Case #737
Title: Strategies for Creating Win-win Power Structures
Summary: Power is a many-layered thing, exercised not just in who wins and loses, but in the rules of our games and the stories we tell about our losses and victories. What if we could find a new kind of power, one that changes the rules, gives us new stories, and allows everyone to win?
Comments: THE STRATEGY: To produce meaningful change, we must understand power and its uses.

Conventional ideas about power suggest that it invariably involves control, domination, or force. (The three dimensions are (1) direct force (2) manipulating the underlying rules and structures to play to the strengths of the winners (3) use of a cultural narrative that the powerful develop in order to "sell" the underlying rules and structures to the powerless and to make them believe that they deserve their lot in life. Within each dimension, one group's benefit comes at another's expense. Nothing is gained across the system, and thus, the whole transaction is 'zero-sum'; someone has to lose for another to win.

However, power can occupy and function in different spheres. An individual or group can learn to reframe efforts to identify the structural foundations of the (usual) traditional top-down hierarchy of decision-making. A win-win situation is possible. Working against the prevailing power structure in order to work for everyone's benefit often entails the forming of new alliances.

WHAT WORKS: (1) Recognize, define, and understand that the person/group who controls the agenda controls the outcome. The design of the game determines who can play and the terms of play, either of which often determines outcomes. (2) Recognize and move beyond the conventional liberal strategies for social change that proceed as though a change in who administers power fundamentally affects the structure of power itself. (This idea is flawed because the existing hierarchy disciplines new-comers who, although they look different from traditional incumbents, learn to exercise power in the same old ways.) (3) Work toward a shift toward the potential for a different kind of power: power-with, rather than power-over. Power-with is the psychological and social power gained through collective resistance and struggle and through the creation of an alternative set of stories.

The authors argue that: "The hierarchy of power that is most effective in separating potential allies in the United States is race. Tackling the role that race plays in our social institutions is a way not just to improve the lot of people of color but to confront the ways in which power operates and circulates throughout our society and culture." Those who are racially marginalized are like the miner's canary*: Their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all. We watch the canary, seeking to improve the air quality in the mines, and to reconnect individual experiences to democratic faith, to social critique, and to meaningful action that improves the lives of everyone in the mine.

* Miners often carried a canary into the mine alongside them. The canary's more fragile respiratory system would cause it to collapse from noxious gases long before humans were affected, thus alerting the miners to danger. The canary's distress signaled that it was time to get out of the mine because the air was becoming too poisonous to breathe.
Location: global
Action: Human Rights
Setting: Developed World, Semi-Developed, Third World
Extent of Action: International
Categories: Human Rights
Year(s): 2000
Outcome concept (promising but not tried)
Source: YES! A Journal of Positive Futures Winter 2003 p.28
Contacts: Lani Guinier (Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School) and Gerald Torres (H.O. Head Centennial Professor in Real Property Law, University of Texas Law School)
Prepared By: sl, 4/06
Rating: 1