On holding space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege
“…whenever I dehumanize another, I necessarily dehumanize all that is human—including myself.”
– from the book Anatomy of Peace
This week, I’ve been thinking about how we hold space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege.
This has been a long-time inquiry for me. Though I didn’t use the same language at the time, I wrote my first blog post about how I might hold space for people I was about to meet in Africa whose socio-economic status was very different from mine.
I had long dreamed of going to Africa, but ten and a half years ago, when I was getting ready for my first trip, I was feeling nervous about it. I wasn’t nervous about snakes or bugs or uncomfortable sleeping arrangements – I was nervous about the way relationships would unfold.
I was traveling with the non-profit I worked for at the time and we were visiting some of the villages where our funding had supported hunger-related projects. That meant that, in almost every encounter I’d have, I would represent the donor and they would be the recipients. I was pretty sure that those two predetermined roles would change how we’d interact. My desire to be in authentic and reciprocal relationship with them would be hindered by their perceived need to “keep the donor happy”.
That challenge was further exacerbated by:
- a history of colonization in the countries where I was visiting, which meant that my white skin would automatically be associated with the colonizers
- my own history of growing up in a church where white missionaries often visited and told us about how they were working in Africa to convert the heathens
In that first blog post, I wrestled with what it would mean to carry that baggage with me to Africa. I ended the post with this… I won’t expect that my English words are somehow endued with greater wisdom than theirs. I will listen and let them teach me. I will open my heart to the hope and the hurt. I will tread lightly on their soil and let the colours wash over me. I will allow the journey to stretch me and I will come back larger than before.
In another blog post, after the trip, I wrote about how hard it was to find the right words to say to the people who’d gathered at a food distribution site…What can I say that is worthy of this moment? How can I assure them I long for friendship, not reverence?
That trip, and other subsequent ones to Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh, stretched and challenged me. Each time I went, I wrestled with the way that my privilege and access to power would change my interactions. I became more and more intentional about entering into relationships with humility, grace, and openheartedness. I did my best to treat each person with dignity and respect, to learn from them, and to challenge my own assumptions and prejudice.
Nowadays, I don’t have the same travel opportunities, but I still find myself in a variety of situations in which there is imbalance. Sometimes I have been the one with less privilege and power (like when I used to work in corporate environments with male scientists, or when I traveled with and offered support to mostly male politicians). Other times, I have access to more power and/or privilege than others in the room (like when I am the teacher at the front of the classroom, or I am meeting with people of Indigenous descent). In each situation, I find myself aware of how the imbalance impacts the way we interact.
This week in Canada, the final report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings related to Residential Schools has come out and it raises this question for all of us across the country. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, has urged us to take action to address the cultural genocide of residential schools on aboriginal communities. Those are strong words (and necessary, I believe) and they call all of us to acknowledge the divide in power and privilege between the Indigenous people and those of us who are Settlers in this nation.
How do we hold space in a country in which there has been genocide? How do we who are settlers acknowledge our own privilege and the wounds inflicted by our ancestors in an effort to bring healing to us all?
This is life-long learning for me, and I don’t always get it right (as I shared after our first race relations conversation), but I keep trying because I know this is important. I know this matters, no matter which side of the power imbalance I stand on.
If we want to see real change in the world, we need to know how to be in meaningful relationships with people who stand on the other side of the power imbalance.
Here are some of my thoughts on what it takes to hold space for people when there is a power imbalance.
- Don’t pretend “we’re all the same”. White-washing or ignoring the imbalance in the room does not serve anyone. Acknowledging who holds the privilege and power helps open the space for more honest dialogue. If you are the person with power, say it out loud and do your best to share that power. Listen more than you speak, for example, or decide that any decisions that need to be made will be made collectively. If you lack power, say that too, in as gracious and non-blaming a way as possible.
- Change the physical space. It may seem like a small thing to move the chairs, to step away from the podium, or to step out from behind a desk, but it can make a big difference. A conversation in circle, where each person is at the same level, is very different from one in which a person is at the front of the room and others are in rows looking up at that person. In physical space that suggests equality, people are more inclined to open up.
- Invite contribution from everyone. Giving each person a voice (by using a talking piece when you’re sharing stories, for example) goes a long way to acknowledging their dignity and humanity. Allowing people to share their gifts (by hosting a potluck, or asking people to volunteer their organizational skills, for example) makes people feel valued and respected.
- Create safety for difficult conversations. When you enter into challenging conversations with people on different sides of a power imbalance, you open the door for anger, frustration, grief, and blaming. Using the circle to hold such conversations helps diffuse these heightened emotions. Participants are invited to pour their stories and emotions into the center instead of dumping them on whoever they choose to blame.
- Don’t pretend to know how the other person feels. Each of us has a different lived experience and the only way we can begin to understand what another person brings to the conversation (no matter what side of the imbalance they’re on) is to give them space to share their stories. Acting like you already know how they feel dismisses their emotions and will probably cause them to remain silent.
- Offer friendship rather than sympathy. If you want to build a reciprocal relationship, sympathy is the wrong place to start. Sympathy is a one-way street that broadens the power gap between you. Friendship, on the other hand, has well-worn paths in both directions. Sympathy builds power structures and walls. Friendship breaks down the walls and puts up couches and tables. Sympathy creates a divide. Friendship builds a bridge.
- Even if you have little access to power or privilege, trust that your listening and compassion can impact the outcome. I was struck by a recent story of how a group of Muslims invited anti-Muslim protestors with guns into their mosque for evening prayers. An action like that can have significant impact, cracking open the hearts of those who’ve let themselves be ruled by hatred.
- Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the way through. Real change happens only when there is openness to paths that haven’t been discovered yet. If you walk into a conversation assuming you know how it needs to turn out, you won’t invite authenticity and openness into the room. Your vulnerability and openheartedness invites it in others.
- Don’t try this alone. This kind of work requires strong partnerships. People from all sides of the power or privilege divide need to not only be in the conversation, but be part of the hosting and planning teams. That’s the only way to ensure all voices are heard and all cultural sensitivities are honoured.
I welcome your thoughts on this. What have you found that makes a difference for conversations where there is an imbalance?
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