Power dynamics: A systemic inquiry

Anna Birney
Jan 20 · 17 min read

Why this article? Purpose and position

The word power keeps popping up wherever I turn. Through my ten years of doing my doctorate action research it was all over my notes and reflections. I kept pushing it out of what I was writing about and feeling scared to even go there as if the power of it itself was too much to face or to look at, as if it was just too complex and unknown. In the end I could not ignore the question and did reflect on what it meant for the work I had been doing. I concluded that the field of systems change did need to really integrate it more into its work. Fast forward a couple of years and the question kept on slapping me in the face, not literally but in the questioning of who you choose to facilitate a session, how you frame the work, make decisions and so forth — saying to me — come on you said it was important to what the hell are you doing about it!

This article therefore is trying to pull together some of the threads of the last four or five years of looking at the journey so far and what I have learnt. I have put off publishing this for eighteen months as if the final answer or way to present it will come, but that I also realise is a putting off — so here is some of the messy journey of stumbling around in the dark.

This article there has a few elements to it.

  • Firstly how the issue of power relates to the systemic sustainability challenges we are facing — from climate change, deep inequalities that through the mirror that is our time in Covid has been seen even more acutely and how we might see the way they interrelate and are part of the same issues.
  • Secondly exploring the concept of power and how it relates to systems change;
  • Thirdly, looking at some of the insights about what makes up the dynamics of power, that are based in both our histories, and wider context as well as how that manifests in us individually and needs work all levels;
  • Finally starting to explore some framings of the strategies we might take to work with power.

I am trying to explore this topic from a systemic perspective, by which I mean exploring the dynamics and deeper rooted mental models that affect them and how they play out in the world. In a previous article I explored the multi-dimensional elements of power which I will not repeat here.

I also want to acknowledge that I am a white woman born and living in the UK, I am middle class, went to a private school and have a postgraduate education. I am a Director of a charity and have a comfortable life. I have a huge amount of privilege, rank or social and psychological power. Over the last couple of years I have realised how much of this I still need to understand and do. I am still on a massive journey to explore what this means for me, my work and those I work with and most importantly how we best act on this exploration. I acknowledge that this writing in and of itself addresses the issue through my own lens of knowledge and privilege, intellectualising it, exploring it through tools and approaches that I use. And yet this is the only way I know how to unravel what I have been experiencing and the challenges that we see. I am trying to live life through inquiry, to explore what is emerging in front of me, to actively lean into what is needed, to learn from the experiences, to read and learn from ideas that are out there and to ask myself how might we enact these in practice, for myself, for the work that we do and for the world.

So I invite you readers to enter into this journey of exploring with me and am interested in your own reflections and feedback.

Why power is a systemic challenge; where does it show up and why is it a problem?

Photo from Unsplash Samantha Sophia

There might be many ways to understand this dynamic, we could start with questions of poverty, inequality and all social and environmental challenges. For example exploring the issues of climate justice demonstrates and shows the effects of our current frame of power. The causes of climate change have predominantly been created by those who have used and burnt carbon for their accumulation of wealth and the improvement of their lives. This meant that they drove their dominance in the global economy, from the industrial revolution to the perpetuation of colonialism. Whilst the effects of climate breakdown are being more acutely felt where the most vulnerable live, whose development and ways of life have been hampered and repressed by power dynamics in the past. It raises questions about who has and is benefiting, where is the burden and how can we move to a more equitable and fair world? How might we transition is a way that is just and fair (a just transition)?

At the heart of these issues is dominance — of one society, nation, peoples — where their policies and practices acquire control over another — through literal means — from slavery, use of resources, exploitation, occupying land. It starts from a place of difference, but is acted on from a sense of superiority, exemplified through racism and other oppressive behaviour across all forms of intersection.

The current exploitation of our planet and people are manifest from power dynamics that have been perpetuated and continue to be so in all our systems. Many of the historical drivers of our ecological unsustainability — of extraction, consumption, capitalism — are the other side of the coin of the issues of colonialism, white supremacy, racism. Understanding power therefore might help unlock how we might transition to a world that is not only sustainable but just and regenerative that is has the capacity to keep distributing resources in a fair way. We in the sustainability field can no longer ignore these issues.

A systems perspective on issue of power

This diagram seeks to show how these different ideas and processes relate, how they are all part of the same dynamic. There are historical drivers and trends that have created the current world, a way to frame old power (which I will get to shortly). These manifest in issues that we see today in the world such as racism, under which are structural issues of inequality and privilege. I am proposing that these are all part of deeper power dynamics (that are informed by our perspectives). We are looking to understand how we transition to a future that is equitable and just and has power dynamics (new power) that are fluid, plural and understand life as a process.

How might we understand the concept of power?

Power is a contested term. The way we often use the word it assumes that it is about the power one thing has over another, be it explicit, or covert or unseen.

This first framing of power places it as a process of othering, by which we make others not the same as us, the noticing of difference and in the same breath we place value judgements of who is better, what is better and who has more power than others. This in turn starts to become embedded in our structures and our consciousness, so that structural racism or white supremacy exist.

Power as such though is simply the energy exchange between two things and so a second framing — I would argue a systemic one — starts to look at power through the eyes of our relationships, through the web of societies’ capillaries — that permeate the fabric of our existence. As such it also can be a motivator for what we do and how we do things, and has such power lies within us and can give us a sense of agency to change ourselves and things around us.

“We have the power over our own story” (Rushdie, 1991)

Power as such is not a static concept, it changes, not just who has it but also how we understand it through the course of history. Power operates within a perspective, worldview or paradigm. How we see power affects how we act with, on or from power. So it is vitally important to understand the position and perspective that we are coming from in order to understand power. For this article I will only use two — that of the current or old power of dominance and power over and that of the emerging new power — one that sees it more as the relational systemic flow.

How do we transition from a dynamic between us, now embedded in our structures, from one that has certain people, groups over others and which results in great exploitation of resources to one where we are living with just, fluid, plural, diverse relationships and where people have the sense of agency to also author their own lives?

Power and systems change

If we define systems change as the emergence of a new pattern of organising and power as a relational dynamic not a given state; then changing systems is all about also shifting power dynamics. Then in order to change systems and power dynamics we need to change the nature of our relationships and our ways of relating. As started to describe above, if we are to address issues of inequality, climate change, racism and all forms of social and environmental issues then addressing power dynamics is central to them all.

The current power model — or the pattern of how the system is structured is through coercive hierarchy and structures that are based in dominance, of power over and the relational dynamics we need to move towards is one that is systemic — by that I mean a way of living that recognises that life is change that we live and work in dynamics and fluidity whilst also recognising that this needs to be done justly.

There are many ways we relate in society, where we have created societal structures around — each of which might be a route into addressing power dynamics. In society some of these foundational structures are:

[A note — not all power over is exploitative, for example in many hierarchical organisations, however if we want to address power that is then we also need to model what new relationships of power look like, so as to offer the potential for more healthy and flourishing relationships.]

What questions does it raise?

If I am saying power is an underlying dynamic and my overall inquiry question is — How might we cultivate systemic change? Then the question(s) relating to this exploration might be:

How might we transform society, its power dynamics, from the power over model that permeates today to a just form of relating and organising that is systemic?

  • How might we change the nature of our relationships?
  • How do we cultivate and be in relationship?
  • Who do we work with and how?

What does this mean for us personally? In the projects that we do? What does it mean at how we transform society?

Insights in to what affects power dynamics

After exploring power as an idea and more importantly in practice over the last few years here are some insights into the dynamics of power from these experiences.

Image from Unsplash Ginny Rose

Although power is relational, we as individuals also have different positions in the web of social relationships. Having an awareness of your privilege and positionality and therefore any assumptions and bias you bring to any given situation is therefore critical to understanding power.

As we grow in relationships we do not grow straight and perfect. Different experiences and traumas, where unfair use of physical, psychological or social power has been used against you (Mindell, 2014), in our past determine how we grow from the inside out. These traumas are like knots or different shapes that develop in a tree that will continue to determine how it will grow and relate to others. These might be developed from how we are parented to the culture and society we grow within. This inner world, our psychology, plays out in our relationships and therefore can (re)create power dynamics that can perpetuate harm or injustices.

Due to our different awareness's, positions and life experiences we are all on different journeys of both understanding but also being impacted by dynamics of power. I have used the metaphor of yoga to help exemplify this. When we start doing yoga we have only a certain amount of flexibility, we are only so open. The way yoga is practiced is you stretch and move to the edge of what you can do, push in slightly but not too far and then relax, you transcend and integrate. You keep practicing and over time you open up to new movements and ways of doing things. This is the same for our addressing power, everyone has different levels of fluidity, openness, flexibility and ability to deal with these questions. This does not mean we cannot go on a more intensive yoga retreat or practice daily to get better practitioners.

Understanding our position and traumas requires inner work, that is to say working on the things that activate us or trigger us — that is something that might cause us to feel emotional not by the current experience but because it takes you back to something else in your past — that stop or hinders us from moving forward on our journey. Using the yoga metaphor again, if we had a bad angle injury it would affect what moves we could do. Our development of our psyche is the same and affects how we are in relationships, as facilitators and practitioners. Inner work aims to work on these issues and help us move with fluidity and openness.

The environment we find ourselves is also extremely important. Unsafe environments that we are not prepared for can cause more harm than good, be it an organisational or workshop setting. However we also need spaces that provide the conditions for bravery to work with issues that are uncomfortable and hard to address as this is not an easy journey. For this we need facilitators.

If we see facilitators role as bringing awareness to the world, sensing and working with people and their interactions, relationships and other dimensions so as to bring forward what the world needs of us we may look at the practice of “sitting in the fire” to get used to this uncomfortableness.

As a facilitator these environments can be supported by showing both vulnerability, the openness you can display in your own learning to model opening up for others as well as knowing your boundaries and taking accountability for your actions.

Finally all power dynamics are fractals, that is to say that a pattern that is happening at a smaller level will be happening at a wider scale and vice versa. For example a dynamic that is happening between two people might also be seen within the team and then again within a wider network or society as a whole. Therefore if there is a pattern of power that has not been addressed by a facilitator team it will start to play out into the workshop and equally where an organisation is not addressing power issues themselves they are unlikely able to be addressing it in the wider systems they are trying to change.

What does this mean for the work that we do?

So if these dynamics and patterns are playing out at all scales what might some (not all) strategies for how we address the way that we might relate?

Minimise power-over

I am going to start with this framing as I feel it is the hardest one to deal with. Coming from a position of power and privilege it is critical that this does not get side-lined. Donella Meadows in her paper — Leverage points: places to intervene in a system describe how often address a dynamic by looking at solving the problem rather than looking at the dynamic that is perpetuating it. For example anti poverty programmes are weak negative feedback loops, trying to balance out the stronger positive feedback loop of a systems that brings more and more “success to the successful”. In terms of relational dynamics it is far more effective to weaken the positive loops — in this case minimising power-over relationships.

I will risk repeating myself and highlighting the two insights from above and how we must also look at them as strategies for change

  • Position awareness — individually, organisationally and at any scale. Acknowledge the power and privileges we have, for example what knowledge we are privileging. Be prepared to be open about it, find ways to talk about it, be humble with what you are doing — practice vulnerability.
  • Understand and deal with our triggers and traumas — so that we start the learning journey of not creating harm (again at all levels). Become really comfortable with uncertainty, being uncomfortable so you can turn towards and be centred in challenging situations.
  • Be open to having difficult conversations
  • Practice letting go — what would it mean for the organisation to not exist, to write its own exit strategy? What if you personally were to live on a lower income, with less consumption? This also means getting out of the way of others.
  • Transition power and resources — This means working with those in power and hold decisions over the resources to use their power to shift where and how decisions get made. For example funders hold a lot of power in change systems or policy makers across society.
  • It sometimes takes a generation to shift a system as mind-sets and power shift. Consider what the trajectory is for people giving up or more shifting their (supposed) power, support shifts in identity, their sense of who they are in the world. Help them become enablers, elders and play a role with those who have more power then them as part of the transitional process. What are the rituals and ways we might celebrate, acknowledge the journey.
  • Change the narrative that helps build this perspective shift, whilst also recognising that language is a form of knowledge and power. This might require doing discourse analysis to support reframing.
  • People cannot be coerced, invite people in to develop the collective mandate — start using participatory methods to do this (see next section). I am not however saying that there is not a role for calling out or campaigning where harmful practices are pointed out however we do need to understand them in an ecosystem of changing relationships.

Set the conditions and enable power-with

  • If you are facilitating these processes really model behaviour of being open to what might emerge and the way forward. Like above — be acutely aware of your power as holding a space, ensure that you do your inner work.
  • Use the power that you do have to demonstrate and use participatory methods for decision making, working together and building coalitions. This means setting the container for working and relating, through being clear about mandates, roles and responsibilities and not assuming everyone knows how to work from the get go. Ensure there is participation in the production of knowledge and learning.
  • Creating safe or brave spaces for people to work together. This might be preparing people to be able to be in the room together, investing time so that new ways of relating can be found. Change can only happen at the speed of trust.
  • Transparency is critical for this, allowing the process to be seen and be open to be called to account and criticism — actively inviting in alternative views, seeking wisdom in the minority to improve the decisions and processes.
  • Create liberating structures, new ways of organising, regenerative cultures and rules that enable self-organisation — there are different examples and literature on these different methods — for example Re-inventing organisations.

Enable power from with-in

Much of this is also a repetition of what has been said above — supporting inner work, addressing trauma and triggers and ensuring resources are put into this work.

  • Place high value on lived experience as supposed to learnt experience — which usually manifests in approaches to learning and capacity building that are transactional, delivered to people not with. Value the learning process over the knowledge accumulation.
  • Follow the principle with not on. An example of this might be not creating personas of different views and perspectives but actively bringing real people into design and futures processes.
  • Work is needed in the liminal spaces, find the people who can be the bridges and give them resources both time, money and safe spaces to support the transition.
  • Create transitional decision making forms — for example a shadow board, to build agency to transition power
  • Devolve decision making — through the above strategies ensure that the decision happens closest to the impact
  • Really understand the process of personal change and what that means societally– and recognise that everyone has their own stretch and time requirements
Image from Unsplash Aaron Blanco Tejedor

This list of actions are by no means exhaustive, they also do not address some of the actions needed for addressing some of the specific issues such as racism, but its aim is to start to think about relational strategies that might be beneficial to all these issues. Please do also share with us others you might have and what is missing..

So where does this leave me?

I am still struggling with the process of shifting the dynamics of power on a daily basis, from every interaction I have as a leader, teacher, facilitator, director, white UK woman, parent even, trying to bring awareness to what I am doing. How I have to both step up, use my power, stand up for what I believe in and set the conditions for others and in the same breath step back and get the hell out of the way and just shut up!

How I still feel rage or anger for people not doing enough and how it bubbles over and out as I don’t know where to always put those feeling and yet trying to heed my own insights that its a journey and you cannot undo centuries if not millennia of harm and oppression that has existed in the one moment you have in front of you. And yet you try and do something and then you know every action is just not quite enough or good enough and again you find yourself fumbling around in the dark.

How I also know there is still so much that I do not see, so much of our unconscious so much of that we are all still playing the game of the current system and thinking that we can somehow change it, that its forces and dynamics are still as yet unknown. How we are complicit every day in its powers.

And so one promise I will try and commit to myself is that I will not keep ignoring the calling of this question both in my own learning and in my practice and that of those I work with. That all I do know is that I need to keep coming back to it as in itself it also has an illusive enticing power of intrigue to the flow of life itself and how it has both caused great harm and yet if relationships are also what gives us great joy and a sense of flourishing it also has the potential to bring healing.

Many of the ideas in this article have been influenced by my reading and training in Processwork — including the work of Sitting in the Fire by Mindell. I am also grateful for those those I have been co-inquiring with over the years my colleagues, co-inquirers and funders, at Forum for the Future, School of System Change, Living Change, Boundless Roots and Lankelly Chase Foundation and New Girls Network.

School of System Change

We are equipping people with the capabilities to lead…

School of System Change

We are equipping people with the capabilities to lead system change initiatives addressing complex sustainability challenges. The School offers flexible access to the best learning experiences, tools, case studies from the field, while growing the community of practice.

Anna Birney

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Cultivating #systemschange | Director @forum4thefuture | School of System Change | Passion #inquiry #livingsystems #livingchange

School of System Change

We are equipping people with the capabilities to lead system change initiatives addressing complex sustainability challenges. The School offers flexible access to the best learning experiences, tools, case studies from the field, while growing the community of practice.