A teacher friend of mine once asked his tenth graders to blurt out the first words that came to mind on hearing the word “power.” They came out with “money,” “parents,” “guns,” “bullies,” “Adolf Hitler.” And in my workshops with adults, I’ve also heard “fist,” “law,” “corrupt” and “politicians.”
As long as we conceive of power as the capacity to exert one’s will over another, it is scary: Power can manipulate, coerce and destroy. And as long as we are convinced we have none, power will always look bad. Even my hero journalist Bill Moyers recently reinforced a view of power as categorically negative. “The further you get from power,” he said, “the closer you get to the truth.”
But wait. Power is simply our capacity to act. “Power is necessary to produce the changes I want in my community,” Margaret Moore of the citizens’ group Allied Communities of Tarrant in Fort Worth, Texas, told me. She and many Americans are returning power to its Latin root, meaning “to be able.” Through this lens, it’s clear that we each have some. We realize, for one, that we have no choice about whether to be world changers.
If we accept ecology’s insights that we exist in densely woven networks, then we must also accept that every choice we make sends out ripples, even if we’re not consciously choosing. So the choice we have is not whether but rather how we change the world. All this means that public life is not simply what officials and other “big shots” have. We each have rich public lives in our roles as parents, citizen movers and shakers, purchasers, voters, clients, workers, employers and investors.
Related evidence of our power is so obvious it is often overlooked. Human beings show up in radically different notches on the “ethical scale” depending on the culture in which we live. In Japan, “only” 15 percent of men beat up their spouses. In many other countries, over half do. The murder rate in the United States is four times higher than in Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan.
Plus, behavior can change quickly. Germany moved from a country in which millions of its citizens went along with mass murder to become – in a single generation – one of the world’s more respected nations. So what do these differences and the speed of change in behavior tell us? That it is culture, not fixed aspects of human nature, which largely determines the prevalence of cooperation or brutality, honesty or deceit. And since we create culture through our daily choices, then we do, each of us, wield enormous power.
Related, empowering findings of neuroscience also confirm our power. They reveal our interdependence to be vastly greater than we’d ever imagined:
In the early 1990s, neuroscientists were studying the brain activity of monkeys, particularly in the part of the brain’s frontal lobe associated with distinct actions, such as reaching or eating. They saw specific neurons firing for specific activities. But then they noticed something they didn’t expect at all: The very same neurons fired when a monkey was simply watching another monkey perform the action.
“Monkey see, monkey do” suddenly took on a whole new meaning for me. Since we humans are wired like our close relatives, when we observe someone else, our own brains are simultaneously experiencing at least something of what that person is experiencing. More recent work studying humans has borne out of this truth.
These copycats are called “mirror neurons,” and to me their implications are staggering. We do walk in one other’s shoes, whether we want to or not. “[Our] intimate brain-to-brain link-up… lets us affect the brain – and so the body – of everyone we interact with, just as they do us,” writes Daniel Goleman, PhD, in his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.
We literally experience and therefore co-create one another, moment to moment. For me, our imprintability is itself a source of hope. We can be certain that our actions, and perhaps our mental states, register in others. We change anyone observing us. That’s power.
And we never know who’s watching. Just think: It may be when we feel most marginalized and unheard, but still act with resolve, that someone is listening or watching and their life is forever changed.
Just as important, these findings of neuroscience give us insight into how to change ourselves. Want to become more courageous? Hang out with courageous people. Whom we choose as friends, as partners, whom we spend time with – these may be our most important choices; and “spending time” means more than face-to-face contact. What we witness on TV, in films and on the Internet, what we read and therefore imagine – all are firing mirror neurons in our brains and forming us.
Power is an idea. And in our culture it’s a stifling idea. We’re taught to see power as something fixed – we either have it, or we don’t. But if power is our capacity to get things done, then even a moment’s reflection tells us we can’t create much alone. From there, power becomes something we human beings develop together – relational power. And it’s a lot more fun.
“Relational” suggests that power can expand for many people simultaneously. It’s no longer a harsh, zero-sum concept – the more for you, the less for me. The growth in one person’s power can enhance the power of others. This contrasts our limited, negative view of power with a freeing, relational view.
Let me tell you one story of relational power…
In the 1970s, pollution in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was so bad that drivers had to turn on headlights at noon to cut through it. But in the 1990s, this once-charming city – famous for its choo-choos – went from racially divided ugly duckling to swan, winning international awards and the envy of its neighbors.
The city’s rebirth sprang in part from big investments in the city’s cultural renewal – including the world’s largest freshwater aquarium, attracting over a million visitors a year; a renovated theater involving one thousand volunteers annually; and a new riverfront park.
But all these weren’t the city fathers’ ideas.
Twenty years ago, fifty spunky, frustrated citizens declared that the old ways of making decisions weren’t working and drew their fellow residents – across race and class lines – into a twenty-week series of brainstorming sessions they called “visioning.”
Their goal was hardly modest – to save their city by the end of the century. They called it Vision 2000. They drew up thirty-four goals, formed action groups, sought funding and rolled up their sleeves.
By 1992, halfway along, the Visioners had already achieved a remarkable 85 percent of their goals. Smog was defeated, tourism was booming thanks to the new aquarium, crime was down and jobs and low-income housing were on the rise. People stayed downtown after dark, and the refurbished riverside had become an oak-dappled mecca.
Chattanoogans didn’t stop there. In 1992, a citywide meeting to shape a school reform agenda drew not the small crowd expected but fifteen hundred people, who generated two thousand suggestions.
By now the approach has seeped its way into the city’s culture. In 2002, to plan a big waterfront project, three hundred people participated in a “charrette” where teams used rolls of butcher paper to draw what they wanted to see happen.
“Basically, everything we do, any major initiative in Chattanooga, now involves public participation,” said Karen Hundt, who works for a joint city-county planning agency. From Atlanta to West Springfield, Massachusetts, from Bahrain to Zimbabwe, citizens taken by Chattanooga’s story are rewriting it to suit their own needs.
Here power is not a fixed pie to be sliced up. It grows as citizens join together, weaving relationships essential to sustained change.
Sadly, though, many of us remain blind to such a promising reframing of possibility. Imagining ourselves powerless, we disparage our acts as mere drops in the bucket… as, well, useless. But think about it: Buckets fill up really fast on a rainy night. Feelings of powerlessness come not from seeing oneself as a drop; they arise when we can’t perceive the bucket at all. Thus, to uproot feelings of powerlessness, we can define and shape the bucket – consciously construct a frame that gives meaning to our actions.
That satisfying exploration begins, I believe, when we recognize that our planet’s multiple crises are neither separate nor random. They flow largely from a partial, demeaning view of our own nature, which leads us to turn our fate over to forces outside our control, especially to a one-rule economy – highest return to existing wealth – violating deep human sensibilities, not to mention our common sense.
A “bucket” that gives meaning to my own life – and that allows me to perceive the creative, positive acts of others – is Living Democracy, an emergent redefinition of democracy itself. It is democracy developing worldwide as the ongoing engagement of citizens dispersing and generating new power in order to bring out the best in our nature, while protecting us from the worst.
It springs from and meets humanity’s common and deep emotional and spiritual needs. So, I wonder: In a world torn apart by sectarian division, could Living Democracy become a uniting civic vision complementing our religious and spiritual convictions – a nonsectarian yet soul-satisfying pathway out of the current morass? I believe it might be. And it starts with citizens’ rethinking power itself so that we can claim the very real power we each have.
It will look like this: Power – Redefining a Dirty Word