For john a. powell, understanding—and speaking about—how several moving parts create a complex whole is a passion as well as a career. As the Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at U.C. Berkeley, powell’s mission is to work toward a more just, equitable world by pulling together diverse minds and groups. It’s a mission he shares with the leaders of Bioneers.
powell is one of hundreds of changemakers with whom Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons have connected throughout Bioneers’ 28-year lifespan. A few years ago, Ausubel invited powell to speak at Bioneers. He brought to the stage the concepts of otherness and interbeing: the idea that every thing that exists on Earth depends on every other thing in some way. While corporate entities often play upon human beings’ natural tendency to fear the “other,” said powell, our understanding and appreciation of that “other” is how we will progress and survive and thrive.
That first engagement with Bioneers led to a valuable relationship between powell, the organization’s founders, and the larger Bioneers community.
A Wider Lens
Born in Detroit, powell’s formal education wove through distinct-yet-complementary fields: law, psychology and philosophy. He studied at a handful of universities and worked as a law clerk and attorney before his professional work took him outside the U.S. powell has lived and worked in Africa and India, serving as a consultant to the government of Mozambique and an instructor in southern India.
Once back in the States, powell held several positions in academia, working as a professor and fellow at some of the nation’s best universities, from Columbia to Harvard. His academic work has spanned myriad concentrations, but generally touched on law and American studies. powell is also a published author. His most recent book, Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society, is about the state of race relations in the U.S. today and how race plays into a democratic society.
Having traveled extensively and held so many positions throughout the world, powell has been exposed to a wealth of personalities and ideas, a process he knows is essential in widening his lens. His relationship with Bioneers was complimentary in the more recent part of that process.
Since powell’s first speaking engagement at Bioneers, he’s been invited back a handful of times and is now a member of the Bioneers Board of Directors.
powell says that over the course of his relationship with Bioneers, he’s been impressed by the organization’s proactivity in lifting up diverse voices and perspectives. In fact, he believes his inclusion in Bioneers’ events and planning was a move by Ausubel to invite expertise in inclusivity into the organization.
As powell has watched Bioneers progress, his thinking has progressed as well. “I think any deep relationships changes you,” he says, “and so I think knowing Kenny and Nina has certainly helped me think certain things through and clarify them within myself.”
Progress Based on Leaning in to Tension
powell and Bioneers continue to work side-by-side, finding new and better ways to solve world problems by way of radical inclusion. Just this year, Simons and Ausubel were honored to receive the Goi Peace Award, which was established to highlight individuals and organizations in various fields that have made outstanding contributions toward the realization of a peaceful and harmonious world.
But Bioneers’ co-founders are quick to acknowledge that it’s through the brilliant, diverse minds of their community that progress within their organization—and society, as a result—has been realized. The symbiosis between Bioneers and some of the greatest thought leaders of today continues to create exciting ripples throughout a nation and world in desperate need of inclusive, positive progress.
powell recognizes that, in much the same way he’s spent his career getting to know diverse groups of people in order to understand how they can work together, Bioneers has forged indispensable relationships between people and groups who might otherwise not have met.
“Sometimes there are implicit and explicit tensions in that process, and I don’t think that’s bad,” says powell. “In fact, I think some of it is good. They are starting to wrestle with bringing these diverse communities together that have serious differences. That’s really a complicated process that none of us have quite figured out. They do it with spirit, tenacity, humility and love, which is an interesting combination. They don’t always get it exactly right, but the fact that they lean into it is actually quite remarkable.”