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.

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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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Closing the Achievement Gap through Diversity

The American educational system is experiencing competing views of how to close the racial achievement gap that has been well documented through standardized test scores. Some believe that these scores have no value, while others believe that the gaps identified by these scores must be addressed. Of course, how to address these gaps is a subject for significant dispute.  My view is that standardized tests are an important tool to provide apples to apples comparisons of schools and school districts, but such narrow tools necessarily cannot be the sole factor in measuring a student’s education, let alone a teacher’s or school’s performance.

Those who are truly interested in educational success for all students certainly should be interested in how well students learn to read, write and do arithmetic.  Yet, we all know that once students finish their formal education (hopefully with a diploma), the real measure of educational success will not be measured by one or more test scores.  Rather, the real measure of educational success will be whether our schools have provided students with the tools to succeed in their adult lives.

Since our nation has become increasingly diverse, with census data showing that in 2011, 36.2% of the US population were identified as people of color, and that percentage is expected to rise to 49.9% by 2050, a successful education must include ensuring that students are well equipped to live and succeed in a diverse adult world.

While most people may think that my hometown for nearly 3 decades, Madison, Wisconsin, is not very diverse, the truth is that like the rest of country, it is becoming very diverse, and its public schools are very diverse.  Indeed, my son attends Madison East High School, which is now a minority white school.

But merely attending a diverse school by itself is no guarantee that the diversity within the school will teach the students to succeed in a diverse adult world.  Fortunately, Madison East High School students are fortunate  to have teachers such as Cynthia Chin, who is committed to ensuring that a diverse education leads to a successful transition to adulthood.  In addition to being an excellent Calculus teacher, Ms. Chin is also the mentor for the Engineering Club. Her leadership has guided that club to regularly participate in the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) regional and national conferences. This organization is dedicated to the academic and professional advancement of black students and engineering professionals and indeed, the conference is attended by virtually all black students and engineers.

However, Ms. Chin saw an opportunity, which NSBE graciously facilitates, to provide an enriching diverse academic and social experience to the diverse students in her club.  As I reported last year, the East High Robotic team won the regional robotics competition at the midwest regional NSBE conference, which I was fortunate to chaperone.  This year, I chaperoned the club’s trip last week to the midwest regional NSBE conference in Detroit.  The team did not win any competitions, but they were nevertheless enriched by the experience of diversity, both amongst themselves and within the entire conference, where successful Black engineers served as inspiring role models to all.  One look at the East High Engineering Club’s happy faces after the closing banquet says it all.

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After the closing party, I asked my son if the trip, which included very long bus rides, was worth it.  He told me that it was because he was able to reconnect with conference attendees that he met last year.  That says a lot about his ability to navigate easily in a diverse world, both now and in the future.  As we celebrate Thanksgiving, I am thankful for Cynthia Chin’s dedication to closing the achievement gap through academic and social diversity.  No test can measure the incredibly profound impact this has had on so many of her students’ lives.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.