How does structure support dignity; speaker addresses just that at Aspen Institute |

How does structure support dignity; speaker addresses just that at Aspen Institute

UC Berkley Director of Othering and Belonging Institute speaks at Aspen Institute

Anna Meyer
The Aspen Times
Aspen Institute
If you go:
What: Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society
When: Today, 5-6 p.m.
Where: Aspen Institute, Koch Building, 1000 N Third St.

Structures matter when it comes to the racialization of society, according to john a. powell, director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. (powell stylizes his name in lowercase letters because he believes that people should be “part of the universe, not over it, as capitals signify,” according to the Aspen Institute.)

Whether or not there is a conscious recognition of the structures in place, those structures are acting to shape society and affect access to opportunities.

“We put structures in place to do work,” powell said. “We want a society where everyone is treated with dignity and belongs. What are the structures that would support that?” 

Often, structures are ignored and the resulting outcomes overlooked —powell is hoping to bring awareness to the importance of societal structures when he speaks at the Aspen Institute this evening. 

“Part of what we do is basically trying to not just understand these issues, but also offer ways of moving forward that are both accessible, doable and at the same time nuanced and complicated,” powell said. “I’m hoping that people will come away with some tools and understanding that will help them move this along. This effort of making a society where everyone belongs is about everyone — not about making things just better for the targeted groups, it’s making things better for all of us, and all of us have a role in that.”

A critical examination of the structures that are in place reveals an exclusionary, systematic process of “othering,” according to powell.

“Our identities are organized around the way we create belonging and othering,” powell said. “In every group, every person — every mammal, if you will — needs to belong. One of the ways we create belonging is by othering: I belong to this group, and that group doesn’t. That doesn’t just say something about a targeted group. It says something about being a group. If I organize my identity (around) keeping the other person out, then to change that means my identity has to change.”

“Othering” is also created as a result of anxiety surrounding the constantly changing state of the environment, globalization, demographics and technology, according to powell.

“Our environments are changing very fast. It’s not clear we can adapt without a lot of work and a lot of help,” powell said. “That rapid change creates anxiety, and that anxiety takes on meaning based on stories. Someone tells us, ‘You should be feeling anxious because of them, those people,’ and so that becomes the other. They become the scapegoat.”

“Othering” lies in contrast to belonging, and relies on exclusion and a failure to co-create structures. He emphasized that inclusion and belonging are separate concepts: inclusion refers to someone who was not part of the creation process being invited into a space that is not theirs as a provisional guest, while belonging requires a co-creation process.

“It’s not just removing barriers, it’s not just for race,” powell said. “It’s (about) how do we affirmatively design structures and systems to produce the outcomes we want, and one way we do that is to be conscious of the work they’re doing. Another, though, is to also make sure that all interested parties have a role in co-creating the structures themselves.”

Race is one of the products of “othering” — according to powell, there is no scientific basis for race. The vastly varying definitions of race across state lines make this apparent.

“We add boundaries and social categories associated with race, and then it feels and looks natural,” powell said. 

However, the definitions of the categories are constantly in flux as society’s perceptions regarding race shift.

“The way we do race and the way we think about race, because it’s socially constructed and also situational with consequences, will continue to change,” powell said. “First of all, we have to be aware that it is changing and that what we do, how we practice, how we engage actually matters in which direction to change.”

According to powell, authoritarian leaders and political movements such as “Make America Great Again” and “Make India Great Again” often attempt to cling to the past as a crutch to avoid facing the future.

“What they’re really implying is that the future is scary, so we’ve got to take refuge in a mythical past,” powell said. “That mythical past is when one group apparently dominated.”

But that version of the past is a distorted mirage of reality, according to powell. Looking to the future, he tries to envision a world where everyone belongs and plays a role in the co-creation process. 

“The past never was what we think it was, and the future is inevitable,” powell said. “So how do we help us actually move to a future that’s inevitable?”

He will join Aspen Institute CEO Dan Porterfield in conversation today about belonging, civil rights and structural racism in both a domestic and global context.

“I think his work has global importance,” Porterfield said. “We tend to think of those topics, primarily in the U.S. through an American-centric lens, and Dr. powell can help us widen our aperture and understand how these concepts play out in multiple cultures with multiple social dynamics.”

powell has previously joined the Aspen Institute to work on the Forum for Community Solutions, although this will be the first time he is present for a public engagement, according to Cristal Logan, vice president of Aspen community programs and engagement at the Aspen Institute.

“The Aspen community is one of the most socially engaged communities anywhere, and I think the events that Cristal and Zoë (Brown) organize, which cover all kinds of topics, always draw a curious and informed crowd,” Porterfield said.

Logan is also hoping that the event will draw local government officials. To encourage them to attend and learn about how to address structural racism, Logan offered free tickets to City Council members and other members of local leadership.

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