Tara Houska, Alicia Garza, Zahra Billoo, Jidan Koon

The Being of Belonging

By: Erica Cardwell

“Bridging to Belonging,” the final panel of the 2017 Othering & Belonging conference, featured four women of color representing justice work for some of our society’s most marginalized communities: Black, Muslim, and Indigenous peoples. Alicia Garza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter and Special Projects Director at the Domestic Workers Alliance, Tara Houska, tribal attorney and National Campaign Director at Honor the Earth, Zahra Billoo, Executive Director of the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), and Jidan Terry-Koon of the San Francisco Foundation discussed the various ways their individual movements have moved from galvanizing moments towards creating resilient structures of belonging.

Terry-Koon, the panel’s moderator, opened the discussion by asking the audience to consider tangible methods of belonging as community members. “How do I as an individual and how do we as progressive folks rise to the full urgency and potential that is right now?” she asked, setting the context for a larger discussion on the importance of intersectional solidarity that both recognizes human similarities while also embraces differences.

Before offering her own answer, Garza requested the audience say the name of Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old Black Texas teenager who was fatally shot by police officers after leaving a party just before the first evening of the Othering & Belonging Conference. “As we are sitting here talking about Othering and belonging, a child is murdered,” Garza said. Many of the conference participants were still piecing together the story, engaging in the perplexity of seeking to build up a larger movement towards liberation in the midst of deep unrest.  

For Garza, the success of any one future movement critically depends on its deep interconnection with other movements for justice. "I belong only if you belong," she said. “My work is to cultivate the movement that I want, fully understanding it is not yet here.”

Still, she said, we cannot pretend that all peoples and movements are the same. Garza, whose movement has created space for Black diversity and difference, warned against the dangers of trying to oversimplify difference.

“There is something about this country that attempts to ‘sameify’ us,” she said. In order to make movement-building actionable, our fundamental differences must be embraced, so that all of our areas of belonging are present and accounted for. “Samifying people serves to negate people's experience,” she added.

Bridging to Belonging, a Keynote Panel by Jidan Koon, Alicia Garza, Zahra Billoo, and Tara Houska

Furthermore, she said, progressives must stop shying away from difficult conversations with those in their own communities. She emphasized that progressive leaders cannot continue to tell people that what they're seeing and experiencing isn't true.

“We need to face uncomfortable truths,” she said, citing difficult conversations around notions like Latinos are stealing jobs from Black communities, or that Black workers are lazier than other groups. There may be some truth in those notions superficially, she said, but it’s the job of progressive leaders to explicate and complexify the roots of these impressions, for example “when we say Latinos are taking our jobs, we overlook systems that displace one group to exploit another,” she said. Uncomfortable conversations around people’s lived experiences are necessary to build a truly intersectional movement, she concluded.

“Building movements involves listening and hearing what is actually being said and being comfortable with complexity,” she said.

In honor of these complexities, Billoo, a civil rights attorney, spotlighted diversity within the Muslim community, noting at one point that her bluish gray hijab “is not the default setting” for Muslim visibility. Statements like this are critical to emboldening silenced Muslim community members and educating well-meaning liberals on invisibility and discrimination. On a similar thread, Billoo advocated for the importance of including queer Muslims to show the diversity of the Islamic community. Billoo acknowledged that a certain level of intra-community processing must happen, in order to truly resist Islamophobia. “But we can speak to folks where they are and advance strategically,” she said.

She offered her own personal case study of “speaking to folks where they are at” and finding great success in “gently pushing” her own community to a place of deeper belonging. As director of the Bay Area chapter of CAIR, Billoo regularly delivers “Know Your Rights” trainings to those in the Muslim community, including at a mosque that requested she conduct her training in a room of only women, with an audio feed to another section of just men. Despite her initial hesitation and discomfort, Billoo decided to build a relationship with the community before jumping in with her own criticism. She continued to present regularly to the mosque until one visit, the elders of the mosque asked to Billoo join her male colleague in speaking to the community’s men because they had grown comfortable with her. Her patience in “meeting people where they are at and advancing strategically” proved far more successful in the long run—empowering the community itself to expand its notion of belonging and inclusion.

Houska, a tribal attorney, went on to speak about galvanizing movements not only from the inside, but from those outside the fight as well. During her time protesting at the Standing Rock Sioux camp for the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Houska witnessed women and children attacked by militarized police and was even arrested and kept in a dog pin with dozens of other protesters. Even after a tumultuous six months and an end to the pipeline, Houska is not backing down. The focus has now shifted to divestment, she said, specifically on companies that invest in #DakotaAccess. “Banks don't listen to morality but to money,” she said.

“Now that our land is seized, the clearest way to get our movement realigned is to focus on our financial divestments,” she said. "To take our money out of Wells Fargo, Chase Bank, and Citibank.” Despite the movement largely being led by and within the Native American community, millions of others have pulled their accounts from banks like Wells Fargo. Such an action is particularly difficult because it requires both confrontation with privilege and sacrifice of routine conveniences for which many are unprepared.

Movement-building requires information from the most silenced, targeted, and marginalized to build action-oriented methods of ongoing resistance. However, Bridging to Belonging underscores that these methods could be shaped to include the folks that are unfamiliar with our terms, and for those that are willingly living in denial. The tricky part will certainly involve sustainability and boldness in order to engage in “difficult conversations.” Houska, Billoo, Terry-Koon, and Garza asked us not only to forgive, but also offered alternatives on new ways to build.

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