[Solution]Power and change

Contemplating the gamut of visible, hidden and invisible power that supports the status quo can be dispiriting, inducing feelings of helplessness before the Leviathan.[1] Fresh…

Contemplating the gamut of visible, hidden and invisible power that supports the status quo can be dispiriting, inducing feelings of helplessness before the Leviathan.[1] Fresh back from my life-changing moment in Tito’s house, I spent many long mornings standing outside the US embassy in London, protesting against Washington’s policies in Latin America. Our motley scatter of placards and banners contrasted painfully with the vast and highly visible power encapsulated in the great blank face of the building, topped by a huge gilded eagle glowering down at us. I didn’t feel very powerful.
Fortunately, other ways of thinking about power highlight the opportunities and possibilities for change. My colleague Jo Rowlands, based on her work on women’s empowerment in Honduras[2], identified a different scheme that encapsulates this more optimistic approach:

Power within: personal self confidence and a sense of rights and entitlement
Power with: collective power, through organization, solidarity and joint action
Power to: meaning effective choice, the capability to decide actions and carry them out
Power over: the power of hierarchy and domination, as described above.

This ‘four-powers’ model suggests a more comprehensive approach to promoting change than simply addressing visible power and decrying hidden and invisible power. Unless people first develop a sense of self-confidence and a belief in their own rights (power within), efforts to help them organize (power with) and demand a say (power to) may not bear fruit. As Tito showed in his Peruvian idyll, personal empowerment can be the first step on the path to social transformation.
Over the last few years, Jo has been a politely persistent mentor and critic, prodding me to think harder about power and participation in change processes, especially in terms of women’s rights, where ‘power within’ has proved to be a remarkably important and useful concept. In South Asia, ‘We Can’ is an extraordinary campaign on violence against women launched in late 2004. At last count it had signed up some four million women and men to be ‘change makers’ – advocates for an end to violence in their homes and communities. We Can does not target policies, laws or the authorities (visible power). Instead, it addresses invisible power, using dialogue and example to change attitudes and beliefs at the level of individuals and communities. And it’s viral. Each change maker talks to friends and…….
[1] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
[2] Jo Rowlands, Questioning Empowerment: Working with Women in Honduras (Oxford: Oxfam UK and Ireland, 1997).

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