Power Dynamics (from #epip11)

I had an opportunity to attend the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) national conference last week. The organization seeks to equip young foundation professionals with the tools they need to advance social justice, so that these emerging leaders can help to transform the whole field of philanthropy.

Power dynamics came up in several of the conference sessions, though one of the most enlightening was a plenary session facilitated by Pamela Freeman and Jennifer Ladd of Class Action.

During the session, they did something called “the ten chairs exercise” – a physical representation of wealth distribution across the US (using data from 2006). First, they asked ten volunteers to sit in ten chairs at the front of the room. They then asked six people to leave their seats, and sit on the laps of the folks sitting in the first three chairs. (Awkward!) Then one person was invited to stretch across the 7 remaining chairs. This made the following data suddenly very visible: 90% of the population owns 30% of the wealth in the United States; 10% owns 70% of the wealth. Whereas the one person really had more space than they could fill, the other 9 squatted uncomfortably with each other. It was a powerful message! The facilitators then noted that 1% of the population owns about 35% of the wealth, so 1% of the population owns more than 90% of the population combined.

They then challenged the young foundation professionals in the room to ask themselves the following questions: Are we part of sustaining this wealth distribution? Or are we helping to shift why that is? Whether you are at a foundation of a service-providing nonprofit organization, these questions have clear application to your work.

EPIPers discussed a variety of issues with power throughout the conference, some feeling shorted within their own foundations due to their age, race or gender, and others feeling frustrated by their own inabilities to overcome the power differential in empowering nonprofits to be the source of solutions. As YNPNers, we also have to recognize the power differential that exists between nonprofits and their clients, and take the necessary steps to build equity within these relationships.

In light of all of these concerns, the facilitators pointed to the need to have open and honest conversation – and the power of storytelling to create some space for richer discussion. Others can help us as we grow and learn how to better navigate these challenges.

“I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again. Simple, honest, human conversation. Not mediation, negotiation, problem solving, debate, or public meetings. Simple, truthful conversation where we each feel heard, and we each listen well. This is how great changes begin, when people begin talking to each other about their experiences, hopes, and fears.

What would it feel like to be listening to each other again about our yearnings, our fears, our prayers, our children?”

From Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, a book by Margaret Wheatley.

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