Why Power Is Not a Dirty Word
The Power of Action
And we never know who’s watching. Just think: It may be when we feel most marginalized and unheard, but still act with resolve, that someone is listening or watching, and their life is forever changed.
As I form this thought, the face of Wangari Maathai comes to mind. Maathai planted seven trees in Nairobi on Earth Day 1977 to honor seven women environmental leaders in Kenya. Over the next two decades, she was jailed, humiliated, and beaten for her environmental activism, but her simple act sparked a movement in which those seven trees became 45 million, all planted by village women across Kenya.
In fall 2004, when Maathai got the call telling her she had won the Nobel Peace Prize, her first words were: “I didn’t know anyone was listening.” But, evidently, a lot of people were, from tens of thousands of self-taught tree planters in Kenya to the Nobel committee in Oslo.
From there I flash back to a conversation with João Pedro Stédile, a founder of the largest and perhaps most effective social movement in this hemisphere—Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, which has enabled some of the world’s poorest people to gain nearly 20 million acres of unused land.
Who helped motivate Stédile who did work in the 1980s under Brazil’s military regime when gatherings of any kind were risky? It was Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ struggle, he told me.
I’ll bet Chavez never knew, or even imagined, his example was powerful enough to jump continents.
Just as important, the findings of neuroscience suggest a great way to empower ourselves. We can place ourselves in the company of those more courageous than we are. For sure, we’ll become more like them.
Thus, our most important choices may be deciding whom we spend time with as friends, colleagues, and partners. And “spending time” means more than face-to-face contact. What we see on TV, in films, and on the Internet, what we read and therefore imagine—all are firing mirror neurons in our brains and forming us. Knowing this, we can choose courage—and power.
Changing the Rules
Our every act shapes the field of power relationships, and the rules we create determine whether they will be life-serving.
Today’s rules, for example, allow private-money’s influence over public decisions to create one of the three conditions proven to lead to no good: highly concentrated power. Lobbyists spent $3.5 billion last year to influence Congress, funding more than two dozen lobbyists for every single legislator citizens have elected to represent them.
Once we fully embrace the notion that dispersion and accountability of power is key to our thriving, then we will no longer be surprised when a new president fails to turn the ship of state. Instead, we’ll realize the need and see our power to change the rules.
Right now, we have a prime opportunity. Both houses of Congress are considering the Fair Elections Now Act, which would establish voluntary public financing of congressional elections. It would enable everyday citizens—the waitress, teacher, or truck driver—to run for office without being tethered to corporate money. It’s built on a system that is already working in Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut.
No matter what else we are doing to promote democracy we can each press our representatives to get on board. We can make campaign finance reform a sexy, compelling issue, knowing it’s needed to move on everything from serious climate-change legislation to remaking our banking system.
To inhabit this world of possibility, where we see our power everywhere, we can start by rethinking power itself.
Power is an idea, and in our culture it’s a stifling idea—almost a dirty word—equated with manipulation, coercion, and destruction. We see it in abuses by unaccountable corporations and corrupt governments.
Defined this way, no wonder it looks negative and we feel powerless. But, if we understand that power is simply our capacity to act, we’re free to be its co-creators. I’ve found many Americans returning power to its original meaning—“to be able.” From there, power becomes something we human beings develop together—relational power. And that’s a lot more fun.
Once we step up and face the uncomfortable truth about our nature—embracing the good, the bad, and the very ugly—we can focus on what really matters: together creating the social rules and norms that bring out the best, while dissolving the conditions that elicit the worst.
From there, we can rethink power itself, so that we fully realize our own and inhabit a world of possibility.
Frances Moore Lappé wrote this article for Water Solutions, the Summer 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Frances is the author of many books including Diet for a Small Planet and Getting a Grip 2. She is co-founder of Food First and the Small Planet Institute, and is a YES! contributing editor.
- Making a Difference Makes You Happy: A series of studies find that activism brings pleasant emotions, greater life satisfaction, and more experiences of freedom, competence, and connection to others.