With and not For

I’ve taken a lot of character tests in my life: the Meyers-Briggs for grad school (I’m an INTJ – or at least I was in my early 20s, so who really knows), Harrison’s Paradox Graph for a leadership program (apparently I have a strength in Forthright Diplomacy), the Enneagram Test at the encouragement of a new colleague (I’m a Type 8 “wing 9” for what it’s worth).  I’ve found most character tests are pretty affirming.  They generally tell you good things about yourself.  Most of the tests I’ve taken tell me that I have a disposition towards justice and fighting for the underdog.  “Great!” I tell myself. “I belong here, working towards social justice.”  But do I?

That’s where I begin to wrestle with identity and power.  Because of my identity and privilege, I have a lot of power and access to power, and I feel comfortable using it.  That can get messy.  Acknowledging and channeling my power towards just causes seems like a good step, but I continue to think more about how I can share or even actively let go of my power.  I wrestle with how, even as I may be wielding my power towards justice, I am simultaneously perpetuating injustice by continuing to hold the power.  I wonder if I am fighting for the underdog, when I should be fighting with or alongside.  With and not for – that has been my mantra lately. 

When I think about power, I think about agency and influence.  The ability to influence or make decisions.  As I try to share or give up power, I wrestle with boundaries and balance.  I worry about whether the road away from power might take a wrong turn towards abuse.  I wonder what discomfort is telling me and when it is a good sign and when it might be a warning sign. I wonder if I give my power to someone else if that helps….or if the goal should always be to spread it out, to truly share rather than transfer.  I never stand sure-footed between when to listen to marginalized voices and when to speak out.  With and not for, I tell myself.

Wrestling with how to share power makes power mapping a tricky exercise.  When mapping who is “with me” and “against me” on an issue on one axis and who has power and influence and who does not on another – is it a given that the person or group that is most “with me” and has the most power should act?  Or, if the power is concentrated in the hands of the few and privileged, does that strategy just undermine us?  If I am personally the one with the power, influence, and alignment, is it a given that I should wield it?  If philanthropy is the one with the power, influence, and alignment, is it a given that we should wield it?  Or should we be actively trying to move ourselves out of those power positions, to shift our influence and resources to those that are marginalized?  In addition to agreement and influence, are there other important dimensions around privilege and concentration of power for those of us trying to build a just society that are important for us to imagine and consider in our strategies?

This would be a great place for me to insert a visualization.  I’m thinking through it and will include in my RS what I come up with – and invite any thoughts or examples from others. 

6 thoughts on “With and not For

  1. I used to wrestle with that notion of with and not for and then it occurred to me that the very act of thinking about that means you are willing to relinquish that power when someone reaches out to take it. As a Black woman (often thought of as relatively powerless), I have marched into spaces of power and sat down at the table and dared people to move me; they didn’t.

    Power must be taken, you can’t give it away. The people you’re working with must step up and tell you, “step back, I’ve got this!” That is the act of taking power. When that happens, don’t be surprised if you have mixed feelings (perhaps a little resentment – who do they think they are and perhaps a little pride – they finally figured out their power).

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  2. I loved the questions that you posed- If I am personally the one with the power, influence, and alignment, is it a given that I should wield it? If philanthropy is the one with the power, influence, and alignment, is it a given that we should wield it? Or should we be actively trying to move ourselves out of those power positions, to shift our influence and resources to those that are marginalized?

    And I also found the comment by Andrea Miller very impactful- I have felt that pride mixed with resentment and I think I have also taken power. People have to take power, it can not be given but….. can a person with power clear that path for a person to realize their power. In other words, can a older white Executive Director step aside and leave an opening for someone with less power to take? Can someone at a foundation institute a peer grant review process where people from the community make decisions about money? Is that giving it away?

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  3. So much of this post resonates for me too, and I appreciate the comments as well. I especially liked using “agency and influence” as the descriptors, rather than looking at power only as agency. Part of what I struggle with and you point to it too, is the tension between using access and privilege to influence and have agency in spaces that are currently off-limits to most people. For example, venture capital is dominated by older, white men, and it’s clear that has an impact on funding.

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    1. (I keep posting before I’m ready with the wrong keyboard shortcut!)
      For example, venture capital is dominated by older, straight, white men, and it’s clear that has an impact on funding:

      One of many stats that show the outcome of having homogeneity in the VC pool: In the U.S., Q2 2019 data from Crunchbase News shows that only 3 percent of venture money was spent on all female teams; 8 percent was given to mixed teams while 89 percent supported all male teams.

      That is a shocking stat! So if as a white woman you have the ability to sit at that VC table, you will make a difference, and there are stats proving this out too – gender diversity at the decision-making level means funding outcomes have greater gender diversity. So we actually need to diversify the people in the room, not just the intention of the same people in the room i.e. even if men feel like they WANT to invest in more women, usually, when push comes to shove, they don’t. And this of course corresponds to investing in POC teams – if the VCs are POC, there is a MUCH higher likelihood of getting funded if you are a POC-led startup team, but so far the VC world is very white.

      All this to say, that I agree people need to take the initiative to push into rooms and sit at tables where they have historically not been welcome. But I would add that in order to effectively do that, because there is a high cost to navigating a system where you don’t fit the codes (my mom experienced this throughout her career as a woman in a man’s sphere), we need to also create networks of support for those that are doing it. We need to be real about the difficulties and energy-sapping resistance that comes when we decide to enter those corridors of power, and we need to consciously create opportunities to help make it sustainable on a personal level for those newly entering the space.

      Which means that the people already in the room, the ones with the privilege, do need to make that space available, and also engage in their own personal transformative work – getting better at listening, not assuming the current culture is the right culture for everyone, learning about different ways to wield power, that it can look and sound unfamiliar (I’m reminded of those studies that asked people to pick a picture of what a leader looks like and it was – inevitably! – an older, white man), and stepping back if they are used to stepping up.

      Thank you for your post!

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      1. Hi Helene–you and my favorite Aunt have the same name 🙂 Your comments on remind me of comments I’ve heard from Sequoia member Sharon. I hope you get to connect with her during our workshop. Jon

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  4. It was nice to meet you Monday, Sarah; I appreciate your reflections on the dilemma of sharing power. As I’m sure you’re aware, Enneagram 8s have the capacity to wield power comfortably, often with the intent and action of protecting others who are part of their “realm.” So holding onto power in that sense could very well be what’s yours to do. It seems equally valuable for you to examine who might best share in that power (there’s your 9 wing seeing others’ perspectives!). I’m reminded by comments of my Sequoia member Anna about the need to take baby steps to share power with those typically disenfranchised (insofar as that’s “acceptable” to the family foundation!). FYI, Felipe has a power visualization that may give you ideas…I’m noodling on his work myself!

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