Berkana Blog

At the Intersection of Power and Participation

by Chris Corrigan on October 5, 2011

This blog comes to us from friend of The Berkana Institute and Art of Hosting practitioner, Chris Corrigan. It was originally published at on October 3, 2011.

Leaving New York today. It has been an incredible four days here working with my good friends Kelly McGowan and Tuesday Ryan-Hart and Lex Schroeder, Anistla Rugama, Alissa Schwartz, and Aswad Foster. We were running a workshop called the Art of Social Justice in which we were investigating the intersection of participatory process and social justice work. Over three days we explored a framework that Tuesday has developed and investigated with Kelly for the past year. The framework includes and transcends the gifts and drawbacks of traditional social justice frameworks and of what we know about participatory process.

Tuesday is writing a lot more about this, but the essence of the framework is that neither social justice analysis nor participatory process are enough on their own to move us into the new forms of leadership that are needed in a world where social inequity and power are becoming increasingly complex, and where traditional forms of organizing are no longer reflective of the interconnected nature of global society.

A gift of traditional social justice analysis is the way it understands personal and collective power and privilege. This analysis concerns itself with transformation of both the personal and the social power dynamics in society, but it often contains within it an invisible current of control that runs deep in the architecture of social change process. It posits a social separation between those of us who are working for change in or allied with the struggle of oppressed peoples, and people in the system that are thought to be–traditionally–the enemy. Or it sets up a struggle between the system that perpetuates oppression and the people who are oppressed by it. In this world, in this time, that analysis is out of date. We are all connected to the entire system. As I showed in my last post, you can even discover how many slaves you employ. Even if you are heavily marginalized within the mainstream, you are connected to the system itself. As the sign said at Occupy Wall Street, “you are us.”

Those of us who are facilitators of participatory process often make grand claims about the power of processes like Open Space Technology and World Cafe to even out power differences. In a circle everyone is said to be equal and leadership can come from every chair. While participatory process does provide a useful methodology for decolonizing how we meet, it has several risks associated with it. For one thing, if we fail to take into consideration the context in which we are working, power can show up in participatory process in a dangerously invisible way. Some participants may be able to operate much more resourcefully because of their power or privilege by, for example, becoming the scribes for small groups and speaking for the group. Those who cannot write may not feel comfortable posting a session in Open Space, meaning that there is no way that their voices can be heard or their contributions incorporated. Furthermore, participatory processes, like all facilitation processes, heavily depend on the role of the facilitator. If the facilitators (and the process designers for that matter) are not aware of the currents of power and privilege within the context in which they are working, they run the risk of designing structures that keep marginalized people marginalized. If they come to the hosting role without awareness of and good practice around their own power and privilege, the social architecture that emerges can be very exclusionary.

Both of these fields of analysis have something to offer to one another and both have their own drawbacks. In Tuesday’s framework, she identifies a middle path, which she named co-revelation. It is going to take me a while to unpack this concept, but I can at least begin to see how it works. In the space of power-aware participatory leadership, the gift of relationship is active. As we move together through process, the emphasis on relationship is key and in working together relationship becomes more revealed. In the process, we treat each other with more and more grace and compassion, coming to see that as we are all interconnected both to each other and the systems in which we are working to change, we recognize that personal and social transformation is also both inevitable and required. In Saskatoon last week, one of our participants in the Art of Hosting was carrying the question “how do we collaborate with dictators?” as a way of trying to discern the limits of participation.

In several conversations over these last two weeks I have come to ask that question of myself, and reframing it as “how do I collaborate with myself when I am being a dictator?”. With that inquiry active, we may find that dictatorship behaviors are present everywhere, and we may also allow ourselves and others the grace to be imperfect in our lives and behaviors. This doesn’t excuse violence or oppression, but rather it gives us serious skin in the game in trying to address oppressive systems. If we are not a part of the problem we cannot be a part of the solution. And in being a part of the problem we need to treat each other with some kindness and latitude, qualities that are born in relationship, even relationship with people with whom we have fundamental differences.

Comments (1)

  1. John Loty on October 28, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    An astute re-frame – becoming the change (which we seek ‘out there’ ) – does indeed imply that we are part of the problem, so to speak. So the challenge is to be truly alive and aware of this deeper or wider reality.
    Denial is not just a symptom of addiction, it is, so it seems, a fact or challenge of life.