It’s something we don’t often talk about—perhaps because we tend to think about negative uses of power, such as when people hoard it and cause harm. But if we want to pursue equity, it is critical to be aware and intentional about power, where it shows up, and how we are using it. In a 1967 speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change.”
Power exists whether we acknowledge it or not, yet I’ve observed that people often don’t fully recognize the power they have. It’s important to reflect on the power we hold, both in formal authority and in other ways, so that we can consider how we might leverage or shift that power in pursuit of equity.
I’ve found three frameworks that can help spur deeper reflection about where power sits in relationships and how it can be helpful rather than hurtful. These frameworks help address three important questions:
- What are ways I hold power?
- Where does power show up in my life?
- How can I leverage power for equity and justice?
What are ways I hold power?
In The Action Guide for Advocacy and Civic Participation, Just Associates distinguishes between a “power over” mindset—associated with hierarchical, “command and control” approaches—and “power with/to/within” approaches, which work together to spark imagination and hope, instill belief in the power of individuals to drive change, and build collective strength and solidarity.
This framework can spur reflection on how power shows up in relationships. For example, if you are a supervisor, are you holding power over your direct reports or are you working to build power to, with, and within? If you are partnering with community members, how are you holding power?
Where does power show up in my life?
We often think of power showing up in the ways that are most visible—money, formal authority, knowledge, etc. In a blog post identifying four types of power, Arabella Advisors lifts up where power might be less visible.
For example, power can show up in structures beyond formal authority and organizational charts. Who is setting the agenda for what is discussed and what’s not? Who is setting norms for how people work together? Folks with roles in communications or fundraising hold power in framing because they are shaping narratives and telling stories that explain why things are the way they are.
This framework can help you reflect on ways in which you hold power that you may not have recognized before. Where does power show up for you? How might you shift or leverage it in pursuit of greater equity?
How can I leverage power for equity and justice?
Once you have deeper awareness of how and where you hold power, what can you do differently to advance equity? The Power Moves framework from National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy offers some guidance. While this tool was created with the grantmaker-grantee relationship in mind, it holds relevance for other types of relationships too.
Check out the Power Moves toolkit for more guidance on ways to build, share, and wield power.
Stories of Shifting Power Within Organizations and Communities
A webinar hosted by the Center for Nonprofit Excellence featured stories of nonprofits and foundations who are working to shift power in pursuit of equity. To learn more about what’s happening at ACT for Alexandria, Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, Cultivate Charlottesville, and the Fountain Fund, watch the video below and here.