POWER. What are we afraid of?

*Almost two years later, I’m still talking about power, and I’m still confronted with social workers who are really uncomfortable with it. Colleagues, our world needs us powerful more than ever. We have to claim the power we have, so that we can wield it responsibly, and we have to see the power we need, so that we can be the force for change that those with whom we work deserve.

In every class I teach, I find myself talking a lot about power, not just what it is and why it’s important but also why social workers often have such a negative idea about it. Because that last piece is key, I really believe; as long as social workers are so convinced that power is a bad thing, that we shouldn’t want it, and that we don’t, in fact (we promise!) have any, then there’s no way that we can do real empowerment and little chance that we can bring about the kinds of social changes that our profession, our society, and, most importantly, those we serve, really need.

Being bilingual helps me a lot when it comes to defining power. The Spanish word for the noun “power” is the same as for the verb “to be able to” (poder), so I talk with my students about how power, essentially, gives one the ability to do what it is that one wants to be able to do and, really, to make someone else do what it is that one wants that other to do. Some of the definitions I like include “the ability to recognize one’s will even against the resistance of others” (Weber, in Gerth and Mills, 1946); “possession of control, authority, or influence over others” or “ability to act or produce an effect” (Merriam Webster Dictionary); and “capacity to influence the forces which affect one’s life space for one’s own benefit” (Pinderhughes, 1987). When we start from that understanding, power doesn’t sound quite so dark.

One of my big emphases, too, is a distinction between actual power and the feeling of being powerful. As social workers, sometimes we’re so afraid of real power that we just talk in “squishy” terms about it, which can lead to so much confusion about what power is that we abandon the real thing in favor of something that just sounds good. I’ll never forget, when I was assisting in a power analysis with some Latino youth and the lead organizer asked, “who has power in your community?” One young woman answered, “we do, because we’re the future…” It was obviously something that she’d heard, maybe from a teacher or maybe from a social worker, and, while we like the way that feels, the truth is that such a misconception kept her from being fully powerful, because she couldn’t analyze who held power and what power she and her peers might hold over those power players. We do ourselves and our clients no favors when we lead them to believe that they are more powerful than they are—what they (and we) really need is the ability to analyze power relations and to engage in collective action designed to enhance individual and group power.

We talk about sources of power–character, position, reputation, knowledge, authority–and we talk especially about relationships as a source of power, because that helps us to see, as social workers, how the assumption of power (double meaning intended) is integral to the practice of social work; if we didn’t have any power with/over those with whom we work, what possible influence could we expect to have over their lives?

And then we get to the core issue, for me: social workers’ fear of power. I have to admit, I don’t totally, innately get this reluctance to admit and claim power. I often tell students that my dream job would be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and it’s because of the authority that comes with that position. I love power for what it can enable me to do in pursuit of social justice, and I’d love a whole lot more so that I could be a whole lot more effective.

But I have to understand social workers’ fears about power to be a part of helping our profession get over them, and I think that my discussions with students and those in the field over the past several years have given me some insights. There’s a universal concern that power corrupts, because it certainly can. And there’s also a reluctance, I believe, to give up social workers’ martyrdom, this idea that our profession is noble precisely because it is relatively powerless. Many social workers also have negative experience with powerful interests opposed to their own or their clients’ well-being, and, absent more just conceptions of what power looks like, it takes on a ‘bad name’.

The reality is clients want to work with powerful workers. Power can only be shared by those who have it, so a powerless social worker cannot, by definition, practice empowering social work. Those social workers who are more powerful, both within their own organizational contexts and in the community arena, are also more successful. And that’s what we should be in this business for, after all, not the satisfaction that comes with feeling that we’re sacrificing for some futile aim. And if that doesn’t convince us to pursue power, we must recognize that abdicating our claim to power abandons the field to those who don’t share our values and aims. Power vacuums are always filled, and we can’t afford them.

So, tell me, what gives you power as a social worker? When do you feel powerful? When do you feel powerless? What are your fears about power? Where do those fears come from? How could you gain power within your organization? What would it take for you to commit yourself to that this year?

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48 responses to “POWER. What are we afraid of?

  1. Its cheesy, but knowledge gives me power. I feel powerful when I understand a concept fully and when I am able to tap into resources to fill the gaps. As a social worker knowing that the change I am working towards is going to meet or make an improvement in the need levels of my clients is empowering. I have to agree with you that I do not “get” why so many social workers are afraid of power, because without it nothing is possible. I have never seen change occur when all interested parties were powerless. I fear power when it is in the wrong hands, or when the opposite party has more than I do. I think this is a rational fear because I seek power to make change and if those wanting to deter me have more of it then it is frightening. Social work is typically provided by and services minority groups, all of which have been oppressed at some point in history. Could it be that those wanting to join the “helping profession” are so used to being powerless that coping with power is overwhelming?

    • That’s a really good final point you made, Leah, about how, in trying to attract social workers who represent those with whom we are going to be working, we may also be drawing in precisely those populations least experienced in wielding power, because they have been systematically denied it. I like how you use an example of power on a level that feels ‘comfortable’, too, to point out that power isn’t always huge and foreign and scary (even though it can be).

  2. What good thoughts and analysis of power. I think at times we a taught that power is bad because we don’t want to hold power over our clients. However, I think there is a difference that you pointed out regarding having power and being powerful without over powering a client. I feel like Leah stated that a lot of power is from knowledge. Also, knowing people and having an understanding of connections and their “why”also gives me great power. I feel if we as social workers and the profession as a whole does not use the power we have and really wield that power, it allows those who may use power for the wrong reason to overpower the good of the power we are using. Within my organization I feel the most power I have been able to use over this last year is knowledge. When I can speak the same language as the administrators and be knowledgeable of the now for how we can change moving forward it gives me great power!

  3. I loved the way that Jerry talked about power about electric current. I keep thinking about that–how it can be dangerous, but also can do tremendous things for us! Do you feel that you are building power, then, as you learn more? How do you leverage that power, as your career takes off?

  4. I have thought that the higher I climbed in the educational ladder, the more power I would have and the better advocate I would become for my clients. Yet, I have met individuals with advanced degrees (master’s, PhD’s, JD’s, etc) that don’t seem to have much power at all. I guess the obvious conclusion to draw from this is that instinctual knowledge is what gives powerful individuals their edge. This is an element of power that I find intimidating and challenging to social work ethics. I think a good advocate has to rely on something other than facts to get power but that may not be what is best for the group, issue, or individual that they represent. I can’t help but think that if I am going to put in a situation where I have to rely on my instincts, I don’t want to be representing anyone but myself. Perhaps, I don’t want to feel responsible for my statements/actions/emotions if they hurt other’s cause. I understand that everyone makes mistakes so, there must be another component to the knowledge that powerful individuals have found. Perhaps it is a soft skill like the knowledge of how to appeal to others. I don’t think all powerful people are inherently likeable, but they are able to make other people believe in them especially when they have made a mistake. Overall, I think it is important as a social worker to understand how knowledge equals power and how it may not.

  5. I have thought that the higher I climbed in the educational ladder, the more power I would have and the better advocate I would become for my clients. Yet, I have met individuals with advanced degrees (master’s, PhD’s, JD’s, etc) that don’t seem to have much power at all. I guess the obvious conclusion to draw from this is that instinctual knowledge is what gives powerful individuals their edge. This is an element of power that I find intimidating and challenging to social work ethics. I think a good advocate has to rely on something other than facts to get power but that may not be what is best for the group, issue, or individual that they represent. I can’t help but think that if I am going to put in a situation where I have to rely on my instincts, I don’t want to be representing anyone but myself. Honeslty, I don’t want to feel responsible for my statements/actions/emotions if they hurt other’s cause. I understand that everyone makes mistakes so, there must be another component to the knowledge that powerful individuals have found. Perhaps it is a soft skill like the knowledge of how to appeal to others. I don’t think all powerful people are inherently likeable, but they are able to make other people believe in them especially when they have made a mistake. Overall, I think it is important as a social worker to understand how knowledge equals power and how it may not.

    • Relationships are the source of much of our power and, Katie, you’re correct to note that those connections are not automatically accumulated as people gain more education. Yes, with power comes great responsibility, and the risk that we hurt others inadvertently…but also the ability to help others, in ways much more profound than possible without power at our disposal. Great insights about the limitations of schooling and knowledge for translating into power!

  6. Currently, in my position as a direct service worker I have not felt any remnants of power. I hold an intake position where I meet with a child for an hour or two and then they’re on their way. I feel as though I have no power, because that it was the job entails. I have no extra responsibilities that will allow for me to make a difference within a greater population. When I think of individuals with power I only think of people who have positions that give them power. In my case (in my current position), if I wanted to become a source of power, concerning the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare systems, I would have to do this outside of my job duties and 40 hour work week. This may seem as a lame excuse for not being a greater advocate for this population, but I’d like to spend my “off” time with my family and friends. Does this make me a less effective social worker? I’d love to have more power without making any sacrifices in my personal life. Professionally, I would love to gain more responsibility and build my value within the organization that I am employed. I believe that I could gain power by offering ideas and insights that my education has provided me. I think in order for me to become more powerful I have to become more of a “go-getter.” This path to power may be a slow one, but I’m willing to make it work. I think power is knowledge, the desire to do more, the desire to empower more individuals, and the aspiration for social justice. This year, I commit to offering my ideas and I commit to letting this agency know that I am a valuable asset to furthering their mission. I start this journey today. I offered my idea and was given support to be able to initiate an advocacy effort in honor of our agency’s anniversary. This advocacy effort will hopefully let our legislators be reminded of why our agency’s history, mission and the services we provide are important to children and families.

    • But what power do you have in terms of that child’s access to services? I know what you mean, about feeling that the big decisions happen above your ‘pay grade’, but you do possess power as a gatekeeper to services, I would expect. Your point about the sacrifices that may be required for you to gain leverage within your current place of employment is an important one–certainly, the acquisition of power comes at a cost. What other paths may be available to you? How can you demonstrate your worth while maintaining a work load that is comfortable to you?

  7. I think in a lot of cases the root cause of this fear of power is the tendency to equate power to money. There are a lot of stories of how money can lead to corruption, etc. and in a lot of ways, we’re really supposed to despise the idolizing of money as a robin hood profession. I mean, we’re not soulless like those business majors…we care about people! And so forth.

    But then simultaneously, a majority of our time is spent either complaining about a lack of funds, making jokes about how little money we get paid for our work or increasing our agency’s capacity to raise funds. I think that some of us are a little freaked out by the notion of power and frankly, that’s probably because a lot of people with power abuse it so egregiously that it makes sense for us to want to run away from it!

    But as you’ve made clear, that type of thinking is simply too naive. By receiving our education, which trains us to work and advocate for the most disenfranchised populations on this planet, we are already in a position of power by nature. Knowledge is power. And we are trained to know how to help. We do have power, regardless if we like to admit it.

    I feel power as a social worker when I can draw on this education in a meaningful way and make connections I couldn’t have made with out it and that others who do not have the education fail to do.Sure, there are times when I’ve been out in the field and have felt like I didn’t know anything, but I think that’s a naturally part of the progression. The feeling’s of powerlessness come when you know things aren’t right, but you don’t necessarily know how to do anything about it. I don’t believe that’s a failure in education, just that there are some systems out there that are hard to crack!

    I would venture to guess that by us enrolling in this Master’s admin program, my classmates and myself have already made a conscience decision to acknowledge and embrace this power. We know that there can be limits to what you can do with a clinical degree and that we need more power in order to effect bigger scale change. By deciding to get this extra education, we have already made that first step in gaining more power within whatever organizations we end up in. And that isn’t a bad thing!

    • Yes, Dylan, that feeling of bashing our heads against broken systems without knowing how to move forward is the most powerless that I can relate to in my own career, too. And I think that your points about acknowledging our power, and even directly talking about power and money and how to untangle them, are really important. What can you apply, from your education, to help you confront those ‘this isn’t right but I don’t know what to do about it’ moments? What kinds of system reforms would you prioritize to make those moments fewer and farther between? Are there any mentors you have observed who are especially good about sustaining momentum, even when things seem bleak? How does that ability give them power?

  8. I like how Kelsey stated that the power she feels she holds in her agency is based on the ability to understand and talk to the administrators on their same level. I agree that the more knowledge you have the greater ability you have to hold more power. If you are unable to feel confident speaking to others about the topics which concern you, you are not able to hold power. We talked about how social workers often do not include advocacy in their daily roles, which also leads to them having less power or ability to gain more power. Making the important connections with peers and understands who holds power is an important part of holding power yourself as well.

  9. I think the most important type of power a social worker can obtain is the power of relationships, as you previously mentioned. Building relationships is so central to our profession that it seems like a common sense way to gain power. I know that I personally feel most powerful when I have a client or associate who asks for my help, and I can send an email or make a phone call and get immediate help for them from individuals with whom I have built professional relationships. Having a network of professionals in your corner can also help to garner greater resources for vulnerable groups. Knowing what your client needs but not having the resources to help makes me feel very powerless.

    Before my SWAAP classes, power was not something I even considered as relevant to the social work profession, and it was not something that I was attracted to whatsoever. However, through my classes and my practicum, I see how critical power is to really making a difference for our clients. My main fear about power is that I don’t know how to use it effectively enough. I think this fear comes from my lack of experience with power, and I’m sure I will become more accustomed to utilizing power as I gather more life experience. I could gain power within my organization this year by building professional relationships with those I meet at committee meetings and other events, as well as doing my research and becoming an expert regarding housing so that others rely on my knowledge.

    • I really appreciate what you said about feeling powerful when people ask you for help, Joselyn. We need to remember the power that we wield in that situation. And power is transactional and ever-evolving, so don’t worry if you aren’t using power as well as you ultimate hope to–it’s a journey!

  10. Kelsea Bedford

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post. I have never really thought about how powerful social workers are in that way before. But, after reading this post, I realize that yes, social workers really do hold a lot of power. I have to admit that I am one of those workers who is scared of power. It seems very intimidating for me. The thing that is intimidating is the amount of responsibility that comes with power. In my experiences working reintegration for children in foster care, a case manager has a lot of responsibilities for that child. They can sign off on major documents for these children, and they make huge decisions for the children. That amount of power and responsibility is intimidating for sure! I have also witnessed many workers who love being powerful and take their power too far. None of their clients liked them, and it was very difficult for people to work with them. After witnessing that, I would try so hard not to become that person. But then you can easily fall into being a push over, which might be worse! I think that confidence is key when it comes to being powerful. If you are not confident in yourself as a professional then you probably will not get a whole lot of respect. I think that experience and knowledge helps a person gain confidence. The more experience I gain and the more knowledge I obtain make it easier for me to be confident and comfortable with my power. Thanks for challenging my thinking! Power is a good thing!

    • I love this reflection, Kelsea, for its honesty, and its accounting of the promise and pitfalls of power. I completely agree with your assessment, and also with your recognition that denying our power doesn’t help us to evade its risks. Thank you for sharing your thinking on this!

      On Tue, Mar 4, 2014 at 4:12 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  11. Meghan Iacuzzi

    For me, I think any fear of power that I possess stems from personal and professional insecurity. Unless I feel extremely comfortable in my skills and knowledge base, I worry I will make decisions that do nothing to further social justice at best or create more barriers for people and set change agendas at worst. As I acquire more education and experience, my confidence level is increasing which helps me feel more at ease with the prospect of having power. The best thing I can do is continue improving myself so I feel better and more competent. This will reduce my level insecurity which in turn hopefully makes me more prone to seeking, accepting, and using power to help those I serve.

    • Yes, I think that worries about the limits of our own ability are very real inhibitions on our use of power, but I also think it’s critical that we claim the power that comes with what we have accumulated, in terms of knowledge and experience and connections, and also that we understand the opportunity cost of failing to effectively leverage that power, just because our power is not absolute. Does that make sense? Can you think of an example where you could have done something, with the power you have, even if you didn’t know enough, or have enough influence, to completely address the social wrong you identified? How can we keep the perfect from becoming the enemy of the good?

      On Sun, Mar 23, 2014 at 8:35 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  12. I have many thoughts in response to this post. First, one word resonated with me as I read this: empowerment. And, then, Melinda’s quote summed up my thoughts, “Power can only be shared by those who have it, so a powerless social worker cannot, by definition, practice empowerment.” My natural instinct to shift my thinking towards empowerment rather than power and to use the terms interchangeably, makes me wonder if this “power fear” requires a paradigm shift. While paradigm shifts are tough and many are skeptical of their abilities to partake in such a shift, much of how we think in our profession requires an open mind with the ability to see through multiple lenses. Thus, as this blog suggests, many seem to shy away from power, but there is a greater possibility a consensus will be reached if we begin to talk about empowerment and its implications of power. After all, as a social worker, we are called to foster empowerment at all levels, for all people.

    Secondly, and in an attempt to address the conclusive questions, powerlessness is extremely easy to experience in the social work field. Subliminally (and historically), the social workers have been subjected to situation evoking inferiority. (While this varies through geographic regions and from state to state, it exists at various levels universally.) There are very simple messages sent to our field which serve as examples: our pay grade, our lack of resource, the misconceptions society has of our work, and the misconceptions our clients have of our work. While we can conceptualize the falsehood and injustice behind such realities, I truly think fragments of such factors stick to us and contribute, at some level, to a feeling of powerlessness.

    Conversely, we are given opportunities to feel powerful. I wouldn’t consider it a coincidence that I feel most powerful when I am given the ability to empower others. When social injustice exists, and I am able to advocate (on any level) with knowledgeable, empowering, and thought-provoking responses, I feel very powerful. In some unexplainable sense, the transference of power to clients, systems, and the greater good for social justice returns power to me; it reinforces the importance of the work I’ve chosen. There is no greater source of power for me than knowing my voice/actions, no matter how grand, somehow make our world a just place to breathe.

    • I really like that phrase about reinforcing the importance of the work you have chosen. Honestly, I think that’s sometimes the reason we fear power, because somehow calling ourselves powerless reduces the extent to which we feel that we’re failing in our inability to solve the problems we set out to solve. It’s like we want an ‘out’, a way to say, “we’re just social workers”, so, you know, we couldn’t possibly really change the world. I’m not arguing that it’s explicit or even intentional, but I think it is real, dangerous, and, ultimately, a retreat we can’t afford.

      On Mon, Apr 21, 2014 at 2:49 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  13. Do you agree that social workers fail to fully claim and wield our power, individually and collectively? I do agree that some social workers fail to see the power they hold within their organization, within themselves, and/or within the context of a social issue that they are pursuing. I do feel though, that social workers who work collectively to have a powerful influence will increase their security around wielding that power individually and within a group.

    How do you feel about being ‘powerful’? I have always wanted more power, in regards to taking control of my life once I finish school next month, taking control of a team or project within the organizations that I have worked for, and wielding more power within my own personal group to get them involved in social justice issues. I do have hesitencies when wielding power, that insecurity lies in not feeling like I have enough information on the issue at hand or feeling like my presence (such as in legislature) won’t be valued. I had the opportunity to participate and lead many volunteers and coworkers through Legislative Action Day for the MS Society. When being informed about this day (in February) back in September, I was pretty worried. I had a lot of tasks to do and I wasn’t sure how to accomplish them. Through a lot consultation with my boss and coworkers, I was able to grasp the logistics of the day and the week leading up to that day, I was very much able to delegate tasks to coworkers and a fellow volunteer so that we were prepared. That kind of power really reinforced my ideals for advocacy and solidified that advocacy and administrative work is truly my calling.

    Where do you–and where do social workers and social work agencies–fit into your power analysis about your chosen issue? I have not done much in the realm of advocacy surrounding developmental and related disabilities, though this is where I want to end up professionally. There seems to be a lot of agencies that will come together collectively for a Legislative Action Day. I was a part of said LAD too, the recognition of which was astounding because it centered around “Walk A Mile in their Shoes.” Agencies and their clients, families, and caretakers “walked” all the way from western Kansas to participate in the day and to gain recognition for the injustices that people with developmental and related disabilities endure. These groups of people are the ones who propell advocacy for this population and it is important that they stay informed and connected to the population and the agencies who serve the population in order to increase social justice for the developmentally disabled.

  14. Ellen Hamilton

    So, tell me, what gives you power as a social worker? When do you feel powerful? When do you feel powerless? What are your fears about power? Where do those fears come from? How could you gain power within your organization? What would it take for you to commit yourself to that this year?

    Power. This is a timely post for my life. I am slowly transitioning from a student role to that of a full-fledged professional. With that comes a power that I have never had before. And while I would like to imagine the evil genie bursting from the bottle with all the power of the “cosmos” when I say that, I know it’s not quite so dramatic. However, learning to accept and use power is a necessary part of this transition period.

    Sidenote: Melinda, please become a member of the Supreme Court!

    My struggle with accepting and learning about power started my junior year of undergrad. Before that, I was painfully powerless. I never had the right last name, right connections, right talents, right intelligence to garner power (or at least that’s what I thought). But I basically was handed a leadership position in a student organization. I went from being nerdy, quiet middle of the classroom Ellen to having to make decisions that affected people. And I was terrible at it! I tried to be democratic in everything that I did. And let me tell you, that is not always the best approach when you need a quick decision. I was quick to give my power away.

    I’ve come a long way since then and many people have observed the change. My former professor reminded me the other day, “when you have your MSW you are considered an expert in your field. Even if you aren’t an expert in mental health you will still be perceived that way.” Wow, what a mandate! And that’s something I take very seriously. When we earn an MSW, we have our profession’s terminal degree. We never need to go higher. Yikes! That’s a little bit scary to me! Where does that fear stem from? A fear of failure of course. According to wise Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” When we embrace the power we possess to create change, we have to embrace the chance that the change may be negative or not even work. Our name may go through the mud. I think that’s why I am more content with being powerless or handing power over to others. It’s a safety net. Unfortunately, safety won’t help people.

    • Oh, yes–we are so often quick to ‘give our power away’! Great point! I hope that you grow to claim the power you have, albeit with the recognition that it may never be comfortable. And, indeed, you may not want it to be, because that could connote that you have grown accustomed to influence you fear and rightly suspect. Thanks for sharing these reflections.

  15. Michelle Seufert

    This post stirred so many emotions and ideas within me, I so often struggle with power and the concept of power. Like you noted, I have witnessed much corruption by the hands of people in power which has really skewed my vision of what power is capable of. It is a daily task to remind myself that as power can lead to corruption, it can also lead to positive change.

    A constant question I ask myself is why do I feel comfortable empowering my clients and communities I work with but not myself? Why do I believe in their stake to power but not my own? The only answers I have come up with so far relate directly to my position in society. As a female I feel like I have been constantly told by outside forces that power is not something I should want, should have, or can handle. This clearly ties to bigger issues of gender inequality, feminism and misogyny – but I don’t want to stray too far from my point. Growing up in a culture that doesn’t celebrate women in power, or have many powerful females role models it isn’t a great wonder to me why, in a profession dominated by women, power is something we struggle with.

    Luckily, I believe this is changing. The landscape we are present in is rife with revolution – females taking power and using it for good – females speaking out and being heard. So exciting! I think the campaign resinating most with me currently is the the “I’m not Bossy, I’m the Boss”. It directly attacks the view that powerful women are bossy or naggy or other not so nice words – asserting that women can be the Boss just as men and that does not make them any less of a person or any undesirable title.

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  17. Doing a power analysis about offering interpreters in the health clinics with which my practicum program partners has helped me to understand the dynamics of decision making in this area. I truly do not have the power to make the decision about whether or not a clinic with have interpreters available for Limited English Proficient (LEP) patients. I wish I did. I wish I could call clinics and say, “you are required to provider interpreters for LEP patients” and I wish their response would be, “of course, we will do that!” I do, however, have the power to figure out who has the power to make that decision and what information that person needs in order to make the decision that I want him/her to make. Each decision maker needs different data. The billing personnel will need cost. The direct service staff will need process. The director (likely the final decider) will need the reason, as well as a summary of the other info. I also have the power to empower my clients to request an interpreter if they need one during an appointment. That is such a simple act. And the answer to their request may be “no,” for now. But, if every LEP patient asks for an interpreter, the chances of the answer to their continued being “yes” in the future has to increase. At least, that is what I want to believe.

  18. Kendra, think how good it will feel when clinic decision makers come to the decision of providing interpreters for their clients ON THEIR OWN, which will be more sustainable than if it was dictated…even if you had the power to do that! There’s something really beautiful about seeing people come to the realization that they should do the right thing by vulnerable people, for reasons that make sense to them. That’s what you’re working toward…the power to influence others, to get them to do, then, what you want them to do. And, remember, si se puede! 🙂

  19. For such a small word “Power” has such a great meaning. I agree that social workers fail to fully claim what we are capable of doing. We have the power to lift the vulnerable voices up to be heard by our nation. For me however, when I think of power I immediately begin to sweat. I think along with power there is a great deal of confrontation. I think that is why some social workers are afraid of power, including me, because we would just like to stay away from confrontation. BUT to be a social worker we should be all about confrontation and help advocate for those that can’t advocate alone. I think this will come with time for me. I am a new social worker and haven’t really found my “place” yet. I am discovering who I am as a professional, and this unfortunate awkward phase will last years unfortunately. But I am certain after I have experience and knowledge, I will overcome the feeling of defeat when faced with a confrontational situation. It is easy for me to get a policy changed at my job because the power in my agency I am very familiar with at the moment. I have a good relationship with my boss, and my boss’s boss. However, with that being said, I don’t know the people working in Topeka and don’t know how that conversation will go.

    • Sometimes there is confrontation in power, Morgan; I’m not sure if I see it always, but it is certainly possible. What is it about confrontation that makes you so uncomfortable? How can you tap into your values–and other experiences you’ve had–to get to a place of greater willingness there? What kind of preparation, or collective strength, might facilitate the exercise of power, for you? Do you think that you’ll get more comfortable as you grow, as you state, or will the stakes just increase then, because you have more to lose? In other words, might this be a particularly opportune time for you to live into your power, as it builds, because you’re in a position where you can afford to risk more, relatively?

  20. I think many people, not just social workers, fear power is because they do not fully understand what power means. For me…I accept and embrace power because of knowledge. Not only knowledge about power, but also how that can equate to change.

    I truly love your example of the Latino youth. I think in order to first embrace power you must acknowledge it, and there was ‘potential power’ there if many more youth in her community had that same embrace. However, you are so right when you say that the youth did not fully understand the power in her community because she could expand past that and did not see the true power structures.

    Social workers must embrace power in order to fully create change.

    I recently watched a really great TED talk about power and civics. Here is the link:

  21. Oh I’m totally going to check out this Ted talk! I love the title–yes, not only understand, but claim, the power we have…and the power we need. Thank you!

  22. I cannot tell you how many times I have said I should run for office so that I had the power to create change. However, those statements are quickly followed by another explaining that the corruption associated with power is the reason I don’t. The comment you made regarding our fear to embrace power is due to its association with corruption was dead-on for me. I find it highly ironic though, that as a clinical social worker, I desire to assist others in becoming empowered, yet I am hesitant about empowering myself regarding social work issues. You nailed it though when you said one without power “by definition cannot empower” – the phrase “practice what you preach” is definitely fitting. The next time I want to complain about a new law or bill, I need to tell myself that my complaining does no good if it is not to the right person(s). I need to figure out what steps I need to take to make change happen or in some cases, stop change! However, I have this impression that in order to gain power in the political arena, one must have money. I have a feeling that you are going to tell me that is not true and, if so, then I need to know where to make some noise!

    Powerlessness is debilitating and I am sure that every social worker has felt powerless. How can a social worker keep from feeling powerless when she/he is trying to create change in either a new program or law that will benefit her clients, but those with more power keep it from happening? It doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t have the desire to be powerful, it just means I don’t have enough power! That is my biggest fear as a future social worker – how does one obtain ENOUGH power?!?

    Thank you to Kendra for posting the TED talk! I will be watching it also!

    • I don’t know that I have all the answers to keeping from feeling powerless, but I think the helplessness is reduced when we join with others to combat the issues we care about. Yes, some with power are corrupt, but so are those with little power, fighting to get some! I want to see you with power to enact your vision of the world!

  23. I really enjoyed reading this because I find it from most social workers I engage in discussions about power with. “It” being the fear of power or, worse, the refusal to acknowledge the power they do have. As we have read, the street-level social worker wields a large amount of power. In the clients lives, in their opinion of right and wrong, and what they can report to other professionals potentially working with those clients. It’s a disservice to the client to pretend like this doesn’t exist and that we’re just “reporting the facts!”. That’s a phrase I hear all the time, particularly when case managers have to report to the courts. They say, “it doesn’t matter, don’t be nervous, because you’re just reporting the facts!” But I say, you can report the facts all day long but what YOUR perception of those facts, and the response to certain events has a tremendous amount of influence on what happens in people’s lives.
    While I can see the allure of Chief Justice, personally, I would prefer something that helps others find that voice. We see in Baltimore today a crowd of people who feel like they have no power, and are seeking power through the wrong means. As MLK Jr. said, “riots are the language of the unheard.” Again, another topic we talked about is how the advocate doesn’t give a voice to the voiceless, they amplify the voice already present. All of those people have valid grievances, but by trying to find power through violence it nullifies the message they are sending. By providing those individuals with an avenue to legitimate power, the whole conversation could be entirely different today than it is. Instead of the real root of the discussion, it has been shifted to another topic entirely.

    • Oh, yes, Michael–we can hide behind ‘the facts’, denying the power we have to shape perceptions, and that’s a very dangerous and potentially destructive place to live. I have been thinking about power and powerlessness…and how the world looks so different depending on where you sit, this whole week, for sure, centered on Baltimore but echoing everywhere those with limited power seek to exercise some.

  24. I grew up in a different culture, so my interpretation about “power” might be influenced by my personal experience. While I acknowledge the standard definition of “power,” my perception/interpretation about “power” is not something that can “force” things to happen regardless of their will. For me, “power” is something that everybody should possess to protect themselves and others. In a context of power dynamics, I understand that we tend to exercise our “power” in a proactive way to control situations, especially when a natural consensus building is not likely to occur. However, I personally would prefer having “power” in a more modest sense – not something coming from me but something that pushes me when advocating for social changes for my clients. Have my professional positions, license, and education ever promoted my feeling of being “powerful” as a social worker? My answer probably would be never. I admit that some of these attributes might have influenced power dynamics. However, the critical source of my feeling “powerful” is when I feel the push from my clients’ voices in fighting against social oppressions. So, in my practice context, “power” will be mostly transferred from my clients who try to exercise their power to protect their own dignity. Without it, we may be using “power” that mostly comes from our professional privilege.

    • Great reminder, Sadaaki, of how contextual power and our understanding of it are, and how much our culture shapes our worldview on these dynamics. How do you experience power differently in the U.S., as compared to your native country? How do you think power feels different because of your status as an immigrant? Do you think that your view of power will be different, having been in the U.S. and having had these experiences, if you return to your country of origin?

  25. Immigrants can be marginalized in both countries — the US as well as their country of origin — which may be difficult to see their inner power that should be acknowledged. I am not sure how much “power” I have to influence the structural barriers regardless of where I live but I believe that the dual perspectives and experiences in both countries are the real power that makes us stronger.

  26. The populations I have worked with both in and out of this MSW program have one thing in common, they are groups that I used to identify as my own, The homeless, the marginalized, the addict etc. The power that I have found in my work is the ability to say that I am been there, not merely, I understand. As stated above, we cannot give what we don’t have. I have experienced what many clients are experiencing. It is through this unique fellowship of having experience where I find power.

  27. “power in fellowship”…really significant, Jon. Do you think, then, that social workers can ever be effective working in communities that are not their own, where they don’t share those identities? Or not? How would you go about working in a community with which you did not so closely identify? Or would you not?

  28. I feel powerful with knowledge. Not necessarily KNOWING everything, but being able to know how and when to access information, how and when to ask questions, how and when to apply what I have learned. I guess experience/guidance also helps me feel powerful. Relating back to a situation or using instructions to complete a task makes me feel powerful because I’m learning and growing. I felt powerful with my last job, doing investigations for abuse/neglect. I knew the decisions I made would either help or hurt a family. I was comfortable making those decisions because I held myself accountable and always sought to learn. Knowing the policies, knowing the Code of Ethics, knowing the system, knowing the loopholes, etc. made me a confident and efficient social worker.
    I feel absolutely powerless when I worry. I have little control when I worry. I can do something about worrying: plan, organize, prepare…but the worry makes me feel defenseless and hopeless. It is exhausting. And that is the thing that makes me fear power: worry. I worry if I will be able to gain the knowledge and experience to uphold the standards of a social worker in power. Will my decisions be something I can defend? Could someone else do my job better? Am I doing everything I can to excel?
    I don’t know if I set limitations on myself or if I am being reasonable when it comes to power. When my daughter was born, I remember calling my mother and telling her “I have absolutely no clue what I am doing, but I don’t want anyone else to do it.” That moment was so big for me. I learn to parent as my daughter grows and while there are many times I don’t know what the hell I am doing, I still prefer it to be me teaching her. When I enter into another powerful position, I guess I need to look at it like I have with parenting and be confident that I am doing the best I know how to. Continuing to learn, adapt, and grow are parts of any life. I guess I just need to do it!

  29. I was thinking about this the other day, Rebecca, about how privilege influences how people can navigate systems, and about the power that comes from knowing what to ask and how to approach…and having some confidence that one will be received favorably. That’s an important insight, to claim that as power, and, then, to incorporate ways to cultivate that competency and sense of entitlement–and access to knowledge–among the marginalized populations with which we work.

  30. I think many social workers are afraid of power, and deny they have it. I also do not understand how they can deny that we have some power. If we truly did not have any power then why would people come to us for help? Why would schools teach the importance of professional relationships and not using your position to influence someone unjustly? I like being powerful. Yes, power may corrupt, but it is also what is needed to get things down. Just because power can corrupt does not mean it will corrupt; correlation is not causation. If we are truly worried about the corruptness of power, then shouldn’t we fight to keep the power out of the hands of individuals whose values can be swayed and put into the hands of ethical social workers?

    • That’s a great point, Brittany, about the importance of power in making ourselves useful to clients. And, yes, power abhors a vacuum and can absolutely be seized by someone else, if we don’t claim the power we should.

  31. Chris Anderson

    Having read the blog post, I agree that social workers often times fail to recognize the power that we have and don’t use our power in a productive sense with our clients. I personally think that a lot of the time social workers are either unaware of or unwilling to embrace the power that we possess and its ability to contribute to meaningful social change for our clients. I know that I am guilty of probably thinking too much about the power dynamics between myself and my client and not spending enough time using my power and being effective with my clients. In my opinion, “power” can originate from many different areas and be perceived as such. Through the eyes of our clients, power might be attributable to many different areas, like education, knowledge of the “system”, personality or professional position. Wherever individual power may originate from, social workers should accept the responsibility to our clients and profession to use our power for the betterment of our clients and society.

    • Great reflection, Chris, about how our efforts to minimize the power imbalance between ourselves and our clients can cloud our vision regarding the power we possess, and how we could leverage it to serve them. Yes, we absolutely need clarity about where we get our power comes from and the extent to which it is predicated on illegitimate and unjust structures, but we also have a responsibility to not ‘leave our power on the table’. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  32. I found your translation of the term to be insightful, because quite rarely to I think of the term “power” as the ability to do something. My initial thoughts when I refer to power are of influence and control, which is possibly what creates the intimidation of those in power and my potential to have it. Additionally, I think that many social workers have this same fear because of the potential disconnect it could create with the clients. I find it interesting and even empowering that clients do, in fact, want powerful social workers. This makes sense, because you need to have power to get things done. However, as mentioned in class many times, how can I, as an educated White Female, speak to the oppression of those whom I serve when the power differential is so large? However, when I step back and look at my power as the ability to make change and assist my clients, instead of viewing power through the lens of control and corruption, I become more comfortable in my role.

  33. Thank you for sharing these reflections, Cali. They are important for us to consider, for sure–I think my point is just that the power differential created by your identities and those of your clients doesn’t go away if we don’t acknowledge it, or certainly not if we pretend that we have less power than we actually do. The only way to keep the power imbalance from destroying our working relationship is to first be honest about it, and second, commit to reducing it…which can only come from shifting power from the worker to the client, not dodging our power unilaterally. I look forward to seeing how your power grows and evolves with your practice.

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