When I first started as a community worker in the 1990’s, I worked in a short-term project with young Indigenous Australian men in the juvenile justice system. It was a community arts development project.
Even then I knew that I had to be considerate of power. Acknowledging the power differences between us, and the powerless that young Blak men experienced – especially in the juvenile justice system. This was in a time of the rise of Pauline Hanson (I lived in Ipswich) and just after the release of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report.
At the time I tried my best to give them as much power over the project as possible. The type of art, the theme of the art. I supported the young men to build the community relationships needed to ask for community space to do their project. There is a big part of me that was incredibly proud of my work. The young men decided to use the medium of graffiti on community buildings, combining messages and symbols of identity, and hope, while making a concerted effort to regenerate their traditional languages. For example, painting blak bodies on the Aboriginal health centre walls, incorporating symbols of First Nations culture, and using traditional language so that the local community health centre participants could learn words related to their bodies. Arm, leg, ear, etc. and connect with culture.
The young men were bold, they took up space, they built friendships, started to engage in peer support, made connections between their experiences and the bigger issues at play. The young men worked in ways that highlighted their experiences of both systemic racism, and incredible Blak strength and resilience.
However, as much as I attempted to work alongside them, I really struggled with being in a position of authority. I had just graduated from my degree that had emphasised “self-determination” within the community/human services sector. I was really uncomfortable being in a type of paternalistic role where I had to make decisions about what the young men could or couldn’t do within the scope of the project, where I was responsible for behaviour management and where I had to be willing to set limits.
I was in a real position of power, and I felt very uneasy about it, especially as I saw plenty of examples of power being used in quite coercive, if not abusive, ways – especially over the young men by and within the juvenile justice system. I had to learn ways of being in a position of authority that were consistent with my philosophy and approach.
I was in a position of power over the young men, but I needed to learn this did not define the whole relationship, and there were other types of power that were also important which I could nurture.
I had to dig deeper into understanding power and differentiate between four types of power
- Power over
- Power with
- Power to
- Power within
Power over is how power is most commonly understood [1, 2]. This type of power is built on force, coercion, domination and control [1, 4], and motivates largely through fear . This form of power is built on a belief that power is a finite resource that can be held by individuals, and that some people have power and some people do not.
Starhawk  argues that force, which enables one individual or group to make decisions affecting others and to take control, ultimately backs power over.
It may rule with weapons that are physical or by controlling the resources we need to live: money, food, medical care or by controlling more subtle resources: information, approval, love. We are so accustomed to power over, so steeped in its language and its implicit threats, that we often become aware of its functioning only when we see its extreme manifestations  (p. 9).
The other forms of power recognise that power is not owned by individuals but is a dynamic which is present in every relationship . As Starhawk (1990) suggests:
Power is never static, for power is not a thing that we can hold or store, it is a movement, a relationship, a balance, fluid and changing. The power one person can wield over another is dependent on a myriad of external factors and subtle agreements (p. 268).
Power with is shared power that grows out of collaboration and relationships. It is built on respect, mutual support, shared power, solidarity, influence, empowerment and collaborative decision making [1, 2, 4, 5, 6]. Power with is linked to “social power, the influence we wield among equals”  (p. 9). Power with can help build bridges within groups (e.g., families, organisations, social change movements) or across differences (e.g., gender, culture, class) [1, 2]. Rather than domination and control, power with leads to collective action and the ability to act together .
Power to refers to the “productive or generative potential of power and the new possibilities or actions that can be created without using relationships of domination” (p. 57). It is built on the “unique potential of every person to shape his or her [or their] life and world”  (p. 45). It is the power to make a difference, to create something new, or to achieve goals.
Power within is related to a person’s “sense of self-worth and self-knowledge; it includes an ability to recognize individual differences while respecting others”  (p. 45). Power within involves people having a sense of their own capacity and self-worth . Power within allows people to recognise their “power to” and “power with”, and believe they can make a difference .
In working with under-represented communities, we want to nurture power with, power to and power within, not operating from a position of power-over. Our aim should not be to maximise our power over other people, but rather,
To create the conditions whereby power can be shared. The purpose is to create the conditions in which each individual’s opportunity to exercise power is maximized in the context of the larger community  (p. 21).
Looking back, this is the first thing I really learnt in my early days working with underrepresented communities, and something I continue to work on today.
- VeneKlasen, L., & Miller, V. (2007). A new weave of power, people & politics: The action guide for advocacy and citizen participation. Warwickshire: Practical Action Publishing. Chapter 3 on Power and Empowerment is available from https://justassociates.org/en/resources/new-weave-power-people-politics-action-guide-advocacy-and-citizen-participation
- Mathie, A., Cameron, J., & Gibson, K. (2017). Asset-based and citizen-led development: Using a diffracted power lens to analyze the possibilities and challenges. Progress in Development Studies, 17(1), 1-13. doi: 10.1177/1464993416674302 Available from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1464993416674302
- Hunjan, R., & Keophilavon, S. (2010). Power and making change happen. Fife: Carnegie UK Trust. Available from https://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/publications/power-and-making-change-happen/
- Starhawk. (1990). Truth or dare: Encounters with power, authority, and mystery. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
- Meyerding, J. (1982). Reclaiming nonviolence: Some thoughts for feminist womyn who used to be nonviolent, and vice versa. In P. McAllister (Ed.), Reweaving the web of life: Feminism and nonviolence. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
- Berger, B. K. (2005). Power over, power with, and power to relations: Critical reflections on public relations, the dominant coalition, and activism. Journal of Public Relations Research, 17(1), 5-28. doi: 10.1207/s1532754xjprr1701_3 Available from https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532754xjprr1701_3
- Bruyn, S., & Rayman, P. (Eds.). (1979). Nonviolent action and social change.New York: Irvington Publishers.