Everyone can be powerful: 3 ways to practice power in your work

How effective do you feel in your ability to challenge the power structure? Where do you start? How confident do you feel in characterizing it? 

We in the nonprofit sector are some of the most familiar with the consequences stemming from society’s balance of power. We hear the stories of communities most affected, we see the downstream effects of decisions made from remote places. If we are to advance social, racial and economic justice, we need to understand, recognize, and wield the power we have more effectively in our work.

P.S. I don’t have all the answers. But I believe in the premise that everyone can be powerful.

Recognizing our place in Power structures

Power, as defined by Eric Liu in his book, You’re More Powerful Than You Think, is “the ability to ensure others do as you want them to do.” Everything turns on “who has the authority to decide, what gets considered for decision, and how decisions will be reached.”

Simple enough. But I’ve long struggled with how to apply this.

My early work lacked a focused power analysis. I approached big social problems by way of the individual in front of me. When I was getting my feet wet as a shelter worker in Madison, WI, I helped people complete housing applications or seek out mental health services. My role was to support the individual with knowledge and resources so they could make the best decision for their experience. Self-determination - “empowerment” as we liked to call it - was my focus. 

It wasn’t until years later, though, that I started to see a new element of the equation.

I was working in Milwaukee on a team of organizers whose role was to liaise between residents and law enforcement. We worked collaboratively to address “nuisances” (low-level problems like loud music or neighbor disputes). But working across a district of 110,000 people, I could no longer neglect the larger systems at play. I started seeing how the police and the city worked in tandem to marginalize certain neighborhoods.

It was in this context that I decided to learn about and try to use power.

Seeing Power

Power manifests all throughout our work. We need to start seeing it where it exists. I now work in institutional philanthropy and, out of love, I’m going to pick on it. I encourage you to do the same for your workplace or field. Also, I’m being simplistic to make a point; there’s too much ambiguity to explore fully here.

In my world, I see the power that comes with wealth. Of course that power - being able to choose where the money goes and advance the work of certain organizations - is significant in and of itself. But beyond the direct dollars, that money directs other things. A well known facet of this is the grantmaker vs grantwriter dynamic, which is characterized by the ability to give or withhold on the funder’s opinion. There’s also the reputational power that comes with giving, meaning the prestige that comes with working in philanthropy. 

Practicing Power

Here are a few ways of practicing power around any workplace:

Start From Within

With the way people and communities are being actively harmed by the power structure, working on yourself seems wrong. But Ghandi said “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The work truly starts with you. 

Each of us has strengths and weaknesses: Learn what they are and how to use them. Is there something internally that is limiting your power? Look into resources like this to strengthen the way you show up to your work.

Also, (looking at you, white friends and friends with varying sources of privilege) know your social location and how you contribute to inequitable power dynamics. From micro- to macro-aggressions, this is a critical first step to sharing power.

Invest in Others Around You

Who decides?  It’s simple enough to know where official decisions at work are made. If you’re in a position to do so, give someone near you some strategic autonomy. Let people run with something on their own. Consider coaching for those around you. There are plenty of resources on how to do this well.

But beyond the org chart, who are the informal sources of power and influence around you? Some of the most powerful coworkers I have had were the ones who could raise tough questions and bring people along with them. Culture will always outlast decisions. Work with allies to build a culture that values diverse ways of thinking and psychological safety.

Build Your People

Networks are key ingredients to the work. Power is also getting the right people from your network to show up and act in a way that can disrupt and create something new.

In her book, How Organizations Develop Activists, Harie Han examines organizations that aim to build power through activism. One of the lessons she shares is that organizations that work to cultivate people’s motivations and capacities for leadership are some of the most effective at building associational power. Over time, these organizations are the ones who can exert power in their respective movements. 

Find your people, coordinate your actions, support each other when it gets tough.

Shifting our Mindset

In her book Emergent Strategy, adrienne marie brown says that we are engaged in an “imagination battle.” She says we need to dream bigger about what we seek to create and perpetuate. 

In the nonprofit sector, we need to build power with what we’ve got. If we don’t use power, someone else will do it for us. What would the future of the Twin Cities metro look like if an entire sector of people were to consciously practice power? 

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