Part 5: Building Power-with from the Outside

In Part 4, I discussed some ideas for agency insiders to democratize their technical power and value experiential knowledge. In my theory of change, organizers outside are critical to changing government agencies’ policies and practices. Often people on the inside need political support from the outside to push change. And more importantly, most priorities for changes should come from impacted communities.   

I decided to study transportation after I moved to Atlanta, Georgia without a car. One afternoon during my rail to bus transfer, I met members of a grassroots transit riders’ group passing out fliers at a MARTA station. They were in my neighborhood organizing riders to make the transit system work better for them. I went to their next meeting and for the next five years I would use what I was learning in grad school to provide technical support to Atlanta organizations with low-income, of color, and disabled leaders organizing transit riders and workers. I also became a person who transit insiders called when they needed something said they couldn’t say publicly themselves without risk. I supported a joint day of action in 2010 organized by the transit agency, the employee union, and a transit advocate organization (all groups led by Black women) that successfully pressured the Georgia legislature to make a needed change to save transit service levels.        

  • Large red X painted on a side of a MARTA car
  • Red X painted on the side of a MARTA bus
  • Rally on the upper level of MARTA 5 Points station
  • People marching to Georgia State Capitol Building
  • Crowd of people hold MARTA Breeze cards in center of Georgia State House
  • Rider at a table filling out a sign-up form

A convergence of leadership, governance structure, and historical moment led to such public collaboration at this high level of an agency. However, the central tenet remains constant: change-makers inside and outside of the agency building power-with each other. In power-with change making, developing a common understanding of the role each plays in the partnership is necessary to achieve the shared goal. 

In her book The Purpose of Power, Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, defines organizing as building relationships so that together you can build power to change the conditions hurting your community. She makes sure to point out that a condition of success is changing the relationships of power so that it is held by many instead of few (pg 56). I call power held by many ‘power-with’ and power held by few ‘power-over’. (Terms I picked up in a Women’s Studies class as an undergraduate.)

I have observed how effectively building relationships with people inside government agencies can help outside organizers push change. Internal change-makers can provide information that is hidden, sometimes on purpose, from the outside; can explain the complexity around problems; and can identify leverage or decision points. Insiders can do the creative problem-solving internally to find a way to implement changes. They can champion changes sought by communities.

The challenge is how to build those relationships using power-with tactics within the overall power-over system that internal change-makers work in. The circumstances vary on how much internal change-makers can build power internally. They are working in a system where others have power-over them. Sometimes insiders are putting their livelihood at risk when they collaborate with outside organizers, so relationships require trust.

This is not to let people in the public sector, especially in leadership positions, off the hook, but to say that we need the creative tension of accountability and support. Using this tension to make change requires understanding the role that individuals play in bureaucracies. Decisions are made by individuals in the context of systems and political structures. Individuals in systems need to be held accountable for the decisions within their purview and must be supported so they can take risks.

Instead of criticizing individuals (or organizations) for not making decisions they don’t have the power alone to make, outside organizers should work to build the conditions where, either that individual has that power (political cover), or that power is more widely held. Identifying where in the system decisions can be made, and illuminating what or who is preventing those decisions, allows organizers to hold government to account while maintaining trust in the institutions of government that are working within the existing system of power. (A corollary to this principle is that trying to hold institutions to account for decisions they can’t make, or positions they can’t take, can undermine those institutions in the eyes of the public.)

Accountability is two-sided. Internal change-makers should also be asking what makes their potential outside partners accountable and to whom. In transportation there tend to be advocate organizations that have experiential expertise and those that specialize in technical expertise. The authority of organizations with experiential expertise comes from their legitimacy with the communities they represent. For organizations based on technical expertise there is a tendency to base their legitimacy on the power of their ideas. However, this can set up a power-over dynamic where the argument becomes about whose ideas are better, instead of how to collaboratively make change based on shared goals.

Organizers with access to power can use the tools of power-over to try to force change, but that comes at a cost and does not build relationships. No matter who uses power-over techniques they still replicate the systems of inequality, even if organizers ‘win’ in the short-term. In my personal experience, organizations that are rooted in communities historically without power and led by women and people of color are well-versed in power-with tactics. I assume this is due to their lack of access to power-over decision-makers, and because people who have had power wielded over them are less likely to replicate these tactics. The movement to create a better world is practicing the world we want.

I wish that the public didn’t have to organize themselves to change how government operates and treats them. Government should exist to solve problems and improve the lives of everyone. But we have to start with the reality of the power-over world we live in. Making sustained change will require dedicated organizers inside and outside of government working collaboratively to build power-with each other in large and small ways.

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