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Report From the Training Room: Overcoming Aversion to Power

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If our movement groups can’t overcome aversion to building and using power, “our opponents will continue to control the state—and more.”

If you’re like us, you wake up in the morning feeling daunted by the political odds we’re up against. It seems like the winds are blowing in our opponents’ favor: they’ve stacked the courts, won the statehouses, and consolidated unprecedented amounts of wealth. In short, our opponents have amassed enough power to control a great deal of the state for years to come.

With this backdrop, in a musty college campus hall in Buckhannon, West Virginia last June, our organizations—Training for Change (TFC) and West Virginia Can’t Wait—co-hosted a summer organizing training for 19 up-and-coming West Virginia leaders. We started the training late, as is common these days, with many attendees’ lives in upheaval: a few dropped out last minute with COVID symptoms while others juggled childcare challenges or care for friends in active use. Many just moved more slowly than usual, exhausted. We waited and let those arrive that would. We took a few deep breaths, and began.

We designed this training with new organizers in mind, including people out building new institutions. The room included a founding member of a small-town pride chapter, leaders in burgeoning harm reduction work, a rural and small-town co-op organizer, a candidate running for House as a part of a growing, rural electoral movement, to name a few. And that daunted feeling we mentioned? Pervasive.

The four-day intensive was to cover a range of skills for new organizers, but underpinning each competency lay a deeper intervention we hoped to make. We wanted to offer new organizers the chance to grapple with their relationship to power. Our bet was that unless we explored participants’ feelings and beliefs about power—including their potential aversion to it—the new skills we were trying to teach would be less sticky. And if these folks were like other groups of activists and organizers we’d trained, they’d be operating with conscious and unconscious behaviors rooted in power aversion. Here, we share some of the activities we designed for that group, grappling with their beliefs about power, and why we think these activities are important for this moment.

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Our stories about power

On the first morning of the training, we broke the room into trios and asked small groups to share with each other: “What are the messages you’ve gotten about power?” Each trio shared with each other, and then the full room. Facilitators scribed a list on the wall, for all to see. Responses were all over the map, including:

            People who have power don’t use it to help

            I don’t want any part of it

            Power can be loving and benign

People in power are bad

            Power is the ability to say f-you if I need to

            People with money = bad power

            Powerful people are assholes ruining my life

            Being different can give you power

            There’s power in relationships

            If I want to help others, I should be the boss

We invited the group to reflect on the list. We kept digging in, “Where did that story come from?” “What’s it like to hold that belief?” One participant disclosed their fear of having power, later connecting this aversion to a childhood incident where they accidentally injured a family member while planing wood. Another expressed anger at the power-hungry union boss in their life who was supposed to have workers’ interests at heart, but didn’t. Someone else said, “I love having power. I don’t trust other people to do it right!”

The room was full, fuzzy, electric. A whole range was getting expressed.

Power is like water

“If each of these messages has some truth in it, what does that mean about power?” we asked the group.

“It depends,” someone said. “It brings up a lot of feelings,” someone else said. And then, “It’s good and bad.” The room paused. We offered this metaphor: “What we’ve learned is that power is morally neutral. It’s like water: it can break a levee and destroy a town, or it can hydrate our bodies and give us life. The moral value of power isn’t baked in, it’s in how we use it.”

Certainly we empathize with power aversion. So much of what we’re seeing in the political landscape now results from our opponents’ amassing power over time and wielding it: the loss of rights (including the degradation of voting rights and abortion rights), the stagnation of any transformative social program, such as Medicare for All, and the real sense that things could get worse, as Clarence Thomas signaled in his recent opinion. And that political landscape isn’t the only place where we learn power can be dangerous.

Many of us also know first-hand how power can be wielded interpersonally to cause harm: the abuse by Catholic priests, the wrath of a violent partner, the punishment of an unforgiving boss. We’ve got lots of reasons to believe that having power is bad, or that only bad people have it.

In fact, our collective aversion to power has become so great that some activist and organizing cultures have cultivated tendencies that steer us away from having power at all. It shows up in small ways, in our skepticism (or hostility) toward leadership, including movement leadership. And it shows up in our strategies, for example, when we favor constant mobilization over the work on building more people into our bases. We could go on.

As trainers we ponder ways to honor this understandable aversion (and its corresponding tendencies) while also increasing participants’ interest in growing power to meet their goals. We know our movements’ ability to transform society and ourselves depends on sharpening our shared training tools to work with this challenge.

In Buckhannon, we started with curiosity and compassion. We explored the list of power together, slowly nudged people out of their aversion, offering a metaphor, and then named the stakes. We conveyed not only that power is neutral, like water, but that the power of our opposition can’t be wished away. “We won’t mitigate harm by becoming smaller. In fact, when we shrink, we give our opponents more room to act. The way to create more of the world we want—both structurally and interpersonally—is to amass and wield power of our own. Decoupling power from the abuse of power is a prerequisite for building winning justice movements.”

What gives us power?

To wrap our initial activity, we offered a chance for new understandings to sink in. We invited participants to move around the room and exchange short, pair-share responses to, “One way my story about power is changing is…”

Out of the chatter, we heard “What does having power actually look like?”

We wanted to offer a framework for where power comes from and how it’s built. Several frameworks in organizing culture already go after this idea (“power-over/power-with”, or “people power/social view of power”, or types of power: economic, state, etc.). For these new organizers, and with the range of contexts in the room, we chose a framework we called “Sources of Power” because we wanted to give them a way to grapple with practical implications of power in their work.

We set up three stations around the room. Each one had a list of questions related to measuring the power they currently held like, How many active members do you have? and How many roles are available for new members? Participants had time to move between stations, answering questions about their work—a sort of scavenger hunt.

After debriefing feelings and insights from the exercise, we invited attention to the stations themselves. Participants noticed that each station had a different theme. And they were right! Each list of questions corresponded to a hidden “Source of Power”:

  • Resources. People, money, and materials that might otherwise cost money. This looks like organizational staff, leaders, and membership, contact lists, voting majorities, allies, funds in the bank, donors, space, and supplies.
  • Institutions. Structures, systems, and cultures that allow you to recruit and retain resources. This looks like decision-making structures, defined leadership roles, practices and norms that increase engagement, fundraising systems. It’s also the institutions themselves (whether they’re non-profits, unions, associations, governmental bodies) and the functions and reputations of those organizations.
  • Inner Capacities. Skills and self-knowledge that support people to move through seasons of work wisely, including the abilities to pace, take risks, be creative, nurture spiritual connection, make difficult choices, face attacks and criticism, change your behaviors, rest, grow and access the love they have for the work. This can manifest through the ability to perform an action, as well as a felt sense of self.

We offered these Sources of Power as both essential and interrelated. And we had examples: “When we have an ability to pace with the wisdom that our work happens in seasons (an Inner Capacity), we’re better able to build organizational structures that are resilient over time (Institutions). When we have clear systems (Institutions), we’re better able to onboard new people into our work (Resources) and offer them a meaningful role to play.”

Filling our toolbox together

For the remainder of the workshop, other organizing skills were anchored in the ways we grow power. For example, one-on-one conversations invite more people into the work. Clearly defined volunteer roles and team structures support institutional stability. Capacities for tending to the emotional life of your group supports deeper commitment.

Maybe these are new concepts for you as an organizer or trainer. Maybe not. What matters to us, the reason we share this now, is because we believe that as we continue to experience the impacts of our opponents’ successes, this sort of training will matter more and more. Our groups will need help differentiating between being powerful and abusing, especially as abuses mount. If they don’t or can’t, our opponents will continue to control the state—and more.

As for us, we’re committed to staying in practice about this in our own places and communities, through TFC’s growing Organizing Skills Institute and through WV Can’t Wait’s Organizer Training program. Meanwhile, we’d love to hear what others are trying—what curriculum are you building, what mentorship are you practicing for teaching about power in your organization? We hope you’ll reach out—really.

The Organizing Skills Institute pilot was designed and co-facilitated by us and our colleagues at Training for Change: Kim Huynh and Celia Kutz.

Featured image: Organizing Skills Institute pilot, Buckhannon, West Virginia, June 2022. Photo by Zein Nakhoda.

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