Power, Relationships, and Language
A few months back, I had the opportunity to work with the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the IDEA Partnership. Our focus was on “self-determination and youth investment” for young people with all sorts of abilities. The group included the deaf and hard of hearing, the physical disabilities community, the autism community, the mental health community, and the intellectual disability community.
Beyond any strategic facilitation purpose, I like to start with conversations about power because it is already in the room with us, and we rarely talk about it. Everyone has it. Everyone has lost it. Everyone has used it. Everyone has been used by it. Everyone intuitively knows what it is, but few know how to talk about it.
We opened the session by having participants (adults and a couple of youth) picture themselves as a youth and then recall a time when they felt that they had power during their youth. Going around the room, you can just imagine the stories, the inspiration, and relationships that were shared among these complex lives. Responses varied from having the chance to drive a car to being told as a young woman that she is “just as good as the boys”; from the first experiences of saying “no” to a parent and making her own decision to holding his first position of formal leadership; from being genuinely listened to and supported by an adult as he overcame his physical challenges to experiencing accountability and ownership of her own mistakes and of her own education; from holding that first job to staging a walk-out to protect and save a school for the deaf and hard of hearing.
These were powerful people. We all are powerful people.
Power is not something we do but underlies what we do. It has no innate value, good or bad. It is not a choice we make but is reflected in the choices we make. It is not the substance of our relationships but defines the nature of our relationships.
And while we don’t talk about power very often, we talk around power in most of the work we do.
As I listened to the stories of these leaders, I began to write down some of the language we were using and its relationship to power. The following is the short (incomplete) list of words I captured in my margin:
Inclusion: sharing and/or balancing power
Actualization: living into one’s power
Self-determination: choosing how to use one’s own power (requires the power of true choice)
Voice: expressing power
Leadership: acting on power
This is just a start from my notes that day and I invite you to look for the other assumed, unspoken and/or unacknowledged power underlying our language, our actions, and relationships.
At the end of the day, we cannot individually enforce inclusion; we cannot singularly define actualization; we cannot provide self-determination; we cannot create voice; and we cannot prescribe leadership. We don’t have the power.
The power to achieve any of these is within each of us and is manifest through powerful relationships.
As I was driving to work today and listening to NPR, I was caught a bit off guard by a streak of frustration that flooded me as I listened to yet another economist talk about the jobs market and “uncertainty”. Uncertainty is to blame for slow hiring (or no hiring). Uncertainty is to blame for a lack of lending. Uncertainty is to blame when it comes to consumer spending. Uncertainty is to blame for everything that is currently “wrong” with our economy, went wrong with our economy, and ever will go wrong with our economy. I have been listening to and reading this word for several years now, but today it rubbed me the wrong way.
The problem is that uncertainty used in this sense implies that there is some other world that is actually certain that we will one day return to. Guess what! It never was certain, never has been certain, never will be certain. There are just “good” times when people who craft the stories and promote the state of things were comfortable with the uncertainty and likely being fed by it. So, they call it certainty. Was the housing market certain in 2006? Of course not. But, in 2006 were we certain that housing prices would continue to rise? Of course we were. Were we once certain that unemployment rates could and should stay at 4-5%? Of course we were. Are we certain of that now? It doesn’t look like it. Were we once certain that every next generation in America would be better off than the previous? Of course we were. And now? Not so much.
Can I go ahead and blame uncertainty for the flat tire I had last week? Perhaps if I do that I won’t have to go looking for nails in my driveway from my new roof. Maybe it can be blamed for the strange pain I had in my leg the other day while running. If so, I don’t have to consider that I do not stretch sufficiently. Surely it is to be blamed for that strange stain I found on my shirt while ironing it this morning. No way I could have done that! It was just uncertainty!
Uncertainty has no real meaning. To use it as the opposite of certainty is a lie, because certainty doesn’t exist. Uncertainty is life and life is uncertainty.
If we are rebuilding our economy for a more certain time, we are not really rebuilding our economy.
If we are preparing the next generation for a more certain future, we are certainly not preparing them.