Generative Engagement: Balance of Power

This is next in a series of blogs where Royce Holladay and Mary Nations explore dynamics of Generative Engagement.

A critical capacity that ensures generative engagement is a deep understanding of power from an HSD perspective. In HSD we talk about “power with” rather than “power over” to describe generative relationships. Power is balanced, meaning that the ability to influence is balanced against willingness to be influenced. Do those who wield influence in the system listen to and consider perspectives of those who have less influence? Do those who traditionally have less influence in the system believe their voices can and will be heard? In generative systems, this balance where power is shared across the system sets conditions for patterns of authenticity, reciprocity, and justice.

But the question arises: What happens when the formal—or informal—distribution of power does not honor or establish patterns that sustain the system? Power can be unbalanced when privilege goes to only a few who constrain the power and involvement of others.

Define Privilege in a Generative System

To understand that concept in a complex system, let’s explore privilege in a way that goes beyond tradition. defines privilege as “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most”. In HSD we agree with that definition, and we further embellish it by talking about influence and access—the more privilege people have, the more influence or “say” they have in decisions and situations that affect them and others. Individuals and groups with more privilege have greater access to the opportunities and benefits offered in the community. When we consider the dynamics of human systems, we think of privilege at the local level as being highly context specific.

  • In a matriarchal family, the mother might be privileged in her ability to make more decisions or to direct other family members’ access to the resources in the system.
  • Teachers, by nature of their training and accountabilities, have a level of privilege in the classroom not available to students.
  • Clothing designers have privilege in setting the cultural expectations about dress and fashion from one year to the next.
  • Ministers are privileged, often, as leaders in their respective worship communities.

In these instances, and others, privilege does not have to carry a connotation of “naughty or nice.” In each of those roles, there are situations where it makes sense for these individuals or roles to carry more influence, simply by nature of their accountabilities, responsibilities, and experiences. What matters—what creates the “naughty or nice” impact—is less about the degree of privilege, and more about the use of that privilege to shape the patterns in three areas of community life:

  • Those who have privilege provide access and influence to those with less privilege.

In generative communities, everyone has access to shape or influence patterns of behavior and interaction across the whole. Rules and expectations are publicly known and discussed. Individuals and groups across the system have a venue to express their support or lack of support for those rules, to debate the differences, and to engage in democratic process to change them.

  • Constraints that define acceptable patterns of behavior and interaction are designed to ensure the coherence and resilience of the greater whole, and not merely to further privilege a dominant culture.

In generative communities, rules and expectations are about ensuring the safety and productivity of the whole community. They are established to support the “rule of law” that holds everyone accountable for the health and well-being of the greater community. Rules or expectations that arbitrarily set one group apart or that protect one group over another are not generative.

  • The constraints that define acceptable patterns of behavior and interaction are equally applied to all members of the community.

In generative communities, rules and expectations are set for everyone. Regardless of differences, no individual or group is “above the law.” All members of the community are held accountable to obey the laws that are set to protect the safety and integrity of the whole community.

When privilege is used to create a “dominant culture” that excludes or ignores some members of the community, those with privilege accrue more power and influence. They shut down avenues of influence and voice; they define the identity of the whole. They set patterns of engagement that are not generative.

In generative communities, privilege is granted to different roles in many areas of the system to maintain the safety and effective functioning of the greater whole. That privilege is not about color or gender or money or intimidation. That kind of privilege is about being accountable to the whole community. In generative communities, people with any level of privilege continue to engage with others, listening, sharing, and balancing power. The identity of the whole is a shared agreement. All members have access to influence others, and they allow others to influence them. The decisions they make and the actions they take focus on what is good for the whole system.

Use of Privilege in Your Community

In HSD, we consider a hierarchy of impact that helps us both 1) understand levels of constraint resulting from ways privilege is used in a system; and 2) identify actions that can shift its negative impacts toward generative collaboration.

  • Collaboration – Privilege is derived across the system through responsibility, accountability, and experience to ensure fair contribution of assets for all, as well equal access and participation in decision making and action in the larger community.
  • Depression – Privilege of the dominant culture is used to weaken or dull the assets, access, or participation of select members of the community.
  • Repression – Privilege of the dominant culture is used to keep “others” under control by informally constraining their assets, access, or participation in the larger community.
  • Suppression – Privilege of the dominant culture is used to put an end to others’ assets, access, or participation in the larger community through legislation of particular laws or rules.
  • Oppression – Privilege of the dominant culture uses cruel or unjust legislation and punishment to control others’ assets, access, or participation in the larger community.

The following example comes from my own experience as a first-year teacher in the US 1977. I worked in a school where about 80% of the students were migrant families from Mexico who moved across the US to pursue work. By district practice and social tradition, the school staff ignored and devalued the culture of those children by ignoring it. In our privilege as the educators within the dominant culture, we did not recognize the possibility or viability of different cultural values, celebrations, or language. We "depressed" their culture by acting as though it was not "worth" talking about.

Beyond the general depression of their culture, school policy and practice went to the next level to deal with language differences. While we ignored their culture, we didn't ignore the language of these children. We "repressed" their language by actively discouraging them from speaking Spanish at school and by telling them in many ways that English was the preferred, better language. No records or school forms were provided in Spanish. No books in the library were written in Spanish. There were no literary or positive role models about people who spoke Spanish. 

When telling them they couldn’t speak their home language did not stop their use of Spanish at school, we "suppressed" their language by creating rules about where and when they could speak Spanish. They could speak Spanish anywhere, anytime, except when they were at school. We had rules and, as a teacher in that school, I was expected to enforce them.

Finally, when kids broke our rules about speaking Spanish at school, they were to be punished in some way—with detention, being sent to the office, having a note sent home (written in English), or by various forms of isolation. We created an “oppressive” culture for children, simply because of the language they learned at birth and spoke in their homes

In 1977 that was the norm in our larger community. The dominant white, English-speaking culture set rules that prevented generative engagements for these children in the classrooms where they came to learn.  

Begin a Dialogue about Privilege

This edition of Change the World offers a tool you can use to inform self-reflection about privilege in your personal practice or in your communities or organizations. Use it to consider your own community or system at any scale: your family, neighborhood, organizations, and the larger community. Use this tool to begin a new dialogue about how privilege is earned and assigned in your community. Engage in open dialogue about the sources of privilege in your community. Come together to explore roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities to set conditions for patterns that ensure the system is generative and adaptive in the complex challenges of today’s landscape.

Will your community be perfect? That’s not likely. Will those who have system-wide responsibility and accountability make the best choices every time? They probably won’t. Will people throughout the community always adhere to the generative expectations and aspirations of the whole? You can be certain they won’t.

Living and working in a generative system is not static. It is a situation where individuals make choices about their own behavior, and those choices either move toward a more generative system, or they don’t. The best insurance you can create to support a generative community is to maintain an open dialogue about privilege and how it can be (and is) used to support patterns of collaboration and transparency. Start exploring these ideas with those around you, regardless of where you stand in the community. Continue to draw others in to your dialogue, inviting a wider, more inclusive exploration of these ideas. Support each other in working toward a more generative way of being in community.

Be in touch and let us know how your conversations progress.

Related Resources

This is next in a series of blogs where Royce Holladay and Mary Nations explore dynamics of Generative Engagement.
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