When I first started as a youth worker in 1991, I was working in a medium-term accommodation unit for young people who were homeless. I really struggled with being in a position of authority having just graduated from a welfare degree that had emphasised “client self-determination.” I was really uncomfortable being in a type of parental role where I had to make decisions about what the young people could or couldn’t do, where I was responsible for behaviour management and where I had to be willing to set limits.
I was in a real position of power and I felt very uneasy about it, especially as I saw plenty of examples of power being used in quite coercive, if not abusive, ways. I had to learn ways of being in authority that were consistent with my philosophy and approach.
I was in a position of power over the residents, but I needed to learn this did not define the whole relationship, and there were other types of power that were also important which I could nurture.
A number of authors differentiate between four types of power [1-3].
- Power over
- Power with
- Power to
- Power within
Power over is how power is most commonly understood [1, 2]. This type of power is built on force, coercion, domination and control [1, 4], and motivates largely through fear . This form of power is built on a belief that power is a finite resource that can be held by individuals, and that some people have power and some people do not.
Starhawk  argues that force, which enables one individual or group to make decisions affecting others and to take control, ultimately backs power over.
It may rule with weapons that are physical or by controlling the resources we need to live: money, food, medical care or by controlling more subtle resources: information, approval, love. We are so accustomed to power over, so steeped in its language and its implicit threats, that we often become aware of its functioning only when we see its extreme manifestations  (p. 9).
The other forms of power recognise that power is not owned by individuals but is a dynamic which is present in every relationship . As Starhawk (1990) suggests:
Power is never static, for power is not a thing that we can hold or store, it is a movement, a relationship, a balance, fluid and changing. The power one person can wield over another is dependent on a myriad of external factors and subtle agreements (p. 268).
Power with is shared power that grows out of collaboration and relationships. It is built on respect, mutual support, shared power, solidarity, influence, empowerment and collaborative decision making [1, 2, 4, 5, 6]. Power with is linked to “social power, the influence we wield among equals”  (p. 9). Power with can help build bridges within groups (e.g., families, organisations, social change movements) or across differences (e.g., gender, culture, class) [1, 2]. Rather than domination and control, power with leads to collective action and the ability to act together .
Power to refers to the “productive or generative potential of power and the new possibilities or actions that can be created without using relationships of domination”  (p. 57). It is built on the “unique potential of every person to shape his or her life and world”  (p. 45). It is the power to make a difference, to create something new, or to achieve goals.
Power within is related to a person’s “sense of self-worth and self-knowledge; it includes an ability to recognize individual differences while respecting others”  (p. 45). Power within involves people having a sense of their own capacity and self-worth . Power within allows people to recognise their “power to” and “power with”, and believe they can make a difference .
In working with families and communities, we want to nurture power with, power to and power within, not operating from a position of power-over. Our aim should not be to maximise our power over other people, but rather
To create the conditions whereby power can be shared. The purpose is to create the conditions in which each individual’s opportunity to exercise power is maximized in the context of the larger community  (p. 21).
If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:
- Power and strengths-based practice
- Principles of nonviolence
- Nonviolence as a Framework for Youth Work Practice
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- What is the Strengths Perspective?
- Seven principles for a strengths-based approach to working with groups
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- VeneKlasen, L., & Miller, V. (2007). A new weave of power, people & politics: The action guide for advocacy and citizen participation. Warwickshire: Practical Action Publishing. Chapter 3 on Power and Empowerment is available from https://justassociates.org/en/resources/new-weave-power-people-politics-action-guide-advocacy-and-citizen-participation
- Mathie, A., Cameron, J., & Gibson, K. (2017). Asset-based and citizen-led development: Using a diffracted power lens to analyze the possibilities and challenges. Progress in Development Studies, 17(1), 1-13. doi: 10.1177/1464993416674302 Available from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1464993416674302
- Hunjan, R., & Keophilavon, S. (2010). Making change happen. Fife: Carnegie UK Trust. Available from https://d1ssu070pg2v9i.cloudfront.net/pex/carnegie_uk_trust/2016/02/pub1455011688.pdf
- Starhawk. (1990). Truth or dare: Encounters with power, authority, and mystery. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
- Meyerding, J. (1982). Reclaiming nonviolence: Some thoughts for feminist womyn who used to be nonviolent, and vice versa. In P. McAllister (Ed.), Reweaving the web of life: Feminism and nonviolence. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
- Berger, B. K. (2005). Power over, power with, and power to relations: Critical reflections on public relations, the dominant coalition, and activism. Journal of Public Relations Research, 17(1), 5-28. doi: 10.1207/s1532754xjprr1701_3 Available from https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532754xjprr1701_3
- Bruyn, S., & Rayman, P. (Eds.). (1979). Nonviolent action and social change.New York: Irvington Publishers.