What we have learnt about ‘power’ so far

11th June 2018, words by Jess Cordingly

Power emerged as a theme through Lankelly Chase’s and our partner’s work on the systemic causes of multiple disadvantage. From place-based change to social innovation, our partners and colleagues kept telling us that sharing power and promoting equality of voice was essential for change to happen at the level of an individual, an organisation and a wider system.

But what does it take for this to happen? Over the last few months we have approached this by asking what do we collectively mean when we talk about power and voice and by exploring what our partners and others are already doing to share power.

What have we learned so far? Firstly, that our initial assumptions about what people meant when they talked about power were wrong. We started off thinking that when people said “power” perhaps they meant “capital” – the things they possessed that gave them power, like money, property, education and relationships. These indicators of formal power have emerged in our conversations, but nothing like as often as we expected.

What has consistently come up are emotions. The conversations have almost always been deeply emotional. The powerlessness of feeling guilty, or ashamed, or fearful. The power that emanates from trust, love and from confidence.

And from this recognition came our biggest insight so far: it’s hard to have conversations about power because of these overwhelming emotions hiding just beneath the surface for so us all. Power at times feels like a taboo subject – one that is felt but can’t be discussed – and I wonder if that is because many of us are scared to lean into the emotionality of it? But if we do not acknowledge emotions, the danger is we stay on the surface, making no progress or circling around the same issues.

We have been experimenting with different ways into these conversations that start with an acknowledgement that emotions are powerfully present here, from using Deep Democracy methodology to facilitate a debate at the Association of Charitable Funders to using non-verbal theatre techniques and games to work with students at a school. The more these techniques allow people to step outside of their own job role – of funder, grantee, trustee, teacher or student – and safely to explore their own and other people’s emotions and perspectives, the richer our conversations have become and the more we have been able to uncover meanings and assumptions that we didn’t realise were there.

Of course, acknowledging that emotions are present is not all it takes to share power. We have also noticed that people identifying their own resourcefulness and that mutual accountability created by deep, trusting relationships both also create the conditions for voices to be truly equal and so for power to start to be shared. We will be exploring these themes over this week.

But the importance of emotions has been what has hit home most of all for me personally. If we do not recognise this, there is a danger not only that we make no real progress but that we exclude people. If you have experienced real powerlessness, if your voice has been consistently ignored, it can feel immensely painful to explore. And this is true also for people who have held power – acknowledging the true impact of our power and also the limitations of it is hard for us all. If this inquiry is to be genuinely collective, we have to make it safe so that everyone must feel able to participate, to speak and to be heard in order for us all to move a few steps closer to change.

Here’s a link to learn more about our Power action inquiry 

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