How does structure support dignity? the speaker addresses exactly that at the Aspen Institute

Aspen Institute
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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 at Berkeley. (Powell stylizes his name in lowercase letters because he believes people should be “part of the universe, not above, as the capitals mean,” according to the Aspen Institute.)

Whether or not there is a conscious recognition of the structures in place, these structures act to shape society and affect access to opportunity.

“We have structures in place to do the job,” Powell said. “We want a society where everyone is treated with dignity and has their place. What are the structures that would support this?



Often structures are ignored and the resulting results are ignored.

“Part of what we’re doing is basically trying to not only understand these issues, but also come up with ways forward that are both accessible, achievable and at the same time nuanced and complicated,” said said Powell. “I hope people come away with tools and an understanding that will help them get things done. This effort to create a society where everyone belongs is about everyone – it’s not just about making things better for the target groups, but about making things better for all of us, and we all have a role to play in this regard.



A critical examination of the structures in place reveals a process of systematic and exclusive “otherness”, according to Powell.

“Our identities are organized around how we create belonging and otherness,” Powell said. “In every group, every person – every mammal, if you will – must belong. One of the ways we create belonging is through othering: I belong to this group, and this group does not belong. It doesn’t just say something about a target group. It says something about being a band. If I organize my identity (around) keeping the other person out, then changing that means my identity has to change.

“Otherness” is also created as a result of anxiety surrounding the ever-changing state of the environment, globalization, demographics and technology, according to Powell.

“Our environments are changing very quickly. It’s not clear that we can adapt without a lot of work and a lot of help,” Powell said. “This rapid change creates anxiety, and that anxiety takes on meaning based on the stories. Someone tells us, “You should feel anxious because of them, these people,” and that becomes the other. They become the scapegoat.

“Otherness” is opposed to belonging and is based on exclusion and the inability to co-create structures. He pointed out that inclusion and belonging are distinct concepts: inclusion refers to someone who was not part of the creative process and who is invited into a space that is not theirs as as a temporary guest, while membership requires a process of co-creation.

“It’s not just about breaking down barriers, it’s not just about racing,” Powell said. “It’s (about) how do we positively design structures and systems to produce the results we want, and one way to do that is to be aware of the work they do. Another, however, is also to ensure that all interested parties have a role to play in the co-creation of the structures themselves.

Race is one of the products of “otherness” – according to Powell there is no scientific basis for race. The widely varying definitions of race from state to state make this evident.

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

However, the definitions of the categories are constantly evolving as society’s perceptions of race change.

“The way we 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 this is changing and that what we do, how we practice, how we engage really 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 try to cling to the past as a crutch to avoid facing the future.

“What they really imply is that the future is scary, so we have to take refuge in a mythical past,” Powell said. “That mythical past is when one group seemingly dominated.”

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

“The past was never what we thought it was, and the future is inevitable,” Powell said. “So how can we help guide ourselves into a future that is inevitable? »

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

“I think his work has global significance,” Porterfield said. “We tend to think of these topics, primarily in the United States, through an America-centric lens, and Dr. Powell can help us broaden our focus and understand how these concepts play out in multiple cultures with different multiple social dynamics.

Powell has previously joined the Aspen Institute to work on the Forum for Community Solutions, though this is the first time he’s been there for public engagement, according to Cristal Logan, vice president of community programs and engagement at ‘Aspen at the Aspen Institute.

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

Logan also hopes the event will attract local government officials. To encourage them to attend and learn how to fight structural racism, Logan offered free tickets to city council members and other members of local leadership.