November 16, 2014

Power and Privilege

Truly, this is the message of the Kingdom of God, the first will be last, the powerful will be the last, a child will lead them, the captives will be freed.

Power is a word that inspires strong feelings, both negative and positive.  Because of power many have been killed, many have been corrupted, and others have suffered terribly.  At the same time, power is that which makes us able to achieve any constructive change which we desire.

We have talked a bit about our power and privilege in this place previously, but we probably have not talked about it enough.  If this page on the internet is going to honestly reflect our lives here in Nicaragua, then we should be writing about it much more frequently.  Power and privilege are something that we think about and interact with every single day.

Every morning when I step out of my front door and start the long walk to our bus stop, I think about my power and privilege.  Sometimes it works to my advantage and at other times it works to my disadvantage.  

I have the advantage to go to and be accepted in places where others cannot.  I may be offered a seat on the bus, when others remain standing.  I might be granted more respect as I teach in the classroom, when others have to earn it.  I am constantly reminded of my privilege.

Other times my power works to my disadvantage.  I am often charged a higher rate by a taxi driver, I cannot bargain for the same low prices at the market, I may be treated differently by the police (read more about a recent occurrence by our friends when they dropped us off at home), I am targeted more often for theft and I am a constant oddity in society.

“The truth is that injustice is easy not to notice when it affects people different from ourselves.”  -Nicholas Kristoff in a recent New York Times article

In class a couple weeks ago, we were discussing the impact of power in conflict transformation.  Each time I discuss this theme in class or in our workshops, I share about the importance of admitting our power.  I begin by sharing that I am a powerful person.  I am white, from a middle-class family in the United States, a person with a good education base, without special needs and heterosexual.  I have a strong support network and a job that provides for more than my needs.

I continued by sharing that almost everyday I wish that this was not my situation.  I wish that I could walk up and down the streets of Managua and not be noticed.  I feel like I would better be able to live in solidarity with my brothers and sisters here in Nicaragua.  But the fact is, I cannot change this.  I have to admit to my power. 

I must confess that each time I share this, I cannot get through it without tears.

It is important that we are honest about our power for several reasons.  If I want to avoid abusing my power, I must recognize it.  Power is addictive and can control us if we are not aware of it.  I cannot control it, if I am negating it.  I desire to use my power responsibly.  There is energy in power and it can be used for good.  I want to build just relationships with my family, neighbors and community and this requires that I acknowledge and observe my power in these relationships.  Ultimately I want to use my power to empower others.

We ended class by reading through the following concepts of power.  I hope that you find them as a helpful tool to reflect on.

Key Concepts of Power
1.  Nobody is completely without power, to be alive means to embody and utilize the power.
2.  Social power exists between people, it exists in individuals and in social relations.
3.  Power is not a finite resource or something that can be traded or bought.  It is relational, fluid and difficult to measure.
4.  Power is neither positive nor negative, but can be used constructively or destructively.
5.  When a person denies their power, it is a small step towards the abuse of power.  It is very important to be conscious of your power.
6.  Inequalities of power create occasions for the abuse of power. In the long run, these inequalities can destroy individuals and their relationships.
7.  Individuals internalize the social patterns of domination and oppression, and they are formed by their membership in a group with a specific identity. However, individuals are not fully defined by this identity, because each has the power to act in its own interests.
8.  Healthy conflict transformation will work towards a balance of power.
9.  The desire of God for the world order is a place without domination.

Conflict Transformation and Restorative Justice Manual

Mennonite Central Committee Office on Justice and Peacebuilding

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