Recently, I attended a community organizing training where participants were asked to examine their relationship to power. At one point the facilitator asked directly: "Do you want more power?" I watched as one person after the other expressed that they didn’t want power. In fact, many said that they feared power and that power corrupts. They pushed back against the facilitator’s insistence that to create the change they were seeking they had to be willing to recognize their personal power and build collective power.
It was clear to me these community members – many of whom were leaders in their neighborhoods, had only ever really experienced power that was destructive and harmful. If we’re honest, the same is true for many of us. Far too often we have to watch as elected officials and institutional leaders corrupted by lack of moral conviction and greed, wreak havoc on our neighborhoods and our communities. As a result, far too many of us, like the residents in the room that day, have unconsciously begun to believe that power corrupts and is to be avoided.
The problem is, if we learn to equate power with corruption and oppression, we fear and resist stepping into our own power and building collective power. We tell ourselves, it’s not power that we're after, it’s just change for our community. But the reality is, change won’t happen if we fear or resist power.
In fact, no radical change happens without a fundamental shift in the disbursement and utilization of power.
Let me say that again. No radical change happens without a fundamental shift in power; both in terms of its disbursement - meaning who has it, and utilization - meaning how it is wielded.
The persistent inequality that exists today is a direct result of concentrated power which has been used to exploit, oppress, exclude, and destroy those with less power. This is the fundamental nature of how racism, sexism, classism and other forms of oppression operate; by concentrating power with particular groups who leverage it to their benefit at the intentional or unintentional expense of others – or simply with disregard for how it impacts others.
This is why we must get comfortable talking about power. And we have to do so in ways that expand community members' understanding of their own power and all of the ways they can use collective power constructively. After all, power is about leverage. It is about the extent to which you are able to elevate and integrate your priorities, policies, and vision of the world you want into the broader society. It is about the extent to which you are positioned to enhance or inhibit the goals of those pulling the institutional and systemic levers. It is about the extent to which you are able to become the ones pulling the institutional and systemic levers of our society.
This is the basis of why we must build power in order to cultivate change. We build power to increase our leverage. We build power to elevate and integrate our values, priorities, and solutions into institutions and policies. We build power so that we can sit at the table with others knowing that we have the ability to inhibit, neutralize, or enhance their agenda while simultaneously centering our own.
It does us no good to go before our city councils, or our state legislatures with our demands and concerns if we cannot couple those demands with power that makes it clear that if they dare to ignore us, we will mobilize to replace them with someone more aligned to our values. We must build the type of power that requires our elected officials and institutional leaders to make the calculation that it is better for them to piss off corporate leaders than to piss us off.
This is why we must build power. People power. Grassroots power. So let me ask you the same question the organizing trainer asked community members that day: DO YOU WANT MORE POWER?
Do you want the ability to influence the policies that impact your community? Do you want the ability to influence the flow of resources to and through your community? Do you want the power to ensure that the values of equity and justice you hold dearly are able to take center stage in the political warfare we find ourselves forever entangled in? Do you want more power?
If your answer to that question is anything but yes, there will be no real change. There will only be the illusion of change. Bread crumbs tossed your way leftover at the table after the meal has already been devoured by those who possess real power.
Until Next Time Freedom Seekers.