Can someone gain power without someone else giving it up?

Being in a small rural town I feel that power remains with two groups – individuals and institutions. If you are an individual you derive your power from money. If you are an institution you derive your power from control of decision making – around resources, assets, rules, etc. For example, our downtown is changing, many would say for the better – breweries, farm to table restaurants, a small hotel, etc. These changes are being driven by people and institutions with power – the local businessman who has power via his wealth sells an iconic downtown building to another wealthy businessman in another state who has no ties to our community. The building starts to deteriorate and becomes cost prohibitive for the local business attempting to operate from it. The City, which has power because of its control and decision making ability, chooses not to enact or enforce any regulations that would require that property owner to maintain his building.

I’m intrigued by the idea of how to move or spread power to others. Can power ever really be gained by someone if someone else who has power doesn’t give it up? Or within a community can power be gained by a group of people if an institution doesn’t give away some of its power?

I feel like the answer is no but would love for someone to challenge me on that!

I think there are two impediments to the giving up of power. First for institutions, it is the ‘rules’ mentioned, which relate to decision making, and could also be defined as the institutional culture. If a company wants to offer their employees three hours a month of paid time to volunteer in the community they could select a local park and dedicate all their employees’ time to cleaning up that park OR they could allow the employee to select anything they want to do for those three hours (within reason!), something they are passionate about or have a personal connection to. This is decision making and it is also culture. I believe in institutions this happens because the same people stay in power for too long. There are no new ideas, no new opportunities for culture change, nobody challenging the status quo and asking “why not”. Sure, these have been the rules in the past but why can’t they be different.

The other impediment to giving up power relates to the individual and is basically defined as greed. We are very interested in this for our work. How do worker-owners see themselves as “stewards” of resources, their ultimate goal being to steward the business so it remains viable for the next generation of owners. How do you ask a local businessman to give up his resources, wealth and power in order to truly empower others? What interests me about this is that it ties back to the first week’s prompt – this is all personal transformation. Power can never truly be gained by someone new if the person with entrenched power does not experience a personal transformation that moves them in their heart and their soul to give away power to someone else. How do you bring that about? What steps, tools or resources can be used to transform someone’s own understanding of their power and their willingness to share it?

4 thoughts on “Can someone gain power without someone else giving it up?

  1. I am from the school of thought that power can only be taken; it is never given because it can’t be given. Either the person or institution that wants the power is ready and willing to take it or not. Power is not money, which can easily be given away; it is much deeper. Power is the ability to influence others and make the rules. If you give someone power to make the rules, someone more determined and with a greater desire for that power will take it from them (I don’t believe that power is inherently evil any more than I believe a shovel is inherently evil. True they can both be used for evil but it is the person with the power (or shovel) that makes that decision.

    When you want to take power, you must first understand where the real leverage points are. When we wanted to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia we decided that we needed 4 seats in the Virginia House with people that supported our views. It was about the number not necessarily any particular seat. We identified 12 seats that we thought could be changed and won 8. The next session our legislation was SB1 and HB1 (the first piece of legislation introduced in each chamber).

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  2. Sara – Your post speaks a lot of truth. It makes me wonder, what if money didn’t equal power? What would that look like? How could we get there? Do we need to transform hearts away from self-interest or is greed and hoarding of power and resources baked into the capitalist system we’ve created? How can we organize and create buy in for a different reality?

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  3. Sara, thank you for this (and for our discussion today!) I’m curious if you see ways to expand beyond individuals and institutions to include networks, communities etc. and if that changes your power analysis?

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  4. Sara, thank you for sharing! This is definitely an uncomfortable thought I share when the going gets tough and the forces (and more importantly, the structures) seem insurmountable.
    I really like that you use your small town as your laboratory. I’m also from a small town, and I feel it gave me a very intimate understanding of how power works–there is a certain clarity when you can trace specific, real people and their actions. I encourage you to keep exploring this. Imagining “real” movements need to be national and massive can make it feel impossible to start. What are some strategies you can experiment with in your town, that might be replicable anywhere, at any scale?

    “I feel like the answer is no but would love for someone to challenge me on that!”
    Here is my challenge: Maybe we’re chasing the wrong question. People don’t want to give up power–but what is power for? Wealth–what is that for? Material things, experiences, relationships? Why? Chase that thread all the way down the rabbit hole and tell us what you find! Is there some final destination or final objective, that a powerful person would actually be able to better achieve by sharing their power? IE is there some argument for a powerful person to share power for *selfish* reasons?

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