I first learned that instead of creating “power over” I had the possibility to create “power with” from training workshops put on by Nathan Jones at the Northwest Institute for Community Enrichment (NICE).
I had internalized the Alinskyist approach (i.e. “power over”) to always focus on a single decisionmaker in a position of “power” and organize to make them bring about your goals.
Then the NICE showed me that by having every strategy address this individual “decisionmaker”, we missed an opportunity to build our own collective power.
This is not to say that sometimes we may need to focus on a single decisionmaker, but it’s important to always have the option of thinking “what can we do together” (i.e. “power with”) instead of “what can they do for us.” We need both options, not one or the other.
This means we need to both develop leadership so folks have the support and self-encouragement to take on projects, along with keeping our government institutions accountable to providing the services it ought to be providing.
For example, if you want to increase the amount of food grown within your city’s boundaries, instead of going straight to a city councilperson asking them to start a municipal farming program, you could create “power with” by just starting to grow food in collaboration with others.
However, you might consider aiming for a “power over” strategy if you mobilize people to push your city councilperson to challenge city regulations that strictly limit areas where individuals can grow food in the city boundaries.
Basically, the point is that if we hand the “power” to a decisionmaker, we are limiting the potential of our own communities to start the process of change immediately. With a little skill, patience, and luck our collective power may even lead to some cases where the decisionmakers are trying to join us!
How to decide between a “power over” vs. a “power with” strategy?
While it may seem obvious to know what strategy to use when moving forward a campaign, just consider the possibilities of what other strategies might look like.
Below are a set of questions to consider before quickly setting your course.
Can you push forward BOTH a “power over” and a “power with” strategy? In other words, can you both push for someone else to make the change you seek, while working to fulfill your goals yourself/with others? Do you have the resources (e.g. people, time, money, etc.) to do both?
When to consider a “power over” strategy
Is there a service an institution (e.g. government, business, nonprofit, etc.) ought to be providing or policy they should be creating/upholding? If so, then it makes sense to address the institution directly through a “power over” strategy.
Does the realization of your outcomes require substantial resources or impact a large area or number of people? Sometimes what you set out to accomplish can be so large that it could benefit from securing the resources of an established entity to implement what needs to be done.
When to consider a “power with” strategy
Would your outcomes (e.g. projects, programs, etc.) be more resilient if those impacted created and maintained them? If this is the case, to have those involved maintain and manage the outcomes, then a “power with” strategy would be ideal for this work.
Do you aim to significantly increase individuals’ and communities’ capacity and confidence through your organizing? Once people realize what they can achieve with each other, then often they have the skills and attitudes that they can make even bigger changes.
There are many more factors that must go into whether to use a “power over” vs. a “power with” strategy, as I learned from Nathan Jones at the NICE, however the above questions provide a conceptual framework to get started. Just remember, try to think of ways when you can use both strategies concurrently!
What other questions should we ask ourselves before deciding whether to go with a “power over” or a “power with” strategy? Post your comments on the Organizing Change Facebook page!
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