Creating a World Where Everyone Belongs: From a Change of Heart to System Change

Angela Glover Blackwell and john a. powell speaking at Bioneers 2022. Photo by Alex Akamine.

In this moment of radical transformation, shifting the societal pronoun from “me, me, me” to “we” may be the single most transformational pivot we can make in order for anything else to work. Our destiny is ultimately collective.

How can we overcome corrosive divisions and separations that are tearing us apart and create a world where everyone belongs?

In this program, we dip into a deep conversation on this topic between Angela Glover Blackwell and john a. powell, two long-time friends and leaders in a quest toward building a multicultural democracy.


Angela Glover Blackwell is Founder-in-Residence at PolicyLink, the organization she started in 1999 to advance racial and economic equity. One of the nation’s most prominent, award-winning social justice advocates, she serves on numerous boards and advisory councils, including the inaugural Community Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve and California’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery.

john a. powell is the Director of the Othering and Belonging Institute and Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. A former National Legal Director of the ACLU, he co-founded the Poverty & Race Research Action Council and serves on the boards of several national and international organizations. His latest book is: Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.


  • Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
  • Written by: Kenny Ausubel
  • Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
  • Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
  • Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
  • Producer: Teo Grossman
  • Production Assistance: Anna Rubanova and Monica Lopez

This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.

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Neil Harvey (Host): If there’s one fatal systems error in the modern worldview, it’s the assumption that we are separate – separate from nature, separate from the cosmos, separate from each other.

In this moment of radical transformation, shifting the societal pronoun from “me, me, me” to “we” may be the single most transformational pivot we can make in order for anything else to work. Our destiny is ultimately collective.
How can we overcome corrosive divisions and separations that are tearing us apart and create a world where everyone belongs?

That question is at the heart of the lifelong work of two deep friends and colleagues going back 50 years. Both Angela Glover Blackwell and john a. powell have worked tirelessly for decades to change public policy and systems of governance to create equity and a multicultural, multiracial democracy. Both are professors at the University of California at Berkeley, and both are policy advocates whose work has led to authentic structural change.

Blackwell is the Founder-in-residence at PolicyLink, which has worked since 1999 to advance racial and economic equity for all. She formerly served as a senior vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation where she oversaw the Domestic and Cultural Division.

powell is the founder of the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California at Berkeley. He’s an internationally recognized expert in the areas of civil rights and civil liberties, as well as on a wide range of issues including race, structural racism, ethnicity, housing, poverty, and democracy.

Blackwell defines equity as “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, thrive, and reach their full potential.” Yet, although progress has occurred, that kind of inclusion remains a far cry from current reality.

How, asks john a. powell, do we let go of the story of othering so that we can tell a better story of belonging where everyone belongs?

We drop into a candid conversation between these two pathfinders at the Bioneers conference…

Angela Glover Blackwell (AGB): I have spent most of my adult life being an advocate, working sometimes in confrontational ways, sometimes in more persuasive ways, but most of that time has been spent trying to impact policy and systems and institutions, and trying to do it in a way that’s just very logical – looking at a problem and seeing what’s not right, not just not fair but not just not right, and having real outrage about it, and thinking if I’m going to do anything in life, I’m going to do something about that. I’ve had success, if you want to call success seeing a system change, seeing a needle move, seeing a policy come into being, but I have to admit that after 50 years, we’re stuck. We’re stuck.

It’s not that we haven’t made progress, but it’s not sustainable. It’s not guaranteed. It’s not a platform that we stand on as we try to spiral up to the next place. It’s delicate. It’s impermanent, and we keep going back and forth. And it’s that frustration that’s led me to the conclusion that you may have reached a long time ago, I have a suspicion that you have been more of a hearts person than I have, that I was a systems person, a policy person, an advocacy person. But I recognize that I come at it because of what’s in my heart, because of what was in my family, because it was in my neighborhood, in my church, and that I have given inadequate attention to those same aspects of the people who I wanted to move.

Angela Glover Blackwell speaking at Bioneers 2022. Photo by Alex Akamine.

And oddly enough, I’m a latecomer to notions of joy and love being part of the work. Those were not words that I used. But I have come to realize actually through a podcast that I do called Radical Imagination, and I interviewed Adrienne Maree Brown, who talks about pleasure activism, and I must say talking with her changed my whole attitude, because she made the point that if you do not have a vision of joy that is connected with whatever it is you’re working on, it’s not an authentic vision of change. And as I reflected on that, I realized that I was a secret joy seeker. I create a lot of joy in my life, but that wasn’t my work. You know? It’s like my family is my joy, swimming is my joy. I had lots of joys, but they were separate from my work. That conversation caused me to move joy more front and center.

And the other thing that I have moved front and center is the story, because I realized that everything you do is animated by a story that you have told yourself. Sometimes it’s a scary story, sometimes it’s a negative story, sometimes it’s an aspirational story, sometimes you think it’s a true story and nothing you can do about it.

So I agree with you 100% on both things that you have lifted up. One is that what’s in our hearts is not enough, but if it’s not in our hearts, it’s not sustainable when we put it in our policies, in our institutions. It can be gone tomorrow. And the other is that we need to translate our beliefs into a story that everybody can see themselves in and have a sense that they can be a part of it.

john a. powell (jp): Thank you. Thank you. I think we can leave now. [laughter]

AGB: Ok! (laughter) But, you know, I do think that the way that some people hear “belonging” suggests that we can get there by not having to go through race, and we can’t; that there is no belonging if there are people who feel marginalized because of race and ethnicity and those things. Can you talk a little bit about that and how they relate?

jp: As you know, our institute is called the Othering and Belonging Institute, and it’s made up of seven clusters, and those clusters focus both on populations and on issues. And so race is one of the issues, but so is gender, so is LGBTQ, so is disability. And when I first got there, about 10 years ago now, we had these seven clusters, and we were called the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. And without rewriting history, I would say that it was closer, in some ways, to what you described in terms of policy. And there was a little bit of competition between the different groups. Each group was like, “No, my group is the one that really suffers. I know you suffer too, but my group really suffers.” 

And a couple of things, and this was an evolution. It occurred to me that they all were experiencing systematic othering. They all were being denied their full humanity. And they all wanted to fully belong. They all wanted to be fully recognized and to fully participate in the world that they were co-creating. And they weren’t against each other, they just didn’t really deeply hear each other. And over a period of time, we moved to the Othering and Belonging, because we felt that underneath each one of those expressions, there was the architect of othering. 

Now just in terms of personal biography, some of you may know I’ve lived in many different parts of the world. My daughter was born in Tanzania. I tell her we might change our terminology from African Americans to something else. She will always be an African American. She’s literally an African and an American. 

And what I saw in working in places like Tanzania, South Africa, living and working in places like India, is that othering is extremely grounded in virtually every society. So in India, it is the caste system. But I was just with some people from Europe. And they talked about the struggles they’re having in mixed communities in Ireland. Of course they meant Catholic and Protestant. And for them, all these just get boiled down to that. Right? The religious difference between Protestant and Catholics is the penultimate. And maybe it is the penultimate in Ireland. So race is the penultimate expression of othering in the United States. 

The paradigm is a structure, it’s how we look at the world. So if we have a Black-and-White paradigm, it doesn’t mean it’s just about Black people and White people, it means that this is the way we organize our view of the world. And so in the United States, historically, the closer you are to White, the better off you are through many indicators. The closer you are to Black, the worse you are. 

So in the United States, we have to address race not to help Black people, but to actually – this is an American project. If we’re going to change the United States, we have to change the way we think about this paradigm. We have to come up with a different paradigm.

john a. powell speaking at Bioneers 2022. Photo by Alex Akamine.

Coming up with a different paradigm is complicated, because it’s not just doing something different, it’s being different. It actually means we will not have the same meaning associated with Whiteness and Blackness that we do today. If you go back and look at early definition of Whiteness, early definition of Whiteness was not Black. They didn’t have a positive definition, it’s just that you’re not Black. In California, they have some proposed laws that would make California only available to Whites. And they don’t know what Whites are. And these are two powerful people, and they said, well, it means not Black. 

What I’m suggesting is that these definitions, these meanings, these frameworks keep changing. They’re not stable. What we do changes them. And so that’s why James Baldwin said there’s no hope for us as long as they think they’re White. And what he really was saying, as long as their identity is organized around white superiority, white hierarchy, there’s no hope for us.

If you take away white superiority and white dominance, what’s left of Whiteness? It’s certainly not what we see every day in our society. It’s something else. And part of what we have to do is not only reject that old, we have to also propose the future. We have to tell the story about the future. 

And I often times say in talking about this that as we interrogate and shift from the ideology of superiority and white supremacy, we’re not talking about people who are necessarily phenotypically White. We’re talking about an ideology. And if you need any clarification of that, just think about Justice Thomas. Justice Thomas to me embodies the concept of white supremacy, even though I think he’s the same hue as I am.

AGB: So, you know, listening to you talking about othering and belonging reminds me of why art is so powerful in helping us see things that we sometimes can’t see otherwise. It has to do with the universal and the particular, that sometimes people write – and often it’s academics, but not always – about universally what’s going on, which is kind of the way I take in othering and belonging, that you and your colleagues have done a magnificent job of looking across the globe and seeing there is a pattern that’s repeated again and again and again. And that phrase “othering and belonging” just really captures it.

And I’m talking about the particular. And for me, the particular starts in St. Louis, Missouri on the 4900 block of Terry in the 1950s, and it branches out to the whole nation, but within the particular, it is race, and it is all race, all the time. And being able to hold those thoughts together is often the challenge.

The problem that I deal with every day is how to be able to reach and galvanize the overwhelming majority of people in this country who actually want to live in a different way. Many of them are of color. Many of them are people with disabilities. Many of them are people who are transgender and gay and lesbian. Many of them are living in poverty. Many of them have studied what it is to find your best self and are working every day toward doing that. Many of them are just good people because they came up in good families, and while no mother ever went on a march and no father ever put his body on the line for anybody, what they heard at the dinner table after school was, “You be nice to your classmates, all of them.” That’s the majority of the people in the United States.

And what we have not been able to do is recognize that the thing that is holding us back is because we haven’t dealt with the racism, that we allow school systems to operate where if you live in one neighborhood, you go to a school that is as good as any that can be paid for with every dollar that could be earned, and it is a public school. You live in another area of the city and you go to a public school that has nothing, is producing nothing, and has been doing it for decades, and we live in these cities and we’re okay with it.

We live with that because it is happening to people that somewhere deep in our bones in this nation, we have let them be at the bottom of the hierarchy of human value, so that if you’re forced to think about it, it seems outrageous, but when you live with it every day, something about it kind of seems okay.

And if we could just find all the people who really know that it’s the way that we have dealt with the difference of race in this nation that has allowed us to develop institutions and systems and policies that perpetuate the wrong on all kinds of people, people who’ve never seen a Black person are suffering in a society in which Black people were deemed to be at the bottom of the hierarchy of human value and we allowed our economic and other systems to be developed on that hierarchy.

And so, john, I just love that you have been able to put that in a context globally, and to give us something that wherever you happen to land you can know that there’s othering going on, and you need to be sure that you’re finding it and that you’re standing up against it.

But the thing that I try to live up to is that if I am in the room, your back is covered, no matter what your back might be. That that’s what I try to do, because that’s what we have to do, which means identify that othering and work against it, but in this context we cannot jump to that’s just othering because it is a racial othering, because that’s our othering. And so we’ve got to deal with that in particular.

Host: If indeed a majority of people want to come together across our differences, how can we overcome the hierarchy of human value that’s designed to other and separate us?

When we return, Angela Glover Blackwell and john a. powell explore the big gnarly questions. Is the glass half empty or half full? Is this the last gasp of a culture of othering? How can we use our own agency to realize the better angels of our nature and create a transformative solidarity?

I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to The Bioneers.

Host: In the quest for a multicultural democracy, one obstacle is what’s sometimes called the “oppression Olympics.” How might things change if we acknowledge and respect everyone’s suffering? Can changing that story change the world? john a. powell…

jp: PolicyLink does a lot of work in the community, and so does the Othering and Belonging Institute. And I can just tell you that the experience—First of all, I’m a little uncomfortable—You know, frankly, talking about Black people in a monolith. Black people represent every hue. 

We are one of the anchor institutions right now for reparations. One of the issues that came up is like who is eligible for reparations. A lot of people and the majority, frankly, at the Reparations Commission for California said you have to have a certain experience—that if you didn’t have grandparents who were enslaved in the United States, you’re not eligible for reparations, because the experience in the United States was unique.

What most people missed, including apparently most people on the commission, many of whom are educated, is that slavery in the Caribbeans in many instances was worse than the United States. But we know our own pain but we’re not willing to acknowledge that other people, in this case, other Black people, they’re not historically Black Americans, but they are Black people, but that’s not good enough It’s been said by many people we have a fidelity to our own pain but an inability to see other people’s pain. 

At the height of the attacks on Asian Americans, I wrote a piece basically talking about we need to stand behind, stand with our Asian American brothers and sisters. On social media, including among a lot of Black activist friends, attacked me for that because they felt I was detracting from focus on Black people. This is actually happening in America right now. We’re fracturing. 

And I think the fracturing that’s happening can and in fact is happening between the different groups. Bob Marley said every man thinks his burden is the heaviest— we need to tell a story that allows for other people’s suffering as well. And I’m not saying it to diminish African American suffering, but neither do I want to diminish Native American suffering. We don’t know their story. 

And so we have to learn about all, the leadership has to make it clear about all. So that’s why I think in some ways, I think, substantively, there’s very little difference between what you’re saying and what I’m saying. I think there’s a difference in terms of emphasis.

I think there is this danger of not seeing other people’s pain, of wanting to define the world just in terms of our own experience without hearing other people’s experience. And I think when we do that, the chance of actually turning this into something really good is greatly diminished.

AGB: I agree. And there is a danger in not seeing when we really are making progress. I must say when people talk about is the glass half empty or half full, for me it is so half full, because you talk about the struggle around reparations. I am so elated that we’re having conversations about reparations. I never thought that was going to happen. And not only are we having conversations about reparations, but California has a commission focused on it. Gary, Indiana and other places have actually tried to see what they can do within their local communities, and they’re calling it reparations. And people are going to understand what that is. That is amazing to me! I mean, I will tell you that I did not think in my lifetime that I would see serious conversation in the United States of America about reparations.

I did not think in my lifetime that I would see CEOs of major corporations doing something as simple as taking a knee. Now I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of that than it is, because that didn’t take anything out of them. That was not a big deal, but it was a big deal, because for the most part, people who were White, male CEOs didn’t think that what happened to a poor Black man in some city in America had anything to do with them, that they had no obligation to respond. Not only did they have those gestures, and that’s what taking a knee was, but they have put huge money behind trying to figure out what to do with these problems.

I did not think I would have some of the conversations with people, many of whom the majority have been White, who have come to me to say: How can I lead this institution? How can I lead the whatever it is; it might be a foundation, it might be a corporation, it might be a university, it might be a civic association, it might be a huge not-for-profit. White people questioning their legitimacy to lead institutions when these institutions have to quickly step into a moment where race is front and center and they’re being challenged about how it is that they’re going to deal with these issues going forward.

Things are changing in this society. I am not naïve about how fundamental the change has to be to be transformative, but I am also not blind to the fact that there are people and institutions and resources that are running as fast as they can to figure out how to do something different. And I think we’ve got to take note of that. We have got to take note of that. [APPLAUSE] Right, john?

jp: I completely agree. And a lot of things have come forward, and it’s like that old saying: Is it good or bad? It’s too early to say. We are running out of time. And part of what I’m positing is, can we actually accelerate this? And can we accelerate it—I think part of the way is to make it clear that yes, we are about everyone, without apologies. And it doesn’t mean we have to apologize for being grounded in addressing racism and anti-black racism in particular. But that doesn’t have to translate into, therefore, you step back, therefore we don’t care about you. 

And I can tell you from a lot of the activists, a lot of the writing that’s happening right now, I can give you some concrete examples. I’ll just give you one. And these are people I know, so many of them are friends. Think about Robin DiAngelo’s work. What she describes is actually quite…I’ll just say it’s quite. So she describes white fragility and black trauma. So if you’re in a meeting or something happens, and you freak out and you’re White, it’s too easy from Robin DiAngelo’s perspective to say that’s fragility. It’s not deserving of any empathy. Why? Because you’re White. If you’re in a meeting and something happens and you freak out, and you’re Black, from Robin DiAngelo’s perspective, that’s trauma. We need to understand it. We need to support it.

And I’m not saying there’s not some performance happening in either direction when these things happen, but to categorically assume that if you’re White and you’re struggling, emotionally and otherwise, that that’s fragility, that you’re being a butterfly, you’re being whatever, a “Karen”, and we don’t have to take it seriously is saying your pain doesn’t really count. And at the same time, she turns around and says we should care about Black people’s pain. I say we should care about pain and we should also care about it being institutionalized and weaponized. So there’s some complexity that matters. And in the midst of this, sometimes we galvanize our own group by alienating another group gratuitously.

Host: If, as Angela Glover Blackwell says, an overwhelming majority of people in the U.S. really do want to live in a different way and be our best selves, how do we turn that change of heart into system change? Sometimes it’s easier to see what’s dying than what’s being born. Again, Angela Glover Blackwell…

AGB: I think that we actually are moving forward, and that it’s hard to see, because the people who are fighting to maintain – the phrase that I often use in talking about this is you have people who are being nostalgic, who are being nostalgic for a time that never was while ignoring a future that is inevitable. And I think that’s exactly what’s going on. I think that is a minority group, but it’s getting a lot of attention. The media is over-playing it, and so it looms larger than it is for that reason, but it is big.

But what I also think that it is a last gasp, and a last gasp can be long and shrill and dangerous. So that is not to dismiss it, but it is last. It is the past. It is not the future. And people are finding themselves, they are engaging in transformative solidarity, they are questioning institutions, and they’re questioning practices and customs and beliefs that have never been questioned before. And that’s what I’m attaching myself to so I get up energized every day.

This is our moment and we have agency. How are we going to use it? If we find each other, lean in and use it, we will get to a much better place, and we will stand there and go forward. But this is a perilous moment, it is a last gasp.

The one thing that we can do is to lift up, to articulate the highest, most aspirational things that we can agree upon and work toward that, learning how to let go and how to add to what you bring, so that we can do that effectively.

jp: So if you go online and just Google “Lessons from Suffering”, something I wrote 10 years ago. And I looked at how a number of other religious traditions are organized to deal with suffering. And so this is a longer answer, but I’ll just give you the short end of it. We are literally born connected to another human being. Humans will not survive without belonging. 

We are connected. We may not acknowledge it. We may hate it. As James Baldwin said, you know, sometimes we think it’s unfair, but we can’t do anything about it. But we can do something about it. We can mess it up. We can deny it. We can be pissed about it. 

And part of it is because of suffering. Part of it is because of pain. It’s like I cut myself off from you because I’m afraid you’re going to hurt me. And not realizing that when I cut myself off from you, I’ve hurt myself. 

How much of the suffering we experience is self-generated? It’s not that there’s not a lot of suffering that other people visit upon us. And I call it surplus suffering, that we suffer just because we’re alive. But we don’t have to be homeless. We don’t have to be shot by the police. We don’t have to be disrespected in school. That’s surplus suffering. Even if we take all of that away, we still would suffer. 

And so I think for me, being in touch with that, my suffering and others’ suffering, and realizing that everyone suffers, and everyone belongs. And Maya Angelou, I don’t know if I’ve sent it to you, Angela, if not I will, she says, I belong no place, and therefore, I belong every place.

Host: john a. powell and Angela Glover Blackwell… “Creating a World Where Everyone Belongs: From a Change of Heart to System Change”

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