A simple image keeps coming to my mind to describe the behavioral dynamics I see at play in our institutions and communities. I'm awkwardly calling this the "Power-Structure-Relationship Matrix" (not a good name…help me out people).
So, let’s unpack this a bit.
The x-axis is about how people get to outcomes, aka how power is exerted. It’s very important to see that the x-axis is morally neutral. It shows a spectrum between poles moving from High Structure to High Relationship. One end of the spectrum is not inherently better than the other. Both can be used for good or evil. Relationships can be a means of love and a way to extend grace when someone violates structures. However, it is possible to be both highly relational and highly supremacist. Implicit biases and networks of relational capital can play out in ways that run against the arch of justice. On the other end, structures can provide healthy boundaries and a means to mitigate the temptations of supremacist power. At the same time, structural injustice is rampant. Structures range from direct democracy to dictatorships. So again, this spectrum is neutral, but the ways we use the tactics in real life are not.
The y-axis, on the other hand, attempts to chart the ethical value of approaches by offering a spectrum between Supremacist Power and Liberatory Power. I pulled these categories of Supremacist and Liberatory Power from Cyndi Suarez. In her recent book, The Power Manual: How to Master Complex Power Dynamics, she distinguishes these as two fundamental types of power (which I read about here, much thanks to Paul Bindel for the DM):
One is the ability to dominate, or control, people and things. This power rests on relative rank and the privilege of being at the top. It reflects a supremacist way of thinking—an acceptance of relationships of domination and submission. Supremacist power is a crude form of power, related to scarcity consciousness, or the belief that the world holds limited supplies of the things we want—love, power, recognition. An alternative type of power is liberatory power—the ability to create what we want. It stems from abundance consciousness. Liberatory power requires the transformation of what one currently perceives as a limitation.
Power is inevitable, and necessary, and I don't need to quote MLK here to remind us that it's OK and often very good. Power is also terribly treacherous, and emerges from all sorts of subtle sources, far beyond, or at least more nuanced than, the classic "organized money and organized people" paraphrase from Saul Alinsky. It eeks through the ways we emotionally hold ourselves in a room, who we feel sorry for or loyal to, who shows up at the table, and through the histories attached to our work, our neighborhoods, and ourselves.
Power is also organized around bodies: whiteness, maleness, cis-ness, straightness, educated bodies, Christian bodies, wealthy bodies. When power is used to create or maintain power and privileges and the spoils thereof for those who have historically been of the oppressor class, it is supremacist power. But power can be abused by all. Think of how many revolutions of the people have ended with yet another dictatorship.
None of us occupies a single point on the matrix. Each action in relation to power, decision making, conflict, and other managements of relationship and organizational process is a point on the graph. Each organization, and individual within the organization, begins to develop what could best be described as a heat map, where their patterns of behavior and process begin to coalesce around one quadrant or another.
I typically think of this image when conflicts arise, when things aren’t working well, or when changes are being implemented (which are often a package deal). A handful of common problem points show up in every grassroots community organizing effort, community development project, or straightforward attempts at being community. In my experience, these are:
Decision Making & Strategic Direction: who has authority over/involvement in what scope of responsibilities and what processes do we use to make these what and whom decisions
Money: where do we get it, who controls it, who gets paid and how much, and how else is it distributed or invested
Accountability & Distribution of Labor: are people executing on their jobs and up-holding their responsibilities as a member of the team, bearing burdens inequitably
Crisis Management: how do we function together when things fall apart
Interpersonal Dynamics: often sparked by an issue occurring in one of the above amplified by poor communication, low trust, insecurities and anxiety, and trauma
Discriminatory Behaviors & Structures: when those with privileged identities set up things, often unconsciously, in ways that work well for them but not for the marginalized
There are others I'm sure, but most every moment of conflict I've witnessed fits in one of these categories.
According to my teachers at Fresno's Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, conflict can be defined simply as "the experience of blocking." A conflict occurs when one or more people experience themselves as being blocked from something they want. Conflicts are not wrong -- rather they are the most generative moments for creativity and human bonding. It is how they are handled or mishandled (there's no right way for any one conflict and no two conflicts that are identical) where things get interesting, and where the potential for blessing or cursing lies.
I put this out there as a tool for us to better notice ourselves. Even in the most justice-seeking community groups, I have seen myself and my friends and colleagues slip into behavioral patterns that contradict the values of the world we’re claiming to be creating.
Let us continue to be self-reflective. What are our default tendancies? Do we orient more toward the tools of structure or relationship for solving our problems? When might one be more appropriate or effective than the other? What creative blendings of the two might we experiment with? How can we strive to be liberatory, using “power-for and with” and not reproduce the supremacist “power-over or -against” so common in the world?