Dustin Kight

P is for Power

Filed By Dustin Kight | November 29, 2007 6:05 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Politics
Tags: Hillary Rodham Clinton, politics, power, progressive, Washington, Washington D.C.

Okay, stop. Take a moment. Breathe.

If you identify as a progressive person -- especially if you're a progressive person who is closely involved in progressive politics -- I want you to relax your shoulders and pat yourself on the back. Give yourself a great, big hug.

It's hard doing what we do. And I don't mean fighting the monsters on the right. Sure, dragon slaying is tiring; pulling the plug on the oligarchs, taxing. But I'm not talking about that here.

Here, in this moment, I'm talking about the work we do together. I'm talking about the progressive power meeting...

I've been working from DC the past couple of days -- it's so funny how quickly the pace and feel of this city sucks you back in! Since Tuesday morning, I've been in meeting after meeting after meeting. Always with good people, always for great change.

As you might imagine, I've had a lot of time to reflect the past 72 hours on the dynamics of such meetings. And I've noticed this:

We progressives have a really uncomfortable relationship with power. At the same time that we oppose the consolidation of power in the hands of a few, we encourage the development of power in the hands of many. That's great -- I'm totally on board.

But we also still operate in a world in which people generally react positively to certain displays of power -- call these displays confidence, charge, expertise, leadership, and whatever else fits.

For instance, people generally recognize that strong leadership is a good thing, whether we're talking about a progressive cause or not. But progressives, in particular, also tend to be wary of strong personalities. In my meetings, it was so interesting to watch people delicately try to move the group forward even when moving the group forward was their charge. You might call this delicate balance of push and coax "passive control."

And here's why I find this so interesting. More often than not, even when we all follow the unwritten rules of progressive deliberation, we still see the "traditionally" strong personalities, the "natural-born leaders" as the go-to people in the group. After meetings in which everyone was outwardly respectful of process and people who take a lot of time to get their points across or go "off topic," colleagues of mine would come up to me and discuss working more closely with "so-and-so strong leader" and not feeling all that confident about working with "so-and-so not so strong personality."

In the words of some, "I'm not judging, I'm just saying." Rather, I'm just pointing to what I see is a curious aspect of our political and community culture -- be it LGBTQ focused or not. From our experience of disempowerment at the hands of more insidious, perhaps majority forces, I believe we've grown gun shy towards hard-charging personalities, people who seem like they're going to take over our groups, take over our agendas, and reify our experiences of powerlessness, even if they share our political goals and beliefs. (And even though I still don't like her, perhaps Hillary is an example of one of these people...?)

And, sure, one progressive can oppress another. There are racial, gender, class, sexuality and other dynamics that always play out. That said, I always find it interesting when I feel knots in my stomach, deciding in a deadlock whether it's time to pipe up and suggest we close on the matter, and then afterwards have multiple people come up and commend me for "getting it done."

So what's the deal? Do others find this hesitation, yet ultimate appreciate for strength in leadership and personality to be true for progressive folks? Do you find this problematic, fine, better than fine, or do you just plain not care? If the latter, might I suggest you ask yourself this:

Are you one of those "natural-born leaders," yourself? ;)


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Do others find this hesitation, yet ultimate appreciate for strength in leadership and personality to be true for progressive folks?

I've found that more people want to be led than want to lead. Of the ones who want to lead, only about 25% are qualified.

Someone the other day asked me if I was going to be heavily involved in the fight over SJR-7, the Indiana constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions, this session too. The person was complimenting me on leadership style. "You're too good of a feminist not to lead by consensus," she said.

But, honestly, I don't really lead by consensus so much as I'm willing to let others have their say and then move the discussion forward. I usually have my own ideas of how the group should go forward. I'll listen to the discussion and work in any good ideas into my strategy. I present my strategy to the group as "This is how we should handle it..." while using suggestions from everyone else to bolster my idea.

And it works. Why?

People like to feel valued and important. They also want someone else to make the decisions so if everything blows up they can say, "It wasn't me. So-and-so made that decision."

I've found in my various years of leading grassroots orgs that if you're willing to take the blame when things go wrong - and accept your kudos with grace when things go right - people will follow your banner for as long as it stands.

Agreed, Bil.

Though I do think that the only group on the progressive side of things who really understands and is comfortable with power dynamics is the labor movement. Some of that is, no doubt, that Unions are democratic entities, with elected officials. But I think the larger part of it is than when you sit across a table fighting with the HR Directors and Chief Counsels of major national/international companies on a regular basis, you get a pretty good understanding pretty quickly of what power actually is and how to build it or change the balance.

I actually have very little patience for the sort of meeting dynamics you're talking about here, Dustin - they remind me all too well of the tendency of many progressives to "discuss" an issue to death until we have "consensus" rather than taking swift and decisive action. Not saying their aren't times that we need to pull back and get allies on board, but there are definitely times when the appropriate response is, "You did what? See you in an hour, with bullhorns and press!" A good friend once called this progressive tendency to discuss things to death for the fear that making an actual decision would offend somebody (or otherwise in some way not be perfect) "analysis paralysis".

Most of the time, I just try to bite my tongue if it's "one of those meetings". Probably because of my combination of butch machismo, labor experience, and general Dutch & German stubbornness/ surliness, I find myself to be really impatient with that sort of stuff. Alex, I bet if you talk to labor folk, or folks who work with the labor movement a lot, you'll notice the difference, too.

Count this as one of the big reasons I am now very happy to be working for the labor movement. [I know, I know, cue chorus of Solidarity Forever already.]

Did someone just call a non-Alex contributor "Alex"? Oh, my. Finally, it's working in a different direction. The name mix-up isn't just me being called "Bil"!

But I think that you're mixing a lot of different, related issues together Dustin, and I'm not sure what to make of it. Decisiveness, having a strong personality, and respect for others' opinions are all very different things. Someone can have a strong personality and be a terrible leader but always listen to others - it just depends on them specifically.

On what you're talking about, I think that there is definitely more respect for process and respect for others' opinions in the progressive side of the aisle. It makes sense - we're seeking change that's inherently more democratic and therefore complicated and messy - we can't just have one person speak over everyone else or we'll fragment. And fragment we do, a lot.

The sort of decisiveness that WJ is talking about often wouldn't work outside a labor context. When you say "Let's all get our bullhorns and meet in an hour", while that can work if everyone's on the same page, if there are people who don't agree with that position, they're not going to show up. And then they might stop showing up.

Yes, yes, it's all a balance really, etc., etc., but I'd rather promote complexity and discussion than the "reduce, decide, demonize" cycle of the right. While it can get some immediate results, it's specifically what we're working against.

Then again, my background is definitely not in activism. I work on this site from a writer's perspective, and discussion and introspection are writers' trade.