Othering & Belonging

Last Sunday, my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim held the 3rd in a series of Adult Education programs featuring members of both our synagogue and the wider Madison Jewish community who led discussions on inclusion of various parts of our community. The first session focused on people with disabilities, the second focused on transgender members of our community, and the most recent session focused on racial and ethnic diversity and was facilitated by Shahanna McKinney-Baldon. Shahana led a very rich discussion based on her experience as a Jewish woman of color.

multiracial

Photo credit: mochajuden.com

Shahana introduced many ideas, including the fact that a majority of Jews are people of color. She also briefly touched on the body of work known as Othering & Belonging which is sponsored by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California-Berkeley. As Shahana did not have time to discuss this in detail, she encouraged us to research it further for ourselves and upon doing so, the work compelled me to share what I learned with my readers.

The Othering & Belonging web site contains many articles as well as information about its conferences. In an article entitled, The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belongingauthors John A. Powell and Stephanie Menedian make a compelling case that:

The problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of “othering.” In a world beset by seemingly intractable and overwhelming challenges, virtually every global, national, and regional conflict is wrapped within or organized around one or more dimension of group-based difference. Othering undergirds territorial disputes, sectarian violence, military conflict, the spread of disease, hunger and food insecurity, and even climate change.

They define “othering” as:

a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities. Dimensions of othering include, but are not limited to, religion, sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status (class), disability, sexual orientation, and skin tone.

They conclude by identifying:

belonging and inclusion as the only sustainable solution to the problem of othering. As dispiriting as world events may seem, humanity has made tremendous progress toward tolerance, inclusion, and equality. We live in a period of dramatic social change and unprecedented openness in human history. Whether we continue to march toward a more inclusive society while taming our “baser impulses and steadying our fears” depends on us.

Of course saying that we want to move away from “othering” and towards “belonging” and actually doing so are two different things. That is why although my synagogue’s tag line is, “inclusive Jewish community,” and our membership includes Jews of color, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ+ community, and a majority of couples who are from intermarried religious backgrounds, simply putting that on our website and proclaiming it is not enough. That is why we sponsored these diverse inclusive adult education programs and continue to do the hard work required to put our lofty thoughts into action.

As the Othering & Belonging conference web site states:

Belonging means more than just being seen. Belonging means being able to participate in the design of political, social, and cultural structures. Belonging means the right to contribute and make demands upon society and institutions.

Thus, it is helpful for each of us to examine our actions and determine if we are engaging in othering or truly making our best efforts towards ensuring that those who may be outside looking in are welcomed to fully participate and belong. This requires actively welcoming and listening to people who come from different backgrounds than us. It further demands that we examine our own actions and inactions and challenge those whose actions push difference outside by othering and actively support those who truly welcome full participation in all societal structures in true belonging. None of us do this perfectly, so all of us can improve and change the entrenched systems of othering into naturally welcoming systems of belonging.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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