Frames for change

Last week we started looking at story and story-telling by exploring the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of story in our family life to our national identity. This week, I want to focus down on the shape of our stories – their frames. Much research and thinking has been looking at how the frames we use influence the power of our change efforts and I want to offer an introduction to that thinking in this post.

Frames by Bart Eveson CC FlickrWhen we think of a frame, most of us will have in mind a photo or painting on the wall. We may have some at home or on our desk at work. We see frames in many places – the TV at home acts as a frame, the bill board on our street, the screen on our phone. What they have in common is that they include some things and exclude others. They form a boundary around the object of attention. So it is with the metaphor of mental frames I want to introduce here. Of course we don’t use wooden or plastic borders to shape our mental world but we do chose particular ways of regularly organising our attention that include key elements and exclude other related material, giving a particular meaning to our perspective.

Frames help and hinder

Frames allow human beings to assimilate new information by fitting it into a framework that is already understood. They offer “organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time, that work symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world.” (Stephen D. Reese, Framing Public Life, 2001) Most people don’t think about most issues most of the time; they need to have a frame in which to hang their thoughts about each issue and this is provided by the controlling frame. This is mostly provided by the news media that gives many people their agenda (what’s important to attend to), their frame (the lens through which to interpret facts and events) and their priming (what is relevant to making judgements). Different frames make for different opinions and willingness to act.

Homeless Man in Tokyo by Tony Waghorn CC FlcikrFor example, an episodic frame gives portraits of particular human stories whilst a thematic frame will pull the camera back to show the landscape in which the individual story is set. Episodic frames deliver a series of disconnected episodes and random events whilst thematic frames provide context, trends and explore how the system more widely has contributed to the situation. The difference between the two frames is seen in the response of those reading them. An episodic frame will leave the responsibility with the person or family; the required response is with the individual to ‘do good’ or ‘act well’. The thematic frame points beyond the case study to the wider causes; it asks for social policy responses, for government action or collective challenge.

Understanding frames (and becoming astute at recognising them) makes the reading of novels, the news or advertising very informative. You can begin to see that stories embody fundamental principles or values. Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise is not just about two animals in a race but expresses a view of (human) nature that encourages reflection, steady effort and an avoidance of flashy show. Similarly reading the frames involved in the Harry Potter novels provides important ideas about heroes being ordinary people made extraordinary by chance, fame that is not about celebrity but about heritage, loyalty and commitment and the recognition of a fundamental choice facing every human being: to be good or evil.

Frames express values

Schwartz’s value circumplex from The Common Cause HandbookThe importance of frames comes home when we look at research findings about values and motivation. In The Common Cause Handbook, the authors explore our growing understanding of human values and how they are structured. Over decades and across cultures, psychologists have found that the same group of ten repeatedly occurring values do not stand alone but each is related to the others as neighbours and opposites. The result of plotting these values on two axis – one about agency and the other about communion – is the circumplex, illustrated above. The findings show that values held on one side of the circumplex will be incompatible with values on the other. On the other hand, each value bleeds over from one segment to its neighbours, strengthening values on either side. Values are closely related to a person’s goals in life whether those are centred on external approval or reward or more inherently rewarding in their pursuit. For example some people seek social power or authority (extrinsic goals) whilst others are focused on creativity and a connection to nature (intrinsic goals).

Day 40/365 - Driving Home Through The Snow by Tobi Mattingly CC FlcikrNow values and the frames that express them are really important to community organisers. The way our people see their situation, the way they interpret the facts and figures, the meaning they place on events are all strongly influenced by the frames in use and the values that are triggered by them. For example, many people in my community see the council as just about the only body that can change their situation; they have never been exposed to a frame that suggests that any other agency can have an impact on their lives. So when I began to talk as though their own agency might be capable of delivering change, the frame was derided and laughed out of court. It was only as we worked together, as a few who shared the frame came together to make a start that the frame became more credible. As I shared my confidence in the ‘story’ I was telling them, shared examples from elsewhere and talked about the frame in many different ways, so people came to see they could be in the driving seat of their own lives.

The frames we chose to work with are really fundamental to the values we will illicit from the community. If we chose to use frames that focus on family security, honouring of older people and respect for tradition we will have problems drawing people into action that requires daring creativity, a broadminded acceptance of diversity and a sense of independence. The stories we tell ourselves do indeed determine what we can become! We can expect a wide diversity of values to be held by individuals in our work for social justice but the way we – as organisers and leaders – talk and act (our frames) will support a certain group of values to become the culture of our network rather than others. Being conscious about our choice of frame will ensure that our culture embeds values and frames to support our work and not undermine it.

Next time: the underlying structure of stories is important to appreciate so that we can develop narratives of our work that speak to the needs of communities for purpose and direction. In my next blog, I want to consider how the universal hero story underlies the life of communities getting organised and how the organiser themselves has to look to his or her personal narrative for inspiration.


Tim Holmes et al (2011) The Common Cause Handbook Public Interest Research Centre Available from

Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (2009) Re:Imagining Change: an Introduction to story-based strategy smartMeme Available both as a print edition and a pdf – highly recommended

Anon (2002) Framing Public Issues: A Toolkit The Framework Institute

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Values, Fairy Tales and Organising

As a part of the Locality-led community organisers’ programme, we’ve been encouraged to tell stories. Well … not lies and fabrications but accounts of our experiences and achievements as organisers. This is one of the main ways the government sponsors of the programme are able to assess the impact of their commitment. It’s growing into a huge resource of verbatim stories of community activism – perhaps the largest and most diverse ever collected; a source of evidence and inspiration for organisers to come.

In this new series of posts, I am going to explore stories, story-telling and the power story holds over our lives in community. I want to look at the way stories play a critical role in organising both in the way we think about our work and the way we feel about it. Community organising is a complex art and much of our approach is stimulated and controlled by the stories we tell each other and ourselves. We will see that stories are a universal part of human life and play a integral part in our successes and failures both as individuals and as communities.

Storytelling @ Thurdays by Zhao ! CC FlickrTruth telling

When young like most kids, I was told off for ‘telling stories’. It comes naturally to children to deviate from the truth and add details from their imagination. But truth comes in many forms. For our children, we tell so-called ‘fairy tales’, often grotesque portrayals of semi-mythical events set far away and lost in distant lands. But we continue to retell these ancient (and not so ancient) folk tales not to frighten our children but to imbue them with key lessons, with moral understanding, with ideals and with measures of good and evil. Truth telling is as much about emotion, humour, morality and character as about sticking to the bald facts. We tell stories to give us a moral landscape, to educate our awareness of the human plight, to offer role models and lessons about consequences.

Narrative also provides a frame for our actions. As humans, we are incredibly good at pattern recognition. In fact we outperform almost every computer at the task. Stories come in parts that we intuitively recognise: a beginning, the middle and an end. In drama, these are often marked out as Act I, Act II and Act III. In TV drama, we know that the attractive young lead (or team) in the first scenes is most likely to be the main protagonist in the rest of the drama. We know they will get into scrapes and face hurdles that they will struggle with in the middle part and then some form of resolution or conclusion will be reached by the end. We look for this ‘arc of the narrative’ in many places and remain fixated on finding resolution to hanging questions in many parts of our lives.

Two hats by Mark Round CC FlickrOrganising with two hats

One way of understanding the power of public narrative – the story we tell as organisers – is to recognise that we have to think about our organising with two hats on. One focuses on the strategy, the facts and figures, the cause and it’s logic. The other deals in the motives for action, the reasons for justice and the emotions that fire our response to oppression. To move people to action, we need both a clear path to tread and an intense belief in the importance of the action. If you like, see it as appealing to both the logical, rational facts and detail head AND the emotive, compassionate feeling and urgent heart. With both in play, we have a chance of getting people’s hands and feet involved in taking action.

The Power of Myth: Science, Myth and Parable by Timothy Takemoto CC FlickrStories shape our world

All this is not exclusive to organising. We know the power of story in great drama, whether it is the tragedy of Shakespeare‘s King Lear or the struggles of Christian through the troubles he overcomes in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Great narrative in all media gives us the ability to associate our own lives with those of the characters on show – DickensOliver Twist or Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Empathy and the power of association gives us the human capacity to see in the journey of another our own lives and to reflect on how we would respond in similar circumstances. The pilgrims’ tales entertain us in Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales because they offer us a huge range of human types and experience. And today we see in the impact of great story telling in Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter series, the same intense characterisation and emotive power. We are moved, we are challenged, we are changed.

The greatest examples of narrative of course are rooted in faith. Whether it is the story of Abraham and Isaac at the burning bush or the revelation of the Qur’an to Mohammed in the cave Hira near Mecca, our sense of the numinous, of the human spirit in process and of the impact of deep spiritual values are uncovered and made raw once more. The myths of the ancient Greeks (and their successors the Romans) have remained central to Western culture throughout the last 2400 years. And why? Because they speak to the dilemmas and trials that we all experience whatever our background, era or context. They give believers examples of faithful service and challenge the certainties of everyday life; these stories inspire and exhort, they have shaped whole movements and given birth to tragedy, comedy and pathos. We all live in their thrall.

leveraged wheelchair kenya 8 by Engineering for Change CC FlickrNarratives for change

So what’s the role of story for organisers in local communities? At the opening, I mentioned using narrative to give account for time, effort and resources expended. That can be about telling outsiders – funders, allies, partners – what happened but also giving account to he community itself. Newsletters, blog posts and presentations are all great ways to ‘tell the story’ of your organising. But story will always also share values, ideas, motives and purpose; the way you frame your work will communicate the intentions you have as an organiser, creating your own fables and parables of change. Leaders of the community will identify their struggle for change with certain ideals and a vision of their work that will be timeless. And of course other stories about your work will be circulating among community members, stories that question your values or motives, that seek to undermine your approach and achievements. We need to tell convincing stories that inspire action and defend our goals from malign attack.

  • Whose story inspires you? What is it about the story that touches your psyche?
  • How do you understand your past and future as a story?
  • Where do you come from? What are you made of? How do you account for your life?

Next time: Stories express meaning and truth and so they tell us about the key points in life and how we should (and shouldn’t) act. Our values are cenrtally engaged by stories and the frame they ewxpress. Next week, I will be introducing ‘frames’ and their importance to organising.


Marshall Ganz (2009) ‘Why Stories Matter’ in Sojourners Magazine March 2009

School of Storytelling – an international venture aimed to encourage and support excellence in storytelling

Brian Sturn (2007) Storytelling Theory and Practice UNC Chapel Hill – a YouTube video lecture that explores the nature and value of storytelling in 45 mins; worth every minute.

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Redesigning Organiser Training

The Locality-led community organisers’ programme was commissioned by the incoming UK Coalition government in April 2011. It promised to develop a new home-grown movement of 5,000 community organisers across England building on the experience of existing community organisations and using an approach called Root Solutions – Listening Matters(RSLM). Over four years, the Programme offers a year’s experiential and accredited training to 500 individuals and to help them in turn to recruit 4,500 volunteer organisers who join them in developing local initiatives, based around the priorities of local residents.

At Chester (Cohort 9 Training) by Community Organisers Programme - FacebookTraining so far

For each cohort – and there are fourteen planned in all – their training starts with a three and a half day residential. With about 40 in each cohort – from about nine or ten locations – this intense process gives each cohort a distinctive character and identity. It helps to bond the teams together and introduces the key elements of RSLM. I was a part of the first cohort that trained in September 2011 and at the time, I wrote three posts one about each of the three days (below). The residential (and the rest of the training experience) has of course evolved significantly since then:

The residential only forms the first element in an extended range of training and development opportunities that supports the evolving practice of new community organisers. These include monthly online group supervision, onsite visits from the training team, a mid-year cohort-wide face-to-face meeting and the Annual Action Camp. The core of the learning agenda is carried by the seven-module Open College Network (OCN) accredited distance-learning course and the ‘Go Deeper’ options which allow trainees to specialise in a particular aspect of organising in their later months. When nearing the end of my year, I wrote a post about the training:

Ahmed Kabba at Yarnfield Conference Centre for Action Camp 2013Review

Since the Programme first started, the key training partner for Locality has been the RE:generate Trust, who hold the copyright on the RSLM materials. The staff of RE:generate have formed the core of the national training team and ensured consistency to the learning journey for all trainees. The Programme has contracted with RE:generate only until April 2014 and so is now embarking on a review and revision of the organiser training for the final months. As a consequence, Locality convened a review conference recently to look at the nature and scope of a new training package to be used for the last three cohorts who will start their year training from April 2014.

In preparation for this review, Locality invited their partner Imagine (an informal group of four experienced community sector consultants) to survey opinion amongst the current community organisers about their training and how it might be changed to better prepare them for organising. The results of the survey were interesting. The trainees divided between those who relished the practical learning focus and felt the course was too ‘theoretical’ and a second group who enjoyed expanding their understanding of organising and wanted to restrict the amount of practical application. This is no surprise with such a broad range of experience and ability in each cohort. However it presented a real challenge to the review conference to take account of both these groups and develop a more coherent and sustainable course.

Community organisers cohort 7 introduction map and flags. Community Organisers Programme FacebookSurvey results

We opened the review by considering the feedback from the survey and a summary of the main findings from the Imagine report. We spent a couple of hours considering what the core elements of a new foundation course in community organising should cover. We came up with all the elements that we felt fundamental to the learning and clustered them under understanding, knowledge and skills. Each of these headings were then summarised from the many ideas grouped and categorised so that in the report back, each group brought a simple (or not so simple!) schema of the core elements. They fell into three areas fairly clearly: the person, the process and the power.

The organiser needs to learn during the year how to be resilient, reflective and responsive. We identified a range of factors that make for a successful community organiser such as self-awareness, the ability to challenge and work effectively in a team. Secondly we wanted trainees to develop an appreciation of the process of organising moving from developing deeper relationships of trust to building action groups toward a network of people who are committed to changing their community for the better. Thirdly we felt it crucial that organisers were able by the end of the course to analyse power, use it themselves and work in an empowering way with others. These core areas – person, process and power – were the essential ingredients of the training course content.

The survey had indicated that trainees found the accredited element the most stressful, asking them to write several short essays for each of module. We recognised that this gave preference to those who found it easy to express themselves in writing and that people with other learning styles were disadvantaged. The conversation turned to look at how a broader range of learning styles might be engaged by the training using online, multi-media and other mechanisms (such as presentations and interviews) to encourage each organiser to at least ‘have a go’ at two or three new ways of expressing themselves. I expressed the hope this might be done so as to help the organiser use such newly-acquired skills in their community and in turn to pass on the knowledge.

Community Organisers Programme FacebookTiming and Accreditation

When we turned to the timeline for the year’s training, two groups of organisers took apart the events of the year and reconstructed them to reflect how they would like to see the training develop. This allowed us to consider how peer support from earlier cohorts might be incorporated, how the fledgling Inspiration Network of graduate organisers might facilitate the creation of regional learning and support networks and the role of a short residential at the mid-point. My group suggested a final day closure session combined with the public graduation session to provide a full stop for everyone.

We concluded with a short session on the OCN accredited materials and what changes or developments were felt necessary and feasible. Given the timeframe, we felt that only a cosmetic adjustment was possible at this stage and that a more substantial reworking of the material could be considered with the OCN at a future stage. We talked throughout the day about the Go Deeper options that are currently taken after about 6 months. We did not reach any consensus but it was clear that some would need to be better integrated in the core offer and others might be part of monthly day events either online or in person.

The review conference was an opportunity to consider how the training might be delivered differently given the experience of nine cohorts. It built on the existing model (and resources) and tried to make the design more coherent and consistent. Moving beyond a dependence on the pure RSLM model (due to copyright restrictions) will allow the training to be more flexible and adventurous in some aspects. There is of course much work to be done – not least to consult much more widely – and that will require a great deal of necessary constraint on ambitious plans. Nonetheless, a redesigned training for UK organisers has begun its life; I hope it fulfils on its potential.

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Tooling up for power analysis

We’ve been on a journey together over the last two months. Looking at different aspects of power has been a rewarding experience for me, consolidating learning and experience from more than ten years of exploration. I outlined my understanding of power and empowerment in the first three posts and then I examined personal, cultural and structural power in turn. Last week, the focus turned to using power analysis and this time I want to conclude by sharing some great tools and approaches to power analysis.

DeWalt Power Tool - Drill by Digital Internet CC FlcikrUsing the right tool

When you are considering doing a power analysis with your community network, an organiser needs to think carefully about the goal you have for the analysis, the nature and stage of development of your group and how it all fits in the wider context. Choosing the right approach to analysis has never been ‘one size fits all’. Rather you need to take stock and chose carefully from a range of options. One key part of this consideration is to always work within the wisdom of your people. Don’t ask a group who are just starting out together to work through a complex and emotionally charged agenda. But similarly, don’t offer a mature and well functioning group a simplistic exercise that trivialises power analysis. It’s important to think through how you will present the power analysis too. How will you get the best from the group? How can they best see the analysis fitting into the narrative of the group’s development?

Forces and influencers

There are some great tools that can be used ‘off the shelf” so to speak for a single session or discussion. One that makes sense in some contexts is a force-field analysis, devised by Kurt Lewin. This approach involves looking at the forces holding things as they are and forces moving toward the change you want. At present, these two sets of forces are in equilibrium but you want to move the status quo closer to your goal. The way to visualise this is by drawing a straight line from top to bottom of a large sheet of paper. On one side list each of the forces at work to keep things as they are and on the other those forces driving for change. Once you’ve got your lists, give each force a strength say from one to five, reflecting the power they hold. This can be recorded with a line of the right length underlining each force. Once you have a picture of the power at work on each side, the fun begins of trying to assess how to increase the likelihood of change. That starts with reducing the forces that resist the change; the evidence shows that if you focus on creating greater pressure for change, the forces that are resisting it will merely redouble their efforts. Thinking through how to reduce the impact of the resisting forces gives your efforts for change more chance of succeeding. You can use this tool to look at any change process and plan your actions.

Another useful tool is Power Mapping from James Whelan at The Change Agency in Australia. James suggests helping the group to consider first what they want to achieve in their campaign. Being clear about your objective is really important in looking at the local power environment. Once you have the goal set, you can begin to use a simple map of power using two axises: one showing the level of influence each organisation or person has over your outcome and the other showing their level of support or opposition. Taking first your own network and then the most powerful player, you place sticky notes with the agency’s name on them onto the grid. You need to think broadly about a range of players in relation to your goal and map each onto the grid. When you’ve done this part of the process, you can turn to how you might move key influencers of your main power player closer to your cause. This tool helps to begin to develop a strategy for action.

100 Rubic cubes by Sam Greenhalgh CC FlickrPower cube

Among the most reflective and useful approaches to power analysis is the Power Cube. Developed by John Gaventa and his team at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Brighton, the Cube is a distillation of power studies in the context of popular participation in international development. The framework suggests that power can be analysed in three dimensions, taking the analogue of a Rubik’s cube. Each face can be viewed in three ways, allowing the analysis to focus on how things are at present and what the strategy should be to move power to a more ‘pro-poor’ position.

Starting with the issue of scale, the first dimension of the Cube sets out three levels of power: the local, national and global. In terms of participation in international development, these three clearly make more sense than for organisers working at local level. However, this face of the Cube can remind us that the power wielded in communities may be located well beyond the local or indeed national context. The second dimension of the Cube looks at spaces for power. Building on his colleague Andrea Cornwall’s work, Gaventa suggests that the space for participation can have three forms: closed, invited or claimed / created. This dimension focuses on access to spaces for the exercise of power. Some spaces are defined and controlled by the powerful and hence are closed to other participants. Other spaces are open to those invited to participate but often still defined by those with authority and influence. The third type of space is designed for the less powerful and deliver real and tangible control for the many. The third dimension of the Cube speaks to the form of power exercised in those spaces. Some power is visible in observable decision-making. Other power is hidden in the setting of the political agenda, what can be discussed and what is not debated. Invisible power shapes the meaning of the debate itself and what is acceptable attitudes, values and behaviour. To use this approach effectively, do read the paper referenced below and visit the IDS website to find many relevant resources making the application to different contexts much easier.

Paulo Freire by novohorizonte de Economia Solidaria CC FlcikrDevising codes

Most people experience their lives as constrained by factors outside their immediate environment. Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator (pictured right) who led a national literacy campaign for peasants and slum dwellers in the 1950s and 1960s. His methods have been very influential on both community work and education ever since. When looking to explore power with community members, Freire’s approach can be very productive and insightful. If you are thinking of using this style of analysis, it’s well worth taking a look at Freire’s thinking more generally to understand where he was coming from and how his wider values informed his educational process.

In summary, this approach has three parts: to see, to analyse and to act; it starts with agreeing on the issues the community faces. This will normally be a long list and may take some time to summarise and agree. The organiser is a full part of the research drawing out the different expert insights from across the community and helping people engage with each other’s perspectives. Encouraged to look more deeply at causes rather than merely recording consequences, the group seeks a short list of say three issues. They become ‘generative themes’ for the analysis stage. This process allows the community to ‘see’ the issues clearly and to understand how they effect different groups and parts of their neighbourhood.

much.ado: the watch by Emily Hummel CC FlcikrThe second stage starts in small groups, each creating a ‘code’ which might be video, a photo, drawing, audio or perhaps for children a puppet show. The ‘code’ is a way for the group to express their understanding of the power at work in their issue in a distilled and cogent way. The code should make the link between the issue and the situation faced by the community itself explicit and help to open up the power at work. They should be encouraged to think through how best to explore the issue which allows more than words to express the meaning. Once the codes are ready, the group meets together to hear from each of the small groups. This brings together the wisdom of the whole group to analyse what is happening, why it happens and what are its causes and consequences. Here the three levels of power – personal, cultural and structural – all come into play and immediate causes are separated from root causes. It’s often best in this discussion to summarise it as a problem tree. This presents the agreement as a picture of a tree with the consequences as leaves, the trunk as the issue itself and roots as the fundamental causes.

Moving from seeing to analysis to action is critical to this process. It gives participants opportunity to grow more aware of their power situation and how the decisions and actions of others impact on members of the community. They begin to see how the issues are socially constructed and neither natural or inevitable. By the third stage, the group is ready to decide not only on a long-term strategy to move some of the key power players but also on short-term next steps to create momentum for change.

Magnetic field - 15 by Windell Oskay CC FlickrPower analysis does not create change alone. It is however a key part in awakening the potential of a community to tackle power realistically, recognising their own power and how the power of others – in the network and beyond – enables or constrains their lives. To become truly liberated citizens, communities need to organise, to act collectively for the common good and to be conscious of their place in the matrix or forcefield of power. Only when the acts of fully-awake groups of citizens are integrated with each other across our cities, towns and villages will we see the start of a new form of deeper democracy taking hold.


The Change Agency (TCA) – a website crammed with great campaign resources and some deep wisdom too – highly recommended

Find here worksheets on forcefield analysis, power mapping and problem tree analysis

Training for Change (TfC) – another brilliant resource site for trainers and activists engaged for social justice. Plenty of great resources to delve into here too.

Andrew Boyd (ed) (2012) Beautiful Trouble – a Toolbox for Revolution OR Books Available to buy or download at

The Power Cube from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. This website brings together thinking and research into power over three decades at IDS into a simple but powerful summary. The resources to make use of the concepts and approach in participative ways are diverse, rich and practical.

John Gaventa (2006) ‘Finding the Spaces for Change – A Power Analysis‘ in The IDS Bulletin Vol 37 No 6 Available as a pdf

Oxfam (2009) A Quick Guide to Power Analysis Available as a pdf

Raji Hunjan and Jethro Pettit (2011) Power – a practical guide for facilitating social change Carnegie UK Trust

Dawn Martinez Therapy for Liberation – the Paulo Freire Methodology Simmons College School of Social Work Available as a pdf

Tools for Influencing Power and Policy” in Participatory Learning and Action No 53 Dec 2005 International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) Available as a pdf

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Power Analysis – taking our thinking to action

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?

Pentagon, APG officials discuss power and energy solutions - U.S. Army RDECOM CC FlickrWaking 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!

Heads Together by Demokratie & Dialog e.V. CC FlickrIn 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.

Poverty: a main driver of vulnerability. by UN ISDR CC FlickrMost 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.

Kanakpur Community Members by The Advocacy Project CC FlickrThere 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 Publishing

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

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Structures for Power

This series of posts started by exploring the nature of power and its different forms. Take a look at the first two posts here and here. I have then written about empowerment itself and how as organisers we are charged with transforming dis-empowerment into self-confident citizens who empower each other to change the world. In the last two posts – here and here – I have looked at two levels of power, the personal and the cultural. In this post I am looking at the structural level. The scope of the analysis of power goes ever wider and this time, I’m looking at the macro-level and its impact on our communities in practice.

Rathmines Library by Dublin Public Libraries CC FlickrStructures of society

Many of us regard society as run by institutions. companies and agencies. We know only too well that access to ‘power to’ and ‘power over’ is often gained by being in relationship with the main organisations that structure our environment. These entities even have a “corporate identity” which allow them to act as though they were a single individual rather than a system of decisions, relationships and processes. Structural power flows through the organisations of the state, of commerce, of the law and indeed through unions and charities. We know it’s ability to both thwart human endeavour and to make possible the most amazing achievements. By working together, by acting collectively, by creating structure and corporate identities, power is concentrated and focused.

Institutional life offers real advantages to some parts of our community and disadvantages others. As organisational life becomes ever more all-embracing, so some are winners and others losers. Structure is a part of all our lives at many levels but the privilege it offers – in status, networks and financial rewards – means that those who are marginal to institutional life are left out. The list of those who are systematically discriminated against is long and painful, bringing out the way our society’s structures are unjust and inhuman to so many. The experience of many is that their class, race or ethnicity causes them to be overlooked. Women and people who are differently-abled are routinely demeaned and undermined. Young people and older people are often ignored and forgotten whilst those with alternative sexual identities have to hide their reality for fear of retribution.

And so it goes on. So many are on the receiving end of power misused and mishandled. The numbers across our world who live lives crushed by tyranny and oppression remains a slur on the human race. Homelessness, poverty, disease and hunger are endemic and are the result of power’s evil excesses. Structural power does not derive its potency from individual wrongs (or abilities) or from the way people think. It is the structures themselves that allow great works and huge tragedies. The oppression meeted out to the least in our world derives from the way we have organised ourselves, how we are linked together and integrated ourselves into a global system.

Solar_tower_flipped_reduced by Greens MPs CC FlickrPower concentrations

Power focuses on those who already have the means to attract more. If you receive with your birth a lifestyle, expectations and an income that is exceptionally privileged, then you can be pretty sure of drawing on significant power to decide your own future. If on the other hand, your parents are poor and powerless, your hopes of wielding social power over organisations or institutions are poor themselves. So power flows down deep canyons of inheritance and privilege. But this points beyond economic power to what it buys: social and political power. Everyone is aware that powerful people are part of an elite which offers them a network of connections. The powerful often go to the same places, work at similar jobs, enjoy the same passtimes and attend the same schools. This web of influence is immensely potent in acting to defend and support its members, whether through being able to draw on personal contacts, knowing people in the know or calling in favours. This power elite is at the core of our national and world political system and indeed the global economy.

In communities – villages, neighbourhoods and districts – structural power is often pretty well-known and acknowledged. We know that the person who lives in the big house will have more sway over local affairs than the normal villager. We can predict that the man or woman who can donate a significant sum to a party or cause will be part of an influential network in the area. We also understand that groups with few resources and who are badly organised will not get much of a hearing. The specific shape of local structures vary widely with inheritance, property and profit delivering a mixture of power sources but the same social and political power will be at work in their results.

Mistakes can be made however when we assume that those who are without wealth are virtuous and those with it are evil. Indeed, the same goes for organisational and institutional life; assuming because the entity is large or influential that is will act in an abusive or coercive way is to misunderstand power. If you have worked in communities for any time, you will know that the opposite is certainly not true; small groups are just as capable of being oppressive and tyrannical as the big boys. Their scale may differ but just because power is concentrated in the hands of a few does not mean that they will do good or evil with it. “Power,” they say, “tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet the wealthy and those in authority can also use their power to create great benefit to humanity.

World population and ownership of global assets by Christian Guthier CC Flickr

Imperialism and neo-colonialism

For the European nations and America, structural power has another dimension that is global. The history of global expansion from the fourteenth century to today has led to power being concentrated in wealthy nations, those who like to see themselves as ‘developed’. The way in which the British, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Germans spread their influence around the globe meant that the resources of people, land, raw materials and talent were drawn to the imperial powers leaving the colonies depleted and destroyed. This history led to the slave trade, to wars and to many atrocities that leave their mark today on international relations. And of course it continues with the imperial influence of America today. The power of the few over the many can have few starker examples than comparing the global richest 1% with the global poorest 50% (see graphic above).

National identities have been forged in the era of colonialism. Today the global corporations who hold so much power over nation states and global governance structures are often a result too of that same colonial mindset. Neo-colonialism plays a critical role in our national and community life, despite it seeming a world away from local issues. In fact attitudes of deference and superiority – especially between ethnic and cultural groups – can often be traced back to the ways in which our history has shaped our views of other nations and traditions. The most obvious example is the hatred meted out to Muslims in the West and the reception of Polish immigrants to the UK stands testament to the negative stereotypes that have dogged the Cold War.

But we must also recognise that to deliver effective remedy to the past destruction of much of the globe – and indeed the very present destruction of our climate, natural resources, bio-diversity and future – the power of states and corporations is needed. To tackle poverty, argues Duncan Green in From Poverty to Power, we must have both empowered citizens and effective states. The power to deliver the scientific and cultural transformation that is required to create a just and peaceful world lies in the hands of those with structural power as much as in those with cultural and personal power. Creating the world we all desire is not to do away with power but rather to harness its potential to creative and enriching goals. ‘Power over’ needs ‘power with’ and ‘power within’.

Next time: We’ve ranged across a huge territory in this series, looking at the nature and scale of power from the personal to the global. But as organisers, we need to make sense of this at community level. There are ways to understand power and its impact on community life. How can you do an effective power analysis for your neighbourhood or town? How does it link to action and inform your approach?


Duncan Green (2012) From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World (Second Edition) Oxfam

Ruth Mayne and Jim Coe (2009) Power and Social Change NCVO Available to download from NCVO and several other sites

Daniel Dorling (2010) Injustice: Why social injustice persists Policy Press

Frantz Fanon (1961) The Wretched of the Earth Penguin

Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller (2008) A New Weave of Power, People and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation Practical Action Publishing

Rosalind Eyben (2004) Linking Power and Poverty Reduction World Bank Available online as a pdf

The Power Cube from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. This website brings together thinking and research into power over three decades at IDS into a simple but powerful summary. The resources to make use of the concepts and approach in participative ways are diverse, rich and practical.

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The Power of Ideas

Last week we looked together at personal power, what we mean by it and how it can be nurtured and developed. In this post, I want to introduce some key ideas around cultural power, the way our lives – and indeed our very identities – are shaped and structured by unseen forces of ideology and persuasion.

Vendetta Mask by Nathan Rupert CC Flickr

Media, profit and spin

TV plays a critical role in our communities, providing a key way for messages about our cultural norms and standards to be set and disseminated. If you analyse your local newspaper or a national website, it’s easy to see how most articles relate in one way or another to the market environment which dominates our culture today. Celebrity or sporting brands make headlines. Wars over access to carbon-rich fuels soak up the column inches and political debate is set against a background of commercial competition and market orientation. Our media environment is saturated with the commodification of key human factors such as health, education, land and labour. Much of the media output support – directly or indirectly – the view that human nature is essentially consumerist, where our fundamental qualities are those of use to the market as sellers or buyers of goods and services. (The work of David Edwards and David Cromwell and Media Lens provides a valuable commentary on this aspect of our cultural environment.)

The history of this development reaches far back into the last century and beyond. Sigmond Freud’s theories in teh early twentieth century identified the unconcious impulses of the individual as powerful, innate and universal. The governments of the US and Greeat Britain saw these findings as a threat to their plans for order and direction and the business world an opportunity to link their products to our deepest drives. Out of this combination sprang the world of public relations. (Adam Curtis has created in his documentary series The Century of the Self a fine outline of this story and its ramifications for our society today.) Today the spin doctors are constantly at work devising still more subtle and powerful ways to convince us to buy their product, be that a policy about benefit fraudstersd or a new washing powder.

No War March by David Jones CC FlickrIdeology and hegemony

The reality is that cultural power is often expressed through the assumptions we use in debate and conversation. It is often the shorthands of everyday speech that reveal our reliance on cultural stereotypes and norms of behaviour. In the community, recognising how some parts of the community are viewed as perhaps sinister or uncontrolled can offer insights into the ways such powerful cultural norms are playing out locally. Gramsci‘s idea of cultural hegemony is useful here. Hegemony is the domination of our culturally diverse community by one worldview – one set of beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values and assumptions. Such domination serves the agenda of the elite in our society and allows their ideology to justify the status quo as natural and inevitable. We can see this at play in many ways such as talk about scroungers vs hard working families and in focus on regime change in Iraq or Syria rather than the realities of human devastation and catastrophe.

Many organisers recognise the way our assumptions and values are manipulated but few take the time to consider how their work can help to counteract such distortions. The key to changing your perception and the powerful influence of the dominant ideology is to recognise when it as at play and stand firm for an alternative perspective. For many community leaders, the idea of taking direct action to challenge the powerful is crazy, just beyond belief. The organiser has to be clearheaded enough to help leaders see how their framwork of thinking has been created by one side and can be responded to by developing other ways of thinking and acting. Counter-hegemony might not be a term much heard in community organising but organisers are constantly opening the eyes of community members to other ways of understanding their situation, an alternaitve that take seriously the power of persuasion.

Lamb & Flag by Julia Manzerova CC FlickrDiscourse and knowledge

Every conversation we have is both embedded in and creates cultural power.We use certain frameworks of language, meaning and behaviour that contain within them certain ‘power rules’.For example, conversations about professions such as doctors or lawyers often give implicit authority to the words and intentions of the professional and as a consequence, create for them a privileged position. ‘Doctor’s orders’ is a useful example of the way one person’s ideas  – in this case the doctor’s – are given power through the nature of language itself, through ‘discourse’. Such privileged status is given men in patriarchal cultures and to white people in racism societies. As we know, brought up in such settings, we all embue the assumptions of our surroundings and reproduce those power dynamics in our lives. In this way, Foucault argues discourse actually constructs reality, generates power and status for some and discrimination and marginalisation for others. Our communities are shaped by those issues and concerns that are normal, natural and acceptable and by those which are – most importantly – abnormal, unnatural and unacceptable.

They say that ‘knowledge is power’ and this is undoubtedly true. But of course knowledge is developed in ‘discourse’ – not just esoteric academic debates but everyday discussion – and such conversations are sites of power themselves. It may feel very different from our side but a knowledge of community organising gives us a certain power, perhaps not to command or direct but certainly to guide and suggest. We use words and phrases that have meaning for us (perhaps not for community members!) and are part of a wider network who share those ways of speaking. We ask questions and raise issues because of our privileged knowledge that others in the community might not. And we give emphasis to certain themes or topics over others because of our role. So even in community organising, our power creates knowledge for others and gives us knowledge that others can’t share. Cultural power offers a distinctly different view of how ‘knowledge / power’ works and can help us to be much more aware of our words and actions.


For many these issues of cultural power are answered by the oversimplification of ‘political correctness’. Understanding how power, hegemony and language relate and the impact they have on ordinary people’s opportunties, prospects and circumstances can give a fundamentally different perspective to our practice as organisers. Simple deleting certain terms from our vocabulary does nothing to undo the powerful influence of the elite’s ideology on all aspects of our lives. Reflecting on your experience of cultural power, here are a few quesitons to stimulate your thinking:

  • How does the commercial power of TV, media and advertising influence your work? When are you most influenced to believe in a new ‘product’?
  • Can you think of examples of hegemony at work in your community? Who is regarded as ‘out’ and who is ‘in’?
  • When do you see your knowledge as an organiser most impacting your power in your community? How can you use that power well?
  • Who are the most powerful cultural models for you? Who provides you with your dominant ideas of beauty, courage, dedication or pride?

Next time: Power is often most easily recognised when concentrated in a few privileged hands. Our society works because a few have structural power to command the agreement and cooperation of millions. But structural power is also most easily identified with the ‘dark side’ of power, the power to coerce, to wage war, to persecute. How do we understand structural power and its role in our communities?


Mark Haugaard (ed) (2002) Power – a Reader Manchester University Press

Margaret Ledwith (2011) Community Development: A critical approach (Second Edition) Policy Press

Adam Curtis (2002) The Century of the Self BBC Award-winning documentary series ‘about how those in power used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.’ Available to stream and download at – highly recommended

David Cromwell (2012) Why are we the Good Guys?Reclaiming Your Mind from the Delusions of Propaganda Zero Books

Roger Hopkins (2013) Empowering Education – Educating for Community Development: A Critical Study of Methods, Theories and Values John Hunt Publishing

Antonio Gramsci (2000) A Gramsci Reader Lawrence and Wishart Ltd

Gary Gutting (2005) Foucault: A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press

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Reaching for Potential

In recent posts, I have been exploring the nature of power and empowerment. In my post on distinctions to be made in thinking about power here, I suggested that three levels of power made the most sense in community organising: personal, cultural and structural. This week, I want to consider power and empowerment at the personal level – for the individual and group – in some more depth.

Vines to Heaven by Orin Zebest CC FlickrTackling Dependency

As I have already said, power is found in action everywhere; it is ubiquitous and pervasive. When we think about empowerment, we can’t draw clear boundaries around the areas of our life in which it will operate. Our personal and professional lives are intertwined; our relationships with partners and friends, with colleagues and managers, with politicians and priests all come under scrutiny. Empowerment is partly about our practice but also about what we bring to that practice: ourselves. Empowerment is never what we do to or for others; rather its a partnership, committed to development, a two-way street. Any organiser working to counter paternalism and dependency needs to look at themselves and their personal experience of empowerment as well as at the other’s life. The danger otherwise is that – whatever the intent – empowerment becomes merely an instrumental tactic or rhetorical device.

Only as an empowered organiser can you hope to empower others. Stress is often caused by a lack of control (power) over your work and life. Too much work, a stultifying management, focusing on meeting bureaucratic demands, poor or unfulfilling relationships all sap energy and can create low morale and cynicism in the most committed. Together they lead in turn to burnout and a ‘learned helplessness’. This is the opposite of empowerment and someone in this position cannot deliver effectively on their role in the community.

Multi culture dolls by A.Currell CC FlickrGrasping identity

Much conversation about empowerment starts from aspects of identity – that sense of self that people ascribe to themselves and each other – such as class, race, disability, gender, sexual identity or age. Identity is amazingly multifaceted and flexible, including aspects with which we are born, some we inherit from our family, some have a legal basis whilst over others again we have choice. We choose to express our identity in different contexts with flare, huge flexibility and subtle nuance. It is easy to assume the importance of another person’s evident identity without being aware of their own more subtle focus for identity. A black woman may see her ethnic identity to be less important in a particular context than her age, sexual identity or gender.

Identity plays a critical role in community, often providing the means for finding common cause and building mutuality. A shared identity allows people to come together around ideas, information, resources and support, sometimes within a neighbourhood or village, sometimes across national borders. In terms of power, we all know that society ascribes different dimensions and levels of power to groups (or identities) and that some groups (or identities) derive significant benefit from the flow of power toward them. Other identities are not regarded so highly and as a result, people who identify with them face reduced opportunities and less control over their futures. This discrimination – often on the basis of people’s fundamental identity such as gender, race or ability – is one key aspect of disempowerment and hence a focus of the work of empowerment.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) skills by four quadrants per Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis by Stephen Lark CC Flickr

Emotional Intelligence

Life coming together

Empowerment is often about enabling someone to function more effectively within themselves and in society. As we grow up, we learn ways of interacting with others that can serve as templates for future patterns to develop. As we mature, we encounter new ways of reacting to circumstances and open ourselves to new experience which may reinforce those early patterns or undermine them. We face moments in life when our ways of coping come apart and we live through crises, crises that can offer a chance to relearn some key aspects of ourselves. Finding new ways of relating to ourselves and to others requires practice and others who have successfully negotiated the change to model our lives on for a while. This journey to self-belief and understanding is often based on the stories we tell ourselves, some of which are deeply disempowering and some of which can let us fly.

22a.NAMESProject.AIDS.Quilt.WDC.10oct92 by Elvert Barnes CC FlickrAlongside our identity and our psychosocial capacity, there are aspects of life that can restrict people’s ability to express their inherent power. These include fear, anxiety, pain and grief as well as debt, conflict, addiction and ill health. These real constraints come to us all at times, reducing our sense of control over life and leading us to be less able to express our power. But power is dynamic and flows around and between people and gives us all the potential to overcome these ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’ Power can generate new power; power can be generative in the individual, in relationships and in groups. Again and again, people who face the most devastating situation show that the human spirit can overcome even the worst the world can send them.

Empowering relationships

So the organiser and the person (or group) are in relationship over their mutual empowerment. One-way therapy will not do; empowerment is about the whole person – organiser and the other – facing up to your identities, to your capacity to function well and to the restraints to your expression of power. How can an organiser use this understanding of personal power and empowerment to develop their approach? Here are some questions you might ask of yourself:

  • Do I separate my professional life from my personal in watertight compartments? Can I do this and still form empowering relationships?
  • Where does my experience of my multiple identities help me be empowered and where am I disempowered? What ‘stories’ do I tell myself to positively shape my consciousness?
  • Do I know my strengths and weaknesses well? Can I function well in social settings? If not, what is preventing my empowerment?
  • What are the factors that help me be better at empowering others? Which factors hold me back?

Next time: Our communities are influenced by TV and the media, by ways of thinking and even by the way we use language. It all comes down to cultural power and how we can begin to break its hold.


Alison Gilchrist et al (2010) Identities and Social Action: Connecting Communities for a Change CDF Available as a pdf here

Inspire East (2008) Community Empowerment Discussion Toolkit new economics foundation Available as a pdf here

Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller (2008) A New Weave of Power, People and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation Practical Action Publishing

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

Raji Hunjan and Jethro Pettit (2010) Power: A Practical Guide for Facilitating Social Change Carnegie / JRF Available as a pdf here

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What’s this about empowerment?

Power is a strange factor in our lives. How we experience it depends on lots of things: the identity ascribed to us in childhood as female, black, middle class, Muslim, straight, Scottish…and the identities that we choose for ourselves such as feminist, internationalist, anti-racist, hedonist, Buddhist; the way of thinking about how the world works that we have learnt from how we have been educated and the disciplines we have specialised in, for example sociology, nursing or train driving; the direction of our engagement with development opportunities, career and current job (See Eyben 2004). All these factors – and many more – mean we each have our own ‘take’ on power and its impact on our lives.

Confidence by Glenda Sims CC FlickrGaining greater control

Empowerment is defined as helping people gain greater control over their own lives and circumstances. Since we each encounter power in a distinctive way, our capacity to empower ourselves or to empower others is similarly particular. The ability of some groups or parts of the community to empower others may in general be limited or very great but within that situation, there will be some for whom empowerment is beyond them and others for whom empowerment is easy and apparently straight-forward. We can gain insight and skill in empowerment from one part of our lives and only over time come to apply it to other parts; we can be crushed and utterly shattered by a single experience or situation and find our level of empowerment has declined everywhere. Empowerment for ourselves and for others is always a continual process which needs tending and nurturing to grow and flourish.

Two Confusions

Two terms are sometimes confused with empowerment. First, enabling is often associated with a professional deciding on the goals to be achieved such as obtaining a new job and then helping the person concerned to achieve them. This works at only one level of empowerment – the personal – and fails to engage the individual’s own strengths and abilities in determining where the effort is best applied. Secondly, capacity building is similarly often used of pre-determined interventions to assist individuals and groups to better meet the objectives of the provider or funder. Such efforts can sometimes deliver real benefits but address the person or group from a deficit model. The perspective of empowerment starts from a positive assessment of the strengths and existing capacities of the person rather than (pre-)defining the goal in terms of their current failings and needs.

Determination by Mohammed CC FlickrAble to make a difference

Empowerment works at more than the personal level but psychological well-being is a central component of developing personal power. Many people see themselves as being merely the plaything of circumstances and cannot conceive the possibility of having a role to play in changing their lot. Fundamental to empowerment is the idea of ‘self-efficacy’ – the sense that you are able to have a real, tangible impact on your situation. Others write of a sense of agency, of being self-directed, the ability to make decisions for yourself and take responsibility for the results. These qualities lie at the heart of empowerment and as organisers, we are always looking to develop them further in ourselves and in the communities in which we work.

Starting (and stopping) with the personal

Often empowerment seems to stop at the personal level, or at most with the group. The goal of empowerment often appears to be to help people function better within the oppressions they suffer, rather than having the wider goal of challenging the existing cultural and structural factors that lead to disempowerment in the first place. Of course the ambition to for example challenge stereotypes or raise political consciousness is often there in intent but in practice, the difficulty of achieving personal breakthroughs with people deeply disempowered by life can prevent the broader agenda from ever being effective. Critical to this failure is the design of the empowerment, the assumption that personal empowerment has to take priority in time and effort.

Paulo Freire by novohorizonte de Economia Solidaria CC FlcikrBuilding awareness

One of the most telling approaches to empowerment is the use of narrative. In the work of Paulo Freire (pictured left), working in literacy work amongst the poor favelas of Brazil, we find a refreshing way to open up the assumptions of ordinary people about their world view and circumstances. Freire used pictures, news items and simple everyday objects to discuss in Portuguese and also to help each group of residents to dialogue about the way their lives were shaped by outside forces. He worked to raise their consciousness of their oppressions by engaging in a process of shared learning. His curiosity and intrigue about their daily lives and beliefs about how things worked both gave him insights into their world and opened their eyes to the wider implications of their experience. And most importantly, they took action on those insights.

Cultural empowerment

People tend to tell themselves entirely disempowering stories about their lives and communities. Such narratives lead to fear, despair and disengagement. An organiser’s role is to open up these stories and help groups of residents to understand how their lives are limited by their beliefs about themselves and their situation. Creating opportunities for community members to grow in awareness of the way their thinking is influenced by the press, by advertising and the TV is a central act of organising. Only as people become aware of the way power is exercised over them can they recognise the potential they have to live and act differently.

Che Guevara 26.01.2005 19-21-20 by Alexander Herrmann CC FlcikrThe voice of the marginalised

Empowerment of course needs also to tackle the structural level and this is where the question of ‘voice’ is best located. Some groups experience power over and their relative powerlessness as oppression and discrimination. Most people in such groups feel they are unable to make their views known, have their feelings and wishes acknowledged and know that they are regarded by the mainstream as of less value and often as worthless; they have no ‘voice’. These groups are marginal to the concerns of powerful players and are normally seen to lack the abilities expected of society’s full members. Women, black people, people who are differently abled, unemployed people, older people and lesbians, gay and transgender people all experience such disempowerment to an extent in our society – that’s most people!

Structural empowerment has many facets. The journey of working people to gain and preserve employment rights, the struggle for women’s rights and the fight for racial justice are but three of the axis’ of structural empowerment. To tackle power that is institutionalised, mainstream and bureaucratic, people have to get organised. Solidarity has often required people to put themselves at personal risk of imprisonment, injury or death to achieve change. Think of Mandela, Gandhi and Che Guevara (pictured above) and we are immediately aware not only of their personal qualities and cultural resonance but also of the titanic struggle they fought against the global forces of colonialism and capitalism. May we honour their memory and learn from their lives!


Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller (2008) A New Weave of Power, People and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation Practical Action Publishing

Rosalind Eyben (2004) Linking Power and Poverty Reduction World Bank Available online as a pdf

Neil Thompson (2007) Power and empowerment Russell House Publishing – a short but valuable introduction to the theme aimed at UK social workers and others in community-focused work.

Jacqueline B. Mondros and Scott M. Wilson (1994) Organizing for Power and Empowerment Columbia – an evaluation of many different models of US organizing and how their impact can be improved

Carien Fritze (n.d.) The Theory of Paulo Freire Interesting introduction to Freire’s thought by a London community worker/organizer

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Understanding Power Pt 2

Last week, I explored the nature of social power and looked at three traps that await anyone thinking about power. This time, I want to look at the way different schemes explain the way power in communities works. None of them are perfect but they each provide us with a tool to reflect more deeply about the power organisers experience in practice.

ORBULOUS by Pryere CC FlickrLike a Forcefield

“People’s capacity to realise their rights, and the state’s capacity to fulfil them, are of course dependent on their relative power. Inequality in power drives the motor of social and economic inequality in the lives of poor and rich alike. Power resembles a forcefield that permeates households, communities and society at large, shaping the interactions and innermost thoughts of individuals and groups. And like a forcefield its often only detectable through its impact on events.” (Duncan Green From Poverty to Power p 28)

In this short paragraph, Duncan Green brings together many of the characteristics of power that make it such a  crucial subject for organisers. Power and inequality are fundamentally linked, driving the oppression of most of the world’s population. I particularly appreciated Green’s analogy of a forcefield; invisible but determining outcomes when you can see change happening. People thinking about specific aspects of power often overlook their own power and the fact that we constantly move through a web of power relations.

Abuse: power & control behaviours by Moggs Oceanlane CC FlickrFour fold expressions

Many people start their experience of power by encountering ‘power over’, power used to control or deliver a specific result. This is the power that above all gives power a bad name. It is often coercive and causes people to act under duress. However understood as authority, such ‘power over’ can play a key role in making shared action possible. In the work of a football coach, his/her ‘power over’ the players may be facilitative or demanding at different times and in different circumstances. The authority of an organiser in communities often draws on this aspect of power.

The complement to ‘power over’ is ‘power to’, the individual’s (or group’s) potential to achieve their ends, to decide on actions and carry them out. Some people refer to this power as self-efficacy or the ability to achieve your purpose. This is focused through the idea of individual or group potential to be all they can become.

Two further aspects of power were drawn out by Rowlands in 1998. He argued persuasively that people experience ‘power with’ when they act together for a common goal. This is the sense that the collective power of organisation, solidarity and joint action is greater than the sum of the parts. It is at the core of organising, bringing people together around the issues they share to increase their control over their own collective lives.

Finding New Meaning in the Beauty That Surrounds You by Thomas Hawk CC FlickrRowlands also spoke of “‘power from within’:

the spiritual strength and uniqueness that resides in each of us and makes us truly human. Its basis is self-acceptance and self-respect which extend in turn to respect for and acceptance of others as equals. This power can be what enables the individual to hold a position or an activity in the face of overwhelming opposition, or take a serious risk.” (Rowlands p 14)

This power provides the personal resources to be resilient, to be strong in the face of adversity and to tackle hard issues with determination. It is associated with finding meaning, direction and connection and in being personally authentic.

These four ‘species’ of power – power over other people, power to act, power with others and power within ourselves – are widely used in discussion of power in communities and are a helpful way to open up the subject. They are of course interdependent and forgetting one when focused on another can make your efforts unrewarding.

Three Levels of Power

Alongside the four species of power outlined above, many other useful distinctions are made between different styles or expressions of power. For example, power can be visible (obvious, transparent and unambiguous), hidden (shielded, opaque and secret) or invisible (cloaked, protected and imperceptible). Power is sometimes spoken of as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. There are many such approaches to power analysis but I have come to prefer one above others, as I find it to be the most informative in working in communities. Power operates in communities at three distinct levels: the personal, the cultural and the structural. I will be taking a deeper look at each of these in coming weeks.

Slippery by Alan (Kaptain Kobold) CC Flickr Making sense of power

The slippery nature of power becomes only too obvious when you try to use categories and typologies to describe it in action. Power is never a static quality; it’s seen at work when in motion, when power is exercised. So perhaps some reflective questions will help us consider how power shows itself in community organising:

  • How do you use your personal ‘power over’ to coordinate, to facilitate, to coach?
  • Who expresses ‘power to’ most clearly for you? Who has little ‘power to’ and why?
  • How can you increase the levels of ‘power with’ in your community?
  • Where do you draw your ‘power from within’ from? What gives you meaning, purpose?

Thinking about power in these abstract ways is difficult for many people but its my conviction that such thinking is vital if we are to come to terms with our shared situation. Often these conversations about power need to be fuelled with specific examples that are immediately relevant to the people concerned. Using stories, short films, pictures or even objects to illustrate situations where power is at work can give people an opportunity to reflect on power in their own communities and see how they might become more powerful themselves.

Next time: Power is experienced by individuals and groups amongst themselves and exercised by others. Some people can find better ways to handle their own power and to respond to other people’s power through sharing, acting and transforming, by becoming empowered.


Duncan Green (2008) From Poverty to Power – How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World Oxfam

Rowlands, J. (1998) “A Word of the Times but What does it Mean? Empowerment in the Discourse and Practice of Development.” in Afshar, H. Women and Empowerment: Illustrations from the Third World Palgrave MacMillan

Geoff Mulgan (2006) Good and Bad Power: The Ideals and Betrayals of Government Penguin

Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller (2008) A New Weave of Power, People and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation Practical Action Publishing

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