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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
Volume 5, Number 1, Sept 2004

The Culture of Power

People for whom English is not their primary language may face comparable barriers to finding out about meetings, attending events, becoming part of the leadership of an organization, or simply participating as a member when interpretation is not provided, when non-English media and communication networks are not utilized, or, again, when the pace and style of the group does not allow for the slower pace that a multi-lingual process calls for.

I am Jewish in a Christian culture. I am often aware of ways that the dominant culture of organizations I work with exclude me. When I get together with other Jews in a group I can feel so relieved that we are all Jewish that I can fail to notice ways that parts of the Jewish community have been excluded. Because I am in the culture of power in terms of disability I can overlook the fact that we may all be Jews in the group, but we have scheduled a meeting or event in a place that is not accessible. We may all be Jewish, but we may have failed to do outreach into the Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans communities. Or because we are predominantly middle class Jews during our discussions we may be unaware of how we are excluding Jews who are poor or working class.

We each have ways that we are in the culture of power (for me, for example, as a white male) and ways that we are marginalized (for me as a Jew). Although we may be good at recognizing how we have been excluded, we are probably less adept at realizing how we exclude others because it is not as much a survival issue for us. We have to look to people from those groups to provide leadership for us. It is important that we learn to recognize the culture of power in our organizations so that we can challenge the hierarchy of power it represents and the confinement of some groups of people to its margins. Use the previous paragraphs and the questions below to guide you in thinking about the culture of power in your organization.

Assessing the culture of power

What does the culture of power look like in your organization? In your office or area where you work? In your school or classroom? In your living room or living space? In your congregation? Where you shop for clothes? In agencies whose services you use?

The following questions can be used to identity cultures of power based on gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, age, race, language, physical ability, immigrant status, or education.

  • 1. Who is in authority?
  • 2. Who has credibility (whose words and ideas are listened to with most attention and respect)?
  • 3. Who is treated with full respect?
  • 4. Whose experience is valued?
  • 5. Whose voices are heard?
  • 6. Who has access to or is given important information?
  • 7. Who talks most at meetings?
  • 8. Whose ideas are given importance?
  • 9. Who is assigned to or expected to take on background roles?
  • 6. How is the space designed? Who has physical access?
  • 7. What is on the walls?
  • 8. What language(s) are used? Which are acceptable?
  • 9. What music and food is available? Who provides it?
  • 10. How much are different people paid? How are prices determined?
  • 11. Who cleans up?
  • 12. Who decides?

Every person has the right to complete respect, equitable access, and full participation. Anything less limits the effectiveness of an organization by denying it the contributionsthe experiences, insights and creative input--of those individuals and groups excluded or discriminated against.

Those inside the culture of power rarely notice it, while those excluded are often acutely sensitive to how they and others are being marginalized. Therefore leadership in efforts to eliminate the culture of power need to come from those in excluded or marginalized groups. Unless they are in leadership positions, with sufficient respect, status, and authority, the organization's efforts to change will be token, insufficient, and have limited effectiveness.

As they become better at identifying patterns of exclusion, people from within the culture of power can learn to take leadership in identifying marginalizing practices so that the organization doesn't have to rely as much on people at the margins to do this work for it. Although groups will always need to look to the insights of people at the margins to completely identify how systems of oppression are currently operating, there is an important role for those inside the culture of power to take leadership as allies to those excluded. They can challenge the status quo and can educate other "insiders" who are resistant to change. It is precisely because they have more credibility, status, and access that people on the inside make good allies. They can do this best not by speaking for or representing those marginalized, but by challenging the status quo and opening up opportunities for others to step forward and speak for themselves.

Every institution of higher education has a culture of power. And each department, division, school, program, and office within it has its own subculture of power. These may not be consistent or overlapping. The university may have an educated white male administration while the women's studies department has a middle class white woman's culture of power which excludes poor and working class white women and women of color of all classes. To be in opposition to the prevailing culture of power does not preclude us from creating subcultures of power that, in turn, exclude others who are even more marginalized than we are.

We have a responsibility, as people who have had access to educational opportunities, not to let the fact of our being on the inside of a culture of power allow us to deny educational opportunity to those who are on the outside. We need to fight for equal opportunity and full access and inclusion not just for those groups that we are a part of, but also for those groups we are not. For most of us that means listening to those on the margins, acknowledging our insider status compared to some other groups, and acknowledging our access to power, our resources, and our privileges. Then we can work with others to use our power, resources, and privileges to open up the educational structures to those who continue to knock on the doors.

One of our goals should be to create organizations and institutions that embrace an internal culture of full inclusion and all of whose members are trained to think critically about how the culture of power operates. We each have a role to play, we each have much to contribute to creating such organizations and pushing every group we are a part of to move from a culture of power to a culture of inclusion.

Paul Kivel is an author, educator, and consultant. He is cofounder of the nationally recognized Oakland (California) Men's Project and has developed and conducted hundreds of workshops on racism and anti-violence, training thousands of teens and adults on such topics as male/female relationships, alternatives to violence, racism, family violence and sexual assault, parenting, and diversity issues.

This article was adapted by the author from Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice © Paul Kivel, 2001. (revised 2002).

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