#031 Reframing Power



So I’m planning this event. It’s scheduled for May 16th. If we’re fabulously good with maintaining the six-foot perimeter from each other and not congregating in groups, self-isolating in our own homes, and maintaining social ties through social media, maybe, maybe we will flatten the COVID-19 curve fast enough that the May 16th date will work. If not, we’ll reschedule. And at that point, it’s definitely going to be a matter of picking up the pieces. Even if we get to go on May 16th, it’s still going to probably be a recovery kind of period of time. This is an incredible social experience that we’re going through. It’s a shared experience. Even if we’re spending the majority of our time by ourselves in a physical sense, we’re sharing the experience through communication.

So I wrote this grant for the event, and the fiscal sponsor requested a definition of the purpose of the event. The title is Gathering Resilience: A Challenge in Reframing Power. The sponsor wanted a definition. What do I mean? What do we mean by “reframing power”? I didn’t come up with that. I had come up with “redistributing power.” I was inspired by Chenjerai Kumanyika and Michael Biewen. They did the Seeing White podcast series together on the program Scene on Radio, scene as in S-C-E-N-E, as in being played out before you, and they’re now doing a season called The Land That Never Has Been Yet, which dissects the settler colonialist history of the United States.

One of the recent episodes was actually about the time in American history called Reconstruction when, in fact, power was shared. The phrase that Professor Kumanyika used was “redistributing power.” So I had originally titled the event Gathering Resilience: An Experience in Redistributing Power because the structure is set up for an afternoon that people will experience more or less an inverse power structure where people of color are in all the positions of leadership and participants who will mostly be probably liberal or progressive white people, or curious conservative-leaning white people: anybody who actually has an aspiration for figuring out how humanity can survive in a good way the coming decades.

Anyway, I brought the language that I had come up with to the design team, and we had a pretty spirited discussion about that phrase, redistributing power, and what it implies, right—implying that white people have the power as if they possess it or own it and need to redistribute it, kind of like an act of generosity, or a gift, or something paternalistic, still supremacist. Other activists use that phrase and think that it makes sense, but I can see the argument from both sides. It really depends. It depends on how you want to cast it. But more importantly, it depends on how people receive it. And that’s lesson number one in communication is that it’s always the receiver who decides the meaning.

But, English is really slippery. So what came to mind when the fiscal sponsor asked for a definition of reframing power was this is how white people maintain control. Right? Don’t go into a situation that’s actually uncertain, that has dynamics which you may not be familiar with, in which actually you may not have control. I thought that, when asked for this definition in advance, of research that I did at the European Parliament and I was interviewing members of the European Parliament, the democratically elected representatives of the European Union. I was interviewing them about their use of interpreters because they have a massive language regime. That’s what they call it, a regime, but it’s multilingual. Not what I would call plurilingual, and I think there’s a difference that’s important, but that’s a technical conversation.

Anyway, I asked this particular MP, or I had been observing and engaging with this MEP from the UK, and they told me the reason why they were pleased that all the negotiations and the laws were being written in English is because you could make the English mean anything you want. So someone might say, “Well, I think you mean this,” and you can say, “Yeah, I see why you thought I might mean that, but that’s not really what I meant. What I meant is this.” English speakers do that through their familiarity with the language but also through what are called contextualization cues, which is kind of like, you know, what the reference points are. So if I change the reference point in a sentence, I can manipulate its meaning.

It struck me that this is what the English, and the Dutch, and the Spanish, the Portuguese, all the colonial powers, but especially the English with their treaties, with the Native Nations of Turtle Island, elevating their language and their meanings of that language to this kind of authority that has shaped the context of where we are now. We blame, a lot of people anyway, blame capitalism, but it’s important, I think, to understand that capitalism was just the economic tool that followed on the use of the language as a weapon.

Anyway, the conversation about are we trying to redistribute power or reframe power was dynamic. And the notion of reframing power is that everybody has power. Power is a shared resource. We have systems that prevent people from actively exercising their inherent power, but they have it. So if we approach the conversation about power as if everyone has it, that changes the terms of the conversation. That is a different reference point than a temporary gesture of … It’s almost artificial sharing, right? I’ll pretend for a minute that you have power instead of acknowledging and dealing with you as if you actually do.

So I’m not sure how we’re going to create a succinct definition of purpose that elaborates anymore on the language that we already have. It’s going to be a challenge. A lot of us don’t really know how to do it. But the moment—if we forecast a little bit what’s happening and what’s going to happen with increasing starkness, I guess, is that white people who have been privileged are suddenly realizing how dependent they are upon systems. And any group that’s been oppressed understands how dependent, how controlled, how manipulated we are by systems. But if the systems have been working for you, which is basically the definition of privilege, you don’t really know because you’re living your life.

So this might be a powerful opportunity because maybe the white people and others who choose to attend and participate in this event might be humbled in a way that opens up some real vulnerability, not fragility, not freaking out, because we will have actually survived something together, even if in our separate spaces. So I’m even more excited for the event. I hope that it will happen in May as scheduled. If not, it’ll happen when we pull it together and the conditions and circumstances are right to do it in the summer or perhaps the early fall.


Recorded March 17th, 2020

Location: Belchertown, MA


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