The recent rise of the #MeToo Movement has made it almost impossible to ignore the problems of sexual harassment and assault that are happening across our organisations and cultural institutions. Almost no sector, realm or group of people has been untouched–it’s clear that the problem is bigger than any one individual, though it seems to be particularly pernicious amongst men with a great deal of institutional/positional power.
Because I have worked for years in gender-based violence prevention, I’ve been deeply engaged in these conversations–they’ve been my daily reality for over a decade, but they’ve been especially pronounced and vibrant since October of 2017. This cultural conversation is bringing deep issues to the surface, and is calling us to find better ways to relate to one another.
For many of us, this surfacing feels like mass of confusing and painful knots: there are many different threads tangled together, and it can feel overwhelming to try to tease apart! But there are patterns and themes within the chaos, and there are therefore very productive and transformational points of intervention. Specifically, what I see emerging again and again, regardless of the particular place, organisation or people I’m working with, are themes around the healthy and unhealthy use of power. This seems, to me, to be where the cultural conversation is going.
We toss the word ‘power’ around quite liberally, but what is it, exactly? I became fascinated with this question as #MeToo rolled across the mainstream media, because I realised that I did not have a functional definition of what I believed power to be. I work as a transformative educator and I focus on relational culture–the patterns in how we interact with one another, and how those patterns shape what we are (and are not) able to do together. So power is a big theme in my work, it’s a key shaping force in all of the concepts I work with.
You can imagine my astonishment when I realised that, although I have almost 15 years of experience in this area, I discovered that had no useful and succinct way to define power. Even my language for talking about power and how it shows up in relationships felt a bit… hollow. Or perhaps too abstract. This theme kept emerging in every conversation, every workshop, every exchange with colleagues, and I felt unsatisfied with how we were managing it. I had the sensation of groping around in the dark, trying to feel my way closer to an important wellspring.
I started to research power intensively, bringing together different fields of research and practice that inform my work. I thought I was looking for a watertight definition, and I hoped that, from there, I might start to help my clients better understand and work more skillfully with this complex topic. I researched extensively and I learned this: there are many different and equally valid ways to define power, all of which have their merits. I walked around confused for a few weeks, with the odd sensation of having found too many right answers. Then I realised that I was really searching for a theory of how we enact power, not what it “is” or “isn’t”.
And this is what started to piece together: the way we use and produce power is an accumulation of learned behaviours, tiny little practices and moments. Like learning to tie our shoes or speak a language, we learn how to define our will, enact it in the world and deal with the outcomes through mimicry and countless repetitions. It’s like learning grammar. We play with language until we receive the right signals from those around us–they show us that they understand, and then the learning ‘clicks’. With repetition, grammar becomes subconscious skill, procedural knowledge held in our muscle memory, mostly outside of our conscious control.
Because many of us (in fact, the majority, and I include myself in that count) have been conditioned into practices of power that are ineffective—and often harmful–we end up reproducing toxic dynamics and patterns, even when we are (intellectually) horrified by the outcomes. It’s a little bit like how you might speak your first language if you were raised by people used it to deliver racist slurs and emotionally abuse each other. The language itself isn’t a tool of violence, but your skills with it would be pretty sharp and harsh.
At the same time, I began to see how, when we have healthy practices of power, we are able to coordinate effectively with those around us, keep the channels of communication and energy open, and produce amazing things that align with our vision. This is often called effective leadership, or good management; it’s also called healthy intimacy, good parenting and high-quality teaching. So healthy practices of power are definitely possible—most of us have seen them, if not experienced or enacted them directly. When we use our power abusively or poorly, however, it becomes a big tangled mess, and lots of people get hurt. And unfortunately, in most of our institutions and in our culture at large, the big tangled mess is the norm.
In her brilliant recent book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown talks about the need to orient ourselves towards and lean into the changes we want to experience. Most of us, brown writes, have hyper-developed the skills of naming and analysing crises. We are very good at talking about What is Wrong. And most of us are much less practiced in the skills of dreaming, imagining, playing with possibilities. And, I would add, even those of us who are quite individually creative are not as relationally creative–we might be very good at coming up with brilliant ideas solo, but even then we tend to have quite rigid interactional habits. So it’s there–in the laboratory/stage/trying-it-out space of experimenting with new practices–that we need to focus our energy and our resources, and it’s in this space that my work around power is currently focused.
If you’re in Toronto during November 2018 and interested in this process, I will be piloting some workshops with the very lovely and talented bk chan that focus on the micro-moments, skills and ‘pain points’ of how we practice power in the workplace. I hope you’ll join us (info here) because this work is much more fun in person. But if you’re not around, and this is important to you, I commend you for that and I want you to know that you can still start to do the important work of changing things. If you wish to go further, check out this exercise that gets you a little deeper into your own muscle memory of power looking at how a variety of other clever people understand power: What Does It Mean To You. As you lean into your own personalised understanding of what you feel power is, it will become easier to envision how you want to practice it (and for whom, and why, and where).
Thank you for reading and thank you for your engagement with this topic. #thisishowwemakeitbetter