The 1990s and 2000s were all about diversity efforts. Diversity committees were as common as Seinfeld references or Power Rangers for the Millennials. Somewhere along the way people realized diversifying organizations wasn’t enough and added the term diversity and inclusion. Today we are recognizing inclusion isn’t enough, we have to pay attention to power and call out power dynamics.
Power shows up in many different ways, the basic concept is who is in control. Such as who is in control of the agenda, who’s speaking and not speaking, who is in control of money and resources, who controls decision making. Power is all around us – such as right now at home I have the power of the remote control and I want to watch Grey’s Anatomy, not Frozen for the 600 time.
Recently, I was at a meeting with many notable community leaders of color. At one point I did the silent count, the one that always happens – how many pocs are in the room, it is something I unconsciously do then becomes a conscious thought. I count to see if the ‘numbers’ are there, to see if I am alone or with others; am I alone or in the safety of others who may have similar lived experiences. In this meeting I noticed pocs were in the majority. We had the numbers, including many white allies, and we had a cross-racial and cross-cultural group. Yet I also noticed while pocs were in the majority, we were still having to push a racial equity agenda because we were operating in a dominate society framework, in this case a government process. We had to jump through procedural hoops, justify our asks, and prove our requests are justified. I slipped a note to a friend saying “Majority pocs but still the same conversation.” She nodded, while we had the numbers we couldn’t impact change quickly enough because of power dynamics.
It isn’t enough to invite a diverse group of people to a table, we need to be aware of power dynamics and work to redistribute power as much as possible. At the meeting I was surrounded by so many leaders that have helped to shape Seattle, yet because we were working on a project on behalf of a government body the power dynamics were still present — we knew our place was to give input on someone else’s plan, call out where things could be stronger, and push for incremental change. We weren’t there to propose anything too radical or not politically feasible, we had the power to propose such ideas but we knew ultimately it wasn’t going to happen so why spend time on ideas that would eventually get vetoed. It was exhausting, but at least we had the numbers to share the burden.
Who’s Table – Redistributing Power
Diversity isn’t enough, in the meeting I mentioned above pocs had the numbers, but we didn’t have enough power to change the power dynamics. We understood we were participating in someone else’s process and brought in to give feedback and suggestions, but ultimately we didn’t have decision making power. We had a lot of other forms of power – access to a very select process, proximity to power, ability to influence but not control. All of this is to say sometimes we need to change power dynamics to get different results.
Last year my organization ran a large survey project to look at family engagement. In that project we worked to try to distribute power and other resources, we also used the value of building trust. We actively worked to redistribute power and resources. Such as parents and partners wrote and edited the survey questions, we shared funds using an equitable model (not equal funding) to make the survey work possible, we opened up the process and allowed partners to shape their survey collection methods versus a very prescribed methodology. We got more buy-in and better long lasting results because of our open process. I also feel I have better and deeper relationships with some of our partners because they saw our organization as a trusting partner.
Power Racial Equity Rangers
Can we all become more attuned to power dynamics, like a modern day version of the 1990s Power Rangers? We can become the Power Racial Equity Rangers and wear colored tight and masks, just like the TV version. Maybe not, bad visuals, but we need to be like the TV Power Rangers in fighting for justice, in this case racial justice. We need to get better about sharing power in its many forms, calling each other out when we hog and take up too much power including resources, and we should acknowledge sometimes power is stepping back and saying I don’t need something if it means we can share with others.
I hear the Power Rangers are making a come back, I hope they share the secrets of their powers as a way of redistributing their powers so I can stop sitting in meetings where I’m in the majority but still part of a dominant landscape.
Posted by Erin Okuno