Are you recreating the power systems you’re fighting to undo?

I’ve been thinking about this blog post for a while, in some ways it is the second part of the blog post on power. Often in our work, we do what we know and maybe adapt it a little to make it more equitable and more community oriented. However, when we do this we need to ask ourselves are we aiming for transformational change or are we just tinkering. When we think about transformational change we’re creating something new versus taking a known process and making it more poc friendly. The danger with trying to make a current power structure and making it poc friendly is current power structures suck. They are oppressive to many including those on the top, the person at the top has to work really hard to maintain their status, and the people on the bottom are constantly fighting for power.

penguinsIn this video, with penguins, we can see current power dynamics of white hierarchy and white supremacy, and it also shows the danger of flipping the hierarchy putting pocs on top. When we flip the hierarchy, we’re adopting the principles and values that have oppressed people of color. In the video, it makes the point we need to work to create a system where we all have a turn in the center—much like how penguins take turns being warm in the center.

In our nonprofit, government, and business work we need to make sure we are redistributing power more justly. One of the problems of adopting the current hierarchical power structure is a select group is in control and not representative of the community that needs to be centered and focused upon. In communities of color, we can also fall into the trap of using these power dynamics to unintendedly uphold white supremacy or allowing the power dynamics to create wedge issues or divide and conquer strategies, all of which benefit white people more than communities of color.

Instead, we need to turn inward. As communities of color we can figure out our own solutions and we can act in solidarity with each other. Solidarity, like the word equity, has different meanings for different people. I am using the definition of we show up together, we do our ‘work’ as communities of color to work through differences, understandings, and show up in ways that unite us. We also take turns and never throw another community aside to move one community ahead of another. We must work together to achieve justice for communities of color – not just one community but all. We also need to do our work to uplift and focus on the most marginalized within our communities of color – disabled, LQBTIA, undocumented immigrants, immigrants and refugees, youth and seniors. To get to solidarity means we check our egos and be mindful of our power-base and use it in ways to redistribute our collective power across the community. (This definition may not be technically accurate. I haven’t researched solidarity and maybe in a future post I’ll contradict myself, humbly call this ‘learning forward.’ My colleague Jondou Chen also talks about the difference between interest convergence and solidarity which is fascinating and deserving of its own blog post.)

Creating a New Structure

Instead of adapting old structures and trying to adapt them to become poc friendly, we need to toss those out and create new ways of working which will look different. As an example, we can’t just take a traditional process and appoint a poc chair, or recruit pocs to a workgroup and think we’re reaching racial equity, the power structures stayed the same and it is just more diverse which isn’t helpful.

What is more helpful is resourcing groups (e.g. providing money, opening networks, space, etc.) to communities of color who are already working deeply with people of color. Many times, we’ve come up with ways of working in solidarity with each other, often informally, and we can get things done without the drama that comes with having to create formal structures that dominant society uses (i.e. leadership roles, timelines, etc.).

In communities of color, we need to take the time to build relationships with each other and build trust amongst each other. This is how we create new power networks that can withstand outside forces demanding we adopt power structures that don’t work for us. It is tempting to fall into the habits of a dominant culture, but we have to remember that is how we create ‘othering’ versus a collective sense of belonging.

Do and Don’t

Don’t expect communities to operate in known power structures – Do we really need to appoint formal chairs? Or can we be ok with having more people involved and evolving ways of working? Projects can still have things like a point person for interfacing with outside people such as funders, but do you really need to ask the group for a board list, chairperson, etc. If you want to understand if the group is inclusive of the communities they serve, ask that question and ask about who and how decisions are made.

Don’t expect things on your timeline—Timelines need to be fluid to allow evolving work and new power structures to emerge.

Do – Be flexible and allow grace as groups figure out new ways of working. It can be frustrating to watch a project and wonder if it will ever emerge because things look messy from the outside. But remember dominant culture took hundreds of years to create this mess pitting people against each other, you’all can afford a few months as we figure out our own ways of working.

Do – Test new ways of working together. We have to be willing to try new models of working together. Communities aren’t static and we have to find new ways of centering communities most impacted by racism. This means we slow down and try new strategies and let power dynamics continue to evolve and shift.


Posted by Erin Okuno. Thanks to Heidi Schillinger for sharing the penguin video.


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