February 23, 2023
In the third blog post of our “There is No Silver Bullet to Community Engagement” series, we will discuss and unpack the role that power plays in designing transformative community engagement practices. We’ll also pay particular attention as it relates to shifting policy and pitching policy that aligns with the communities needs. The previous blog posts can be found on our Community Voices for Health page.
The second tenant of the Community Voices for Health program is “There are more regular, ongoing opportunities for people to engage—especially populations and communities who are marginalized, excluded, or underserved.” Often, the term “voice” is used to describe the onus for community engagement, whether it is to increase the amount of voices that are being heard or to give voice to a community. Another commonly used term is “voicelessness”. Some Public Agenda research suggests that a lot of the mistrust in public institutions stems from the feeling that people don’t have a voice in decision-making.
While institutions can always do a better job of engaging and listening to their constituents, another aspect of engagement that’s not often discussed is the role of power. Ultimately, institutions can listen to communities, host community conversations, and organize policy days with the public, but, at the end, there is someone or a group of people who have the power to make decisions regardless of what information these listening strategies yield. If we ignore the power imbalance that exists within engagement spaces, then we miss an opportunity to move toward action on securing a community’s needs.
Power is often not discussed because, quite frankly, it can be uncomfortable. Many of our institutions are historically constructed to hold and conserve power such that those without it don’t understand its potency. However, it is precisely those without power that are the most impacted by it. But, if we reframe the way we think about power as something that is abundant, rather than scarce, and can be used as a tool, then deeper transformation can occur. Power can be analyzed both at scale, as well as locally within your own organizations and community relationships. Below are a few ways of undertaking this analysis. A more robust tool for power analysis will be released later this year.
A helpful starting point of power analysis is with the power that you yourself hold. Important questions to consider in this vein are “where do you hold power?” and “where does that power come from?” As we navigate social change within a society where power dynamics are often not disscused, being able to analyze individual power within the context of organizations and communities is an important first step toward more equitable distribution. It’s also important to note that power is held and experienced through different social identities. Building Movement Project has additionally outlined 12 sources of power; we’ll highlight positional power here. We recommend starting with internal reflection, then creating brave spaces to host this dialogue among your team and community members.
- Positional power comes from organizational authority or position (people providing capacity building technical support have this power). It is often forgotten by people with the power, rarely forgotten by those without it.
“It is often forgotten by people with power, rarely forgotten by those without it.” It is common in power-shifting organizations for those with positional power to dampen the power they have in order to create an equitable power dynamic. However, simply saying that there is a desire to be power-shifting is dismissive to the actual dynamics felt by people with lesser positional power within an organization. In actuality it’s helpful to name the power that exists and then actively model and shift the type of power-shifting you are looking for to create a more supportive environment with those with less positional power.
- What type of positional power do you hold? (Think not only of titles within your organization, but outside of the work what positions of power might you hold that can impact your position within the organization?)
- How are you currently using that positional power within a specific social challenge?
- What are ways you can commit to using that power for a specific social challenge?
We hope that these frameworks and questions can help you and your organization get a better grasp on the power you hold, as well as how to best distribute it. This blog series has a final entry left—we’ll wrap up learnings and dovetail lessons toward a robust toolkit we’ll be publishing later this year.