he may have avoided a war and even a world war. That’s an amazing thing. Give us one other example: Robert Sipoksi, in a book called “Behave”, he talks about the need to recognize each other’s sacred symbols. First of all, we have to know what the other side’s sacred symbol is and usually we don’t. So, think about Nelson Mandela, he’s been in prison for, you know, 20 years. And in Soweto, there’s an uprising because the South African government is saying, “All instructions in school happen in the language of the oppressor, Afrikaans” and Blacks in South Africa, say “We’re not learning Afrikaans, we’re not learning the masters of the language.” At the same time, Nelson Mandela is going to the people who’s imprisoning him and he’s saying “Teach me Afrikaans, teach me your language and your culture. I need to understand you.” He’s in prison and as a result of that, people who imprisoned him said, they basically say, “You know, the hard work that you have to do in prison, we’re going to give you a pass, you don’t have to do that work anymore. We see your humanity.” And he says, “No.” He says, “I don’t want to pass.” He says, “Unless you actually extend this to everyone in prison, you can’t extend it to me.” And so he’s bridging and then when he gets out of prison, the President of South Africa and Nelson Mandela have a conversation and the conversation is, can they stop the killing? Can they stop the war? Can they stop? And they both think it’s a good idea, but the President of South Africa says, “I can’t do this by myself. You have to meet with the head of the South African Army.” And the head of the South African Army is a vile, public racist. He says that Black people are monkeys, they can never govern, he also believes whites are superior and they can win this war. But he has to meet with Nelson Mandela, he goes to Nelson Mandela’s house. I won’t go through the whole thing. Nelson Mandela asked him “Would you like something to drink?” The general says yes, he’s sitting on the couch. Nelson Mandela goes in the kitchen, he has servants, but he goes into the kitchen and prepares the general tea, he comes out and serves the general tea. Which then makes the general very uncomfortable and then instead of sitting on the chair, across from the general, he sits on the couch next to the general. This is, they’re killing each other’s people, right?

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Yeah.

Dr. john a. powell: They’re not friends. Then, this makes the General very uncomfortable. And he says, “Okay, let’s get on with it. You know, I’m not here for niceties. I’m here to talk about a cease fire.” And the general’s intention is to deny a cease fire, we’re not going to have a cease fire, we’re going to win this war. Nelson Mandela says, “That’s fine, let’s have the conversation.” For the next three hours they have the conversation. It all takes place in Afrikaan, in the general’s native language. And the general leaves, his entourage is like “Did you tell that Nelson Mandela off?” And the General says, “I don’t know if I like Nelson Mandela. But he can convince anyone of anything. We’re going to have a cease fire.” Now, neither one had given up their troops, had given up their guns, they were still capable of fighting, but the shared humanity. And there’s movies about this and the last one I’m coming to Mandela. When he went to the rugby game, he knew that was the sacred symbols of white supremacists in South Africa and he shows up at the game at the World Championship. And he gets them to sing the national anthem, for ANC [African National Congress], which is, you know like, there’s all these and these are powerful examples, these are not just, you know, people disagreeing over, you know, zoning. I mean, these are people, at war with each other.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Yeah.

Dr. john a. powell: So, yes, there are thousands of stories once we started looking for them and part of the provocation is: How do we engage in these stories ourselves? How do we engage in seeing someone else’s humanity? And recognizing someone else’s sacred symbols? And listening to what someone else’s fears and aspirations are? Not to discount our own, but to open up, say to someone, “I don’t agree with you, but I care about you.” One other thing, my father, Christian minister died recently, and I love my father so much and my mom. But I went home one year and he was upset about, I forget, it was either abortion or gay marriage, and again I was very much in favor of it. Right to choose and gay marriage, we stayed up all night talking. And it wasn’t to convince him, and it wasn’t for him to convince me, it was to listen to each other. And the next day, my mom came down to breakfast and she said, “What did you and your dad talk about? He was so happy this morning when he woke up.” And for the next year, I couldn’t engage in debates because I felt debates was like this “us versus them, winner take all” and it wasn’t really an inquiry. It wasn’t really curious. It wasn’t really generous about the human being that I was engaging with. So those are just some stories.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Yeah, I love them and we’re gonna now look at this is my opportunity, john, I love them and it’s easy to fall in love and it’s hard to stay in love. This is the thing that I asked, [LAUGHTER] I said to john in our prep session. And I think it’s an important thing that falling in love is so much fun at the beginning because there is a newness, and then there is a listening, and the complexity, and the thing of people coming together, and showing and sharing their whole selves, and the complexity of coming together. For me, as I hear you tell stories of belonging, it is a (pauses) a sacred practice of coming together, of choosing to be in relationship, of choosing to trust, of choosing to share. And I have a hunch and feeling that like from a movement space, and progressive movement space, but also, in all movement space, where there does feel like there’s a contest for power. Right? In each of these stories, it’s hard for me to set aside the fact that people of color have to adapt to white people. It’s hard for me to set aside the idea that these are still mega-institutions and people suffer. Right? And I think that we carry along this, a deeply embedded, that “winning” has become the organizing framework as opposed to belonging.

Dr. john a. powell: Right.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: And I don’t, I wonder, I want to ask you a question that may, for me it feels like a silly question, but I’m just going to ask it anyway because I’m one of those people who’s like “No question is a bad question.” [LAUGHTER] But what is step one for people who are open to a different way of engaging, of being, where the fight isn’t the point of departure? What is the step one?

Dr. john a. powell: Well so Carmen, a couple of things, so I love the phrase “falling in love is the easiest thing and love is sub work, it’s hard work”, but I go further in terms of belonging. Belonging to me is not, in some ways, it’s not really a choice. We belong to the earth. We could choose to pretend like we don’t belong, we could choose to pretend like the earth is just an inert land that we that’s there for drilling and taking stuff from, and cutting down the forest, and it’s there for us to exploit. But we suffer as well. The earth will survive. It’s not entirely clear that we will survive because when we are doing harm to the earth, and albeit a different species, this is our home. It’s like burning down our home and it’s, like, “Well, where are we going to sleep tonight?” “I don’t know, we just burnt down our home.”

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Yeah.

Dr. john a. powell: “Why don’t you say something? If I had known that, I wouldn’t have burnt it down!” We are already connected. You know, every tradition, from Africa to Native American, to you know, talks about our interconnectedness. That’s the heart, that’s why I started off talking about, literally, we’re born connected to another human being. It’s not a choice.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: That’s right.

Dr. john a. powell: “You know, I like you so umbilical cord”, you know, that part of the surge of white supremacy is based on false connection, disconnections. It’s saying, “We’re not connected to the earth.” It’s saying, “We’re not connected to each other.” It’s saying, “The mind and body is not connected.” And then it goes further, saying, “Black people and white people are not connected”, I mean, literally, at the height of scientific racism there are fights about Darwin saying, “There’s only one humanity.” “No, that’s scary!” [LAUGHTER] What people fight now about Social Security, is the social part of it. The fact that we’re connected with each other. We’re still in Zoom because the pandemic is trying to teach us a lesson that we refuse to learn.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Yeah.

Dr. john a. powell: We are connected. We are connected. “Okay, let’s build a wall, ground the airplanes, let’s stop the economy.” Pandemic virus keeps moving because we are connected. And there was a play and movie, some years ago, “Six Degrees of Separation”, that basically says that’s how separate we are, and now people say with the Internet and all that, it’s two degrees of separation. We are profoundly connected and it doesn’t always feel good. It doesn’t always feel good. It’s not a, you know, James Baldwin says, “Some of my countryman find that unfair and sometimes so do I, but none of us can do anything about it. We are connected.” And can we learn to love that connection? Can we learn to live that connection? Can we learn to deal with the tough things? And power is part of it. But I would say, just it’s really important to recognize that the world future, the dreaming that you’re talking about, Carmen, which is so important, has to be a dreaming that includes all of us.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: I know.

Dr. john a. powell: And although many white people are complicit in white supremacy, they’re not the masters of the ship.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: No yeah, that’s something I feel like a great…it’s so funny I have—this is going to be a non-sequitur, but I feel like it might be helpful. There’s a really interesting conversation happening in the Latino Community about like, “Who is, are you a woman of color?” Right? If you present like I present, which is a pretty fair skinned Latina, and you move around the world and can have a very different racial experience. How do you both name the access and privilege that you have as well as your proximity and closeness to a cultural and ethnic experience, but that you have different presenting power? And for me, that conversation has been the richest conversation about this thing that you’re describing. In which, we need to take responsibility or name very clearly that white supremacy and white people aren’t the same. Now frankly, many perpetrators of “white supremacy” are people of color and that’s a complicated idea, but it’s a thing that we need to name.

Dr. john a. powell: That’s exactly right.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: But we are clumsy and uncomfortable doing it and I’m practicing, doing it more and more publicly because I think it’s a necessary…it would be a lie, it would be a lie to tell the arc of the story that was so neat and where I didn’t benefit from having a fair skinned mom and I didn’t benefit from, you know, all of the structural symbols of white supremacy. And many of us in these conversations do and are put on a path where we need our story to be neat, but we’re not human when that’s the case.

Dr. john a. powell: That’s exactly right.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: And we really put that aside. I know that I’m supposed to be asking for a Q&A and I want to keep talking [LAUGHTER], I want to keep, I want to keep this happening! So for folks who are on, please share your Q&A and we will make sure that it comes on to the screen and that we ask your question. So there’s a click on the live Q&A button and we will bring you into the conversation with us. As folks come up with their questions, john, so we started off talking about sort of this arc of from problematizing the problem and living in this tension of wanting to be in the fight. To understanding our humanity and remembering that we’re all interconnected and connected to each other to belonging. When we belong—it’s so funny, my orientation is always a winning orientation, so I’m going to say it the way that I would normally say it. When belonging is true for us, how will you spend your days?

Dr. john a. powell: Interesting, first of all you’re likely to spend your days communing with other expressions of life, human and otherwise, the earth itself. You’re also likely to recognize how we other certain people, systematically and I lived in San Francisco for a number of years, and across from Dolores Park, and there was a woman there, Sarah, who was homeless, unhoused, and we had we developed a relationship. I talked to her, she was disheveled, expectedly, she was very much overweight. and I came home from a visit and I saw a friend on the street and the friend came up to me and she said john you’re back and we hugged each other moving back and forth and then I turned and walked down the street and I saw Sarah, this homeless woman, and when I would see her I’d say I’d always say to her how are you doing Sarah, do you need anything today? And then I usually give her some money. So this day I saw her and I said how you doing Sarah, do you need anything today? And she looked down at the ground and then she looked up at me and she said can I get a can I get a hug. And even as I say it I feel tears in the back of my eyes and I hesitated. And she wanted to belong she wanted, she didn’t want just money. She wanted to be recognized and embraced as a human being. And I had all these reasons, oh she probably has fleas, she probably has this, she probably has that, and I hugged her. And so part of belonging to me, and I think, belonging is not just what I feel, it’s like, am I willing to actually practice that, perform that, in the world. Am I willing to acknowledge that everyone belongs. It’s not just, I mean, the thing about privilege, we all have privilege, especially people on this call. And you can’t see me, I’m 6’3. Every inch if you’re over 6 feet, for a man in the United States, your life expectancy in terms of income goes up $150,000. So, you know, that’s just because I’m tall, you know. And the question is what do I do with that? How do I you know? And so are we willing to extend? Are willing to make space? Are we going to attack those things, not people, those things that deny our connection? Those things that would dehumanize? The things that caused that which caused Sarah to be homeless in the first place? And so that’s how I tried to spend my day and, but do it not just out of indignation, but also really grounded in love. I mean I feel grateful to Sarah for having to, letting me have that experience. That’s one of the experiences that probably carried with me to my grave. She extended that to me.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: We have a question now, I’m, Woodson? Do you want to join our conversation?

Woodson: Hello. Can you all see me?

Dr. john a. powell: We can see you.

Woodson: Yeah thank you both for taking the time. I, you know Carmen, in hearing you speak, I really reflect some of that struggle and some of the difficulty in approaching this work and you know, our society and culture really with the sense of belonging. Mr. powell, I’m kind of curious, for you, I mean thinking about this, versus, you know winning versus belonging, or kind of for the maybe younger folks kind of this this desire to be antagonistic about it potentially and maybe you know on the other hand, I think about my grandmother, an old woman in Appalachia who’s, you know, fatigued by a lot of this and you know a conversation about belonging or an approach that seeks belonging might seem particularly fatiguing when already dejected or already fatigued. So I’m curious, as you approach the work and you think about that not only as a strategy but also as a, you know, a thing that is good, you know, and embracing humanity, you know, how do you overcome that fatigue? And broach conversations with fatigue in mind.

Dr. john a. powell: Right, a great question Woodson, I appreciate it. So two quick things, first of all, when we lean into belonging and acknowledge it, it gives us energy. Again our stories, you’re communicators, so first of all I said be very careful to actually be clear on what you’re communicating. Sometimes it’s just information. So Sean talked about a press release or whatever, and sometimes we think about an analysis. We do a study and then it’s like, oh, let’s put the analysis up on our website. That’s fine, I’m a researcher but that’s not really deep communication. We need narratives, we need stories to hold us and we need uplifting stories. So, give you one quick example, when Black Panther came out, we rented out a theater here in Oakland and gave out tickets, 800 tickets to the community. Disproportionately Black, but the whole community. Those tickets were gone like 15 minutes. It’s like, I don’t even know how they figured out we were doing this because, you know, most of the people giving tickets were from Oakland, we were in Berkeley. And then we had a conversation and then one of the events the director came and these were disproportionately young Black men and some of them said it was the first time in their lives, 23 and 24 year olds, where they had come to an event where they were celebrated. Where they belong but they weren’t there talking about someone being killed, someone being evicted, that’s real, we have to deal with that, but we also want just, the celebration of the beauty of being, you know, a Wakanda and literally there were young men in the in the theater who cried. It’s like the first time in my life when I feel like I see and think about the movie. The movie itself was about belonging and it was interesting, it was a beautiful movie right? It’s complicated. So Killmonger, everybody liked Killmonger it’s like, that’s not the typical story. The story is the villain is bad, you kill them, and we cheer. We weren’t cheering and apparently Killmonger really didn’t really die, but the point is is that, it created a space where it complicated, who’s the enemy when at one point the Black Panther is saying, you know, I care about the people here and he says, Killmonger says, all people are from Africa are they your people too? Where do you draw the line? He said, you don’t. You have to care, you can’t just care about the small we and that movie and that experience was so uplifting. So as communicators, how do you tell uplifting stories? how do you tell stories that bring people in and not just call people out? But you don’t mince it. You don’t avoid difficult questions, but you reframe them in a way, that the way that Killmonger was talking about, we invite people to a radically imaginative future where we all belong. And if we do that well, if you do that as communicators, you’ll give your grandmother energy.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Thank you so much Woodson, for the question. Thank you so much. We have a question from Bob.

Bob: Yeah, you touched on this when you talked about Sarah, but I’d like a little bit more perspective on a different kind of otherness. So I work for AARP Foundation and we serve low-income, older adults and we struggle with distancing ourselves from them. They’re an other sometimes. What kind of strategies would you suggest for embracing the people that we actually serve? They’re not the enemy, we’re trying to help them, but still, sometimes there’s distance.

Dr. john a. powell: So, thank you for the question Bob. And it’s, you know, I mentioned earlier and people who know me know that I talk about my family a lot because I have this incredibly loving family. I’m 6 of 9, so there’s a lot of us and we, you know, we don’t all get along, but we all love each other. And part of belonging is not something we just extend to someone, it’s not something we just do for someone, it’s not, as important as service is and ministry requires service, but it’s actually acknowledging that people have a right to co-create the world which we live in. It’s actually acknowledging agency and power and responsibility for all of us. And when we invite that, when we create a structure where that’s there, beautiful things happen. So it’s not, so again I would take that, and it’s not just interpersonal, it’s also structural. We live in very segregated spaces, not just segregated by race and income, but it’s segregated by age. We put all the old people off in a home. I remember years ago as my parents were aging and I was living in Florida, and they were living in Detroit and thought well, maybe they should move to Florida where it’s warmer. And then we drove over, I came down to Miami, and we drove around, and we drove past all of these senior centers where there were old people essentially waiting to die. It’s the saddest thing and it’s like, this is not the way to go out. I mean some people have to, but how do we actually, my dad used to say, you know, we’re kept here on Earth as long as we are of service to God. And so when he was getting older, like 97, 98 and his body was starting to break down, and I asked him I said, so dad, why do you think God is keeping you here? What service are you rendering now? He says, I’m teaching my children how to take care of people. And he was, so just like that woman taught me something, Sarah taught me something, it wasn’t just, I was giving her money. She was giving me something, there was some reciprocity. So belonging is not one way, it’s co-creating. So how do you actually, and when people feel like they’re contributing, they feel better. So I don’t know if that’s an adequate answer to your question Bob, but it’s like, creating a co-creative space and break down these barriers, these places where we send our old people here and send you know Black people here and send Latinos there. That’s a problem, the structure is our problem. They deny that we belong to each other, they deny the fact that we’re disconnected. You know that story in the Old Testament of the Good Samaritan, when people are passing someone on the road and they refuse to stop, and then one Good Samaritan stops and someone says, aren’t you worried what would happen to you if you stop and help a stranger. And he says, I’m more worried who would have to me if I don’t stop.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: I feel like that is an important closing moment, like what happens if we don’t stop for each other? What happens if we don’t see each other? What happens if we don’t create room to hear and listen and learn from each other? john, I wanna thank you so so much for spending this time with me, it’s such a treat and I hope it’s not our last time getting to share Zoom, this Zoom world space together, but I hope we find an opportunity to spend some time in real life with each other. Thank you.

Dr. john a. powell: I would love that thank you.

Dr. Carmen Rojas: Sean! You’re on mute!

Sean Gibbons: I am and it’s always going to happen, it’s just inevitable. I guess I needed a break because I needed to laugh because this has been an extraordinary hour. I think if you had all had the chance to see the chat, I think this has been a deeply meaningful and moving hour for all of us and I hope that if one of the messages that comes through from the just the grace and good cheer and generosity that you both have shared is that, we who work in the communication shops of these big foundations and nonprofits, or we serve them through consultancies as the case may be, we are in the belonging business. That is really going to be a challenge for us, we need to think of ourselves as community builders. And I am deeply grateful to you john and Carmen for the good example that you have given us and the gift of this last hour and all the wisdom that’s packed up and I think each of us is going to take some time to process that.

Subscribe

* indicates required

Join The Network

Community, learning, and leadership to help you do good, better.

Become a member