This Note is by our Learning and Participation Manager, Cameron Bray. In this Note, they talk about their personal learning about Power (sharing, agency and participation), how this influences their outlook towards how we approach power sharing as an organisation, and what we as an organisation have learnt facilitating a power-sharing process.
On a personal level, I am motivated by an earnest belief that everyone should have agency about what happens to them – I am, for want of a better word, obsessed with power.
The academic Robert Caro wrote a book called The Power Broker, a biography of a man called Robert Moses. Moses, despite never being elected to any position, held so much power that his ideas have single-handedly shaped American and indeed international urban planning.
Robert Moses was a racist and he planned cities to make life worse for people of colour and others that corrupted his vision of how he thought the world ought to be. He placed huge roads through areas that conveniently left white people separated from people of colour. He built bridges that were too low for buses to pass underneath, limiting where people who relied on cheap transport could go. What he did to NYC irreparably damaged communities in ways that may never be meaningfully undone.
In studying Moses, Robert Caro came to the conclusion that despite the old adage, power doesn’t corrupt, power reveals. He said that when you give a person power, you see what they always wanted to do with it.
Why do I bring this up? Firstly, to give an example of what can happen when systems allow for power to be concentrated in a small number of hands. More importantly, it’s because I think collaboration doesn’t start with sharing power. It also doesn’t involve withholding power until people pass some sort of ideological test.
It means creating environments where people can explore alternatives to the way things are currently being done to them. If you had given me my current job when I was 18, I believe I would have recreated the same systems of powerlessness that I experienced growing up. I had to be shown that power wasn’t inherently corrupt, and could be used to benefit, before I became the person I am today.
We are all products of the many socio-political systems we find ourselves caught in and we will, often ignorantly, act in ways that those systems have taught us to act. As the anthropologist David Graeber said, “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
What we’ve learnt so far about sharing power
What we have learned from our work is that people need time to fully grasp what having decision-making power means.. The first time we did it, decision-makers said they felt more motivated by what they thought others were likely to agree to than what they personally wanted to fund.
Now our decision-makers feel confident in advocating for their own beliefs and trusting their perspective will be valued in reaching a consensus. I like to encourage people to think of our processes as a big stew where everyone adds an ingredient. Focus on how your ingredient adds to the flavour at the end – too little and we don’t taste your contribution, too much and it overwhelms the dish.
BD Giving’s theory of change boils down to this: if we create the conditions for collaboration and inclusion, decision-making systems that embody those values will naturally flow from them. This, in turn, leads to more opportunities for participation and more people wanting to take part because they see a system that delivers on their needs. We try to start with the question ‘how participatory can we make this?’ rather than build the participation in later.
It has been a long and difficult journey and it will continue to be so because we are constantly fighting against ‘the way the world works’.
I’m going to end with a challenge that I hope you will take in good faith. It’s not my thought, but the thought of Paulo Freire, an educator who took a participatory approach to education:
“This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.”
I may write about Freire more in future but I think it’s important to note that he sees systems as a thing that powerful people are trapped in as well. Those who wield power in a harmful way can never be the same people who meaningfully change how power is used. It is their victims who can see a way out for everyone.
All the people that we, as individuals and organisations, are helping and want to help are more than capable of ending their own oppression (as are you, dear reader!).
So if you have power, the best way to use it is to make space for others to imagine and manifest a better way of living in the world.