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NIU hosts UC Berkeley expert for virtual ‘Belonging’ events

October 15, 2020

Northern Illinois University and the Northern Illinois Center for Nonprofit Excellence have joined forces with community partners in DeKalb and Rockford to offer intersectional conversations hosted by an international expert.

All Huskies and members of the public are invited to register and attend “Belonging,” a free event hosted by the University of California, Berkeley’s Dr. john a. powell. Separate discussions will stream virtually for two major communities served by NIU:

Dr. john a. powell, director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley

Dr. powell is the director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, as well as a professor of law and professor of African American studies and ethnic studies. He also holds the Robert D. Hass Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion.

Inviting powell — who spells his name in lowercase — to lead these conversations for two key cities served by NIU was an effort that began before the many polarizing events 2020 has held.

“Even though we started planning this event as a face-to-face discussion, now is the perfect time to reengage the communities around NIU on this topic in a virtual conversation,” said Vernese Edghill-Walden, vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and chief diversity officer at NIU. “As we figured things out from a technical end with the new challenges posed by the pandemic, we knew from a community standpoint that this event is absolutely necessary.”

Pamela Clark Reidenbach, executive director of NICNE, reached out to powell in 2019 after seeing him speak at a conference in Chicago. Her hope was to create a local dialogue where “everyone feels heard, seen and valued.”

“Many people feel at some point in their lives like they don’t fit in,” she said. “And this othering is not just a matter of race. This is a matter of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, income, age, physical ability, political party and religion. How do we begin the conversation to developing a more ‘inclusive we,’ as Dr. powell calls it?”

Edghill-Walden and Clark Reidenbach emphasized that these candid discussions with thoughtful, pre-set questions will provide a starting point for overlapping community action plans in DeKalb and Rockford. The event, they said, also reflects NIU’s ongoing commitment to social justice.

“This is just a critical conversation, not only for the globe and for our country, but for our community,” said Clark Reidenbach. “I think we need to challenge ourselves to make it happen. This is not about tolerance. This is about caring for each other. It’s a long journey. But there’s no better time than now.”

“DeKalb has had several consistent conversations over time about inclusion and what it means to belong, but we’ve never really engaged an international expert in that discussion who has had positive outcomes in other cities similar to ours,” Edghill-Walden added.

Several sponsors are supporting the events through NIU and NICNE — including the Kjellstrom Family Foundation, Transform Rockford, the City of DeKalb and WREX-13, which will also stream the Rockford conversation.

“The one thing people are looking for in any community is what bonds us. How do we join ourselves together? Well, the fundamental glue is trust, and trust is built on familiarity and respect,” said Bill Nicklas, city manager for the City of DeKalb. “We are proud to join our NIU colleagues in sponsoring the work and eloquent voice of Dr. powell, who has dedicated himself to helping others find that sense of belonging and community.”

To register for the Belonging events, please visit or NICNE’s website.