On Power & Dis-empowerment
This post written by Samar Dudin was originally published on CSR Watch Jordan.
It’s time we all believe in the ageless endless lessons of how change is created when a dedicated group of individuals believe “it can really happen!”. In a world filled with propaganda, consumerism and injustice I often wonder what power we have when we carry our authority as beneficiaries or consumers versus when we choose to act in every situation as citizens. My friend Munir Fashah says the word citizen should be replaced with “Ahel” meaning family members or “Jeeran” meaning neighbors. He always reiterates that the moment institutions took over the will of neighbors and families we lost our power of action and free will.
An empowered citizen has the authority to know and feel that they have the capacity to solve a problem when in solidarity with others and can access all the resources needed to do so. Power therefore must be anchored in a strong understanding of self and one’s own capacity to be an agent of change .To know how to build people power requires an acknowledgement that all social ills have structural or root causes that remain invisible to many and can only be faced and overcame when individuals organize themselves in functional groups and teams who have the capacity to act.
In our communities many issues enable the construct of an internalized dialogue where we feel dis-empowerment. Let us consider some themes that are like mantras in our daily conversations: imbalances of wealth between the haves and have not’s create a helpless reality with gated and ghettoized communities living apart and separated by small distances, there is a huge gap between public and private education which leaves millions of youth at a disadvantage from those who can afford quality education, there is a culture of aggressive competition between organizations that work for similar goals when cooperation should be the answer, we move towards addressing issues by paying experts whom we believe have the answers when our own understanding of the problems is key to any expert intervention which can never be successful unless embraced and shared with those who are facing the problem.
So how do we build more power in a world where the definition of power is about having the resources, the money and the political access to influence?
Marshal Ganz Harvard Community Organizing Guru builds a theory on power people and change reflecting on Albert Hirschman’s Exit Voice and Loyalty and C Alderfer Existence Relatedness and Growth as well as Guventa’s Three Faces of Power. The question that we need to ask, Marshal says, is not what the issue is but who the people of the burning pain/problem are? Once we define the people of the problem we begin to ask why their problem was not resolved and who has resources to solve it. Is the path to the solution through building collaborative capacity or is it through building peoples’ power and multiplying in numbers to pressure those who have the resources to solve the problem surrender and give in. The “power with” and “power over” approaches are interrelated because people cannot build true power until they mobilize their own resources first; relationships, stories, community, culture, creativity and openness to learning. It’s only when we can build collaborative capacity that we then have the authentic transformative kind of power to defy and pressure those who have the resources and decision making authority to surrender to our call for change.
It sounds too intensive and too idealistic to many when I tell them don’t undermine the collaborative capacity of a group that builds membership through a shared story, goal, tactics and consistent action. Many grim in my face thinking this concept of people power is actually nonsense … I tell them it’s what really matters if we claim that we are in the business of empowerment.