Opening to the Question of Belonging: John A. Powell

because we are so powerfully rooted to the notion of individuality, in some ways race affronts that. But the real affront is the whole notion of individuality. Individuality, as we think of it, is actually extremely problematic.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, see — yeah, and you make this really fascinating point that — you say that there are two parents to the way we are now; the way we grapple with race, among other things. And one is slavery. Get that. And the other is the Enlightenment and that, in fact, it’s from the Enlightenment that we inherited this idea that the conscious mind could know everything; that we could be reasonable.

MR. POWELL: That’s the American exceptionalism. So the United States became extremely, extremely attached to the notion of individuality and independence. Now think about the groups who were not independent. They were the Africans. They were the Indians. They were women. They were anyone who was not a white male. So the notion, the Enlightenment project, which had this hubris that we could control everything, including the world, when we can’t even really control ourselves.

MS. TIPPETT: And yet, this condition of each of us in isolation, which you associate with whiteness, which is this culture of domination, is not sustainable, and it’s not desirable.

.. MS. TIPPETT: And we’re running into the limits of our ability to convince ourselves that it is desirable.

MR. POWELL: No, there are so many expressions that help us see it. And sometimes people talk about “We need to do things to connect.” And on one hand, that’s right, but on the other hand, it understates what it is. We are connected. What we need to do is become aware of it, to live it, to express it.

So think about segregation. Segregation is a formal way of saying, “How do I deny my connection with you?” in the physical space. Think about the notion of whiteness. So whiteness in the United States, as it came, as it took form, believed that one drop of “black blood” — whatever that is — would destroy “whiteness.” Turns out, whatever that means, most white Americans actually do have black blood. The reason that most African Americans look like me or like Gary is because white blood and black blood’s been mixing up for a long time. And so I think that as we deny the other, we deny ourselves, because there is no other. We are connected.

.. that that movement was as much for the sake of his soul as it was for the sake of people of color.

And it’s worth saying that. To me, that’s one way of talking about your point that we have to talk about whiteness.

.. I was teaching a class at the University of Minnesota, and I was talking about the taking of Native American land. And most of my students were white students, and one student objected; it’s like, “This is a such-and-such class. Why are we studying the history of Native Americans?” And I said, “We’re not. We’re studying the history of America. So, when we talk about the appropriation of Native American land, or when we talk about slavery, we’re not talking about the history of black people, we’re talking about the history of this country.”

.. I don’t care if you came here last week or ten days ago, you can’t understand this country without understanding the institution of slavery. It was pivotal.

.. MR. POWELL: The human condition is one about belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship. I just gave a lecture on health, and if you’re isolated, the negative health condition is worse than smoking, obesity, high blood pressure — just being isolated.

.. How do we make it infectious; how do we — people are longing for this. People are looking for community. Right now, though, we don’t have confidence in love. You mentioned love earlier. We have much more confidence in anger and hate. We believe anger is powerful. We believe hate is powerful. And we believe love is wimpy. And so, if we’re engaged in the world, we believe it’s much better to organize around anger and hate.

And yet, we see two of the most powerful expressions — certainly Gandhi, certainly the Rev. Dr. King

.. And there was a period of time when I was feeling really overwhelmed with a lot of this stuff. And I was talking to my dad, and I said, “Dad, this is just too much. I can’t do it all. I’m trying to do all of this stuff by myself.” And he looked at me; he said, “Well, john, you know you’re not alone.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean, Dad?” He said, “Well, you got God with you.” And I realized, although I don’t organize around God in the way that he does, my mistake was, I thought I had to do it; that “I” was defining it, instead of “we.” So…

MS. TIPPETT: …you were in that white mode.

MR. POWELL: Exactly, exactly.

[laughter]

So I think we should both get out of that white mode and do it together. [laughs]

.. today, the majority of whites today say they’d prefer to live in an integrated neighborhood and send their kids to integrated schools. What they mean by that is a different question, but also the world and demographics of the country are changing. And to live in a white enclave is not to live in the world. And I think it has” — I think you were — this is an interview — “it has a certain deadness to it. It has a certain spiritual corruption to it.”

And you said, “I think most people, white, black, Latino, and otherwise, would like to see something different. We just don’t know how to do it. And we’ve been so entrenched in the way things are. It’s hard to imagine the world being different.” You speak for me, you speak for so many people. This is what we’re up against. I feel like this is what we have to attack first — this inability to see differently.

You told one story about Oak Park, near Chicago. It was just really helpful to me. You said, when we tell stories about, “You integrate neighborhoods, and housing values go down,” and the way we always tell the story is, “Blacks moved in, African-American — people of color moved in.” And the way we could tell the story is, “Whites moved out.” But you talked about how — just this very practical measure that was taken so that the housing values didn’t change. Would you just tell that story? I feel like these little stories are really crucial, as well.

MR. POWELL: And there are really a lot of them. They’re little, and they’re big. So Oak Park is in Chicago. Chicago’s one of the most segregated areas in the country. Cook County has the largest black population of any county in the United States, and a lot of studying of segregation takes place in Chicago. So here you have Oak Park, this precious little community. And there were liberal whites there. And blacks started moving in. And they were saying, “Look, we actually don’t mind blacks moving in, but we’re concerned that we’re going to lose the value of our home. That’s the only wealth we have. And if we don’t sell now, we’re going to lose.”

And it basically said: If that’s the real concern — not that blacks are moving in, that you’re going to lose the value of your home — what if we were to ensure that you would not lose the value of your home? We’ll literally create an insurance policy that we will compensate you if the value of your home goes down.

And they put that in place.

.. Think about Katrina. So these examples are all around us, and yet, we don’t tell stories about them. Katrina — the face of Katrina, when you remember it, it was blacks stuck on roofs as the water was rising. What’s not told is that Americans, all Americans, gave to those people. It was the largest civilian giving of one population to another in the history of the United States. So here you had white Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, trying to reach out to what they saw as black Americans. They were actually saying — they were claiming: We have a shared humanity. And they actually did a poll asking people if they were willing to raise taxes to rebuild: 70 percent of Americans said, “Yes, we would tax ourselves to help those people.” The pundits and the politicians ignored it, and so that story simply didn’t get told.

.. I put something I call “targeted universalism,” and where we want to get to is not simply what whites have. We actually need to state what is our goal. And then our way of getting there will vary, based on how we’re situated. And different groups are situated differently. So if we just say, “Let’s have our proportionate share of what whites have,” that’s an improvement over where we are now, but it’s not far enough.

we’re talking about what I call a “circle of human concern” — a circle of concern for all life, human life and, I would say, non-human life as well. And in that effort, it’s important to make sure that people of color are really valued and situated and have resources and political and other power that other groups have. But it’s also important to actually continue to be in relationship to whites. I think, ultimately, a healthy world really requires not just a restructuring of what people of color have, but a restructuring of white identity.

.. in the 1960s, Bundy wrote about the “negro problem” at the Ford Foundation, but today, I would write about the white problem. We really need to come to terms with the white problem — not in a negative way, not in terms of white guilt, not in terms of beating up on whites, but really trying to help whites, because we are deeply related, give birth to a different identity.

.. one of the best school systems in the United States was the Wake County school system. That’s the Research Triangle, which has more Ph.D.’s than any other area of the country. It was actually quite interesting, because they took it to the voters, and they said, “Do you want to have this school system which is educationally and economically integrated?” And the voters said, “No.” So then they took it to the politicians, and they said, “This makes sense, which — the voters said no, but would you vote for it as a politician?” And the politicians said, “No.” And then the business community said, “Unless you do something about the school system in Wake County, we’re leaving.” It was actually the business community that pushed it through.

.. “So Dad, why do you think” — because he’s very Christian, I said, “What do you think God is keeping you here for?” And he said, “I guess my last lesson to teach the kids is, how to care for me.” So instead of seeing it as a burden, because he needs care, it’s like, “That’s my last gift to you, is to teach you how to care.” And it really is wonderful.

I went to Stanford. I was one of the co-founders of the Black Student Union at Stanford. And we had a meeting, and in that meeting, we decided that there were definitely some good white people, but not that many.

[laughter]

And it took a lot of energy to find them. The transaction cost of finding good white people was way too high. So we decided, “OK, let’s just stop trying to find these — let’s not relate to white people.” Actually, I didn’t support that position, but that’s where the group went. And I left the meeting. It was about noon, and I was walking across Stanford. And I don’t know if you’ve actually been to Stanford, but the center part of Stanford is very busy, especially at noon, and there’s always people teeming about. And I’m walking back across campus in this area, and there’s nobody there. It’s empty. And all the time I was at Stanford, I’ve never seen that part of the campus like that. And then, there’s this one woman walking toward me.

Again, the physical space where students hang out is actually quite small, so you see students all the time. I’d never seen this woman before, and I never saw her again. And as she’s walking toward me, I notice she’s blind. And she has a cane. And she walks into a maze of bicycles. And I said, “Oh, that’s too bad.” And as she turns, knocks down bicycles, she starts panicking. And I’m thinking, “That’s really sad, but we just made this agreement. It’s not my problem.” I keep walking. She turns again, and she knocks down more bicycles. And finally, I can’t walk past her. And I go over, and I take her out of the maze of bicycles, and then she goes on her way. And I go back to the meeting, and I say, “I can’t do it. I can’t adhere to that agreement.”

And to me, that was one of the defining moments. And I sort of — I’m not a theist, but I wonder, how did the universe send that woman to me, that she helped me to engage and claim my humanity, that took me on a different path? And I think being human is about being in the right kind of relationships. I think being human is a process. It’s not something that we just are born with. We actually learn to celebrate our connection, learn to celebrate our love. And the thing about it — if you suffer, it does not imply love. But if you love, it does imply suffering.

So part of the thing that I think what being human means — to love and to suffer; to suffer with, though, compassion, not to suffer against. So, to have a space big enough to suffer with, and if we can hold that space big enough, we also will have joy and fun, even as we suffer. And suffering will no longer divide us. And to me, that’s sort of the human journey.

How Change Happens, In Generational Time

AMERICA FERRERA AND JOHN PAUL LEDERACH

.. I am deeply convinced that change must be relationship-centered. We don’t create change purely on the basis of the content of a policy. We don’t create change purely on the basis of winning an argument or, even, winning a particular vote at a given time. Change has something to do with who we’re going to choose to be, together, as the human family. And until we understand this — this is when I was working with that notion of the moral imagination — the imagination that you’re in a web of relationship that includes your enemy, because your grandchildren are gonna be mutually affected. So how to hold these two — I think it’s actually the art of everything.

.. In highly polarized settings, one of the ways I understand social courage is that it takes courage to reach out to things that are not known, not well understood; that may be threatening to you; that may, in fact, pose a threat to everything you believe. So there’s a certain kind of courage that it takes to reach into that unknown.

.. But there is also a courage that is required of us — that when we see our own community dehumanizing others, that we have the courage to speak to that dehumanization. So social courage cuts in both ways, and this is sometimes the hard part, is that we just would like it to be one way. But then we’re backing away, aren’t we, from the complexity? We’re not willing to sit with the mess of who we are in a way that finds a way to speak to that clearly.

The psalm that I ended up with that was most helpful for me was Psalm 85: “Truth and mercy have met together. Justice and peace have kissed.” You may be familiar with some of that phraseology — it was actually the psalm that was read over and over and over again to start the village-level negotiations in the east coast of Nicaragua. And when I was sitting in those locations, in bombed-out churches with people who were in the same rooms who had come from different sides of a war where they had lost families and had been shifted out of a country, and they’re sitting there, and the first words they hear are: “Truth and mercy have met together” — it sounds like truth and mercy are people. “Peace and justice have kissed” — it sounds like they’re people. So I began to ask, what if truth showed up here today? What if mercy showed up alongside of truth? And how in the world do you hold truth and mercy together, so it’s not choosing one over the other, but somehow, they’re there? I think that’s the real challenge of learning to live with that tension: not avoiding it.

.. I used to be really disturbed by all the violent psalms, and then I, when I studied theology, got behind that. I really appreciate that — that at the heart of the Bible, this, too, comes before God, and you speak this out loud. And also, when I learned that those are common prayers, and so you’re not always praying just for how you feel that day and that there is always somebody in the world, and too many people in the world, who are righteously full of rage.

.. something that’s been so on my heart this entire weekend has been our indigenous brothers and sisters. We so rarely ask our question: Whose land are we standing on?

[applause]

We think about reckoning with this country and the history and the past of this country, and we so rarely want to begin with the original sin of massacre and genocide of an entire indigenous population. And they’re so rarely evoked and called into these rooms that I think that if we really want to reckon, if we really want truth, we have to start there.

 

.. I feel like when you are talking about, like right now — this is a way you’ve said it — you’re part of these multiple, overlapping, converging initiatives, some of which are very well publicized now, some of which are more emergent — and that it’s essentially leaderless; there’s no great charismatic leader. It feels to me like a lot of what is brewing, and especially in Hollywood, among artists, is kind of new-form social innovation.

.. And so something beautiful emerges out of a moment, excitement — yeast, reaching a point where it explodes into something great.

But then our human instincts kick in, and we want to control it, and we want to define it, and we want to put it in a form that we recognize and understand. And so the instinct can be: Who’s the leader? And what’s the process? And who reports to whom, and what’s the chain of command, and who gets to use the logo, [laughs] and defining the “we.”

.. You can be angry, but don’t become bitter. You can be angry, but don’t refuse to talk. You can be angry, but don’t forget to love. And he’s slightly my elder, by about a five, maybe eight-year period. And there were periods where, to be honest, my anger was headed more for the bitter. I forgot to love. And then you have this extraordinary friendship of somebody who’s been through so much more, who just comes alongside — I love alongside — takes your arm, and says, “Let’s walk.”

Richard Rohr Meditation: What Do You Want?

A good gauge of spiritual health is to write down
the three things you most want.
If they in any way differ,
you are in trouble.
—Daniel Ladinsky, inspired by Rumi [1]

.. If we are really convinced that we have the Big Truth, then we should also be able to trust that others will see it from their different angles—or it is not the Big Truth.

.. “We begin to discover that our Buddhist and Jewish and Islamic and Hindu friends are not competitors. Religion is not a survival of the fittest. There is a deep understanding that we all swim together or we sink together. Each religious tradition reveals a color of the heart of God that is precious.” [2] As the old saying goes, do you want to be right or do you want to be in relationship?

.. Or, as Aquinas was fond of saying, quoting Ambrose (another Doctor of the Church), “If it’s true, it is always from the one Holy Spirit.” [3] The important question is not, “Who said it?” but, “Is it true?”

.. while all the world’s religions cannot and must not be reduced to one truth, their core teachings are unifying; they are all calling us to the truth of our essential oneness. This unity in diversity is a cause for celebration.

At their immature levels, religions can be obsessed with the differences that make them better or more right than others. Pope Francis insists that mercy is at the very top of the Christian hierarchy of great truths [5], and everything falls apart whenever mercy is displaced by anything else or anything less. Bourgeault writes:

Where American Renewal Begins

A Baltimore-based community program provides the architecture for kids’ success.

.. I am constantly using this column to argue that social fragmentation and social isolation are the fundamental problems afflicting America today. Organizations like Thread are the best way to address them.
Thread has taken 415 academically underperforming students in Baltimore schools and built an extended family around them, with about 1,000 volunteers. Each student is given up to five volunteers, who perform the jobs that a family member would perform.
.. Each volunteer is coached by a more experienced volunteer, called the Head of Family. The Head of Family is coached by a Grandparent, who supports the Head. The Grandparents are coached by Community Managers, who are paid Thread staffers. Circling the whole system are Collaborators, who offer special expertise when called in — legal help, SAT tutoring, mental health counseling, etc.
.. The students are lured with free pizza and asked if they would like to join the program. They are told they will be in it for 10 years, until they are in their 20s. They sign a contract demonstrating commitment, and no one has left early.

For the first few months, the students often reject the relationships. “You expect people not to be there for you,” says Marcus, one of the students. Trust is built by persistence through failure.

“Unconditional love is so rare in life that it is identity-changing when somebody keeps showing up even when you reject them. It is also identity-changing to be the one rejected.”

Thread also has an app called Tapestry. It tracks every time a volunteer has a touchpoint with one of the students — driving to school, sharing a meal. Hemminger calls it the Fitbit of social relationships. Tapestry can track how often a student has touchpoints, who hasn’t had a touchpoint, how many touchpoints lead to what outcomes.

.. Thread cultivates an ethos of utter vulnerability, which starts at the top. Hemminger and her staff are very open when they don’t know what they are doing and need help.

They are very, very open when they are hurting.

.. That vulnerability stretches throughout. Teenagers, who usually have their armor up with strangers, told me all about the stresses in their life, their fears and their mental health challenges.

.. The program rejects any distinction between haves and have-nots. The volunteers are not there to do social change. They are there to be changed. The word “mentor” is banned because everybody is leaning on everybody else.

.. These days, I spend my mornings writing depressing columns about a political culture marred by distrust and my afternoons visiting places like Thread. There is no way to repair national distrust without repairing individual relationships one by one. This is where American renewal begins.