by Miki Kashtan
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 don’t know, nor do I imagine it easy to trace, how these terms migrated far away from management theory into the realm of social justice movements. Along the way, they have acquired iconic status. Power-over has become a symbol of domination, is equated with hierarchy, and tends to be seen as “bad.” Power-with is promoted as the be-all and end-all of “good” practices, and is often equated with an absence of leadership. This has been a huge issue in the Occupy movement: its “leaderlessness” has been the source of both admiration and condemnation by its participants and those who wish it well but don’t join in.
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.