In welcoming more than 3,000 viewers to OBI’s first virtual Othering & Belonging Summit on April 21, Director john a. powell posed a rhetorical question to the audience: is it the journey towards belonging we should be most concerned with, or the destination? “The answer is, it’s the company,” powell said. “And we have at the Institute, and with all of you, really wonderful company.”
This ethos of gathering to enjoy and strengthen community infused the day-long event, which consisted of a full day of conversation and performance featuring thought leaders and culturemakers working towards belonging in their fields. Seeking to stimulate both the head and the heart, the summit was organized as a dynamic space for artists, scholars, activists, and others working in the social change sector to discuss key challenges related to othering and belonging in the US and globally.
powell grounded the day with a morning keynote that examined how our current discourse around identity may inadvertently limit our capacity to bridge with others and achieve meaningful belonging. As certain identities become increasingly politicized and attacked, they become more important to the holder of those identities, powell said.
“We all have multiple identities, but as those identities become aligned and stacked, there's a risk of them becoming harder,” he explained. “When they become harder, it's more likely they're going to polarize.”
But another way to approach identity might be to recognize that we have multiple identities and internal contradictions, which creates an opening for the possibility of bridging. “The more rigid we are in our identity, the harder it is to get change,” powell said. “It's harder to actually see the humanity in other people. Identity is something we have, but it's also something that happens outside of us. So identities can be mobilized as a threat, they can be weaponized, or they can be a source of belonging.”
To create a world rooted in belonging, powell concluded, “we have to help give birth to new possibilities, new identities, new ways of being.” And to do that, “we must learn to care about each other, to love each other, and to see each other without becoming each other,” ultimately flattening our many distinct, yet intertwined identities.
The challenge of building belonging not only in our individual beliefs and behaviors but in the structures of our society was further explored in a panel on “Democracy, Institutions, and Systems of Othering & Belonging” with journalist and filmmaker Astra Taylor, UC Berkeley scholar Taeku Lee, DeJuana Thompson of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Woke Vote, and the Brennan Center for Justice’s Myrna Pérez, who discussed the major challenges facing the institutions and infrastructures of democracy today, and the unique challenges they pose for bridging and our collective work to build more fair and inclusive societies.
In particular, the panelists highlighted tightening voter suppression measures as a particularly large threat to democracy in the US. While it’s important to “defend a robust kind of populist conception of democracy,” such as getting out the vote and fighting suppressive measures, “we also need to look to more expansive democratic horizons,” said Taylor, who is an activist with The Debt Collective. “One person, one vote is not enough. We barely have that in this country. We need one person, one equally meaningful vote.”
In order to achieve true belonging in our democratic institutions, added Thompson, we’ve got to “dismantle the idea, but piece together the solution.” “That requires a radical investment in people, in communities, in leaders that don't look like the traditional model,” she concluded.
Perhaps the most unprecedented discussion of the day took place towards the close of the summit, when an intergenerational panel of climate activists from Asia, North America, and Europe came together to discuss why intergenerational work is critical to the success of the global climate movement. Framed and moderated by author Naomi Klein, the panel featured an hour-long conversation with Klein, Kate Yeo, a 19-year-old sustainability advocate from Singapore, Samia Dumbuya, a Sierra Leonean born and raised in East London, Tokata Iron Eyes, a 16-year-old member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and Xiye Bastida, an 18-year-old indigenous-Chilean activist from Mexico.
In critiquing some of the discourse used earlier in the youth climate movement, Bastida discussed why the language of “stealing our future” has been counterproductive to the goals of the movement and to belonging more broadly, especially “when you think about [the fact that] we need everyone.”
“That's why Indigenous thought is so important, because I [have learned] to talk to my elders...to have youth and elders circles. I [know] to both learn from wisdom and to give energy. And that's what we need—we need to change the system [together],” Bastida said.
In addition to roundtable discussions and speeches, the O&B gathering made space for artists to present their work towards belonging in the realm of music and culture. While the activists in the climate panel explained broadly why intergenerational bridging is necessary to their movement, the Alphabet Rockers modeled that intergenerational bridging actively through music. Currently OBI’s third Artist in Residence, Alphabet Rockers is an intergenerational group that aims to contribute to a more equitable world through hip-hop. The Rockers presented a “Family Hour Workshop” for children and adults that led the audience through questions of what belonging means to them—questions and answers they seek to incorporate in their music.
Music was also embedded at the start of the day with the release of a special commissioned piece for Othering & Belonging by the award-winning musical group, The Nile Project, which brings together artists from the 11 Nile River countries to make music that combines the rich diversity of the region. The commissioned piece, “Dingy Dingy,” reinterprets an Egyptian classical anthem of the same name (originally composed in 1918 by Sayed Darwish as a response to British colonialism) by adding verses in Tigrinya, Swahili and Amharic to expand that belonging to the Nile River once quoted by Darwish 100 years ago.
In the artists’ roundtable following the debut, Nile Project musician Jackline Kasiva Mutua explained to founder Mina Girgis how joining the Nile Project and working with other musicians across borders and cultures helped her re-understand her own identity as a Nile citizen.
“Before I joined The Nile Project, I really did not consider myself as a Nile citizen because I didn't know what part that I played in the ecosystem of the Nile,” Mutua said. “But just getting into The Nile Project and having workshops and sessions where we discussed and learned about what each country brings into the whole river, I started having an understanding of what role I play as a musician, but also as a Nile citizen.”
As the summit fundamentally sought to engage mind, body, and spirit, the role of embodied belonging and spirituality were also incorporated into the event, with a morning Sufi meditation led by Michelle Ayazi and an afternoon talk by Zen teacher Norma Wong and carried on throughout the day by emcee Sarah Crowell, who is the Dance Director Emeritus of the Destiny Arts Center in Oakland.
“All of the sessions I was able to attend offered different kinds of intellectual and spiritual wisdom, sparkling moments of joy and pleasure, and a profound belief in our humanity,” wrote one attendee after the event. “While I was frequently faced with—and did my best to hold—the poisonous reality of white supremacy, the Summit was at the same time deeply affirming of my belief in us. Thank you for that.”