john a. powell

We the People: Practicing Belonging in a Period of Deep Anxiety

By: Sara Grossman

john a. powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, opened the second day of the 2017 Othering and Belonging Conference by unexpectedly sharing some ongoing personal challenges. A friend had suffered a stroke not long ago in Paris and was receiving poor care due to bias and discrimination; A different acquaintance had passed recently and powell had attended a memorial service in their honor; Furthermore, one of his children was currently sick and unable to attend the conference as planned.

It was a tough week, he acknowledged.

His point, powell said, was not to simply get things off his chest, but to make an impassioned argument for sharing our own stories. “All of us are going through stuff,” he said. “How do we share that in a way that doesn’t isolate us?”

Stories, he explained later, are critical to our shared survival as they allow us to suffer together. “How do we build bridges?” he asked, highlighting the main impetus for his keynote address that morning. “We must hear other people's suffering and stories. Compassion means to suffer with others."

In his speech on “practicing belonging in a period of deep anxiety,” powell provided a closer critique of exclusion and division in US society through the entrypoint of a very simple—and very 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—white Americans, and oftentimes simply just white men.

Despite a long legacy of exclusion, the US can still move towards belonging through what powell called “bridging,” as opposed to what we currently see: “breaking.” “Bridging instead of breaking encourages us to reach beyond family,” he said.

As anxiety over fast-changing demographic shifts in the US has reached a fever pitch, stories of bridging and bonding are critical to building a reimagined society based on love, inclusion, and opportunity for all. When something is changing quickly, like demographics, “people need a story to help them understand what is going on,” powell added. “Anxiety isn't necessarily good or bad. It’s just there.”

We the People: Practicing Belonging in a Period of Deep Anxiety, a Keynote Address by john a. powell

Narratives that tell stories of optimism, opportunity, and inclusion can help counteract the fear and angry populism we see today—both of which have grown out of widespread “breaking” stories that warn of a dark and scary future.

“Trump’s narratives foster breaking and division in response to anxiety,” powell said.
“Our president is telling us to be afraid of the Other.”

Yet, powell warned, progressives and others who are eager to move towards an inclusive society must not only tell stories about economic and political belonging, but of ontological (or spiritual) belonging as well. The Left, he said, too often avoids discussing the spiritual self, as spirituality itself is considered individualistic, not worthy of serious consideration in the way that power and wealth must be critically addressed. Yet to create a world in which all truly belong, we must understand ontologically who is included in the “we” and how that definition of “we” can be expanded to include all.

As the Right has long hijacked racial anxieties to define a widespread yet exclusionary notion of  “we the people”—a deeply ontological analysis of who actually belongs, and one that has both economic and political repercussions—the Left must also respond with its own version of “we” and of “people,” powell said. The Circle of Human Concern, he concluded, must be expansive enough for all of us, even those who hold deeply opposing viewpoints and life experiences.

“The Circle of Human Concern should include everyone, including those with whom we disagree,” he said. “We are all a part of each other. We don't like it, but we're connected.”

"When we connect with someone, we complete a narrative," powell concluded. “We tell a story and we suffer together.”

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