ramble about networks, power, and systems change26 Sep 2016
this post is just a MASSIVE word vomit. sorry in advance.
so lately (all the time), i’ve been thinking about power and oppression. there are so many different oppressive power regimes (sexuality, gender, race, class, age, physical ability, etc.), and all of them have had significant energy put towards breaking them down. and yet, all of them still persist.
curtis, my systems thinking guru, often quotes someone (reference) that says when systems are broken, what they need is more connection to themselves, not less.
some months ago at work, i attended a really interesting meeting about one particular network our org had worked with for 5+ years. as the network grew more connected, the periphery of the network was increasingly involved in the decision-making process. this involvement seemed to actually result in more equitable decision-making.
it showed up very specifically at one point when the network was hiring some contractors. the higher-ups had hired a specific contractor, but when the contractors started to do their work, the periphery folks were extremely offended by the way the contractors worked. the leadership team had visceral connection to the negative outcomes of a decision they made. when it was time to hire the next round of contractors for that work, the leadership team knew that they should not be the ones who decided who the contractors were. they then handed over decision-making power to the periphery people in the network.
imo, feedback caused a shift in power.
there are many quotes, especially in social justice circles, about how power isn’t given, it’s taken. this one wokémon meme is a popular one.
but if i’m honest with myself, i really struggle with that statement. if power is taken, not willingly given, why have all of the attempts to take power resulted in extreme backlash and re-entrenchment? michelle alexander writes about this extensively in her book, the new jim crow. for as many years as people have been fighting to end racism, it still exists, and by some metrics, it’s getting worse because it’s getting increasingly hidden (dog-whistle politics).
when power is taken, it seems the oppressive systems just morph.
fannie lou hamer said “until I am free, you are not free”. mlk believes that we’re all connected through a interwoven fabric of destiny. lilla watson said “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
if all of these things are true, what does that mean for how we move forward together?
audre lorde said “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” taking power (particularly by using violence and fear) seems to be a tool of the master. if that is the case, that approach is doomed to fail.
but i certainly hear that waiting on those in power (rich, white, men, cis-gendered, able, etc.) to willingly give up their power is an impossible ask. telling someone who has been oppressed to wait is a thing that should never be done.
and yet, here we are, still working towards freedom. if none of us are free until we all are free, how do we get there? and, as my colleague, cyndi, asked in that meeting, “can we get to that stage [where people in power recognize that their liberation is also in the destruction of oppression] faster?” people are dying. now. we don’t have time to wait.
some african communities measure change at the 500 year scale. so what does that tell us about wanting change to come quickly?
done. for now. so messy.