Healing Across Divides: Building Bridges to Challenge Systemic Injustice

In recent years, political polarization and a sense of “othering” has been immensely apparent, both in ideology and physical manifestations, such as the border wall. It’s time for collective healing. But this will take more than proclaiming individual stances against systems of oppression. The current moment demands we unite and actively work to dismantle those systems — not merely disapprove of them.

john a. powell is the Director of the Othering and Belonging Institute and Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. In his keynote address at the Bioneers 2020 Conference, powell challenges us to think beyond individualized practices of bridging across differences, which ignore the structural injustices we live in.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

john a. powell

I live in Northern California where breathing can’t be taken for granted these days. In the last few years, we have experienced days when wildfires made it too difficult to breathe. The COVID-19 virus robs those of us of the ability to breathe. And of course George Floyd and Eric Garner became famous because they were not allowed to breathe. You might ask: “What does that have to do with me, and what does it have to do with Bioneers?” In my mind, one thing that Bioneers represents is the coming together of different communities that share a grounding in the Earth and in nature. It’s a bridge that affords the possibility for everyone in all expressions of life to belong. 

But why aren’t bridges in our society working better now? Instead of building bridges, we’ve been building walls, and we’ve been fracturing. We’re seeing demonstrations in the streets. After the election, many of us were celebrating, but half the country is still mourning. So how do we actually heal? It seems to me that bridging is the key to healing. At the Othering and Belonging Institute, we are very concerned about that process of healing, and the good news is that we’re not the only ones. A lot of people want the country and the world to heal. A recent survey found that 70 percent of Americans—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, people who are not political at all—want the country to heal. They want to stop the polarization. But how do we do that? We may feel that we’re too small as individuals to control anything except our own lives, but I want to challenge us on that.

Bridging is basically a process in which we recognize another person’s humanity. In South Africa there’s a Zulu word, sawubona, which means “I see you,” and a Bantu term, ubuntu, which means: “I am because you are.” In other words, “We recognize our deep interrelationship.” And there’s a lot of research suggesting that when people are seen, they start to heal. Just being seen, just being recognized is a deeply loving and healing event. And all over the country we’re seeing people engaging in this process of bridging that calls on us to see each other, to recognize each other. This has a political, cultural and certainly a spiritual dimension.

My assumption is that many in the Bioneers community are already leaning into some practice involving mindfulness, be it meditating, mindful eating, dancing, connecting to the Earth, etc. And I think those types of activities are critical in order to heal ourselves and heal each other, but I also want to push us to go beyond that, because what we found at the Institute is that while people gravitate towards bridging and belonging, they tend to do it in such a way that it becomes a very individualized practice. In these contexts, you often hear people say that in order to do something on the outside, you must first fix the inside. It suggests that bringing people together so that they can see each other is enough, but while it is critical, it’s not enough. 

Let me offer you two examples to illustrate this. One is from a classic that isn’t widely read anymore called Native Son by Richard Wright, published in 1940. The main protagonist in Native Son is someone named Bigger Thomas, a very poor young African American in Chicago who gets a job with a white family as, among other things, a chauffeur, driving the family around. When the family’s daughter returns from college, because she’s very liberal and about the same age as Bigger Thomas, she and her boyfriend basically say “We want to recognize your humanity, Bigger. We don’t believe in all this hierarchy, that you’re the chauffeur and we’re the passengers. We’ll sit up front with you; we’re not going to sit in the back.” What they don’t realize is how uncomfortable this makes Bigger; that Bigger is extremely discombobulated by having these two rich white people sit up in the front of the car with him. Even though they’re trying to exercise a sense of goodwill, they’re not acknowledging the cultural and structural impediments that make it very hard for Bigger to really connect with them.

Later in the book, they’re driving around and the white couple are getting hungry, so Bigger asks “Would you like me to take you some place to eat?” And their response is yes. And Bigger says, “Where?” And they say, “Take us to your favorite place.” This mortifies Bigger. He says, “No, I can’t do that,” but they say they want to see where he eats and to eat what he eats. Eventually Bigger agrees, and, of course, not only are they the only white people in this place, they’re the only rich people, and the whole place is abuzz. They’re doing it with good intentions. They’re trying to connect, to recognize Bigger. They’re trying to bridge, but they fail to recognize that the social structure and culture make it hard. Without addressing culture, social structures and power imbalances, bridging is very, very hard.

Let me give you a more recent illustration, from a 2019 movie I recommend called Knives Out. In this movie, the action centers around a very rich family, and there’s a caretaker from Latin America who takes care of the head of the family who has become a fixture in their midst. And at one point, there’s a conversation among the family members about undocumented immigrants, and she’s very uncomfortable because not only is she an immigrant, but her mother, who lives with her, is undocumented. And she needs this job. She can’t afford to live without this job, and at a certain point in the conversation, the family members turn to her and ask “Marta, what do you think? What’s your feeling about undocumented immigrants?” And she’s mortified. What should she say? She needs her job. She loves her mother. One of the family members recognizes that this is putting her in a totally awkward situation because of the power imbalance, because of the culture. She cannot have an authentic conversation with them unless they begin to address these deep structural issues.

And this gets replicated over and over again in our lives. It’s not enough to just say “I’m a good person. I don’t see hierarchy. I don’t see differences.” Those differences are real. They’re not biological, but they’re nonetheless real, and we can’t just engage in internal work to fix these problems. These problems are inside and outside. We live in stories and stories live in us. We live in structures and structures live in us. And we have to actually be attentive to how those structures make bridging, make the ability to see each other difficult. 

But there’s another, opposite, perspective that is taken by some people who are engaged in social justice practice. They would agree with the critique I just made, and they would say: “Yes, before we can do anything, we have to fix the structures. First of all, you have to get rid of capitalism; you have to get rid of white supremacy.” I think this is leaning too far in the other direction. If we have hundreds of preconditions before we can actually come together authentically, before we can bridge; if all of those power imbalances, all of those structures, all of those cultural impediments have to be removed first, that will never happen, so we will never come together.

So here’s the dilemma: if we come together while all the oppressive structures are in place, things won’t go smoothly, but if we wait until all those structures are addressed, we never come together. What we advocate at the Institute is that we begin with short bridges but at the same time that we pay attention to structure and culture. We engage in practices that center our bodies, minds and hearts, but we also recognize that we’re a part of the world. It’s an iterative process. It’s not one before the other. We have to do both at the same time and to reject the duality between the inside and the outside, and we’ll make mistakes and conditions will change, and that’s part of the process. 

I think the Bioneers community is very well situated to begin that process, and I challenge you all to be ambassadors to help the world heal, to help us bridge. Some people are leery of bridging because they think that, first of all, if there’s any bridging to be done, it needs to be done by those who are in power, and that’s not entirely wrong. If you have more power, you have more responsibility, but all of us have some power, some agency. It’s not symmetrical, but all of us can potentially engage in bridging. We have to start where we are, recognizing that things are not perfect and they never will be, but that we can begin to do the work.

There’s also an understandable reluctance to bridge with, say, a member of the KKK or an ardent Trump supporter or someone who hates black people, who’s xenophobic, etc., but again I say start with short bridges; start with things that are easier; start with things that are closer to home. Don’t start with the most difficult. And bridging doesn’t mean we agree with someone. It’s not predicated on the notion that I’m going to convince you or you’re going to convince me. It’s predicated on seeing each other, on being present, on listening, and on compassion, which means to suffer together. And research shows that when we can do this, when we can be fully present with someone else, it not only transforms them, it transforms us, so even though we’re not doing it for the purpose of changing a person, it can actually be a very effective change agent.

Bridging is one of the most effective tools for us to heal the world and create a world in which we all belong, but belonging requires that we co-create, and co-creation requires agency, power, love and responsibility. We are all responsible. Responsibility is different than guilt or blame, so we don’t dwell on guilt or blame, we dwell on responsibility. All of us are responsible for creating and co-creating a world and a future where everyone belongs, and we all belong to the Earth. And that is the challenge I want to leave with you, Bioneers: be ambassadors for bridging and creating a world where we all belong. Thank you.


john a. powell, Director of the Othering and Belonging Institute and Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley; previously Executive Director at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State, and prior to that, founder/Director of the Institute for Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota, has also taught at numerous law schools, including Harvard and Columbia. 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.

To learn more about john a. powell, read his full bio at the Othering and Belonging Institute.

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