Power and Privilege: DynamicsJuly 19, 2011 Leave a comment
In case you missed my earlier posts in this series, I am raising a series of questions about power and privilege in social change work at the invitation of the “Walk the Talk” zine/book project. Prior questions included:
- “How do I handle my privileges responsibly and avoid the “oppression Olympics?”
- How do I figure out which privileges to leverage, which to minimize and which to divest?
Today I want to pose two questions.
When is it more responsible to “hold the bag” and when is it more important to “let the ball bounce?”
Years ago, my colleague Bill Crombie at The Algebra Project counseled me about overwork, saying “Don’t take it on as your individual problem. If you do, the system will have no information and even less incentive to own the problem or solve it at a systems level.” I have been thinking a lot about how this lesson applies to the role of being “one of the only ones” in a largely white organization. When am I obligated to “hold the bag” and be the person of color at the table so that there’s at least some wider perspective or an opportunity to pry the door open a little wider for others? When is it more important to step back and let an organization or group confront and deal with the absence of people of color in critical decision making roles? When is my stepping in an act of responsibility that leads to different and better outcomes? When does my stepping in become a way to let others “off the hook” about building a more diverse team or changing unproductive dynamics that marginalize people?
What has my contribution been and how do my colleagues of color see me?
I’ve been part of my IISC for a long time—long enough to bear some responsibility for “the way things are.” As we have explore our internal power dynamics, I wonder about how effective I’ve been at resisting some of the manifestations of white privilege in our organization and how I’ve been an accomplice, whether wittingly or not. And, I wonder about how my colleagues of color (inside my organization and beyond) judge the answer to this question. I wonder whether I’m seen as worthy of their trust (seen as both willing and able to play the role with integrity). And, I wonder what it will cost to explore these questions of trust and accountability and what I/we might gain by trying.
I’m especially interested in how people in organizations and communities struggle with these questions together. What’s your experience?
Brilliant post, Cynthia. Thank you so much for your blog posts.
Important questions Cynthia, seems like the “hold the bag/let the ball bounce” question is answered differently at different moments or situations, and I think I’ve seen you do that.
Regarding the way things are, well, they’re actually not too bad, and we’ll always be working on something – so thank you for contributing to that!
I do believe that there are inherent limitations in the current paradigm for addressing power and privilege and so it behooves us to find ways to evolve it.
Thanks Charlie and Gibrán. As for the limitations of the current paradigm, let’s explore/unpack/evolve it! I’m down!
Great post Cynthia. And yes, I agree that it’s time to explore and shift the paradigm. AND the question of holding the bag/setting it down feels critical. I am in the same questions – from a slightly different perspective. Really appreciate thie ideas about not taking it all on yourself – and also am feeling that if the next great leader is the sangha (which I believe), then leading/holding the bag carry different forms. It’s not up to any one individual. And yet there is responsibility for all.