Enlarging our human circle

This is my last post, at least for now, pulled from the notebook in which I’ve been recording some of my reflections, over the past few months, on dr. john powell’s time in Kansas City. I’m grateful to the folks (including many good friends) at Communities Creating Opportunity for bringing him to town, and for convening people to talk and think about race and justice and how easy it is for us to “other” others.

I hear this a lot, really, in my work with policy impacting undocumented immigrants–the idea that much of this policy is constructed without a basic regard for immigrants as human beings–as though they are somehow non-persons.

And to be honest, sometimes it sounds kind of outlandish, this concept that the root of the injustice that surrounds us is an inability to see each other as people. I mean, I get it that we obviously don’t see kids in urban school districts as our neighbors, or people experiencing homelessness as our fellow citizens, or immigrants as our equals.


But, not even as people?

Except, you know, it kind of explains a lot.

dr. powell shared some tremendously powerful psychological research about how the brain responds to stimuli around difference, and, in contemplating the end results of the policies we end up with, it sort of becomes the only logical conclusion:

surely we wouldn’t, couldn’t, let these routine tragedies befall other people so regularly…unless we didn’t see them as such.

And, so, unless we can bring people into our circle of concern, who are currently beyond it, unless we can begin to see everyone as just as human as we are, then our tools to push for supportive policy responses–to child poverty, to criminal justice, to mental illness–will be severely limited.

Because what has a heavy application of guilt gotten anybody lately?

But if we can enlarge our circle of human concern so that it goes beyond our Facebook friends and our next-door neighbor (maybe) and the families that look just like us, then we can tap into the decency that still abides in many hearts, motivating American voluntarism and charitable giving, albeit in quantities inadequate to compensate for the abdication of our collective responsibilities.

I don’t have the answer, of course, to the key question: how?

It’s getting harder, evidence suggests, because, as our society grows more diverse, there are more and more people we see as beyond our “circle of human concern.”

There are efforts that seem to be bearing some fruit–like Welcoming America, in dealing with immigrant and refugee issues–by helping people see themselves reflected in each others’ eyes, and by connecting on the level of shared hopes and common fears.

There are policy answers, too-seriously integrated schools and mixed-income housing and the preservation/creation of public spaces–to our tendency to draw a tight and small circle that leaves a lot of “others” out.

And we need to tell stories, because it’s still hard for most of us to ignore the humanity of someone so obviously human, while statistics and even aggregations are too easily lumped beyond the circle.

I guess the key is that we don’t overlook this step, as I’ve done for so long. We can’t rush to the policy solution, scratching our heads or lambasting the culprits, without stopping to ask why it’s so easy to harm those whose pains we can’t see or even comprehend.

First, we need to make sure that those we want to help are fully humanized, since we already know they’re fully human. We have to force those in power to face the “other”.

We have to draw the circle. Bigger.

2 responses to “Enlarging our human circle

  1. First off, Melinda, I will miss your posts. Although I don’t always comment, please know that I read and enjoy them. Thanks for continually making me think and look at issues in new ways.

    I’m particularly drawn to the phrase our “circle of human concern”. I find this interesting because so many times I see and hear how some folks are being discounted by holding them an arm’s length away and say “well, those are not like us”. I’m not sure why we do this. This has always bothered me. I see it in legislation, social policy and even in my own community. Maybe because we somehow have to pick and choose our battles and we get overwhelmed with the need to consider everyone’s needs.
    So I’ve try to find ways to counter this. Because isn’t the entire human race in our circle of human concern as well as the health of mother earth. For instance, during conversations when I am noticing this occuring, I like to mention that that those students have parents that are as just as concerned about their childrens education as anyone. I think by finding someway to relate to other groups is important no matter how different they are from us. I always like a quote from PBS’ Red Green who always says “Remember folks, we’re all in this together”.

    • It’s just my last post on this TOPIC, Lesa! I obviously didn’t make that clear, because I got a couple of emails about it, too! Thank you so much for your comment–I think it’s a really common, and completely disturbing, reaction, too, and one that has a truly corrosive effect on our policies, since we know that we develop policy for “others” differently than for ourselves. What do you find works, in terms of helping to enlarge the definition of “us”?

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