Is “participation” overrated?

Sometimes I write this blog because there’s something that I’m really excited about that I want to share, or because I’m soliciting others’ opinions and experiences, or because I’m delving more deeply into a certain topic and I need this forum to organize my thoughts and involve my community.

And then, sometimes, I write about something that is kind of haunting me, about which I have a really sinking feeling, because I hope that writing about it will somehow make me feel better, and lead me to a place where I can do something productive with those concerns.

This post falls into that last category.

I teach a class on global poverty in the summer and, this spring, in getting ready for it, I read The White Man’s Burden, a really interesting and often provocative examination of western development aid to “the rest” of the world.

As I get into that class this summer, I’m sure I’ll have some thoughts and questions to share about the best way for the U.S., in particular, to support development in other countries, about the connections between anti-poverty policy here and around the world, and about the rise of social entrepreneurialism and other “innovative” strategies that, really, shouldn’t seem so innovative at all.

But, today, it’s a relatively obscure passage, from a sociologist and politician with whom I have a rather, um, complicated relationship: Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Here’s the quote, and then here’s why it’s haunting me:

“The socially concerned intellectuals…seem repeatedly to assume that those who had power would let it be taken away a lot easier than could possibly be the case if what was involved was power” (from White Man’s Burden, p. 144).

When I read that quote, I think of all the times that I’ve used the word “empowerment” rather loosely, about all of the references we make to “participation” (even when we know that it’s kind of token), and about all of the barriers that exist between people who have been deliberately stripped of their real influence and the reclaiming of that power over their own lives (not the least of which, of course, is the view that power is zero-sum, and the loathing those in power have for the idea of relinquishing it).

I’ve always been skeptical at best of “consensus-based organizing”, always believed that power is won by those on the margins, not benevolently granted to them by others. That’s why I talk to my students so often about the importance of seeking and increasing their own power, because those who are powerless can never hope to empower others.

But, still.

I’ve been thinking a lot in the past week about this quote, and about how reluctant we are, even within our social service organizations, to really share power, not just allow people to give “input” or “participate” in some pretty meaningless way. I’ve been thinking about the damage we can do, truly, when we pretend that what people’s participation is getting them is real ownership, when it’s not, and about how those experiences can turn entire generations away from the exercise of real power and the struggles required to win it.

So here’s what I’m hoping you’ll share in the comments, to perhaps put my soul a bit at ease:

  • What do “participatory” structures need to have to ensure that it’s real power that’s being shared? How can we tell participation in name only from the meaningful kind?
  • Where have you seen power change hands in marginalized communities, and what transpired to make that happen?
  • How should we talk about power, and empowerment, and participation, to ensure that our own language isn’t part of the problem, distorting the concept to the point of making it unrecognizable?
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