Othering and Belonging

Happy Japanese Kodomo no Hi day, 5 May (5/5). Japanese Children’s or Boys Day. Growing up we fly Koinobori, carp flags. Japanese Girls Day was 3 March (3/3) in case you are wondering. If you want to read more and share a book with a kid about these holidays pick up this one.

candlelightHeidi and I are back from the Haas Institute’s Othering and Belonging Conference. The conversations from the conference flowed through breaks, over meals, and through what Heidi calls sam-cha. Sam-cha in Korean means round-three. Third-round of drinks and conversation, sure why not. Through these conversations with our friends and colleagues, we talked about how to push ourselves to create more belonging and force systems to create equitable change.

This week I’m not going to write an analysis of the conference or talk about the technical lessons learned. Maybe in a few weeks Heidi or I will get to the analysis piece. I try to balance this blog with technical pieces as well as narratives and stories because they both matter in equity work.

Returning to Seattle has popped the conference bubble. Nothing busted that bubble more quickly than hearing sirens and helicopters flying close to my house on Wednesday evening. A shooting left one women dead, and another shot. Less than an hour later there were reports of another shooting five minutes away, and overnight another shooting took place near the University of Washington.  Today brought a stabbing again near where I work and live. It isn’t even summer yet when the heat brings out crimes such as these.

While watching the 11.00 p.m. news the reporter said the detectives were using battery operated candles to mark where the bullet casings fell. The irony of using candles to mark bullets, when candles are often used to mark life through birthdays and remembrance, wasn’t lost on me. It brought home much of what I had learned at the conference and why belonging means so much and why we need to respect and create space for others.

Dollar-Bills and a Hug

Professor john a. powell (he doesn’t capitalize his name), the conference host, made closing remarks in the form of stories. One of his stories was about how he invited homeless people to live on his property when they were evicted and moved around by the city. Over time he got to know them and would help them out by giving them money or other goods. His help wasn’t fixing systems or public policies around homelessness, but it created a sense of community and humanized his neighbors.

In his story, he talked about how one day one of the homeless residents greeted him and said “whatcha got today,” Professor powell reached out to give her some money, it was part of their way of being together. Instead of just accepting the money she said “Can I have something else from you? May I have a hug?” Professor powell paused and asked himself if he wanted to give her, a homeless person, a hug. In that moment, he saw her as an ‘other,’ the overall belonging they co-created was being tested. The belonging had limits and was on Prof. powell’s terms, the bond was being tested. After a moment, he gave her the hug. More than money she wanted to be seen and wanted physical human contact.

When I heard this story, I thought about The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Throughout the book the narrator talks about how these two holy-men continually held hands or embraced. Physical contact and connection isn’t something we do a lot of in racial equity work, we play it safe with talking, rule-making, and in some cases like this blog writing. What I took away from this was we need to challenge ourselves to do what several speakers spoke to “We can see people for more than just one thing at a time” or as Alicia Garza said “We can walk and chew gum at the same time… We can see people as they are and how they want to be seen.”

This story stuck with many of us. Right after the conference we gathered our bags and decided to grab an early dinner before heading to the airport. We walked a block and Heidi pulled out her phone to look at Yelp to find a place to eat. As she was consulting the app, a person of color with limited English walked up to us and said “My Asian sisters can you help me out? I’m looking for a job and I just had an interview. I need $3 to take a bus so I can make it to the shelter for the night.” While we stood there listening to the man we all started mentally asking ourselves “do we give him money?” Many of us have been conditioned to say, “I’m sorry” and ignore the person until they move on. Even at the conference we heard repeatedly we need to work on systems level changes, personal and interpersonal actions are important but we need to get to systems changes if we want to see progress. Helping one person won’t fix homelessness. Yet in that moment the story about humanizing and contact was fresh in our minds and we had a choice to make.

We all gave him a dollar or a few coins, enough for him to have money for the bus. We didn’t give him a hug but we got closer to him than we would have a day before. I know I saw him as more of a person because I allowed myself to do so, I also knew I had my team around me to create safety and comfort for me. I was ready to give but mostly because I was safe and it didn’t cause me too much discomfort; I know I don’t want to bring physical or mental harm to myself (been there done that, I was mugged last year) but I think there is a way to create belonging less on my terms and more in recognition of how others want to be seen which may require less safety and comfort on my part.

Back in Seattle

Now that I’m back in Seattle and my city had a 24-hour spate of violence I think of those damn battery operated candles. The police used those candles to mark where violence took place, where a life was violently taken.

Instead of using candles to mark death can we hold up a candle to ourselves and ask what belonging are we creating, what othering are we forcing, or inversely what othering are we not respecting (i.e. arts, LGQBT, etc.)? What sense of negative space are we holding and what narratives are being written in these spaces?

If we think about candles again instead of using them to mark violence, please hold a candle to someone else and say I see you. In the South African Zulu word ubuntu – humanity, I am because we are, you seeing someone will not diminish you or your place in the world it will make us all stronger.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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