What is Trust & Who Has the Power to Define Trust?


Picture by Joel Santos of Eagle Hunter — trust between eagle and eagle hunter in Mongolia

Earlier in the week, I thought I would write about power dynamics, but as life often happens conversations with friends and colleagues gave me a new idea to explore – how trust and power intersect. Too rarely do we explicitly talk about trust. How often do you go into an organization or a board meeting and spent more than a passing reference to trust and power in the context race? We might talk about race, sometimes the word trust comes up, but rarely do we spend time exploring the two together, yet the two are intertwined and have such major implications for how we design our work and move through the world.

Who Has the Power to Define Trust?

My thoughtful and amazing colleague Amber Banks, PhD, studies trust and how it shows up in place-based work. Her topic is much deeper and richer than what I just wrote, so I hope you one day get to hear her speak and read her work. Dr. Amber shared some of her research findings with us and the conversation has left me noodling on a lot on themes and topics. One of the themes I’ve been thinking about since hearing her present is “who gets to define trust?” Another way to also think about is who has the power to define how trust is defined in a relationship? (These thoughts are my own, they are informed by Amber’s thinking, but if I err the mistakes are mine.)

I’m guessing when you read the word trust you can name some attributes to go with the word. Some of the common ones are: walking the talk, showing up, truth-telling, speaking truthfully, familial trust, and reliability. During our conversation, we probed a bit on these attributes and how they were formed as an association with trust. Many people of color linked our feelings of trust to experiences from our own communities, families, and childhood. Our early experiences provide a basis for looking at trust and how we operate with trust as a value as adults.

Understanding the basis of our trust is important to look at who defines trust in a relationship and how we experience trust with others in our community and work. Many times, trust is defined in a normative way and framed from a dominant white culture. Such as in dominant society we are expected to trust power and authority – teachers, law enforcement, elected officials, directors, etc. We aren’t allowed to ask a lot of questions. To question authority is to question the fragile trust in the relationship. In this power dynamic trust is defined and controlled by the dominant culture. Trust and power are exerted downward and not always reciprocated. In this case, trust isn’t being defined on equal terms.

Validating Trust

In order to reach a mutual definition of trust, we need to pay attention to power and create a space for people and communities of color to be able to speak about how we define trust and how we want trusting relationships reciprocated back. There are many times where dominant culture doesn’t know or understand the historical context of how marginalized communities define trust. The narrative around trust is often defined for communities of color and other marginalized communities. If you want to understand this more fully, read about the Native American’s experience with boarding schools or how the African American slave trade happened or the internment of Japanese Americans. Sometimes this narrative of mistrust is used to pit communities of color against each other.

What is missing from this is how as communities of color we validate our own trust in different ways – cross culturally, cross racially, and in solidarity with each other. If people don’t know what trust looks like or how it is experienced in a community it is easy to dismiss or use their power to dismiss the community’s trust base. When communities of color define trust we may be starting from a different place, point, and expectation than our white colleagues. Without understanding this we risk recreating the same dynamic that led to mistrust to begin with.

How Trust Can be Developed

Some of the themes around how trust is built and defined in community context include:

  • Remembering communities of color and our experiences are diverse and often rooted in place as well as race. Trust cannot be formed by using a blanket definition or approach for all communities of color.
  • Trust is developed through action, including repeated interactions. Are people doing what they say, are actions meeting their intentions.
  • Trust is built through “speaking truth to power.” Can we have the difficult conversation in a mutually respectful way and in ways that level power dynamics? For power holders can we recognize and trust in the stories of communities and people of color, disabled, immigrants/refugees, etc.?
  • Do you respect my definition of trust? We must acknowledge trust is defined in many different ways and we need to be able to talk about how we each define trust, including that race, culture, and power dynamics shape our views, thoughts, and feelings on trust.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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