Ed. note: You can read Part 1 of this series on Resilience.org here.

On March 23, 2021, Transition US hosted a National Network Strategy Conversation “Deepening Our Analysis Part 2: Developing a Power Analysis.” This session built upon the first conversation in this series, which was on the topic of “Deepening Our Analysis: Connecting the Dots between Social Justice, Extractive Economy, and Ecological Crises.”

“Developing a Power Analysis” was co-facilitated by TUS staff Jessica Alvarez-Parfrey and Marissa Mommaerts, Aleisa Myles from Transition Town Media and the TUS Collaborative Design Council, and Colleen Wimmer, a graduate student in Naropa University’s Resilient Leadership Program.

The session began with a Poetic Invitation shared by Aleisa, Jessica and Colleen. When the three of them met to prepare for this session by drafting a sample power analysis, this poem is what they came up with. Knowing that Transition is a diverse bottom-up movement that truly values collaboration, a poetic invitation felt like a more appropriate way to open this discussion of power than opening the session with an already fully-fleshed power analysis statement.

Aleisa shared that the desire to develop power analyses reflects a leap of maturation within the Transition movement, as we analyze the unique context of power in which each community is embedded in order to do our work more effectively.

“We must grapple with and address power structures that engender and perpetuate exploitation and extraction so we don’t perpetuate them, but rather create something different. Is it a part of privilege not to look at or perceive power relations – or is it part of being in a world immersed in trauma that makes it difficult to perceive where power lies?”nAleisa Myles, Transition Town Media

Marissa shared that both National Network Strategy Conversations on the topic of “Deepening Our Analysis” were catalyzed in response to feedback from our network on the need for a deeper analysis and understanding of power to make our work in Transition more effective.

Marissa also reviewed the key themes from Deepening Our Analysis Part 1.

Aleisa explained the difference between “Power With,” or cooperation, and “Power Over,” or domination.

Jess outlined some of the key systems of domination or “Power Over” in the US context: white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and imperialism.

Finally, before moving into breakout groups, Colleen shared this strategy framework for a Just Transition as an example of why power analyses are so important to the success of our work.

During the breakout sessions, participants were asked to discuss the following questions:

  • What are our unique positionalities?
  • How do you relate to power?
  • What powers help or hinder your own community’s ability to be resilient?
  • Where does power lie in your community?
    • What does it look like? Land & labor?
  • How do we better leverage the power we have access to?

Positionality & Privilege

“As a mixed race person I walk in many worlds, and use my privilege wherever possible to create space and access for others.” ~Jessica Alvarez Parfrey, Transition US

“I believe in using power to bring attention and awareness to those who have less power, or who believe they do. Use power to empower…” ~William Mutch, Transition Palo Alto, CA

“We often experience power as a positional thing. Innate, authentic power vs bestowed (earned or not). Power in a relationship vs power within ourselves. We sometimes think we are disempowered when we actually do have power (and vice-versa).”

“With great privilege comes great responsibility. I think a central problem is that Transition has *mostly* been a white and quasi-middle class phenomenon. When members of minority communities hear our message, what they hear is ‘The American dream of social mobility is going away,’ which is not what they want to hear, especially if it’s coming from someone they perceive as privileged…”  ~John Duvall, Santa Rosa, CA

The concept of positionality relates to the social and political context that creates one’s identity in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability status, and how this identity influences, and potentially biases, one’s understanding of and outlook on the world. Breakout participants shared their individual positionalities, and though some shared marginalized aspects of their identities and experience,  the overall positionality of the participants (a fractal of the wider US Transition Network) was one of relative privilege.

As a movement composed primarily of privileged white folks, we have a responsibility to leverage our privilege to create space and access to power for people, organizations and movements from marginalized communities: people of color, youth, poor and working class, LGBTQIA, and other groups that have been historically oppressed.

Relationship to Power 

“Power can be healthy and unhealthy, we are so used to seeing unhealthy relationships and orientations to power. Power with is the goal. Power at its simplest is being able to achieve purpose. Western-colonial orientation to power is unhealthy.”~Jessica Alvarez Parfrey, Transition US 

“Part of the difficulty is that we haven’t defined power.  We’re already confused – but we’re not having a rigorous discourse.  It makes it challenging.  Subjective feelings vs. objective material conditions.”~David Cobb, Cooperation Humboldt, CA

One of the key tensions in this conversation was people’s diverse orientations or starting points when it comes to the meaning of “power.” For some participants, the word “power” carries a positive association with personal power or “power within,” and for others it brings up negative feelings related to domination or “power over.” Yet another orientation to power is that of “power with,” the type of cooperative organizing power that Cooperation Humboldt, Transition US, and many local Transition groups aspire to.

One view of power that several participants shared is the ability to influence, impact, or make change – which is certainly related to positionality. 

Personal Power/Power Within

“I see power as agency, dynamism, ability to create.  Creativity = power.  I see it as a relational issue and a consciousness issue, a partnership problem, and as a fight between the indigenous and industrialization.” ~Janice Lynne, Transition Fort Collins, CO

“The power that allows us to choose and implement what we believe in, what we know is right.”

“Power growing inside me, between us

Power bubbling up from the grassroots, the earth

Power to topple the dying order, turn it upside down

Power to birth a new world and manifest brilliance”~Don Hall, Transition US

Power Over

“There are the power structures, the billionaires who have built the exploitation of the world for so many centuries and these same power structures continue today. So when new technologies, new pharmaceuticals, and new products are brought forth through the same old power structures how do we distinguish what is serving the sacred and what is reifying or strengthening the existing power structures?”~Aleisa Myles, Transition Town Media, PA

Participants expressed that at the individual or person-to-person level, power over can look like an unequal balance in a relationship, driven by positionality, ego, fear, greed, etc. Sometimes person-to-person power dynamics can be addressed – unlocking “power with”  – by addressing and healing the trauma or fear that lies at the root of the imbalance.

At the systemic level, “power over” manifests in systems of domination, including white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism (extraction and exploitation) and settler colonialism. While these macro-level power structures are deeply entrenched, we do have tools for transforming them, like the “Strategy Framework for a Just Transition” highlighted earlier in this session.

To bring the concept of “power over” closer to home, participants were asked to respond to “Where in your community does power lie?” Participants specifically pointed to business institutions and government agencies, including top-down industries (oil, tech, pharma, etc.) and the military (which upholds the extractive and exploitative practices of capitalism). Even closer to home, participants named land owners and landlords, business owners and government officials as holding power in their communities.

Power With: Leadership, Group Dynamics, and People Power!

“If we act alone, it will be too little. If we wait for government to act, it will be too little, too late. But if we come together as a community it could be just enough, just in time.” ~Rob Hopkins, Transition Founder

Learning how to effectively practice “power with” is a goal of the Transition movement and the wider social movement we exist within. This is why Transition US puts so much energy into designing group structures, systems, processes, and trainings: to facilitate effective collaboration, cooperation, and “power with.”

Naturally, the discussion of “power with” in our session brought up themes of leadership and group dynamics:

“Leadership doesn’t connote power as long as it is a shared experience.”

Power with is…

“…organization…not control.”

“…flowing in relationship to each other. I kept thinking back to the 60s and 70s and our understanding that it’s power over versus power with…”~Ruah Swennerfelt, Transition Town Charlotte, VT

“…using my power to help the group, stepping in where there’s a vacuum. I used to be rebellious against power, thinking the government is bad and power corrupts… I have a more subtle understanding now, and ambivalence to power. When in a position of power, I worry about abusing it or being too controlling or limiting. It’s always a struggle. Sometimes I could have used power but didn’t feel it was appropriate – knowing when to step up, step back. It’s good to be skeptical of using power too much.”

Several participants expressed how their relationship with power and leadership has evolved over time: moving from a sense of powerlessness or trauma connected to “power over,” to a resistance against any sort of perceived power or leadership role, to finally a more nuanced understanding and acceptance of “power with” and “power within.” This dynamic shows up frequently in Transition organizing spaces, and is important to understand because individual attitudes toward power affect our ability to organize and actually build “power with.”

Leadership roles can feel regenerative as well as extractive. Feeling empowered to contribute our gifts toward making the world better can feel deeply rewarding. At the same time, another dynamic that interferes with our ability to organize and build “power with” is the incidence of burn-out, depression and anxiety that can accompany being in a position of relative power in our movement and feeling the “weight of the world on our shoulders,” especially if resources and responsibilities are not equitably distributed among group members.

Striving for equity in distribution of power and responsibilities is one motivation for groups to engage in continual reflection and self-evaluation. ProSocial and Transition Network’s Healthcheck are both useful tools for this.

How do we better leverage the power we have access to? 

“Power today is focused on having a seat at the table where decisions are made. We must band together with allies and get grassroots groups more access to institutional power. We need to strengthen networks and coalitions for bottom up transformation.”~Chuck Lynd, Simply Living, OH 

“You need more than just a seat at the table to have real influence and power… You need people to actually listen, real respect.”~Bonnie Borucki, Transition Berkeley, CA

“Power is the ability to communicate.”~John Duvall, Santa Rosa, CA

“Most of us can have more “power” at the local level of community and neighborhood.”        

 “Great power can’t be had without the danger of failure.” ~Kaat VanderStraeten (paraphrasing Hannah Arendt), Energize Wayland, MA.         

“Young people are flocking to other movements…”~David Cobb, Cooperation Humboldt

The Transition movement is not wealthy in terms of either financial or human resources, but we can (and must) leverage our positionality of relative privilege more strategically to achieve our goals.

Many people in this discussion shared the sentiment that “power means having a seat at the table where decisions are made.” We can leverage our access (or potential access) to government or academic institutions, capital, etc. by working in solidarity with organizers or entrepreneurs who need access but have a harder time getting it. We can also use our relative privilege to intentionally disrupt processes that do not align with the values of Transition, knowing that our relative privilege can make it safer for us to show up as a voice of dissent.

One significant opportunity we have as a movement is to grow our numbers, so that when we send a message to centers of power – where decisions are made – we are taken seriously. In order to really grow, we need to effectively communicate our strategy – as well as our vision and models – “beyond the choir.” Youth and youth-led movements are especially important allies.

A theme that emerged in this conversation as well as other Transition US organizing spaces is how we can better position the Transition movement to help people meet their basic needs. This is a moral as well as a strategic issue. With the privilege Transitioners tend to carry comes greater material wealth in relation to communities that have been historically exploited by our economic system. Offering a spare bedroom to house someone, moving investments to support regenerative entrepreneurship in marginalized communities, or starting a community land trust are all strategies for helping people build the kind of security in their lives that can enable them to become activists.

Conclusion: 

This rich and complex discussion was a starting point, a container in which Transitioners were invited to grapple with questions of power and begin thinking about how a power analysis or map could strengthen their local work.

Though the western-colonial orientation to power is unhealthy, power in itself is not inherently “bad.” In fact, we need to understand and utilize power in a healthy way in order to transform our communities and our world.

As a movement, we have an opportunity to own our positionality and use our privilege to leverage power whenever possible.

Next Steps

Bring this discussion home to your local group. Potential discussion questions:

  • Where are the organizations that serve primarily vulnerable communities: communities of color, single mothers, differently abled folks?
  • How can we partner with other movements strategically, for example youth-led movements?
  • What can you do to be an ally, and what kind of support do you need?

If you would like to be part of a community of practice of local organizers who are doing power analysis and community mapping work in their communities, contact [email protected]. TUS is interested in hosting future sessions focused on social location/positionality, community asset mapping & action planning.