Interview with john a. powell, 2015 Asset Builder Champion Awardee

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Spotlight Spotlight interviews advocates, community leaders and policymakers who have dedicated their careers to improving our communities, our nation and the world.

We sat down with john a. powell, one of four 2015 Asset Builder Champion Awards recipients, to talk about his work on making our society truly inclusive.

What are you focused on in 2015?

As the Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, my commitment will always be focused on interrogating areas of persistent marginality in order to create transformative change for a more inclusive, just, and sustainable society. With the Institute entering its third year of existence, one of our main programming goals is a major conference on Othering & Belonging that we held on April 24-26 in Oakland, California. Belonging or being fully human means more than having access. It means having a meaningful voice, and being afforded the opportunity to participate in the design of social and cultural structures. Belonging entails being respected at a basic level that includes the right to both contribute and make demands upon society and political institutions. For 2015, we will continue to explore and push on the question — how can we create a society where everyone belongs?

What was your biggest accomplishment in 2014?

It’s been a very busy and productive year. The Haas Institute has substantially grown in staff size to support and advance multidisciplinary research and policy analysis. One node of development that was launched this year is the Haas Network for Transformative Change, a new paradigm-shifting platform comprised of over 200 individuals and institutions dedicated to aligning new movement to transform and penetrate our most pressing societal issues. The Institute has also published numerous publications (“Anchor Richmond,” “Underwater America,” “The Science of Equality: Volume 1” with the Perception Institute) and issued our first policy brief, “Responding to Rising Inequality.”

What was an unexpected challenge in 2014 – something that you believed would be easy but turned into something extremely difficult?

Although I’ve spent my time and life’s work advancing awareness and specific prescriptions for changes in policy and practice that address disparities related to forms of marginality (race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability), it was especially disheartening to hear the grand jury announcements in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. As I’ve mentioned in my November 25 post for the Huffington Post, these instances of police violence and the responses that followed are a reflection of a systemic failure in U.S. society in the way we address racial anxiety and fear of the Other. The criminalization of poverty, our severely anemic political participation, our geographically segregated neighborhoods, and an unprecedented level of economic and wealth inequality in the United States – all of these are examples of a system that is indifferent, neglectful, and hostile to the lives of people of color.

What’s a success of yours that not many people are aware of?

This past March, with the East Bay Community Meditation Center (EBMC) in Oakland, California, the Haas Institute co-sponsored an event on the role of mindfulness and how it intersects with social justice advocacy. Too often we see quick burnout for those of us who are scholars, practitioners, and activists of social justice work; it is important to remember that we must be well, in all sense of the self (physical, emotional, spiritual), before we can advocate on the behalf of others and on issues that affect our communities of accountability.

Do you believe there are policy solutions to the racial discrimination we witness in arrests?

It is difficult to think of a singular or a package of tangible policy solutions that can address racial discrimination in arrests, which happen in various parts of our country with different histories of race relations. To some extent, we have a way today where we can empirically test how people feel about race. What is at the root of implicit bias is a deep racial anxiety, as recent evidence from neuroscience reveals that many Americans, even those who embrace egalitarian norms, harbor unconscious associations with black and brown bodies. Such anxieties and biases are fed to us by the frequent negative associations with people of color we see all around us when we don’t even realize it — words and images that strengthen these unconscious but impactful associations. These pervasive, culturally embedded associations with people of color, especially blacks, in our country lead many to view them with suspicion as criminals and worst, to view them as not human at all. We need to address implicit bias with police and those entrusted with the public good.

What civil rights issue has largely gone under the radar, despite its importance?

The ideology of privatization (including the delegation of public functions to private entities) is part of broader philosophy of market fundamentalism, of deregulation and governmental non-interference in the market. These ideologies have been built upon a sharp categorical distinction between public and private spheres in American society at an increasing rate, as well as globally. This unreflective public/private discourse in law and popular culture has smuggled through excessive corporate prerogatives that expands the power and influence of corporations, while shielding them from government regulation by disclaiming an appropriate government role in the market at all (see powell & Menendian, 2012). This expansion and exercise of corporate power is happening right before our eyes without us even knowing it, which also coincides with the concomitant disempowerment of people of color. We cannot achieve racial justice, economic justice, protection of our environment, or enjoy a strong democracy unless we have a realignment of corporations. Corporations are NOT people!

Tell us about opportunity-based housing. What are some of the biggest obstacles to implementing housing policies that give low-income families access to already-available opportunities?

Housing is an important element within a web of other opportunity structures that impact life outcomes of metropolitan and suburban residents. The model of opportunity-based housing suggests that the creation and preservation of affordable housing must be deliberately and intelligently connected on a regional scale to high-performing schools, sustaining employment, necessary transportation infrastructure, childcare, and institutions that facilitate civic and political activity. This means both pursuing housing policies that create the potential for low-income people to live near existing opportunity and pursuing policies that tie opportunity creation in other areas to existing and potential affordable housing. Currently we are experiencing a tight housing market that constrains access to housing opportunity for all residents of a region; this has a particular pernicious effect on residents of color where it intersects with racist practices and with concentrated poverty. There are also issues of jurisdictional fragmentation and gentrification, which create neighborhoods that oftentimes are not mixed income or multiracial.

What top three things (actions, policies, programs, etc) do you believe would create the greatest positive social change?

Especially in light of the recent events in Ferguson and New York, an action that we can all do is to critically engage the racial and social boundaries constructed in our lives – not only in the structures and arrangements of our society but also within our processes of self-identification. We should constantly be examining how these boundaries are created and how they, in turn, create us. By identifying barriers that separate rather than unify us, we can come to a better understanding of how we can engage one other and re-frame public discourse so that everyone belongs.