The Use of Personal Power

by Jerry King

As I sit down to write this Monday Memo, no letup is in sight in almost daily news reports of men with histories of abuse and even outright assault against women. Given the nature of headline news, all of the named men have been public figures of some kind, and the incidents are marked by relationships of uneven power, or so perceived. A man took advantage of subordinates in the workplace, another used his fame or fortune to manipulate women, another has a history of dangling the promise of professional favors in exchange for sex.  Another forced himself on a woman out of a sense of entitlement.

But those are just the stories that make it to the news. Millions of men hold power, and some, usually not named in the media, have histories that include abuse of their power over women in the workplace, in athletics or often in domestic relationships in which physical dominance substitutes for inner strength. We can be sure that these past several weeks, across the nation men with careers that have included supervising women have been leafing through personal pages of recollection, recalling this incident or that, reviewing a private conversation or a comment framed as a joke, maybe remembering with regret making an unwelcome touch, and reconsidering in what way their own need for control drove those incidents.

That women are deciding to no longer accept abuse in silence is clearly a healthy development, and that men are brought to re-evaluate their behavior and values with respect to women is also good for all of us.  And so, it strikes me that this national discussion opens the door to constructive talk about personal power more broadly. We know well that power and exploitation manifest throughout society in ways other than between men and women. 

A foundational principle that I learned from neighborhood organizing is that all people have power. That is not a platitude, but a matter of faith to believe in earnest. In my work, we often hear people say that they hope to empower some group they’re working with. But a mentor early in my career taught me it’s not our place to attempt to empower anyone. We can create settings in which people make decisions about their communities for instance; in which they unite for leverage, successfully speak out to influence outcomes. We can be part of creating circumstances in which people gain knowledge or skills to take control of their futures. We can listen, honor, support, provide resources and information. But we can’t empower anyone; people have power.

Clearly that’s not a problem; power is good. What requires our introspection is to understand what we do with it. Whether we use our leverage to hold onto authority, keep people in place, and protect what we have or to take the side of respect and dignity, fairness, opportunity, shared responsibility; to listen, advocate, ensure that even quiet voices are heard.

This principle is one of several from the Earth Charter that guide how we use power.

Promote the active participation of women in all aspects of economic, political, civil, social, and cultural life as full and equal partners, decision makers, leaders, and beneficiaries.

Earth Charter