I was talking to friend who lives on a housing estate recently. He described how a group of young people had trashed a car outside his house the previous night. When I asked what he’d done about it, he looked surprised and said, ‘Well nothing – what could I have done?’
There was a powerlessness in his response.
I recognised this powerless – I experienced it during a serious illness. I was in hospital and had concerns about my treatment, but my condition left me so dependent on the medical staff I just didn’t feel able to challenge them.
Sharing power feels a nebulous concept to me, but when I consider where my own ‘power’ lies, I realise how vital my networks are vital for me.
I’ve lived and worked around one area of Greater London for over 30 years and know a lot of people from many different sections of the community. If I need a plumber, builder, dentist or well…anything really, I know who to ask for a recommendation that will work for me. I have networks that extend beyond my locality through my work, friends, family and wider contacts. That gives me power. When I need to complain or question something, I don’t have to do it alone. I can draw on people who support me, who help me work out who to approach and how, and find resolution. Even when I was ill and unable to fight for myself, I had people who fought for me. When I felt powerless with the doctors, I still had power because of my relationships.
So when it comes to sharing my power, am I willing to share my networks openly? Whenever I get the opportunity to link people together within my networks, I get a choice – to stay in the middle, letting others connect through me, or let go and let the relationship grow separately.
Is it okay to hold on to those strings? To act as a hub, the central point of connection? Once I start thinking like this, I’m probably not sharing power – just extending my own.
So what should sharing power look like for me?
Let’s use the example of someone from my network – say - a young person recently out of prison. I can be the one who supports them, opening new doors: with my connections they can rebuild their life. But is that power sharing or me becoming more powerful in their life?
Wouldn’t sharing power in that context be coaching them to build their confidence, develop skills and connections that enable them to grow independent of me? It’s a subtle, yet crucial difference, if I want them to recognise they can have the power to change their life. I can still open doors, make connections and utilise my networks to empower them. The difference is that what happens next will be down to them. Sharing power is choosing not to control it – even at the risk of some reputational damage if they abuse the connection.
Coming back to my friend watching the car being smashed up, our conversation led to the options he had that night. He didn’t know his neighbours; he had heard the police wouldn’t respond to calls like that and felt talking to local councillors was a waste of time. I was able to introduce him to his councillors and a Police Community Support Officer, and got him the contact details for his tenants’ association. If he develops any of these connections in a positive way, I wonder if it will change how he responds if he sees another car being smashed up?
I’ll be interested to find out.
Avril McIntyre leads the team at Community Resources, a charity which mobilises people to find solutions to the problems faced in their community. Based in Barking & Dagenham, initiatives developed by volunteers seek to tackle the issues primarily caused by poverty and isolation. Five years on, three of the initial projects are now having significant impact with local residents and two have been replicated nationally. Before that, she was Chief Executive of LifeLine Community Projects, which equips people for life and work through a range of services including employability programmes, family support and mentoring.