In a week marred once again by a horrendous mass shooting, I have been contemplating the work I do to help women change the power paradigm that has long shaped our culture’s narrative. I ask them to shift their thinking from oppressive, often violent, scarcity-based “power over” to expansive, innovative, abundant “power TO.” Every time I do this, I see women’s faces relax and the mental lightbulbs go on.
For we have known and often borne the brunt of the worst aspects of power over us, from being collateral damage in wars we didn’t start to the harassment and abuse that today’s #metoo and Time’s Up movements aim to eradicate.
I spent last weekend in Los Angeles, launching our 50 Women Can Change the World — Media and Entertainment along with Leadership Ambassadors Tabby Biddle and Elisa Henderson Parker. Once again, I had the opportunity to see how important it is for women to make that simple definitional change in order to embrace their power fully, with intention, confidence, and joy.
That room was filled with exceedingly powerful women, for they possess the matchless power of storytelling. The media and entertainment industry tells the stories that shape how we think about ourselves, how we define ourselves, and how we see the world.
The juxtaposition of those talented women, passionate about telling stories intentionally aimed at making the world better by advancing gender equality, with the brutal shootings across the country just a few days later shows exactly why shifting how we think about power is more important than ever.
This perspective is not new. Nor is it necessarily owned by one gender.
This outtake of John F Kennedy’s eulogy for poet Robert Frost — which was scribbled out of the speech in Kennedy’s own hand — is as good a description of PowerTO as I have seen:
We take great comfort in our nuclear stockpiles, our gross national product, our scientific and technological achievement, our industrial might — and, up to a point, we are right to do so. But physical power by itself solves no problems and secures no victories. What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt or with prudence, discipline, and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation. “It is excellent,” Shakespeare said, “to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”
Yet women by and large have a particular stake in changing how power is perceived and used. This “power TO” story from a marvelous book by Tina Packer (founder of Shakespeare and Co theater company) and John Q Whitney, called Power Plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership and Management, says it like this — even using my “Power Tool” language:
POWER IS A TOOL When we understand that power is a tool-and can be used as a tool for good-we begin to unlock its potential…Tina, unlike Macbeth or Richard, did not want power only for the sake of having it.
Let her explain: “I wanted power because I couldn’t bear not having a voice. As a mere actor in the theater world, you have no voice…I had to step out and start saying what I thought I thought; otherwise I would remain voiceless. I had to start making my own mistakes in order to define who I was. If I can generalize for a moment, I think that’s true for a lot of women. Often we feel that we’re powerless, at least in the ways that the world currently defines power. One of the joys I look forward to is the ways in which women can influence the way power is manifested. I wanted to articulate what I thought would make a great theater company, and I wanted to run it in a way that would include everyone’s creativity.”
So Tina, a born critic of the powerful, realized the only way she could find out whether she could do a better job than the people she was working for was not to sit on the sidelines and criticize but to try to get her own vision working. And that meant leading and being willing to step out and create a different kind of theater. And she found that she could do it. She didn’t want power for power’s sake. But she did want to get something done. She was, if you will, called to power.
Called to power.
We are all called to power. And how we use it is the ultimate question. Making those choices is the most human of characteristics. Choosing is inevitable, but the direction of choices is not. Women can choose to be at the forefront of changing the power paradigm not just for ourselves as individuals but for society. Women have after all been at the forefront of almost every major social movement for social justice in our nation’s history, even when men have held the most visible roles. Most recent examples include the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, #metoo, and Time’s UP. And nonviolent “power TO” movements have been shown to be more effective than violent ones.
“When I dare to be powerful — to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” — Audre Lorde
It is up to the women once again to lead the way toward a healthier, saner society now. Let us choose not to wring our hands about the latest atrocities but to use our power TO make our children and our world safer. How will you use yours now, in this moment?
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