Power Among Us

by Heather M. Cook
and the Committee on Conflict Transformation


Many Quakers echo Bayard Rustin about speaking “truth to power.” The context is usually obvious: government and business officials who control budgets and policies. But what about social power in our Quaker meetings, committees, and organizations? How does its imbalance spark conflict among us?


Many of us take pride in the non-hierarchical structure here in our yearly meeting. The core of decision-making is the local meeting. Leadership appointments are to be discerned and rotated. We identify as a people of peace who stand up for the oppressed. We talk about a shared value of equality. We don’t exert power over each other! Do we?


Viewing conflicts among us through the lens of power can be illuminating. Interpersonal power can be fluid, and is deeply connected to rank, also referred to as privilege. One moment one person may be “up” as they talk about a topic in which they have expertise. The next moment the other person is “up” when their rank of skin color or gender or class or education or sexual orientation or spirituality or reading ability or…comes forward. We are typically most aware of the power others hold, and less aware of our own power. Power can be claimed for oneself, ascribed to others, and given away, typically through silence or inaction.


Often the impact of imbalanced privilege/rank and power is the silencing of the “down” person. Consider the following scenarios.


In meeting for worship with a concern for the life of the meeting, a new participant makes a suggestion related to the topic under discernment. Another participant immediately expresses their view of why that suggestion is a bad idea, including the phrase, “We tried that before. It didn’t work.” After an awkward silence, the meeting moves on.


Here the second participant has exerted the power of rank as the keeper of institutional memory and the insider. The first speaker feels shut down and dismissed. The meeting gives away its power, and acquiesces to the assertion of power, by ignoring what has just happened instead of confirming the value of the first speaker’s contribution.


A committee accepts a member’s offer to do a particular piece of work. As the deadline nears, knowing the member is experiencing a stressful time, the longtime clerk decides to quietly do the work herself. She is baffled later when the member is angry after reading a newsletter announcement about the task he’s been working on, with details he knows nothing about. “I just wanted to help,” says the clerk.


By secretly doing the new person’s task, the clerk strips him of his power and sends the message that she is more competent and powerful.


In an equitable relationship with power consciousness, the participants seek mutual understanding. When in conflict, they consider the power dynamics in their interactions: What power have I used to be “up”? Where have I given away my power? They make a loving invitation to each other: “Tell me more.” They listen, and they let the words sink in. In our communities, circle processes create the opportunity for us to listen to each other in this way. The promise of the talking piece is that every circle participant knows their turn will come, when they will have the full attention of the group.


Why think about power and rank? Since we are human beings, we will always have rank and power. Rather than deny or ignore them, perhaps our work is to become more aware and especially more self aware so that we might use them consciously not to oppress others but to level the playing field, both in our Quaker communities and in the wider world.