In this series of posts, I have been exploring the ways in which power can be understood to work for community organisers in their work to shift power decisively toward the community. We’ve looked at the nature of power, some key mistakes people make when thinking about power and some common distinctions between the ways power can be seen in action. I looked at how power can be shared through a process – or approach – named empowerment. And more recently, I’ve considered how power can be approached at the personal, cultural and structural levels. All this writing may have felt rather cerebral and rather divorced from the daily work of organising. In this post, I want to move our thinking about power to action. How can we make use of our understanding of power in organising at community level?
Waking up to Power
Citizens often talk loosely about the power that – more often than not – others have over them. They often feel that the council or their employer or the judge or their teachers can command them to act and they are powerless to resist. As we have seen, power is a force-field that surrounds us all and we each exercise power in large and small ways daily. We can be quite powerful in one context, say our relationship whilst having much less power in another such as over our job. What a power analysis allows us is insight into the sources of power, their relative strengths and weaknesses and how they might be shifted in our favour. It’s not about merely observing power in some dispassionate way but rather about giving those who suffer from the abuse of power a voice. Organisers recognise that the authority of the few can only be exercised with the cooperation of the many; resist that authority collectively and no power on earth can keep on track.
Analysing power is not a science. Power itself shows it’s faces in many places and in many forms. It is constantly changing, morphing with the social fabric in which it resides. Analysing power therefore comes with some key caveats. It can only be done from a committed position alongside the oppressed; you need to know for whom and why you are doing the analysis. It is about one time and place; it is about feelings and facts, anger and despair as well as logic; it is subjective and collective; its results are temporary and dynamic. Just as you can’t hope to tie down power so its analysis will inevitably reflect the people and place in which it was done. This is not to suggest that power analysis is fruitless – anything but. Rather it is to suggest that the exercise needs to be done with a common appreciation that talking about power will help expose the current situation and action that can result, informing and perhaps transforming your shared view. And you get better at power analysis the more you do it!
In fact, power analysis is not just an exercise to be completed and put away. Rather its a way of thinking, forged in the white heat of conflict. We, the excluded majority need to know who holds us in subservience and how that control is exercised. Thinking in power terms becomes more effective as more of the disregarded become aware of our situation and begin to gain the tools – both of analysis and strategy – to challenge the elite’s mismanagement, corruption and abuse. This understanding requires then that power analysis itself is value-driven and the way it is done must be about sharing power, encouraging real investment from everyone, honesty, inclusion, creativity, humour and transparency. In the end, power analysis is about listening to the unheard and offering them real insight into their voicelessness.
Why do an analysis?
So how do you set about a power analysis? What are the stages or steps and who’s involved? More importantly, why might you want to do power analysis at all? What is the value in exploring power and its processes and what might you get from the exercise?
Power analysis is used at many points in organising. You might want to do an analysis at the inception of a new piece of work to assess the lie of the land. You might use a look at power at a decisive point along the way to assess progress and plot your course forward. You might want to step back and look at power in the round as an exercise in evaluating your work. And you could explore the play of power around your work as an element of looking back over your action to learn lessons and draw conclusions. Analysing power gives you a refreshed perspective at many points on the journey.
Most people however still engage with the idea of power analysis when looking at their situation in relation to a powerful adversary such as a funder, politician or company, seeking to understand the power relations and institutional dynamics among key targets and their allies. But power analysis is incredibly useful in other contexts too. For any group working with people who are marginalised or oppressed, a power analysis can offer real and tangible benefits. Indeed if you are working for justice, peace and sustainability, I suggest a power analysis will give you insights into for example how your community network uses it’s own power, by exercising power over, to, within and with (See here for more on this framework). Talking about power can be very revealing, allowing discussions again for example about the different and relative power of staff, volunteers, users and trustees. For organisers of course, their role and the power they operate with will come under scrutiny in these situations.
Another outcome of power analysis is to better understand the ways in which community members are powerful in some contexts and excluded in others. By exploring different scenarios and their shared history, the community can begin to see they do have power to make change in some settings and not in others. When we look at issues around gender, race, ethnicity or disability, a power analysis can shed light on the structural and cultural factors in discrimination and marginalisation. But it can also help to identify ways in which personal power has elevated individuals and groups to have a stronger voice. This may offer strategies for action that give more people the opportunity to take up similar powerful routes to challenge for change.
Power and changing minds
Of course understanding the power play of the agencies, organisations and institutions around your issue or group is often useful to developing a critical awareness of the environment. Campaigns for change are often born out of a developed consciousness of who needs to make the change happen and how they can be challenged to see it as in their interest to do so. Power analysis can also reveal the possibility of unlikely alliances and coalitions that may have a common result in mind whilst diverging widely in their understanding and approach to the issue more generally.
There is a temptation to build on your growing understanding of power and the issues or context you are working on to get on with it and complete a power analysis with the involvement of only a chosen few. One of the most powerful contributions that an analysis well done can offer is the shared and agreed understanding it brings to a diverse group. Group members can challenge their differing appreciations of power and build a more telling analysis using widely varied perspectives. For community organisers, the critical pathway to collective action lies through a shared understanding of the issues and its solution – and the experts in the issues and solutions are community members themselves – and don’t forget the kids! A power analysis – undertaken with care and at the right time – can bring a leadership group together and offer them a broad strategy and a clear set of goals for their next action. It also asks for courage, honesty and mutual respect so that relationships are deepened for the journey ahead.
Next time: Many agencies have produced guides to their approach to power analysis. In my next post, I will examine three styles of analysis and offer some resources to help the community organiser use them effectively.
Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller (2008) A New Weave of Power, People and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation Practical Action Publishinghttp://www.justassociates.org/ActionGuide.htm
Just Associates (2006) Making Change Happen: Power, Concepts for Revisioning Power for Justice, Equality and Peace, Making Change Happen No.3, Washington: Just Associates Available as a pdf here
Institute of Development Studies (2012) The Power of Analysis? Using power analysis to achieve social change You Tube video Talk by Jethro Pettit at YouTube
Raji Hunjan and Jethro Pettit (2010) Power: A Practical Guide for Facilitating Social Change Carnegie / JRF Available as a pdf here
International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) (2004) Power tools for policy influence in natural resouirce management Great website with loads of useful ideas and tools