Director's Letter from john a. powell

john a. powell

Director

This piece was originally published in the 2017 Haas Institute newsletter.



Our last newsletter was published just before the 2016 presidential election, a campaign that featured some of the uglier elements of our current American society, including xenophobia, nationalism, and a toxic dose of misogyny. Moreover, the election results appeared to form part of a broader wave of white nationalist movements cresting across Western liberal democracies. Based upon election results in the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom this year, the rise of nationalism remains a global trend, from India to South Africa.  



It was in this crucible that we held our second Othering and Belonging Conference in the spring. Our conference brought together diverse voices, perspectives, and insights as part of a unique conversation into the nature of Othering, and how we can move to a society more strongly rooted in belonging. Speakers ranged from the visual and literary arts to academia and politics. Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who authored the play upon which the Oscar-winning movie Moonlight was based, spoke movingly about the importance of art in shining light on exclusion of all sorts—and guiding society along a brighter path towards belonging. Similarly, Native activist Tara Houska discussed the role of activists in envisioning that path, even while knowing that it may not yet be paved. Recaps and videos can be found at conference.otheringandbelonging.org.  



Unfortunately, while many have been working determinedly to make this vision of belonging a reality, those working at some of the highest levels of power have sought to counteract those efforts. The campaign rhetoric and policy moves of the Trump Administration on immigration and refugee issues have mutated into a new phase that includes attacks on affirmative action, a reversal in policy on LGBTQ discrimination and protections, a doubling down on the War on Drugs, and a pullback on criminal justice reform and police department consent decrees. The Supreme Court docket this upcoming term will be especially significant, with racial and partisan gerrymandering, LGTBQ rights, reproductive rights, religious freedom, and much more.   



The election of Trump has energized state, regional, and local efforts. Now that the federal government is advancing an exclusionary policy agenda, states and localities have begun to do more than merely try to resist the draconian and inequitable aspects of the federal agenda. Some, in fact, are going so far as to creatively explore and pursue local solutions to group-based marginality. It is not enough to sit out the next few years and hope for a change of leadership; we must use this time to develop innovative and experimentalist solutions that can be tested at the local level.  

Still, the most fundamental question before us, both as a research institute as well as a policy matter, remains how we can bridge in a period of deep exclusion and anxiety. Bridging is when individuals reach outside of their group to find common cause with others. This is in contrast to "breaking" where members of a group turn inwards and explicitly push away from other groups who are seen as dangerous or a threat.  The possibility that breaking overtakes that of bridging may be the greatest challenge we face today. For members of oppressed or marginalized groups, asking them to bridge with other groups, especially members of a perceived oppressor, is a tremendous challenge. Yet, it is a challenge we must confront if we are to build a truly inclusive society, and one where all life is valued.