Understanding and transforming power for social change is a journey, just as much as it is a destination. When times feel urgent, perhaps taking a moment to pause and reflect is the most powerful thing to do.
Today, looking back on the weeks that have passed since my last blog where I set out our thinking about the next steps for the Power Sharing Project, I’m in a more reflective mode. Time and again we’ve been told how much people value having the opportunity to take time out of their work and reflect on questions around power and social change. In that spirit, I am sharing some of my own personal reflections here.
I’ve continued to engage in some exciting conversations, and to delve into the incredible resource of notes captured in the first year of the project. But I don’t, if I’m honest, feel I have done much to ‘share power’ myself. If, as has been said, ‘knowledge is power’, then gathering all this information for myself can feel counter-productive. But knowing where to start in sharing this learning is not easy. Which knowledge needs to be shared? Which, or whose, knowledge really counts?
If we have learned anything on the project so far it is that we are dealing with a lot of contested ideas. We all have different ways of thinking about power. We have different definitions of ‘voice’ and even different criteria for poverty. The idea of ‘lived experience’ is understood by some to be a brilliant way of valuing vital and often overlooked knowledge, a way of describing a person’s ‘ability to pick out the nuances that others, without direct experience, might miss’. But for others it’s a false distinction, that misleadingly ‘reduces people to a single aspect of their experience’. No doubt, as you read this, you’ll have your own point of view.
Learning to live with diverse opinions, to look for the common ground rather than focus on the difference, and find a way to move forward together, feels like important learning. Perhaps this is why the process of the Power Sharing Project so far has been so valuable. Hearing other people’s perspectives, while keeping an open mind, offers the possibility for learning. We’ve heard people’s ideas about power, and about their own power, shift in exciting ways: ‘Before the session I wouldn’t have thought I had the power to drive change. I always thought that was people in government.’ And we have begun to understand, collectively, how developing a more nuanced understanding of power can help us to develop strategies for action: ‘I used to see power as very suppressive – people who have it suppress the people who don’t get suppressed, simple as that. I now see power is about understanding where you are, where you want to go and how others can help you.’
As we’ve been drawing together our findings and posing the next set of questions to explore with the Community of Practice, I’m aware of another tension. We need to synthesise and look for meaning, but if we interpret too much, present too many of our ideas as fact, then we’re in danger of ‘setting the agenda’, defining the parameters of any future conversations, using our own power as an organisation in a hidden way.
Of course, as the hosts of this project, we do have power. And if we weren’t doing the work of drawing together the threads of our conversations and considering how they might help us create some concrete strategies to drive social change, then we wouldn’t be doing our job. Another theme that we have heard loud and clear is the need to ‘make power visible’. It is in that spirit, and as a first, partial, attempt to unhide our hidden power, that I am sharing this now.
There is value in taking time for reflection, but only if it is oriented toward clear intention and effective action. These urgent times require it. Just yesterday, our Chancellor announced that, while the health crisis we face in this country is ongoing, the economic crisis has only just begun. Millions are facing job losses, work insecurity, food poverty and homelessness, and public sector budgets remain vanishingly small. A bold and radical vision for civil society that includes all voices, and especially those that are most often excluded, is needed as it has never been needed before.
We have some exciting ideas developing that we will share soon, and that we hope you will help us shape. In the New Year, we will be opening up the dialogue again to the whole community, hosting discussion groups and inviting responses. All are welcome, so please do invite friends and colleagues to sign up so they get the invitations too. Join our Community of Practice here.