The terms power-over and power-with were coined in 1924 by a woman who has mostly been forgotten - Mary Parker Follett, while writing and lecturing about management theory and practice. Her approach, which centered on human relations and collaboration between management and workers, stood in stark contrast to the mainstream management practices of her day, which were rooted in what was then called scientific management, pioneered by Frederick Taylor.
I am embarking on writing this piece and sharing my thoughts about this topic with a fair amount of trepidation, the kind that comes from fear of upsetting people. Here is my dilemma: I am profoundly committed to using power with other people and not over other people. In fact, I am temperamentally averse to imposing anything on anyone. Nonetheless, over years working with groups, both within organizations and in community settings, I have come to believe that a certain rigidity surrounds these terms and results in loss of effectiveness for groups and causes I dearly want to see thrive.
I’ve been collecting what I am referring to here as “myths” of power-with for some time. Learning to identify and counter some of these has been a personal journey of significant magnitude. I’ve had to stretch within myself, to transcend my aversion to exercising unilateral decision-making, in order to arrive at a much humbler and more nuanced understanding of how use of power can support the elusive project of attending, as best we can, to everyone’s needs in any given situation. This humility includes, in part, an acceptance of our human limitations. It’s been painful, sad, and sobering. At times, it’s also been inspiring and uplifting to recognize and think of ways of going beyond blocks to compassionate effectiveness.
I have identified, so far, six different misconceptions. It will take more than one post to cover them all. Today I am focusing on one particularly challenging one.
Myth #1: Everyone Can Be Included
So what do we do?
I’ve been pondering these questions for years, and have yet to reach anything that feels robust enough to serve as foolproof guidelines. Still, I’ve seen too many groups flounder and disintegrate because of too much inclusion, and the heartache I have about this is large enough that I am willing to offer my unfinished thoughts because they may spark more conversation and more clarity for many.
The direction I’ve been pursuing in exploring this rests on learning to accept our limitations. As organizers, leaders, and members of groups, we can come to terms with our limited resources. To come back to the example of Occupy, there simply wasn’t enough capacity within the encampments to handle the overwhelming needs of people who had been living on the streets, who had been having addictive relationships with substances, who had a different relationship with reality than most, or who suffered from severe trauma. As much as it may seem like abandoning the dream to decide to keep some people out, it seems to me that it’s more honest to recognize that sometimes we simply don’t have enough love and attention to provide to those in serious need. The art form, what makes this tragic awareness humanly bearable to me, is to maintain the true humble understanding that it’s our own limitations that make it necessary to exclude someone, not any fault of that person.
I want to believe that some day we will catapult ourselves into a way of living in which there simply aren’t individuals with so much trauma and anguish that they challenge all around them. I want to believe that we can find ways to surround people with enough love that we can move forward with everyone intact. For now, I don’t see it quite happening. My heart aches, and I am willing to accept this tragedy in order to support groups in continuing to exist as groups.
The question of how a coherent strategy might be formed in a large leaderless movement remains open and unresolved. At some future point in this mini-series or elsewhere, I want to return to this topic, because I tend to believe that the anti-authoritarianism that exists in many progressive movements can get so extreme as to prevent forward movement. I am still digesting and pondering the reality that the large nonviolent movements of the 20th century, both Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s, were based on strict adherence to rules and precepts that were set by a very strong leadership. Nothing like what we see now. I am by far not advocating that model. I am just humble enough to recognize that something is sorely missing in the total rejection of leadership.
Back to the question of inclusion, I know that based on my own and Occupy’s experience, I have shifted. In practical terms, in the groups I help start myself, I am now willing to set conditions for membership instead of keeping everything open, and to accept that sometimes a group will need to ask someone to leave rather than lose itself as a group. How to do all of this with love and care remains an open question for me.
The Myths of Power-With series: #s One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six.