Coffeehouse Provocations & Big Ideas

The Othering & Belonging Coffeehouse was a highly-interactive public space of robust and critical dialogue designed to engage conference participants in a set of questions and thematics that connected with the overall agenda of Othering & Belonging. There were two sessions of the Coffeehouse. Below find the initial provocations given to each table at the coffeehouse and the resulting “big idea” takeaways from the 60- and 90-minute sessions. Both sessions were led by Abdul-Rehman Malik, who served as our “Coffeehouse Conductor” and provocations and the design of each session was developed by Sara Grossman and Rachelle Galloway-Popotas.


Provocation Table #1

From the right and even from the left, there is a call for purity. Racial purity, ethnic purity, and even ideological purity. Isn’t everyone guilty in some way of creating visions of “us” that do as much bridging as they do breaking? Is there any way of out this dilemma?

Big Idea: Don’t distill or limit yourself, allow an expansion of safe space for yourself and others, flex like a rubberband to honor all parts of yourself and be kind to others so the rubberband doesn’t break.

Provocation Table #2

There is palpable fear in some political quarters that the US will eventually be overrun by “foreigners”—not those coming across the border, but those being born in this country. Few are talking about the emergence of the interfamily—racially, ethnically, culturally, religiously mixed families. What could the impact of these new formulations of family be on our sense of nation? Could they model a new way to belong?

Big Idea: Interfamily is where everyone eats at the table. Love creates the opportunity for bridging within the “broader” and internal family that allows for the creating of a “mosaic” not “melting pot.”

Provocation Table #3

We all talk about the positive value of inclusive societies, but what exactly is “inclusion”? What are we asking people to be included into? Or in the words of James Baldwin, “why would I want to be integrated into a burning house?”

Big Idea: Shifting our historical myths about what is community, family and racial constructs, we need to answer some big questions: What is family? What is community? What constitutes a “group”? Inclusion is a continual process and a journey of reinventing and re-examining structures and institutions of power and privilege to better serve people.

Provocation Table #4

To overcome racial injustice, James Baldwin said that what was needed was genuine love between black and white. Let’s take it a step further: do we need genuine love between the political extremes we see today? Is love a slogan or is it a process?

Big Idea: To build capacity for love and respect, we need to create space to acknowledge and heal fear and scarcity mindsets – work that starts in our communities and then bridges to others. How might we do this? Shift the story from a world where my well-being does not diminish your well-being but instead adds to it.

Provocation Table #5

Dr. King said something like this: When it came to the haters, he would leave the light on but wouldn’t actively go out and chase after those who would do harm to him and his community. It begs the question, are there limits to bridging?

Big Idea 1: There is no single answer. Bridging is both/and. More than that, we exist in a ecosystem of capacity, experience, knowledge, agency, possibilities, identities , and interest in engaging. We exist in an evolving system where we navigate these factors in addition to engaging past disagreement to understand the full complexity of bridging and understanding, curiosity and wonder. There is a complexity of perspectives and possibilities. And if someone doesn’t want to bridge, they don’t need to. Individuals can and should be able to decide for themselves and honor that.

Big Idea 2: A third space needs to be created where common ground can be found and where race, harm, history, and privilege are acknowledged in order to create a bridge. Hope, perseverance, and a commitment to not create harm again are needed for this space. The light is what love is and the light must be active, open, and willing to create the third space that’s not on one side or the other of the bridge but is a new space.

Provocation Table #6

It’s often been said that cultural change precedes political change, but what does that actually mean? Does culture - and its production - actually shift politics and change societies?

Big Idea: Law affects culture, culture affects law. Power, privilege, and money can change both. Identity and culture are also dynamic and fluid. Culture changes political will, but requires access and privilege.

Provocation Table #7

Do we need spaces of safety? If so, what should they look like and how open should they be? In other words, when does a space which promotes “belonging” become unsafe?

Big Idea: A safe space is created by a collective understanding of the intention of the space that is arrived at through a transparent process – and there is accountability for the breach of that understanding. Safe spaces can be uncomfortable and require courage, but need to be underlain by respect and love.

Provocation Table #8

Can you have power without dominance? Can power be grounded in love?

Big Idea 1: Building power based in love not dominance starts with our personal relationships. That’s where we can create a model of power based in love. Then, focus on building relationships with others–what if we expanded that love (family, personal) into our structures and workplaces? This kind of power is authentic, flexible and adaptable and holds multiple perspectives.

Big Idea 2: Power plus fear equals dominance, but power without fear brings love. Yes, it’s possible to have power without dominance and to have power be grounded in love, but we have to create it. There are not many models to choose from. It starts with individuals. The familial structure and familial relationships prove that power grounded in love is possible.

Provocation Table #9

How can we maintain our sense of self in societies that demand us to be some many things? Is authenticity a myth we need to get over?

Big Idea 1: The experience of authenticity is a privilege that requires us to feel safe – both with our inner context (personal diversity of self) and outer context.

Big Idea 2: Authenticity is a practice. Authenticity is a dynamic process that becomes embodied in practice – it is a collective endeavor. It is reflective rather than reactive. We don’t think authenticity is a myth. Society limits who can express an authentic self. Authenticity is a practice we all engage in, informed by our thoughts – or not – and it changes over an individual’s lifetime.

Provocation Table #10

In the search for belonging, can we have a “we” without a “them”?

Big Idea. Be curious about our shared humanity rather than fearful. We should work towards a collective “we”, and accept the interconnectedness and acknowledge and respect the difference.


Provocation Table #1

As political and social movements seek to establish solidarity and demonstrate power by appealing to a pure vision of what constitutes “us”, what dangers does this pose to rest of us? Whether on the political right or the political left, doesn’t our championing of “belonging” actually also lead to a lot of “breaking”? How do we bridge the conversation between multiple formulations of “us”?

BIG IDEA. Purity has never resulted in anything good. It assumes values and detracts from humanity. To bridge start with something in common. Anxiety can serve as an opportunity to create the bridges and possibilities for empathy. The language of this provocation is othering – dense and difficult to follow. Academic language is a kind of purity.

Provocation Table #2:
The Seismic Demographic Shift

There has been a lot of handwringing about the color of the US in the next few decades. The steady rise of Latinx communities and Asian American communities in particular has had some groups on the political right to sounding the alarm that country is literally being taken over by foreigners. What hasn’t received as much attention is the rise of the “interfamily” – racially, ethnically, culturally, religiously mixed families - which account for the largest segment of demographic growth in the USA. What could these “interfamilies” mean for the future of the US? How could they shift what it means to advance belonging?

Big Idea: How can we lift up the idea of our created or chosen interfamilies as a practice of accepting people as they are, creating space for vulnerability and offering deep listening? How might we create the next ten versions of “Queer Eye”, showcasing the caring, loving and vulnerable bridge building of that work?

Provocation Table #3:
The Inclusion Trap

A lot of progressive, fair minded people call boldly and loudly for inclusive societies. It sounds good on paper, but, probe a bit deeper and some uncomfortable questions arise. What are we asking people to be included into exactly – an existing system or framework? Who decides who is in and who is out? What happens to the excluded? How does “inclusion” contrast with “belonging”? How does inclusion engage questions of justice? In the words of James Baldwin, “why would I want to be integrated into a burning house?”

BIG IDEA: We don’t need DEI. We need disruption. It’s not real inclusion if identities and structures rooted in dominance remain in place. The structures won’t bring themselves down, so what they call inclusion isn’t actual inclusion. Inclusion is a co-creation if new systems where those with most privilege are willing to take risks.

Provocation Table #4:
What’s Love Got to Do With It

James Baldwin wrote, “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” Addressing racial injustice, Baldwin cited building genuine love and intimacy as the only way out of the tyranny of racial oppression – a tyranny which affected both the perpetrator and the victim. How might we operationalize such love in this political moment? Is the call to love a cute slogan, or was Baldwin talking about something more compelling and necessary?

BIG IDEA: Love is radically uncertain in its postures.

Provocation Table #5:
The Dilemma of the Difficult Dialogue

There have been plenty of calls to engage in difficult dialogue – to create processes across political, cultural, economic and social faultlines where people who disagree can speak to one another, face to face. The argument is that such conversations can bring about a shared sense of humanity. But how will putting together a Neo-Nazi and an Antifa activist around the dinner table accomplish anything? Are there other ways we can bridge far and fast – create spaces of honesty and safety where together we can begin a process of finding common ground? Or can we build little bridges, which eventually may lead to a larger bridge across greater divides?

BIG IDEA. There is a layering of work happening on multiple levels – self work, bonding and caucusing and then bridging. Along with multi-level work, we propose a facilitated community dinner gathering (maybe in a public space that we reclaim to connect all and that is accessible to all), featuring pre-determined vulnerability prompts and questions (like “something I don’t know” or “things I’m not supposed to say”) – folks discuss, also find commonalities to share and connect for the far and fast work. It would be a sort of “people’s supper” meets “dinner with a Muslim” meets “coffeehouse conversations” meets “bring it to your table” with some sort of artistic flair to connect people.

Provocation Table #6
Equalizing Culture

There is a reason why ideological battles are called “culture wars”. Opposing sides tell particular stories about themselves and what they stand for. They produce an ecosystem of narratives, art, ideas, language, literature and behavior that reinforces their positions. They argue for the strength of their culture – its resilience, relevance and power to move people to action. So how then can culture move and make belonging, Are all stories considered equally worthy? What needs are there to expand culture and do away with hierarchies that value some contributions over others in order to build a broader, richer, deeper conversations and cultural production?

BIG IDEA. In a time of political polarization, artistic expression – particularly music – can create spaces that hold the complexity and tension between cultural traditions and innovations needed to build cultures and belonging.

Provocation Table #7:
Search for Safe Spaces

There is a lot of talk creating safe spaces – places where we can express our individuality and our solidarities (while creating new ways of being together) on our own terms without judgment or fear. But are safe spaces, actually, safe? Do they potentially create hierarchies power, privilege and acceptance that mar our life in the “real world”. On the other hand, can safe spaces also “other” those that don’t feel comfortable in them? Said simply, are “safe spaces” and “spaces of belonging” the same things? Can we have “safe” spaces that at once don’t put us to sleep while at the same times allow us to discuss uncomfortable things with a vision to grow? What do they look like?

BIG IDEA: Safe(r) spaces can be co-created around shared enacted values and intentions that recognize we all bring strengths, resilience and vulnerabilities.

Provocation Table #8:
Mistaken Identity

The current political debates (“culture wars”) have turned their attention to the idea of identity and its role in building - or destroying - social, political, and cultural capital. Whether it’s gender, race, ethnicity, class, language, or creed, human beings are complex and have multiple identities. As we navigate social and political faultlines or advocate for issues we care about, we decide to create community, alliances, and solidarity with others based on one or more of these things. Are we just weaponizing or essentializing identity, creating a “breaking politics”? When does it become “othering” and when does it become “saming”?

BIG IDEA: Identities/Identity is fluid, overlapping and complex. Some are obvious, others invisible; some embraced, others denigrated – depending on circumstances. The way forward is to find commonality among our layers of identity; to create an aspirational equitable identity. When it comes to identities, the more the better.