Harnessing power for social change

The idea of relinquishing our power can be daunting. Raji Hunjan, Chief Executive of anti-poverty charity Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, considers how people in positions of power can learn to share more of their space, resource and control to increase equality and fairness.

Those of us who work within any social change context will talk about power all the time. The very reason so many of us do what we do is to achieve change and seek justice for those who are most discriminated against or treated unfairly. With that in mind, we inevitably think about how we influence those who are in positions of power and help those whose voices need to be heard because they are powerless.

When funders Blagrave Trust and Lankelly Chase challenged us to think about how we understand power for this series of blogs, I considered the question that they asked me to: “How can people in positions of power learn how to give up more of their space, resource and control to increase equality and fairness?” Already in that question and in the phrase “give up” there is an assumption that power is finite and to share power is to have to lose some. I am a committed believer in sharing power. However, I get that so often we don’t believe we have enough power as it is, without being asked to share what little we have. It’s a sobering and disempowering prospect to give up power.

It’s not just about how much power we have, but how we choose to use it. Those with power can act in ways that are visible, and their decisions and choices can quite clearly impact on many others. Power can also be hidden, with people making decisions behind closed doors or in ways that are not so easily understood. Power is about what’s on the agenda, and what isn’t, who speaks and who is not invited to take part.

Power is in the hands of many

I believe that talking about power should be empowering. Power is complex, and we can have a significant amount of power in one context and be relatively powerless in another. I am empowered by the view that power is not a zero-sum game, that actually we do not have to “give up” anything, in order to share power. So if it’s not zero-sum, then it’s infinite, dynamic and there to be harnessed for positive change.

I, like many others who have thought about this more deeply than me, do not see power as being held solely by the few, but rather as something that can be found in the hands of many, and can manifest itself in both positive and negative forms. If we start with the belief that power is dynamic, and everyone has it in different contexts of their lives, then if we come together, then surely our voices will be stronger?

Sharing space, resource and control

At an event recently, I asked a visibly and traditionally powerful person (I won’t say who) what his department was doing to create the space and the opportunity for people living in poverty to be listened to. His answer was that by listening to those working in the voluntary sector, he was listening to the communities that we work with. He said that people who are poor wouldn’t want to come and speak to him, because, well, they were too busy being poor. I paraphrase, but that is ultimately what he said. Needless to say, I disagreed with him.

But it is the same question that we in the sector should ask ourselves: What are we doing to ensure that people have the tools and spaces to exercise power and be heard?

Making all our voices stronger

I run an anti-poverty charity in Westminster. It’s small and resources and space are scarce. Yet we start from the belief that everyone has power, and that we must draw upon the full breadth of that power. We work on the basis that some space, resource, control has to be shared with the communities that we work with.

We are still understanding what this means in reality. But we are working towards it – in the questions we ask potential employees at interview; the staff and volunteers we appoint; and in the way we’ve changed our service delivery to empower our clients to address and resolve their own problems. We have developed two exciting new projects to encourage our clients to tell their stories, one with a photographer and one with a theatre company.

If we can create the spaces and opportunities for those we work with to explore their experiences in the context of unfair policies and decision making, then surely that can only make all our voices stronger and help us to exercise greater power?

Five power sharing actions to consider

Sharing power with the communities our charities work with is never easy, but there are some clear actions that we can all take:

  1. Ask for the views of all your internal stakeholders, including staff, trustees, and volunteers on power sharing. Find out what they think the benefits might be to your communities.
  2. Gather evidence. I remember making the case for client voice and how it empowers people to take control of their lives at one of our Zacchaeus 2000 Trust away days. When staff asked for evidence, I was able to point to the survey we had recently introduced that asked clients to feedback on their general wellbeing after accessing our services. The quotes alone spoke volumes, as did the stats, with around 75% of respondents saying they felt much more confident to take part in community life and felt more in control of their lives.
  3. Be clear on what you mean by power sharing in the context of your organisation, and build it into your strategic plans. You may want to be aspirational in what you want to achieve, but a strategy enables you to take small steps towards your final goal.
  4. Test your ideas with the wider community, particularly funders who might be interested in buying into a new way of working. This can also help to make your case stronger with your internal stakeholders.
  5. Build it into your strategies for recruitment, so that you are building up a staff base of people who want to work with your communities in an empowering way.