Bridging Belonging Through Community Action

February 29, 2024

Last month, I had the privilege of attending the National Community Action Partnership Management Leadership and Training Conference in Las Vegas with Board Vice President Cynthia Wang. We were both so inspired by the keynote speaker Dr. john a. powell, Director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkley. The following is a recap of his remarks and a few of my reflections.

We are bridging belonging through Community Action.

john a. powell

Dr. powell uses the terms “Othering” and “Belonging” to describe the human condition:

Othering is how people view others as not their equal, less than, even as not as deserving as they are. There are myriad ways people can “other” each other – gender, ability, ethnicity, religion, class, etc. And often, these identities are stacked upon each other.  

Belonging confers the privileges of membership in a community, including the care and concern of other members. Belonging means more than just being seen. Belonging entails having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of social and cultural structures. Belonging means having the right to contribute to, and make demands on, society and political institutions.

We have myriad of opportunities to create belonging in our work. Last month, I witnessed belonging in action at the Southeast Peace Coalition’s Key Leaders Event. This event was organized by the Coalition, and supported by many NH staff, parents, activists, and community partners. There were four different kinds of food, and many speakers from the community; including parents that participate in Guiding Good Choices,  Michael Passian (a motivational speaker), the Walk Away City Collaborative – who led the audience in a dance, King County Council Member Girmay Zahilay, and Seattle City Council Member Tammy Morales – who shared remarks and answered questions from the community about the challenges our youth are facing.

(Pictured L-R: Seattle Council Member Morales, Ruby Jean M. Byron – SE Peace Coalition Chair, King County Council Member Zahilay, and Abdu Gobeni – NH Prevention Coordinator.)

Dr. powell shared how climate change, violent conflicts all over the world, poverty, inequality, and political division are just a few of the global and local changes and challenges we face as a society. This change is driving anxiety – and we as leaders play an oversized role in helping people process change through the stories that we tell.  When leaders inspire their followers to fear, or to blame, we think “if only we could get rid of those others who are ruining our life and ruining our future.” This is breaking with the other.

Because poverty is not just lack of stuff, it’s lack of belonging, lack of participation, lack of voice.

john a. powell, April 14, 2024 NCAP MLTC keynote address

Instead, Dr. powell suggests that we turn toward each other, learn from each other, and understand each other through empathy and belonging. That we invite the other in. For several years, Neighborhood House has been on a journey to become an anti-racist organization. We have participated in training and affinity groups, we have marched, advocated, and we have examined our practices, policies, and culture.

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Speech given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.

Dr. powell reminded us of Dr. King’s words, and builds on his call for justice – Dr. powell asks us to take a step further, to bend the moral universe not just toward justice, not just towards anti-racism, but towards belonging. Knowing that the universe doesn’t bend by itself; he calls on all of us to continue working towards a universe of belonging.