Sharing power? It starts by understanding power and privilege, by Sufina Ahmad

Sufina Ahmad

Sufina Ahmad

Power and privilege go together in my view, so how do we encourage those with most to give it up? Understanding the structures where that power lies, and trying to change them from within, is in my view the best place to start.

Last December my sister and I attended an event on immigration and diversity politics and the implications it poses to liberal democracy.  Even now, more than four months later, I feel anxious and overwhelmed when thinking back to that event.  The levels of overt racism, othering, hyperbole and disdain towards minoritised groups in Britain shown by some of the panel members and in most of the audience contributions shocked me.   Around the same time as that event I read Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World

These two things demonstrated to me that power and privilege are intrinsically linked, and I can now no longer think of one without the other.  They also highlighted the urgency with which we need to redress the power and privilege imbalances that exist globally, which I feel are experienced most by those who are in the minority and therefore lack the levels of privilege possessed by those with power. 

I support the conversations that the Better Way network is convening around sharing power, because they are helping us to debate and pull apart the systemic and structural inequalities that exist.  They will also help to improve the quality of information that is being communicated to individuals and communities. Without networks like this, these kinds of conversations simply will not and do not happen.

In the conversation I attended, Nick Gardham, the CEO of Community Organisers, and the Rt. Hon Steve Reed MP and Shadow Minister for Civil Society, spoke passionately about the role inequalities of power have on exacerbating all other forms of inequality.  Both acknowledged the inherent difficulties in ensuring that the right conditions exist in which to share power – especially when there are issues of paternalism, ethics, transparency and transfer of power to overcome across the private, public and civil society spheres.  We heard many examples of organisations represented in the room sharing power, with some honest reflections about what does and does not work, and why. 

At times during the conversation, I felt that for us to share power there’s simply too much to dismantle and put right – especially around the issue of giving up power in order to share it with others.  How is this possible when you have political parties - arguably those with the most power and privilege of all - talking about their own feelings of impotence?  Where does that leave the rest of us then?   At some points during the conversation there was talk of a ‘sharing power movement’ built upon the principles of trust, co-production and inclusion.  This makes a lot of sense but moving it from words into action requires us to co-ordinate the investment of our collective resources and distribute it in a way that empowers all individuals and communities effectively – especially those experiencing the greatest disadvantage and marginalisation.

Perhaps then it is easier to start small?  What can we do as individuals within our own organisations to think about the systems and processes we uphold and participate in?  We need to analyse if  power is being shared and distributed evenly, effectively and fairly at all levels.  If the power around decision-making is too top heavy, then how can you counteract this to ensure that the voice of individuals and communities features meaningfully in other parts of the decision-making process?  Perhaps it is those small incremental changes at an organisational level that will lead to bigger changes in the wider systems? 

In an era of scare-mongering, with rampant levels of power and privilege being exercised unchecked especially by the few with most power, it is perhaps unsurprising that I have more questions than answers.  Overall, I was heartened by the discussions, as those who attended were clearly committed to sharing power.  That said, I do feel that until we understand the power and privilege structures that we have created or contributed to, it is going to be very difficult for us to determine how to share power effectively and positively.  And so, a huge ‘thank you’ to the Better Way movement for creating a safe and brave space in which we could at the very least discuss this.

Sufina Ahmad works in corporate strategy at the City of London Corporation, where she steers the design and development of ambitious corporate strategies relating to society, the economy and digital and physical environments.  Prior to this role, Sufina worked for the Big Lottery Fund and City Bridge Trust and has also held a variety of service delivery and business development roles within not-for-profits, charities and housing associations in London and Sheffield. Sufiina is also the Chair of the Institute for Fundraising’s Expert Panel on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and has recently joined Just For Kids Law as a Trustee and a member of their Fundraising Sub-Committee.