What is your relationship to power?

Power is a key issue for almost anyone working for a healthier, more just society. Often activists focus on changing political or other dominant power structures. But many of us haven’t taken the time to understand our own relationship to power. 

Power is a key issue for almost anyone working for a healthier, more just society. Often activists focus on changing political or other dominant power structures. But with all that focus on the  external conditions of hegemony, many of us haven’t taken time to understand our own relationship to power. This can limit how effective we are at catalyzing change over the long-term, and sometimes at seeing how we are part of the very problem we’re trying to solve.

Power is defined as our ability to influence and define reality for ourselves and others, both in ways that are visible and hidden. Power doesn’t just come from a title or position – history, culture, beliefs and behaviour all play a role in creating the conditions that lead some people to have more power than others, depending on their social identity. For example, the racist attacks on United States President Barack Obama, as well as challenges to his nationality, education, and religion, are fuelled by much more than simple political disagreement. While President Obama occupies one of the most powerful positions in the world, his social identity as an African American is being used to undermine his power.

Each of us grows up in a context of power relations that are influenced by our social identities, including our internalized belief systems. That’s why understanding our social identity – including the social, familial and cultural factors that have played a role in shaping who we are and how we live – is an important step towards strengthening our relationship with power and ensuring we are using it effectively in our change work.

Understanding one’s social identify also includes identifying our explicit and implicit positions of “rank” and the privilege we experience as a result of who we are and where we come from. In Heather Berthoud and Bob Greene’s article The Paradox of Diversity in Social Change Organizations, they note: “Activists who work long hours for change, and who are, often, underpaid, not surprisingly may recoil from the fact that they have unearned privilege vis-à-vis colleagues due to skin color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and other identity characteristics.

For example, white men, whose cultural position leads to expectations that they will be listened to and respected, may frequently dominate discussions.” These unconscious dynamics cause hidden friction and tension that can undermine an activist’s or organization’s work. Unacknowledged rank and privilege is at the root of the unconscious use of power. If someone has low social rank, they may struggle to express the pain or trauma that comes with the oppression of low rank. Meanwhile, those with high social rank may get stuck as a result of being unaware of their rank and insensitive to the way their rank affects others. Sometimes, privilege and marginalization may inhabit us simultaneously.

You can start to get clear on your social identity, rank and privilege by asking yourself questions like:

  • Where were you born, where did you grow up and where have you lived?
  • Is there any significance in your given or last name, its meaning or history within your family?
  • Has your family name changed and if so, why?
  • What social class were you raised in? Even though it may have shifted, the class you were born into still impacts your identity.
  • What other social identities are important to you: gender, race/ethnicity, age, religion, sexual orientation, education, physical/mental abilities, etc.?
  • Think about factors that may not be immediately visible or apparent but have altered your world view of yourself and others: ancestors, family connectedness, immigration, birth order, siblings’ stories and issues, mental illness, near-death experiences, illnesses.
  • Which social identities do you think about most often? Which least often?
  • What experiences lead you to think more often about some social identities than others?

Being aware of our social identities and developing our ability to consciously use power helps make us better changemakers and empower others we work with, whether they are inside our collaborations, coalitions or in external organizations.

Ian Curtin is Project Director for the Inner Activist. Our upcoming course, Conscious Use of Power, helps social and environmental justice advocates learn skills for responding more effectively to power and its use.