In a region with huge disparities in who has wealth, health and safety, the issue of power and its use to influence the course of events seems critical. Yet power remains a subtext: we experience its effects, but rarely is power directly spoken of in our institutions, families, relationships. As a result, our awareness of power, consensus on what power is and is not, and clarity on how to use power in ways that serve the needs of all people equitably is often cloudy. In this blog, I take a “walk through the field” of tensions present within the conversation on power.
For some, power is related to institutional authority: the boss whose role determines if they can reward or punish you based on their access to systemic resources. For others, power is derived from your psycho- spiritual strength, the integrity you hold which influences people regardless of your position in a system. Still others look at the power of far-reaching unearned advantage that comes from belonging to overvalued social groups by race, class, nationality, gender and more.Many say the power of an individual to create change is the cornerstone of societies. Others disagree. They believe power is built from a collective of people aligning towards a shared vision. It gets even more complex when we make distinctions in the direction and inherent value of power: Do we use it over or with others? Is it good, bad, both or neither?
There is a trend towards believing power is a zero-sum game, where for one person or group to have it, another has to lose it. In this case you either are the oppressed or the oppressor. But some argue we can lose power by thinking we don’t have any. They exhort us to source power from many places, regardless of how disenfranchised we are in society.
Some of us want to ground the conversation of power primarily in love and shared humanity, while others start with issues of justice and accountability in the face of disparities, as I did in this article. We may struggle to integrate the polarity Martin Luther King Jr captures when he wrote, "Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love".
Our reactions to this conversation may feel more like limbic "fight or flight" than rational discourse. Since all of us have had the experience of being children, subject to the influence of adults, vulnerability is deeply linked to our experiences of power. Yet while babies are ostensibly powerless, any caregiver can tell you of the power of a baby’s cries to influence a household. At the same time, people who hold powerful positions often speak of feeling attacked, hurt, and terrified by those with less positional power.
All this leads to more questions than definitive answers. Can you be powerful AND vulnerable? What happens if you show personal power while in a systemically vulnerable position? Or personal vulnerability while in a role of systemic power? How do constructs of race, class, ability, gender identity, culture and sexual orientation affect the responses you receive? How might we skillfully navigate our identities, roles in systems and strong emotions while wielding love and power?
In the Inner Activist course Conscious Use of Power October 23-28, we dive into these conversations in a process designed to surface multiple perspectives. Our intention is to expand our capacity to recognize and use our powers in service of the collective good. We offer some frameworks to inspire thought, encouraging critical reflection on these. We will learn with each other, and from our own lived experiences. Above all we will practice making the subtexts of power more visible, and our responses ever more skillful.