power is magic

a photo of the countryside as seen from the window of a plane. the upper third of the picture contains slowly undulating hills in misty blues and greens. the rest of the frame is a birds-eye patchwork of farms and natural features. at one time, the heavens were the domain of all-powerful, terrifying gods. now, any idiot with a couple hundred bucks can get up there and take a picture.

What are the agreements that hold society together? Currency, especially the concept of fiat money, is a big one. Unlike the gold standard, where a person’s dollar equaled a certain amount of gold, fiat money is fake. Where does the money come from? I’ve read some very complicated explanations for why we can’t simply print more money. But the government does anyway! We’ve vested in it the ability to spend more money than we have on hand. Only the federal government can do this, because they wrote the law that says they can.

In many ways, the concept of power functions like fiat money. It’s made up! It has arbitrary value that depends on the context where it’s used. My importance in one circle doesn’t always mean I’m important in other circles. In an institutional hierarchy, power can be coercive. People with power can make others carry out decisions that they know are bad or unhelpful. People with power can redirect attention or slow down progress. They can do this even when they themselves know it’s the wrong thing to do. People with power can also confer power unto another person. That person’s qualifications are sometimes scrutable, sometimes not. At least some monarchies had the good sense to declare their power came from holy authority. It’s hard to dispute power vested in a person or their lineage by a capital-g god. But there are points in history when a couple of capital-g guillotines demonstrated that no power is absolute.

We navigate structures of power and dynamics every day, everywhere. This week’s controversy is about Trump’s refusal to concede his electoral loss. People are asking themselves, “can he do that??” The real question is, “why are we letting him do that?”

A colleague and I were talking at work recently. She noticed the efforts I make to help new managers feel welcome in our halls of power. I see it as my role to do more than that. I’m trying to dispel the mysticism of management. Like money, a leader’s power only means something if we let it mean something. People are fallible and human. Power bestowed upon them by the system doesn’t make their instincts better by default. In fact, relying on power as authority can create blindspots in a person’s reasoning.

Take for example the bigger role that race and equity issues now play in many organizations. The leaders of those organizations may not be particularly experienced in these things. The skill sets for their roles may have changed, but they still hold the power. Only someone else with more power can do anything about that.

Another example involves asking who has the power to make decisions. In the public sector, decision-making doesn’t always rest with the public. Transferring decision-making to impacted communities can give them power they did not have. It gives people in need the ability to make decisions that are best for them, even if those decisions feel wrong to us.

Some people in power convince themselves that they alone have the right answer. They might believe their place in the system grants them that exclusive power. They may think that empowerment can function as a token or rubber-stamp of their plans. When I work to empower the communities I serve, I keep in mind this truth: given power and the authority to wield it, someone might act a different way than I would have. True empowerment must include giving up my ability to veto decisions I wouldn’t have made.

how do you rebalance power?

If you have power, start by finding ways to share it. Then, relinquish it. Historic racial inequities and injustices should make it clear why most power in the united states is ill-gotten.

Sustaining Community has a great post about the Spectrum of Public Participation. It’s a framework developed by the International Association of Public Participation. The framework describes actions along a gradual transition of power to the public: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower. Each action contains tangible steps used to engage the community we serve. The goal of empowerment is empowering for traditional power-holders as well! There is a burden or cost to making unpopular decisions. Instead, join the discussion as one of many people, all with unique ideas and perspectives.

These apply to both personal and professional life. Work to restore power to the masses through unions, organizing, and collective action. Support community groups and mutual aid projects. Collaborate with others to hold people in power accountable.

Power is magic. It doesn’t always make sense, though it sometimes leads to incredible things. But whether you are the magician or the audience, you have to be aware of what’s happening. Don’t forget the fact that it’s all a trick.

we aren’t heroes in a system we thrive in

a close up photo of a portugal laurel shrub. the leaves are green with yellow ribs. a leaf in the forefront is edged with a reddish brown color. near the center of the image, off to the left, is a single cherry, reddish and grapelike. wikipedia says that the fruit is toxic if it tastes bitter, but can be eaten when ripe. i think i’ll skip it this time.

We live in a society built under capitalism. Under this system, people sometimes describe others as selfless if they don’t seek to earn the absolute most money that they can. It’s commonly understood that people who volunteer, or work for a non-profit, are doing an altruistic act. This includes people who work for the common good: feeding the poor, sheltering the unsheltered, and the like. Those who benefit in a direct or indirect way from these works may even call them heroes. But that lets us off the hook, a bit. There’s a power imbalance between the hero and the victim, between the savior and the saved. The truth is, we do not have a supernatural gift to help others. We do it because it’s the right thing to do.

we’re not heroes, we’re human

There is a greater value in seeing ourselves as humans, not heroes. Being human means we are fallible. We can make mistakes, pivot, and try again. Being human means we are not mere enforcers of the system, we are part of it.
In this age, it’s time for us as humans to stop and think. Who created the system we now reinforce? Who was it created for? Which of our policies exist to serve people in need, and which ones exist to serve us? Here are some examples to get started that I haven’t used before.

A few restrictive policies and some remedies

Operating hours. My pantry’s hours may favor some groups of people over others. Daytime hours may not work for people who commute, or have one or more jobs.
Remedies: Offer a variety of consistent open hours, including weekends, evenings, and mid-day. Create an appointment system to prevent long lines or lengthy waiting periods.

Limited food variety. People have all sorts of dietary needs. I recently became lactose intolerant (thanks, I hate it). If I am hungry and receive a gallon of milk, I can either be sick or stay hungry. The same is true for people who can’t process gluten, can’t or don’t eat meat, or even hate eating peas.
Remedies: Asking my constituents about their priority foods. Bringing in a wider variety of products. Allowing people to choose what they like to eat.

Relying on volunteers. Many non-profits rely on volunteer labor to keep their costs down. This can deflect the true cost of these needed services. Many organizations that rely on elderly volunteers lost them during the pandemic. If volunteers serve a critical role at my organization, I need to plan to fill that role in an emergency.
Remedies: Hiring workers from the community. Hiring volunteers as paid staff.

If we truly want to end hunger, we must do that for everyone. That means accessing food without fear or harassment, intimidation, or shame. In a society that vilifies and curses people in need, we need all the help fighting this perception as we can get. But we have to be careful about what we tell ourselves to do or not do. We need to be careful about tempering our plans based on the comfort level of our peers in power. We are enjoying the fruits of an unjust system. We should all be working to eliminate that injustice wherever we see it.

We don’t have to be heroes to do that. In fact, it helps if we’re not.

why do people with power still work on the margins?

photo of the lava-strewn Thingvellir National Park in Iceland. mossy and jagged volcanic rock dominates the lower two-thirds of the image, with tiny vehicles in the distance for scale. beyond, the top part of the photo is where horizon, mountain, and water meet. here, the north american and eurasian tectonic plates are drifting apart. this demonstrates how, if you truly want to get away from the united states, you just have to keep trying.

I got into management for reasons that people rarely say out loud. I have seen many examples of people abusing or neglecting the power their system gave them. I wanted to do it better. The pace of change has always frustrated me: who are we waiting for? How do we get them to speed up? I spent so long watching others use their power that I daydream about all the ways I would use it.

being marginalized but in power

It comes up a lot in the government and non-profit arenas where I’ve worked. In public health, people run by the adage, “when we do our jobs well, you don’t even notice us.” Unfortunately, the sober, behind-the-scenes government worker is an antiquated notion. This self-defeating view is like an early-release Imposter Syndrome. We are experts in our fields, but nobody will take us seriously. We can do, but can we lead?

In our reality, people who are afraid to rock the boat are minimally rewarded. Nowadays, governments don’t fund the things people don’t care about. Police departments are a great example of this. They and their unions proclaim in a screech the dire consequences if we cut their budgets. Amid weeks of police brutality, the Seattle city council pledged to cut SPD’s budget by 50%. The police and other city actors made their displeasure known to anyone who would listen. When the dust settled, the council overrode a mayoral veto to affirm a measly $3M cut to the current year’s $409M budget. Most of this cut won’t even impact the department: it’s too late to lay off staff before this budget year ends. They will have to start the negotiations all over in just a few weeks. Meanwhile for decades, austerity budgets have slashed all the parts of government that don’t kill people.

So why do we do it? Why are people with power so afraid of using it?

at the mercy of themselves

Most people in non-profits think of themselves as progressive. Or at least, progressive enough. It’s true for me, too! I worry all the time about whether my innovations are radical enough for the name of my blog. So we take this mindset and think that things are moving enough. We’re fighting the good fight, but going further would be going too far.

But what if we never fight for as much as people really need? What if the space that I occupy is taking up sufficient oxygen to snuff out the efforts of others? What if I’m the Pete Buttigieg of the non-profit world? What if our progressive values are just milquetoast centrism? What if we’re stifling actual good ideas with our own narrow-minded approach? (side note: one of Buttigieg’s campaign slogans is “win the era,” so thanks Pete for making me regret another of my taglines).

what’s worked for me
When I’m at the mercy of myself, I tap into emotion. I do enough doomscrolling to remember that things are not getting better on their own. I get angry enough with the system to want to do something about it. And then I remember that my position of power means that I can!

at the mercy of peers

Feeling out of step with peers can be an awkward experience. It’s easy to worry about what people will think about us, even when we’re fighting for the same things. It’s hard to have hard conversations, especially if their answer might be “no.” It can feel isolating, but gentle conversation shouldn’t make someone a pariah.

what’s worked for me
I try to mix things up. I keep myself educated by reading a lot. I write and sharpen my arguments. And I dare myself to try selling my audacious visions. It doesn’t always work, but people know where I stand. They know I won’t be happy upholding a harmful status quo.

at the mercy of the powerful

I’ve spent most of my life working on the money-losing side of businesses. This includes a stint selling gelato in Austin, where I ate almost as much as I sold. I know that funding has to come from somewhere, whether it’s taxpayers, donors, or funders. But it could also include peers in power, or a CEO, or the person taking notes when I complain about capitalism near an Echo.

what’s worked for me
Those people are all human. If we go into conversations expecting “no,” then we dare our listeners to meet our expectations. I’ve found that most of the time, people are afraid even to ask. I’ve never met a funder who said, “this was such a terrible idea that I am going to revoke all my funding to you, for all time.” But even if they do say no, that’s an opportunity to find out why. It’s a chance to engage them, educate them, and invite them into a solution.

how else can we break the cycle?

We can find a new job or a new perspective on the old one. We can ask more questions and listen to the answers. We can take more risks and learn from those that don’t pay off. We can keep fighting to do things in different ways. Those ways won’t be perfect. We can’t give up. We must take the wins and the losses and keep trying.

The core of each of the categories above is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown. Fear of never being good enough. Like any source of fear, we can’t run from it. The people I’m fighting for are fighting alongside me. They’ve been fighting longer and harder than me, and their fight is personal. I’ve taken their fight on as my fight. I’m not going to give up.