In the Wake of Violence, Notes On Power, Powerlessness and Voice

“Speak truth to power” is a popular slogan these days. In a democracy, what about the responsibility of power to speak truth?
-Ursula K. Le Guin

This past weekend a young man, just 19, was in the hospital with a tube down his throat and a wound to his neck, unable and perhaps also unwilling to speak. Many people hoped he would recover enough to be able to talk to authorities so they could get some answers as to why he and his brother planted bombs, killed four people, and wounded over 200 in Boston last week.Jared Wickerham Getty ImagesIn times like these, we are reminded at once of how powerless and power-full we are as a community. Terrible things happen, sometimes there is no logic. And, we know we have a responsibility to each other and to our children that things like these do not happen. The weight of these two conflicting truths can feel like almost too much to bear. For just a few moments it’s as if we sense the real complexity of our situation, the larger systems at work, and all of our maps for how to live in the world stop feeling useful.As of Sunday evening, still unable to speak, this young man is answering questions in writing. I do not have hope that we’ll find the answers we need in what he has to say. I am not interested in his silence; I am interested in the silence of women and men who know another world is possible, and hold themselves (and each other?) back one way or another from doing their part to create it. These are the voices I want to hear.This quote from author Ursula K. Le Guin on power speaking truth at first glance seems aimed at politicians and frustrated citizens who expect more from them. What I love about it though is that again, like we’ve seen so many women do lately, it flips power on its head. When terrible things happen, when we feel hurt and overwhelmed, it is natural and all too easy to look outside of ourselves for answers, guidance, and courage. But what if, in response to violence, in our work and in our communities, we all took the responsibility to use our power to speak more and more truth? What if, as Tuesday Ryan-Hart says, we believed power was infinite and accessible? Something that is amplified each time any one of us accesses it? What changes then?Understanding power differently, as something accessible within each of us (not to be found elsewhere), does not mean we will find the answers to our problems alone, that any one individual has the answer or solution, or that we must go it alone in our work or activism. It does mean we must listen more closely to ourselves as individuals and then use our voices in service of what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community”.The individual informs and sometimes leads the collective, the collective leads individuals, we are all connected to each other. I believe this about the women’s movement today as I believe this about movements for peace.Could it be that power has been so misused in the world, it’s hard for some of us to spend any time thinking about our relationship to it at all? What are our assumptions about power? Last week, with these questions in mind I asked you to share your thoughts on how you see power working for women and other social movements today. From your comments, it is clear we all have our own unique relationship to power and our own questions. What is common among us is how much we care about our work, our community institutions, and each other.As we recover from the events in Boston, as violence continues to rage in other parts of the world, one of my deepest hopes for women and all advocates for women is yes, that we re-examine our relationship to power, but first that we let power just be a place of inquiry. “Re-examine” does not mean change, it means asking questions. When we have the courage to ask brave questions of ourselves and each other, we begin to step into power in service of something larger. For me, this connection between power and service is why Gloria Feldt’s idea of “power to” resonates. As she says, “Once we define power as the power to accomplish something for others, or for the good of us all, women become much more willing to embrace their power. The use of power is legitimated, taken out of the realm of power-over.”Please be in this inquiry with us by sharing your thoughts here or joining Take the Lead for our webinar series on power at work coming up in July (exact date TBD, stay tuned). Share your own story about your relationship to power by emailing gloria@taketheleadwomen.com for possible mention in the webinar.Here are a few of my favorite examples of women using their voice in service of something larger: Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story,” Isabel Allende’s “Tales of Passion,” and Amy Cuddy’s “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.”