Presence isn’t Power — Shifting Power to Create Change

By Erin Okuno

A few years ago I attended the Othering and Belonging Conference hosted by the Haas Institute at UC Berkley. It still ranks in my top three of best conferences ever attended, and it didn’t make the list because of the after-hours networking, which let’s be real that is sometimes more important and powerful than actual conferences – relationship building is important to undoing racism. This conference was great because of the new thoughts generated and the disruption in old thinking.

One of my favorite lines from the conference came from the Rashad Robinson of Color of Change. During one of the talks, he said “Presence doesn’t equal power,” and went on to explain somewhere along the way his organization realized just turning out people and having a large social media presence didn’t matter. Having a social media post viral with millions of reshares and likes or turning out thousands of people at a rally are all great but they don’t equal the power to push for change. Power comes with using that presence and energy to build a movement, disrupt and have people take actions.

Presence is important and sometimes presence is action. Such as I am reminded of the story of how El Centro de la Raza in my adopted city came to be. In the 1972 Roberto Maestas and other local activist took over the El Centro building declaring by their presence that the community needed and deserved a community gathering site. By being physically present they galvanized each other and their power grew and they eventually were awarded the building. Their presence was intentional and part of a broader movement to uproot racism against people of color and to establish a physical place for the Latino community and other communities of color. Today El Centro’s presence is a comfort to many in the community. They provide housing, preschool education, and so much more from their perch on Beacon Hill. Without their presence in the community, there would be a power vacuum.


Artwork from Amplifier

What isn’t Power

On the flip side too often I see people trying to claim that just showing up is enough. Showing up is important. Systems and power holders see fear in numbers. Thousands of people showing up at a rally helps to convey a sense of urgency and importance, but we need to remember a one-time mass show up of people power doesn’t change power dynamics. Mere presence without intention and in isolation of other efforts doesn’t lead to change; put more simply a one-off action doesn’t have the power behind it to create change – sustained efforts and building a movement gain results.

Dismantling structural racism takes more than posting on social media and showing up at rallies and meetings. Showing up one-time at a rally or posting an article about a topic is a one-off, a one-time presence will gain you exactly one-wokeness point. One-wokeness point doesn’t buy enough to unearth the layers of historical history, oppression, or even begin to unpack the racism that we are all charged with undoing. You’ll need way more wokeness-points to make changes.

Shifting Power

We need to use our presence as people of color and allies to disrupt and create a new counterculture. These new disruptions and countercultures have to be rooted in who we are as people and communities of color and built to withstand racism and to undo the historical legacies of slavery, oppression, of stolen land, and assimilation.

In order to shift from presence to power we need to remember the things we’re asking people to do are gateways to deeper engagement. Such as why are you posting something on social media, is it to share out information or is it to engage with people on a deeper level. If you want to engage people on a deeper level, then your presence needs to be felt more deeply as well – are you then doing the deeper work to build a deeper relationship with them to talk about the topic of the article.

Some ways to move beyond presence:

Learn about what you plan to attend—If you are attending a rally do the deeper work about learning about the topic, and learn about it from a poc perspective.

Learn what it means at the national level, state and local levels:

If you attended the rally protesting the separation of migrant families read about the topic in national newspapers (i.e. Washington Post, NY Times, Wall Street Journal, foreign papers).

Next, learn what is happening in your state and city – on immigration in Seattle recently a local immigrant lawfully here with a Green Card was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, you can also learn what organizations are working on the issue and work to support them.

Finally, think about what it means for your sphere of influence. What conversations do you need to have to disrupt and be a powerful ally? On immigration, have you contacted your lawmakers? If you run an organization or work with kids do you know what policies are in place if ICE shows up? Can you help families create emergency plans? These steps equal power to make change, not just power to be seen.

You can use this same format for almost any topic – homelessness, education, literacy, maternal justice, disabilities, etc. When we shift from simply showing up to thinking more critically about our individual roles in disrupting racism this is where we shift power for good.

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