Othering,” by Laura Avellaneda-Cruz

In management circles, the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” has gained broad currency. The quote is often ascribed to the famed late management theorist Peter Drucker. Whether or not Drucker ever uttered those words, it has clearly become a mainstay of management theory, even if a 2017 survey of London-based corporate directors and board members found that only two in ten reported spending any time whatsoever seeking to manage or improve company culture.

The same comment, perhaps, could be applied to the work of racial equity. Strategic guides to achieving racial equity within organizations proliferate, but what would it take—really—to create a culture that reinforces that strategy, as opposed to having it, say, eat that strategy for breakfast? This was the central theme of the Othering and Belonging conference.

The conference, hosted by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society in Oakland, California, attracted over 1,500 participants from across the world. At the event, presenters did not shy away from the vital need to promote economic and political change, but undergirding the discussions was the notion that for economic and political changes to stick, those changes needed to be linked to a positive cultural vision—one rooted in a community where all belonged.

A Framework for Belonging

In a plenary address, Haas executive director john powell set forth his view of what a cultural foundation for equity might look like. The problem of “othering,” powell argues, with clear echoes of W.E.B. Du Bois, is the “problem of the 21st century.” Othering, powell notes, is “a generalized set of common processes that denies someone’s full humanity based on them being less than and/or a threat to the favorite group.”

But the opposite of othering is not a denial of difference or “same-ing,” but rather a framework that promotes not only acceptance or tolerance, but a true welcoming of diversity—what powell calls “belonging.” As powell puts it, “Belonging, or being fully human, means more than having access. Belonging entails being respected at a basic level that includes the right to both co-create and make demands upon society.” Having a sense of belonging, powell notes, “impacts health, performance, life expectancy, mental, and emotional well-being.”

“Belonging,” powell adds, “is communicated through structures, culture and personal interactions.”

And while powell’s formulation might seem abstract, the real-world applications of the approach can be profound. For instance, at such universities as Stanford and the University of Texas-Austin, which, powell explained, have adopted a “belonging” framework, the percentage of black students who earn GPAs in the top quarter of their class tripled. The black-white achievement gap in terms of GPA was cut in half, and the number of health visits by black students fell.

At the conference, the impact of a belonging framework came up in a range of contexts. For example, take the campaign to pass Proposition 4 in Florida in November 2018. As some NPQ readers will recall, Proposition 4 restored the right to vote for “more than one million Floridians with felony convictions.” Because Florida state law requires a 60-percent affirmative vote to pass, the proposition was not given good odds for passage, but in the end it passed with 64.5 percent of the vote. Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, noted the importance of person-to-person organizing and relationship building. “Not bipartisan, [but] if we lead by people first, that allows us to come in close proximity and have real live conversation with folks, and that is where the transformation happens.”

Ben McBride, a community organizer with the Empower Initiative of PICO California, a faith-based organizing network operating in 73 cities and working with 480 congregations statewide, notes that, “Behind every political reality or manifestation of violence or pain is a spiritual conundrum. If we only respond to the political reality or manifestation of violence, you’ll only create more violence. We are in a very complicated world and scenario where if we don’t figure out how to rediscover our inter-relatedness, we will simply perpetuate the same world.”

McBride adds, “There is a real important lesson from Jewish scriptures of leaving an oppressive place and going to a promised land.” He adds, “What is the purpose of going to the promised land if you become pharaoh on the journey?”

Needless to say, the approach advocated by McBride differs from the often more transactional method that community organizing employs. McBride’s colleague, Jennifer Martinez, who is the organization’s chief strategy officer, notes, “When I first heard Ben say we first need to figure out who we need to become. I was like, ‘Oh, my god.’ I got involved in organizing to deal with the structural economy, take down capitalism, dismantle structural racism: hard core stuff.” But Martinez says she grew to appreciate that, “The transformations must be met with a spiritual transformation. We need to help people not just understand from an intellectual perspective, but in their bodies.… We are inviting people into what we are calling ‘bridging and belonging circles.’ We are hoping to create 1,000 circles of 10 people each. Create a shared sense of purpose, so that people can recognize the context and why the work is so deeply urgent.”

McBride adds:

I don’t need no allies. I need siblings. I need relatives. I need people to stand on the front line in Ferguson and folks in power. We need to deal within the movement. We haven’t created a movement that centers on folks. It is not in service to a campaign or verbal judo. We have to figure out how to become different versions of ourselves—as a movement. We don’t have to do the same thing, but we have to do something and hold space together. The goal is not just about passing the legislation, but about redefining the win.

Connections to Cultural Work

This notion of the need for a cultural shift permeated the gathering. One session, for instance, discussed the role of the arts, sports, and entertainment in meaning-making. Michael Bennett plays football for the New England Patriots and has authored the book Things That Make White People Uncomfortable. Bennett observed, “We are quick to run into someone, but why we are silent about the things that matter in our communities?” Paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bennett added, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Bennett said he felt that his role in taking a knee as the national anthem was played at games—in speaking out as a public figure—is to “stay connected.” Bennett adds, “You have to have some empathy and listen to the stories and think about it.”

Dawn-Lyen Gardner is an actress who stars in the series Queen Sugar, a series created and produced by Ava Duvernay. Gardner notes that while she was studying at Julliard, she considered giving up the arts for activism, but ultimately decided “my art would be my activism; in art, I could investigate the corners of my soul and share how they interact. The very act of committing to be an artist was a liberation.” Gardner adds, “I believe story and narrative are primal in nature. I have seen it in action in community. Forgiveness, and confirmation and healing and courage within relationships are facilitated by plays and music.”

Gardner notes that finding a way to the culture of belonging powell speaks of is not easy. “What is the vision,” Gardner asks. “Is that vision still the beloved community? That’s the biggest call and problem—the inarticulation of the vision. There is nothing simple about that. That’s where I find myself in terms of legacy—constantly saying thank you to the past and I promise to the future. But if I am honest, it looks more nebulous than I want it to.”

Still, Gardner adds, “We are makers of each other. We need empathy in our culture—I don’t see it happening through legislation. I don’t think we have the trust in politicians. With reason, we don’t extend that kind of trust to lawmakers.…We do have that trust with artists. Artists have the ear of people. There is no other place that can fill it.”

Moving Past and Through Trauma

The conference also spoke to both the history and ongoing reality of racial and gender oppression. Casey Camp-Horinek of the Ponca nation said, “When we talk about intergeneration communication, we have to talk about intergenerational trauma.” Forced out of the Black Hills by US soldiers, Native Americans “had to leave behind our hunting, our fishing, our farming equipment, our seeds and our homes….They imprisoned us on what was called a reservation. If you left the boundaries, you were killed. It was that simple.”

Noting the intense violence, including children forcibly separated from their families and sent to boarding schools, Camp-Horniek sardonically remarked, “And they wonder why there are social ills on our reservation.”

Camp-Horinek credits the American Indian Movement (AIM) for boosting a process of cultural rebuilding. “We became the warriors of the Plains—the warriors of Turtle Island, in a peaceful, prayerful manner. We reclaimed our religion, our dress; we reclaimed our songs. We changed the policies of the United States. In reclaiming our religion, we began to sun-dance again.”

Nonetheless, even in the midst of a cultural revival, the obstacles remain immense. Eryn Wise, a young indigenous rights organizer at Standing Rock and a member of the Jicarilla Apache nation and Pueblo of Laguna, lamented that, “Every time we get 10 steps ahead, somebody grabs us and yanks us back 100 yards.” Camp-Horinek did not shy away from this too-frequent reality, but added, “There is no quitting, as long as you are standing for what is correct.”

These themes of pain and resiliency surfaced elsewhere. Too often, racial divisions undermine feminism, notes Palestinian-American Linda Sarsour. Sarsour, a cochair of the Women’s March on Washington, observed, “The white woman has the privilege to walk away. I have had many moments when I want to leave, but I don’t have the privilege to do that.”

Saru Jayaraman, who directs the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), emphasized the costs of these divisions. Jayaraman explains that in the early twentieth century, a whites-only waitresses’ union undermined union power, enabling employers to force workers to rely on tips. Even today, at the federal level, restaurants only need to pay workers $2.13 an hour, leaving workers to rely on tips for the rest. Jayaraman says this tip dependency creates a culture that facilitates sexual harassment, with rates half as high in states like California where restaurant workers get the same minimum wage as their peers.

To build a new culture, Sarsour calls for approach that NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez has written about, based on Ceasar McDowell’s work, known as “designing for the margins.” A movement to change culture and politics, Sarsour says, should be “led by America’s most traumatized women, often women of color. Why? The people who are the most pained and traumatized, the most impacted by injustice want to see justice first—to alleviate the pain. I want to follow the people who want to get there first.”

Connecting Cultural Change to Policy Change

But how does it connect? How does cultural change lead to political and economic changes that benefit people’s everyday lives? It’s a tall order, especially given today’s economy. As a 2017 Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco economic letter notes,

In 1979, the average black man in America earned about 80 percent of the average white man ($15 versus $19 per hour). By 2016, this gap had grown such that the average black male worker earned just 70 percent of the hourly wage of the average white male worker. The data for women…show a similar pattern. In 1979, the average black woman earned about 95 percent of the average white woman. But nearly continuous divergence in earnings since that time has opened a more sizable gap; in 2016, the average black woman earned about 82 percent of what the average white woman earned.

A couple of speakers offered possible paths. Phil Thompson, who is Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives in New York City, explains that the city is “trying to develop a concept of government that goes beyond taxing citizens and spending on government programs. We are trying to use government to change the way the private market works. We are one country—how do we make the economy…work for everybody? As simple as that sounds, it has always been a fight—even the notion that we are one people has been historically contested.”

To create an economy benefiting everyone requires challenging “the notion that the economy is something that exists separate and apart from our social arrangements and public policies,” Thompson says. Thompson notes that often human activities “that were not profitable—taking care of people, youth, elderly—would be done by women or slaves for free” and were not even considered part of the economy. So, part of the city government’s job is “to promote initiatives that change the way people think the economy works,” such as developing “a system of care that is better for elderly people and young people and saves government money” and organizing low-income consumers so they get more value for their money. Promoting employee ownership is also part of this economic retooling. “You can’t have people working in dictatorships and build democratic culture at the same time,” Thompson explains.

Manuel Pastor, who directs the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) at the University of Southern California, touched on similar themes. Standard economic theory, Pastor notes, assumes that people operate out of self-interest. But as Pastor explains, “People also operate out of a sense of solidarity.” Linking a culture of belonging or solidarity to the economy, then, requires addressing the question of “How do we encourage solidarity in our economy?”

Pastor says that while the question may seem abstract, the New Deal at its best did help the country grow together (think labor policies that strengthened unions and helped link productivity gains and wages), connect communities (consider programs such as rural electrification, which literally connected people to the grid), and secure livelihoods and the future (for example, through unemployment insurance and social security). At the same time, Pastor notes, it is critical to acknowledge that the New Deal was “racist to its core.”

What would “solidarity economics at scale” look like? Pastor gave no specifics, but he does lay out three core principles. Solidarity economics, says Pastor, would: a) center equity and belonging, b) point to the benefits of mutuality; and c) lift up caring for each other and the Earth. Getting there, Pastor acknowledges, will involve struggle, “tackling concentrated wealth and power,” and “challenging racism and other dominations.”

Pastor adds that getting there will also require “deep solidarity,” which, he adds, is “something your momma told you.” In short: “You don’t cross someone else’s struggle.”