My first memory of exposure to mobilizing power on a large scale was not during a social studies class. And Dr. Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi didn’t make their way into my awareness as community power builders and power shifters until my later years of school. I recall first learning about power and its value as a child. I fell in love with books early on and would rummage through my parents’ belongings in our family basement for ones with pictures and some text. I discovered a large hardcover titled “People Power: The Philippine Revolution of 1986, An Eyewitness History”. As a little person, it was too heavy to carry upstairs and I remember spending several days sitting in the basement perusing full page black and white photographs and developing my literacy by reading captions. I slowly learned about a 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines that successfully overthrew Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship. While still much too advanced for me to fully comprehend at the time, I have distinct memories of photos and captions that told me a story of lots of people who gathered, marched, and prayed on the streets so this bad leader would go away and everyone’s lives could be good again. I also remember having just seen Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and recognizing parallels.
Since childhood, I realize how often I’ve associated power with either large, organized groups or high positions of authority and the “right way” for power to exist is as a shared responsibility. Building upon those early associations into my adulthood, the notion of power that still sits most well with me is that of having a peaceful influence within a community to ensure “equitable treatment” governed by “fair rules” for all its members. I recognize how the majority of our current world and the historical pattern of events preceding us do not reflect that reality. The struggle for power I find myself immersed in today involves working to complicate prevailing narratives and challenge widespread assumptions in order to lay pathways toward new ideals of justice. I wonder how much discovering that hardcover book in my family basement and watching Kevin Costner as Robin Hood have shaped my perspectives and aspirations for individually or collectively building and using power.
Given my early associations of power to groups (political parties and organized crime) or people in high positions of authority and general distrust in such power, I also struggled with believing or trusting in my personal power, let alone exercising it. The effects of childhood trauma, pain and embarrassment only reinforced a lack of awareness, belief and trust in personal power. It’s been a decades-long journey to learn to use my voice and to act with intent to influence. For awhile I feared the consequences would put me in a position of more harm. I connect this personal, individual struggle to a similar, broader struggle across entire populations impacted by trauma, where they too don’t believe or trust in their collective power. Through community building work and first-hand experience, I’ve seen how trauma that’s confronted (brought to awareness and ideally, exposed to healing) can become a unique starting point for building individual and relational power fueled by compassion, which gains a different kind of momentum than a power fueled by anger or greed. Especially among groups that naturally emerge as support systems for navigating a journey of overcoming adversity, loss, pain, and exclusion, there is real opportunity for them to serve as containers of compassionate energy released through collective healing. And with that energy, there is real opportunity among the harmed to build relational power and mobilize it towards changing the rules of a system that harms.
For as long as I’ve worked within the workforce development system, I appreciate the role it’s played in the healing of socially excluded groups and returning citizens, as well as opening doors to opportunity. In some professional circles, we state our sector’s goal and aspiration as ending domestic poverty, which could look like society no longer needing our organizations. To do that, I see the role of the workforce system to truly represent voices gone unheard because of systemic poverty. Within the power of our networks and with greater collaboration, let’s better educate employers to prioritize job quality that meets self-sufficiency standards and accounts for policy implications like benefits cliffs. Let’s balance the power dynamic with corporate institutions who are our funders and sources of employment opportunities. At times, in order to sustain our services to the un/underemployed, the workforce development system in which we currently operate might feel forced to accept funds from or place job seekers institutions who are partially responsible for the poverty that exists. Wouldn’t it be more effective to organize and mobilize ourselves as a workforce sector and creatively incentivize those same institutional forces to prevent their contribution to poverty in the first place?
After consistent exposure to supportive networks and resources that helped me heal, find my voice, recognize my personal power, and build courage, I’ve more recently sought to push for, initiate, and focus efforts towards bolder engagement of the private sector, specifically through their current employment practices, and influencing the exploration or adoption of inclusive hiring and other high road practices. Leverage points we’ve explored are more carrots versus sticks: developing a common language, building business cases backed by data, and innovating solutions that get at organizational self-interest (including the creation of a mission-driven staffing firm to provide companies flexible hiring options for a fee while exposing them to “untapped and overlooked community-based talent”, as well as forming a Community Based Organization Collective made up of 15 non-profits that self-organized “to provide Chicago-area employers with a single access point for working with local talent that have been historically marginalized, underserved, and has barriers to employment – resulting in market-driven products, services and engagement that best serves employers”). The socioeconomic climate at times can also serve as leverage to influence institutions to change behavior. In the year prior to the pandemic, the unemployment rate was at a historic low of 3.6% which created conditions to push for inclusive hiring as employers struggled to attract and retain talent. Now, given the pandemic, historically high unemployment rates, social unrest and amplified scrutiny of / sensitivity to unethical business practices, we find ourselves with social conditions that again might benefit the workforce sector and its partners in education and community organizing to creatively advocate and activate real systems changes and power shifts. How might a cooperative structure within the workforce sector look like, whose ccollective power challenges private and public enterprise to prioritize people over profits? Or an economy where a “quality of life standard” or “community and environmental well-being” becomes the overarching goal and measure of societal health and success instead of low unemployment and high productivity rates?