Re-Weaving the Web of Belonging: The Inside is Not, and the Outside is Too
As author Michael Pollan observes: “The two biggest crises humanity faces today are tribalism and the environmental crisis. They both involve the objectifying of the other – whether that other is nature or other people.” How do we re-weave that web of relationships, and focus on our likenesses rather than our differences?
In this program, racial justice advocates john a. powell, Eriel Deranger and Anita Sanchez explore how overcoming the illusion of separateness from nature and each other requires building bridges rather than burning them. They say the fate of the world depends on it.
- john a. powell, Director of the Othering and Belonging Institute and Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley.
- Eriel Deranger (Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation), Executive Director of Indigenous Climate Action.
- Anita Sanchez, bestselling author, consultant, trainer and executive coach specializing in indigenous wisdom, diversity and inclusion, leadership, culture and promoting positive change in our world.
- Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
- Written by: Kenny Ausubel
- Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
- Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
- Producer: Teo Grossman
- Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
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: As author Michael Pollan observes: “The two biggest crises humanity faces today are tribalism and the environmental crisis. They both involve the objectifying of the other – whether that other is nature or other people.”
So how do we re-weave that web of relationships, and focus on our likenesses rather than our differences?
Professor john a. powell of UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute says it’s really complicated – and undeniably imperative. In that question hangs the fate of the world as we know it.
john a. powell is an internationally recognized scholar and activist in the areas of civil rights, structural racism, and democracy. He’s the author of “Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.”
john a. powell spoke on a panel at a Bioneers conference…
john a. powell: There’s these two big stories, and one story’s about a smaller and smaller “we”. In fact sometimes that “we” gets so small it becomes—it stops being a “we” altogether. It becomes “I”. And we actually have a word for it. We call it “narcissism”. And where everything’s about me, or my little group, everything else that’s outside of me and my group is seen as a threat. And the way that I deal with that threat is to dominate. And so we divide the world up, not just for nomenclature, but for deciding who gets dominated and who are the dominators.
The story of humans, and this small we, is the humans are here to dominate, control, exploit, and that’s the dominant story we still live with.
And we actually have another name for it. That story is called capitalism. Everything is to be taken, to be used. So what happens when it’s all used up? Well, there are other planets. We can go some place. We can literally break from the Earth and start all over again. So that’s the dominant theme. It’s not just story, we organize our whole economy around it. We organize our structures around it. And once you start looking for it, you see it everywhere.
So literally, up until the late ‘60s, we had in many, many states—not only were we separating people based on their race, we’re saying it’s against the law, it’s a crime for people of different races to marry. Many of you were born in the ‘60s, but we had large numbers of people running around the country today reasserting, not implicitly, not as my friend Ian Haney Lopez would say, not a dog whistle, but with a bull horn, saying we need to restore white supremacy, white nationalism; we need to dominate. They’re growing more and more people in the United States who say, “What is this thing, equality? We don’t believe in equality. It’s natural for people to be with their own.” And their own is this small race, religion, this small we. What comes from that is putting kids in cages, and literally, you have people saying “Those are not our kids, they don’t belong here”.
And we’re doing it over and over and over and over again. That’s the major story we’re fighting about. Do we have a large ‘we’ where everybody belong? Where whales belong, where children belong, and I don’t care if they’re from Syria, or if they’re from Mexico, or if they’re from Kansas, but everybody belongs. That’s a really important, but radical, concept.
In the context of a world where authoritarianism, where ethnic nationalism is sweeping the globe, it sounds sentimental to be talking about belonging. It sounds quaint to be saying we care about the Earth. When there are 80 trillion or $700 trillion dollars worth of fossil fuel still buried, why would you leave it in the ground? Okay, so you’re going to mess up the Earth, but we could take that $700 trillion and go to Mars. F’ the Earth. And what’s our response? How do we bridge, when do we bridge? It’s very easy to say if they’re going to f’ us, we’re going to f’ them. If they’re going to break with us, we’re going to break with them. If they say we don’t belong, we’re going to say you don’t belong.
Notice when we’re doing that, we’re adopting their framework. And I don’t say to anyone who’s been abused, been traumatized, if they want to fight back, if they want to be angry, sometimes it’s appropriate to be angry, I don’t say not to be angry, but I say we can’t stay there.
HOST: It’s complicated indeed. The ancient tribal instincts we carry as human beings no longer serve us – not in an irretrievably interconnected world that gets smaller by the day – nor in a globally shared biosphere that we’ve broken by objectifying and exploiting. We’ve institutionalized the structures of dominators and dominated. We’ve built our economy and society on them.
How do we build bridges rather than burn them? How do we change our societal pronoun from “me me me” to “we?”
Again, john a. powell…
JP: One of the things about healing, you hear a lot about self-care. Very small in the larger scheme of things. You can only do so much for yourself. If you’re doing all your care by yourself, it’s sad. It is sad. Care really requires a community. I participate in a lot of mindful practice, and people will say it’s like first do your work inside. And I always come back with Don Cherry, who’s a beautiful jazz musician, and he used to say “The inside is not, and the outside is too”. [LAUGHTER] Yes. Exactly. [LAUGHTER] What he’s saying is that duality between inside and outside is problematic.
And healing, in part, is bridging with yourself. What we do when we’re broken – literally think about it, when we’re really struggling, we say we’re broken, meaning that we no longer belong to ourselves. And we do that not in sequence, not sitting down in a cave by myself, it’s like we do it in relationship.
And part of what bridging requires is space to hear and engage in what’s called empathetic and compassionate listening. Now, again, we’re suspicious of that. This person just said something terrible to me, I don’t want to hear from them. I don’t want to know about their suffering. I’m pushing them outside the circle of humanity.
And there’s wonderful stories of people who have suffered a lot and used their suffering as a bridge. And I say because this is hard work, and because—let’s start off building short bridges. Don’t go to the most extreme. And some of you have heard me say when I talk to Pastor Mike, when he says, Do I have to bridge with the devil? And my response is: Don’t start there. [LAUGHTER]
But also be careful who you call the devil. Because we know deep down inside there is no “other”. So if I’m cutting myself off from someone, for whatever reason, I’m cutting myself off from myself, and that’s the deep, profound spiritual work.
We have a “we”, and if the we does not become real, if belonging does not become real, the bad news is then the “we” does not survive.
HOST: For those people seeking to build bridges where angels fear to tread, often it’s the hellish predicament of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.
What do you do when your own group attacks or shuns you for reaching out to bridge with the “other”? And what if there’s plenty good reason to be suspicious and defensive?
As an Indigenous person, Eriel Deranger has often found herself caught in that crossfire. She is a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. She comes from a family of Indigenous rights advocates fighting for the recognition, sovereignty and autonomy of their Indigenous lands and territory in Canada.
She co-founded Indigenous Climate Action and serves as Executive Director. She spoke at a Bioneers conference.
ERIEL DERANGER: And it’s so hard to build those bridges. And I know as an indigenous woman from Canada, a lot of folks think Canada’s like super—Oh, you guys have great relations with your government. Indigenous people are so well represented. But the reality is, is that’s like a fallacy. There’s this appearance that there’s this construction of a bridge happening that never actually gets worked on. They’ve got all the tools laid out, and they’ve done nothing to build these bridges. It creates these optics and these illusions.
And so over the years, we’ve seen this disenchantment from indigenous folks not feeling like there’s a sincere effort to build those bridges with us. And like that question is: Who builds this bridge? Who takes the lead? Who takes on those responsibilities? And a lot of the folks that are invested, that are making profit off the marginalization of others – whoever those others are, and it’s diverse in wherever you are—and those others can also be other beings. Let’s be real. This isn’t just about humanity. The othering of other species as if those lives are less valuable. By sort of default, humanity has already othered ourselves from the rest of the natural world, and I feel like that’s a huge challenge.
And as an indigenous person in Canada, navigating these places where a lot of my family – I’m the first generation to not be ripped out of my family’s home and forced into a residential school or the boarding schools that they had in the United States; I’m the first generation. And so when you think about the trauma, the intergenerational trauma of being fearful, not just of white people. Let’s be real. Fearful of the education system, fearful of systems of government, fearful of participating in those systems, because they will take everything that makes you away, and so that you break and you divide, and you put yourself like into these little boxes and you hide, and you protect what you still have. And then when you step outside of those things, those people that hold all that trauma and pain, first they say, don’t do it, and then when you do it, they say, oh no, now you’re not a part of us. And so you end up in these struggles of like how do you actually take the steps to build the bridge when there’s so much hurt and there’s so much trauma that is blocking the ability to build these bridges?
HOST: Broken systems – broken people – broken trust in a broken world. It’s a tough gig that gets ever tougher when people translate their wounds into broken systems of domination and power.
Eriel Deranger says the question becomes, “How do we heal?”
ED: It can be really hard when you have these traumas and these things that separate us. They separate us because things have been broken. We’ve been broken. The traumas create this fear. And then that perpetuates into, if you have positions of power and domination, and you enact oppression, and that can actually—that’s where the break happens. The break happens when you actually deny the right for someone to belong to those groups, to the societies.
And that’s where the struggle comes on how we – we have to overcome these traumas. Healing is a fundamental part of getting to a place of stopping the othering and building those places of belonging, so that we can effectively build those bridges without those coming after us and cutting those lines just as we connect them.
And the courage that it takes to be like, I’m going to do this out of love. Not out of strategy, not out of all of these things, but to come from it from the love – for me, in the work that I do is I do this for the love of my people. I take on these challenges and I put myself oftentimes in harm’s way for the love of my people.
I receive backlash from my own community. And then when I sit in these spaces where I’m told I don’t really belong, I receive backlash from there as well. But I continue to move forward, because I know at the root of this, the bridges that we’re building – and you find those allies that say, I want to build those bridges too. And then suddenly you start to build these little tiny bridges, these little tentacles, and you’re right, it’s not like a linear thing. It’s more like a web. It’s like there’s all these little pieces where you find here, and then here, and then here.
HOST: When we return… we hear from author Anita Sanchez on forgiveness as an act of transformation that can expand our circle of belonging.
This is, “Re-Weaving the Web of Belonging” on the Bioneers: Revolution From the Heart of Nature.
HOST: For Anita Sanchez, the political became deeply personal at a young age. Today, as a highly experienced professional at the top of the game working in the areas of diversity and inclusion, leadership and Indigenous wisdom, she attributes her work to the trauma of the race-based murder of her father.
How do you forgive the unforgivable?
ANITA SANCHEZ: As that little 13-year-old, whose father was killed, murdered—he was an alcoholic, so he went every day to get a drink after work. After shoveling coal, he would go and get a beer. But that day in 1967, early that day in that corner bar, a white man and a black man were having a fight, and my father shows up in the afternoon. The white man returns and he just sees my dark-complected father in the same chair, and fires several bullets through his head, and kills him on the spot. Now I’m a 13-year-old. What, now what am I supposed to do with that?
That was bad enough. But what happened the week after is the white woman and a little white boy who was probably about 13, too, came to the door and introduced themselves as the wife and the son of the man who murdered my father, and I was with my mom. And she said, “I had to come tell you, Mrs. Sanchez. You needed to know my husband was a good man. He never would have killed your husband if he knew he was Mexican and Native American. He thought he was black.” And she started going on about what black people were. And my mom, who’s very Earth indigenous but also very Catholic, and I remember her shaking. She just yelled at a stranger, and I never saw her do that, telling her “Stop; you don’t even know what you’re saying; you don’t even know the kind of hatred you’re teaching your son, but you get off my porch. I’m going to try really hard to pray for your soul, but you get off my porch.”
What happened, over time, listening to these white people talking, they were sharing stories that their parents taught them they were better than us. But they were also dealing with their own healing, and they were slowly – not fast enough for me – but changing [LAUGHTER] some behaviors and policies and programs, and I’m watching. And they weren’t just flaky things, some major things were happening.
And so I invite you to do the work, because there’s a lot of goodies that—Like why do I want to go into that suffering? Well, because it’s freedom. What I found is by using the gift of forgiveness, the gift of healing, is that I’m able to be in unity with other, belong to many more. That illusion of separateness in my own separate wall comes down. Oh my gosh, it not only keeps out the bad things, it keeps out the good things. I wouldn’t know these people, or you.
So be about your healing, and be hungry for it, because it is possible. That’s what I want to say, at this point—it’s going to sound crazy, and I’m going to pass it—I truly believe and know for me: there is absolutely nothing that is unforgivable. Absolutely nothing that can’t be healed, absolutely nothing that we can’t do if we really are fully in it in unity.
We make it sound really heavy, and it is heavy, there’s a heavy side. But there’s a joyful part. I never go anywhere – I’m never alone. I get lonely, but I am never alone, because that hoop of life only knows “we”. Well, I saw the loss, I saw what happens when we really hate each other.
HOST: There is nothing that cannot be healed, says Anita Sanchez, if we are fully in unity – in community.
And as Mohandas Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will make the world blind.”
But it’s still really complicated. As they say in the sports world, “no pain, no gain.” Yet most people have an aversion to pain and suffering and to facing our fears – even if it may mean our ultimate freedom and greater peace.
How do you reconcile these opposing forces?
Eriel Deranger says that peaceful co-existence acknowledges our unity, but it also requires healthy boundaries, self-protection and a supportive community.
ED: We often have this aversion to conflict, to pain, we want to minimize and mitigate our lives to be as painless and hurt-free as possible. But the reality is we need to be challenged in order to grow. And sometimes those challenges come with pain and adversity, and we need them.
We also have to talk about how we protect ourselves. I see people put themselves in harm’s way too much, having too much empathy that leads to them being abused or manipulated. And we have to be very careful about taking care of self, but recognizing that self is part of community.
There’s this really great book, I’ve read it like three times. It’s called Joyful Militancy. And it’s really about how we absolutely have to be prepared for those who challenge our perceptions, even to challenge our core values, and that we have to like not limit ourselves into those little siloes, and that we have to bridge those divides. But we also have to be careful that, yes, that nothing is unforgivable, but that doesn’t mean you need to have it in your life. You know? You don’t invite your abuser to live in your home, but you can forgive them.
It’s not simple, like, oh, we just need to have full compassion and open our doors to everyone, and if you’re not compassionate and you don’t want to accept me for my mistakes, even though I’ve hurt you over and over again, then you’re not doing this right. That’s not it at all. There is the need to create your own boundaries for your own preservation of self so that you don’t get traumatized, so you don’t lead to those disconnections that actually will other you. And again, we need community in order to navigate these things with health and with grace.
HOST: As john a. powell says, don’t start by trying to bridge with the devil.
Yet in many ways, that’s exactly what Nelson Mandela faced in South Africa: a life-and-death war against the colonial Apartheid system founded in blood-soaked racial hatreds and divisions – othering of the highest order and the lowest depravity.
JP: Nelson Mandela is in prison, in South Africa, and he’s head of the ANC, which is fighting a war against the Afrikaners. So it’s not a good situation. And literally he’s having family members killed by the South Africans. So he has reasons to be very concerned, and a lot of anguish and suffering.
There’s a big riot in South Africa, and Soweto is sort of the heart of it. The Soweto riots. What was the issue that lit the riot, the issue that was focused on, was the Afrikaners decided that the instructions would be done in Afrikander, so everyone would have to learn the oppressive language in order to go to school. And the people of South Africa, the blacks of South Africa said no way, and they start rioting.
At the same time, Nelson Mandela is asking his prison guards in Robben Island to teach him Afrikander. And they do. And a couple of things happened. So 1) when the prison guards started teaching him Africander, they actually start trying to soften his position in prison. They’re saying, You no longer have to break rocks; we actually began to see your humanity, so you don’t have to do all these terrible things. And he says no. Make no differentiation between me and all the other people in prison. So if you said no one has to break rocks, that’s fine, but I will not accept special treatment. And he’s getting up in age already.
Then he comes out of prison, and he meets with the president of South Africa, and he says—they’re meeting about a ceasefire to stop the war that’s killing thousands and thousands of people—and the president says, I think we can possibly do this, but first you have to meet with the general who’s head of the Africaner army and convince him. Now this general has actually called black South Africans monkeys. He says they’re not human. He don’t believe they can govern themselves. And he believed the whites can win the war, but he has to meet with Nelson Mandela.
So he goes to Nelson Mandela’s house, and he gets there, and Nelson Mandela’s servants let him in. He sits on the couch. In front of the couch there’s a coffee table, and on the other side of the coffee table there are chairs. Nelson Mandela comes in. The general’s sitting on the couch. And Nelson Mandela doesn’t sit in the chairs, he comes and sits next to the general on the couch. [LAUGHTER] The general was very uncomfortable. [LAUGHTER] And Nelson Mandela says, Would you like some tea? And the general says yes. Nelson Mandela does not call his servants – and he has servants – to fix the tea. Nelson Mandela gets up, goes into the kitchen, and fixed the general’s tea and comes back and serves him tea. This makes the general even less comfortable. [LAUGHTER]
And so the general said, Look, I’m here to talk about a ceasefire. I think it’s a terrible idea, but let’s talk about it. And Nelson Mandela says fine. So for the next two to three hours they have a conversation about the ceasefire. The entire conversation takes place in Africander. The general leaves Nelson Mandela’s house and his entourage says, How did it go? And he says, I don’t like this Nelson Mandela guy, but he can convince anybody of anything. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE]
He agrees to the ceasefire. By some accounts, he saved over 100,000 lives. When Nelson Mandela is sick and dying, and the general comes forward and goes to Nelson Mandela’s family, and he says, I’d like to make a eulogy for Nelson Mandela. His family has not forgiven this general but they can’t completely refuse. And they say, You’ve got 15 minutes, whatever you can say in 15 minutes.
The general gives the eulogy for Nelson Mandela in Xhosa, Nelson Mandela’s native language. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] And there are a lot of stories like this. This is bridging. So the hurt wasn’t gone. One thing to remember, Nelson Mandela had not laid down his arms. He still had an army. He was still willing to fight. He was still willing to protect themselves. But he also was willing to bridge. And so it’s not sequential. It’s a complicated, messy process, but it’s real. [APPLAUSE]