*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?