Have you ever been in a meeting and said something that almost totally ignored, yet a few minutes later, someone else said the very same thing, and everyone in the group paid attention, perhaps even praised the “brilliant” idea that person had? You may have thought that the person who repeated your idea had so much leverage (or power) in the group that everybody had to pay attention to.
Conversely, you might carry the same ideas to another group that receives them very well. You probably carry considerable leverage with that group. Your power is relative. For instance, many women, especially in traditional societies, share great ideas when there is an all-women meeting. When the same women are in another gathering where men are present, they shy away from sharing their ideas for fear of not being taken seriously. In another example, villagers may generate great ideas among themselves, but when they meet with “well-educated” people, they may tend to undermine their innovation and insightful life experiences. There are numerous examples of how the perception of one’s power affects our participation and how well our contributions are received. Again, power is relative.
Taking the dimension of power into account is crucial to our advocacy work. Many groups, especially disadvantaged, fragmented, or marginalized, may feel powerless. Many would refrain from addressing injustice in their community on the pretext that a company is too powerful, well-connected, or employs too many people from the community, etc. In other words, they see themselves as powerless and the other party as powerful.
As advocacy practitioners, we need to address the issue of their perception of their power versus the other people’s power. We need to help them analyze their power from different angles and help them identify their sources of power (Cohen et al.;, 2001). The following tools help us analyze the dimensions of power.
Power is expressed in different ways (VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002 VeneKlasen, Lisa; and Miller, Valerie, 2002. A New Weave of People, Power and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation, P. 45 World Neighbors, Oklahoma, USA.
Following are four manifestations of power we often see in our lives.
Power Over is likely the most common way of power expression that comes to mind when we refer to the word “power.” Power over is when someone has the power to enforce or coerce. A vivid example of this is Autocratic regimes around the world. Although this form of power has a mostly negative connotation, it can also be positive based on intent. A parent, for example, has the power to discipline their child. A judge has the power to pass verdicts on a criminal.
Figure 5: Technical Idea: Iman Mandour & Nader Tadros; Artistic Idea: Golo.
Powerholders might use different power-over methods to limit other people’s participation
The negative utilization of this expression of power is that advocacy and social justice practitioners need to change. The way to change the negative aspect of Power Over is to help people find alternative positive expressions of power. Following are alternative expressions of power that people can use to counterbalance the negative prevailing “power over” expression.
Alternative Sources of Power
To counterbalance the destructive power over, we need to help people recognize other forms of power they already have
Power To is the abilities, skills, and talents individuals and groups have that help them succeed. This “power to” could be traditional crafts, special skills learned in school, specialized education, or merely the unique life experiences of individuals and groups. Advocacy practitioners need to highlight this unique potential to help communities build self-confidence and a validated sense of power.
Power With is about the collective voice. “Power with,” VeneKlasen & Miller (2002) multiplies individual talents and knowledge.” Many disadvantaged communities and groups are fragmented and have a poor degree of working together. “Power with” helps the group see common issues and get organized to address them. The saying of “divide to conquer” attributed to Julius Caeser is a tool many powerholders use to avoid sharing power with people. It is a way to take power away from people.
Power Within is believing in one’s worth and abilities. It is overcoming the sense of powerlessness and shifting it into a confident yet realistic frame of reference. This expression of power recognizes that a good part of one’s powerlessness is the perception of being powerless. Helping disadvantaged individuals and groups realize their worth and power while respecting and appreciating the worth of others is likely the biggest step toward addressing the state of powerlessness and turning it into powerfulness.
“Power within” is one of the most difficult changes to achieve, especially with groups that have traditionally been disadvantaged and marginalized groups such as indigenous groups, women, illiterate rural communities, and very poor communities. Over a long time of oppression and structural marginalization, many of these groups adopt the belief that they are inferior to others. Battered women, for instance, often believe that they deserve it by being disobedient to their husbands or male members of their families. Illiterate people would defer the decision to the better-educated people even if they come from outside their communities.
Figure 8: Technical Idea: Iman Mandour & Nader Tadros; Artistic Idea: Golo.
Compare this young woman who, despite being gagged and ignored, still realizes that she has a good idea to
the bowing man in the next cartoon!
In contrast to the woman in the above cartoon, this man’s internalized powerlessness & inferiority has forced him to bow to the people in the car even with its curtains down!
The Appreciative Inquiry Approach focuses on helping communities appreciate their sources of power and innovation. This approach is particularly helpful with groups that perceive themselves as powerless or less worthy than others You can learn more about Appreciative Inquiry by reading some publications and websites that further describe the approach. However, The author does not fully subscribe to the Appreciative Inquiry … Continue reading
In addition, Both Cohen, de la Vega, & Watson (2001) and VeneKlasen & Miller (2002) talk of storytelling as a powerful means to help disadvantaged groups restore their feeling of self-worth and power.
Helping disadvantaged groups realize these different expressions of power and turn all of them into positive forces is crucial for effective advocacy and social justice work
Doing advocacy work requires analyzing power around your issues. You need to analyze the power balance that helps maintain the status quo.
How often have you heard in your work, “This is not about politics,” or “We don’t get involved in politics here?” To examine these statements, we should first define “politics.”
Most people have a negative impression of politics. Probably the most common phrase that people associate with politics is “politics is a dirty game!”
Politics is what goes in the process of collective decision-making, be it for a family or an entire country. Realizing how fundamental politics is to our everyday life is critical to our advocacy and social justice work. Collective decisions, made through a political process, greatly affect our daily lives. In doing advocacy, we need to know the political process and be part of it. Our work is, in a sense, political, whether we like it or not (Cohen et al., 2001 Cohen, David in Cohen, David; de la Vega, Rosa, and Watson, 2001. Advocacy for Social Justice: A Global Action and Reflection Guide, P. 19. Kumarian Press, Inc., Connecticut, USA. , and VeneKlasen & Miller 2002 VeneKlasen, Lisa; and Miller, Valerie, 2002. A New Weave of People, Power and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation, Chapter 3 World Neighbors, Oklahoma, USA.
The more you talk about this with your colleagues, the more you begin to see politics as part of your daily lives. We are faced with politics almost everywhere we go. Politics exists wherever there is a group decision to make.
Politics and power are closely related. Politics is what goes on in the decision-making process, and the powerful are those who influence this process. The more we work in redistributing power in favor of the disadvantaged, the closer we achieve social justice and real democracy
Political power is very difficult to analyze, as it is not always visible. The less visible the power is, the more difficult it is to deal with.
Following are the manifestations of political power that we need to consider:
● Visible Power: Observable Decision-Making is the most straightforward kind of political power. It is simply the person or group that is officially responsible for making the decision. Examples are the CEO who decides to promote a competent staff member; or a legislature responsible for passing a certain law. These are the visible (official) powers responsible for making such decisions. Of course, identifying the official decision-making bodies is not always that clear. As discussed in the next module, advocacy practitioners must identify the official (visible) powers that take a certain decision. However, passing the buck, or shifting the responsibility to another body, is a common phenomenon that we are all familiar with, which is also a part of the political game. h
● Hidden Power: Setting the Political Agenda is a power that works from behind the scenes to influence the decision. It is usually the powerful groups that get a chance to play this role. Disadvantaged groups are traditionally removed from this process through systemic and structural exclusion. For instance, these groups almost have no chance to make their voices heard through mass media venues. Their absence from the media gives the impression that their point of view is not the mainstream. Advocacy and practitioners need to either create alternative media venues to voice these groups’ concerns or help
Invisible Power: Shaping Meaning is the most difficult form of power. It is the power that shapes
people’s minds and how they think. Through this process, many disadvantaged groups have very low self-esteem and consequently a profound feeling of powerlessness. Women, in many cultures, feel inferior to men. Some ethnic and indigenous groups almost inherit this profound feeling of inferiority to other groups. “Processes of socialization” (VeneKlasen & Miller 2002) explain, “culture, and ideology perpetuate exclusion and inequity by defining what is normal, acceptable, and safe.”
Perceptions of power are deeply rooted in our social and political cultures. Those who challenge such perceptions should expect fierce resistance from the power holders. Politics, religious beliefs, and respect for traditions are usual tools used to fight against challenges to the power structures. The first step – and the most difficult one – you need to help the community realize that there is an injustice that you all need to correct. There are many successful examples of addressing such difficult injustices. Think of examples in your region that people have already tackled or have achieved great progress towards addressing it. How was this done? What means did people utilize to uncover these injustices and have them addressed?
Clever politicians know how to play on all manifestations of power to increase their power and control the political decision-making processes.
Poser and politics are in the core advocacy work. Advocacy helps people engage in the political process and the power game to defend their rights. We would rather be ready to engage in this game and use it (in the good sense of the word) to tackle the difficult issues of injustice we encounter in our lives.
|↑1||VeneKlasen, Lisa; and Miller, Valerie, 2002. A New Weave of People, Power and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation, P. 45 World Neighbors, Oklahoma, USA.|
|↑2||You can learn more about Appreciative Inquiry by reading some publications and websites that further describe the approach. However, The author does not fully subscribe to the Appreciative Inquiry Approach in social justice advocacy. It might lead to appreciating, and hence legitimizing, some tyrants and abusive power holders.|
|↑3||Cohen, David in Cohen, David; de la Vega, Rosa, and Watson, 2001. Advocacy for Social Justice: A Global Action and Reflection Guide, P. 19. Kumarian Press, Inc., Connecticut, USA.|
|↑4||VeneKlasen, Lisa; and Miller, Valerie, 2002. A New Weave of People, Power and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation, Chapter 3 World Neighbors, Oklahoma, USA.|