Post the Eighteenth or Dismantling Power Part II

In my previous post, I wrote about my experiences at Pride and how they were lessons in power. I mentioned that there was another intimate instance this week about power and it was at the Out Youth board meeting.

The board meeting was a badass example of community organizing. We flooded the meeting with our thoughts, our voices and our hearts. Young people and adults alike stood up bravely and spoke on behalf of the family as well as the organization. It was moving in many ways, not the least of which because I was social justice orgasming left and right.

At one point, people began to talk over each other and the board was attempting to take control of our meeting when Gabi raised her voice and passionately declared the types of strategies that everyone should be thinking about and basically calling them inept. She shouted down the board as well as the community members who were clamoring to be heard. It was an awe inspiring sight to see. It felt like Gabi was speaking with all our voices.

The board responded in turn by saying that they felt that they had been abused. Which is interesting to me because being abused seems to me to involve a lack of power. If you are abused you are generally disempowered and yet the board are very clearly empowered. They are the ones who wield all the legal power at Out Youth. Moreover, those community members who were there felt that Gabi’s action was appropriate and righteous.

But that’s the nature of power. If you have it, it allows you to ignore it. It allows you to not see it because by its very nature power is subtle.

Not only does the Board of Directors have legal power and privilege they also have adult power and privilege. So when they have the audacity to say that they feel abused I can’t help but react negatively. Not only because they can’t really be abused but also because they, and the institution they represent, have inflicted abuse on those without power for years by not listening and by making decisions that are not in the best interest of our community.

So the next time you are upset at a young person passionately voicing their feelings remember that we are all a product of the world we live in.

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About witchymorgan

I'm a 22 year old womanist, sex positive, pansexual, polyamorous, queer, bruja, transwoman. Social justice activist by day, social justice activist by night. Fun! View all posts by witchymorgan

7 responses to “Post the Eighteenth or Dismantling Power Part II

  • Rifka Reichler

    orgasming: i was sitting right in front of you- and i swear that was the word that kept ‘coming’ to my mind about you- it was so fantastic!
    i’d say it was love at first sight w/ you except i met you a few years back. LOL

    did the thing with Gabi happen at the out house? cuz i don’t remember it at the original meeting.

    i am so unhappy at the circumstances that finally brought me into the OY family, but i am so glad i am now part of it.
    i look forward to changing OY and the world with you and the rest of the amazing OY family.

  • Matt Smith

    That’s funny. During the 2006 crisis, youth requested/demanded a meeting with the board. To prepare for it they enlisted a facilitator, the amazing Tim Eubanks, to help them figure out what was important to them and how they wanted to present it. Tim was then supposed to facilitate the meeting with the board. Volunteers were aligned with the youth but organized ourselves separately to a large extent, so it was really the youth’s meeting.

    I was a “Lead Volunteer” at the time. We maintained the listservs for youth and for volunteers. I’ll never forget the Chair emailing me with a message for everyone, which read in part: “The majority of the board feel that a facilitator is not necessary for Sunday. Let your facilitator know that they will not be needed.” I said I’d forward her message and asked their rationale for not wanting him there. The next response was, “As far as having a facilitator, I agree that it is a good idea. Gail Goodman of Waterloo Counseling has agreed to facilitate our meeting on Sunday. She brings a wealth of knowledge about Out Youth and the community and she is well known and respected in the community and a neutral party.”

    I remember calling them out on what felt like a petty power play, trying to seize control of a meeting youth had initiated to air their concerns, when the board already had the power advantage as adults in positions of authority. They’d also unilaterally set a date for the meeting, and in other ways they used their power when they could have shared it. I was pissed.

    Months after this, I reconciled with the chair. (see below) She really didn’t get it, she was really doing her best, cared a ton, stressed and worked her tushie off. If it weren’t for her, OY would not have survived that crisis. She wasn’t evil, even though she did some awful (AWFUL!) things. And it taught me something about people.

    She and the board at that time did not feel powerful. They felt trapped in a crappy situation, stressing over extremely difficult decisions, and then having people furious with them for their mistakes and for some things that weren’t necessarily mistakes. They took their privilege/power for granted, so they were both insensitive to the power imbalance everyone else was feeling and felt threatened by any move to equalize that imbalance. They were scared by our anger and sometimes confused, because they didn’t realize how things looked or felt from our perspective. They were defensive and sensitive to our (harsh) criticism. They didn’t get it.

    Anyways. That’s one reason I now favor mediators for dispute resolution. Part of their (our) job is to equalize the power imbalance… another is to slow it down and help people unpack things so they can understand each other… another is to keep conflict from escalating to the point it derails the whole collaborative process… another is to help people stay open and take in what others are saying.

    Hope it doesn’t sound like I’m lecturing. I’m telling the story partly because I’m excited we have stories with such similar elements, partly because it’s horrifying to know OY may have lost everything we learned the last time around and may be learning the same agonizing lessons all over again. And telling the stories is the best way I can think of to pass on OY’s institutional knowledge, scattered though it may be.

    When I said “see below,” it was for this. This is part of the chair’s parting message to those of us on the board when she left it. Obviously she had the humility to examine herself and learn from others, even though for a while that humility wasn’t visible to me:

    “It is kind of funny how my perspective has changed over the last few months. Earlier this year, I made decisions based on a business perspective, very matter of fact without regard to any other perspective. Lately, I have had to look at the clinical, youth, volunteer,and community stakeholder perspective. A lot of growth in the last few months.”

    She left the board as soon as she felt she responsibly could after recruiting my cohort. As a board member with her, I was one of just a few who got to know her as someone other than the face of evil. (Our reconciliation actually happened at my interview for a spot on the board.) I regret that the others never got to see her big heart, humility, evolution, dedication, and integrity.

    • witchymorgan

      Thanks so much for sharing your institutional knowledge with us. While it upsets me that we are fighting these battles over again, it also comforts me to know that there is this history and we aren’t just crazy. This time we will win.

      • Matt Smith

        Sure. I also meant to disagree with something you said. If you said the board can’t be _oppressed_ by youth, in their capacities as adults or board members, I’d agree. But they could be abused. You could call them names or beat them with a stick, and it would be abuse.

        So if they felt bullied, they felt bullied, and maybe there’s something to it. I really don’t know; I wasn’t there. I just know I’ve seen people with power who weren’t prepared to flex any when others wanted the power to be shared… and who were really quick to feel threatened by that. Like you, I expect more than that of people who hold power.

        Also – don’t discount your own power. Being able to make someone feel bad or dominated is power. Being able to mess up someone’s public image, disrupt their operations, or affect their funding is power. Standing up and shouting people down is exercising one’s power. And like all power, it can be used well or badly.

        I loved how in your post about the emcee, you took care to make it not about him personally… and you were telling the story not to gripe but as a call to action. (not that there isn’t a place for griping) I read social justice blogs, and yours is really thoughtful. Even when I disagree with something you say, I dig it.

      • witchymorgan

        I suppose, than, that one of the things as social justice activist is explore and examine different kinds of power and how that power can be wielded effectively. I have no sympathy for the Board when they have perpetuated a history of oppression and are completely unapologetic about it.

  • Matt Smith

    Oh yeah, mediators also cut people off if they try and interrupt. 😉

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