Power Dynamics in Networks
by Seema Patel, Senior Advisor, Collective Mind
Collective Mind hosts regular Networks in Action sessions to unpack critical network concepts with our global learning community. Each session focuses on a specific network concept and through a series of facilitated reflection exercises, builds out the concept by crowdsourcing ideas and experiences.
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In April 2023, Collective Mind hosted our Networks in Action on power dynamics in networks. The session, hosted by Collective Mind founder, Kerstin Tebbe, built from inputs shared by event registrants and followed the frame of “what”, “so what”, “now what”. The ideas shared here are a summary of the participants’ inputs and discussion.
What?: Defining power dynamics in networks
The first part of the conversation focused on the question of how participants define power dynamics, and in particular, how power dynamics play out within their networks. The responses to this question were rich and diverse, ranging from dynamics rooted in underlying biases, organizational structures and systems, social and relational dynamics, and financial and decision-making control.
Participants referenced dynamics that are present between and amongst the actors within a network setting, for example, between community members who receive services from the network and network members who provide access to the network services/resources; within network members themselves (supervisors and direct support staff); and between network members and teams (network managers) who hold access to network resources. Power differentials may also exist wherever money is involved, seemingly “tipping the scale” in favor of those that have it, for example, between paid staff and volunteers, paying members and non-paying members, hosts/fiscal sponsors and network leadership/members, funders and grantees, or the flow of money from one part of the globe to another.
At an even higher social and systemic level, there are multi-layered power dynamics around gender, race, global north vs. global south, and implications around how they each interplay and affect network relationships and trust.
So what?: What has been tried to minimize the negative impacts of power dynamics within your networks?
Responses from participants fell into one of three categories: relationship-building, structural/operational, and inspirational/motivational.
Relationship building included finding ways to increase transparency and communication, organizing recurring events where everyone (members, but also external people) can create their own event (online and onsite), publishing shared resources and accomplishments on the network’s platform, and creating spaces for members to have the chance to influence the network’s design and strategy. It also included leveraging the practice-based expertise of network grantees or the big-picture view that the funders can offer, and honing in on the expertise and strengths that all participants bring to the network (and are necessary to have to make change).
Attempts at structural and operational solutions were in service of creating opportunities for shared and equitable influence in the network and cultivating diverse stakeholder group interactions to help stakeholders understand how they can contribute to the whole system. Some examples included the creation of thematic commissions to generate “management hubs” vs. having a single, centralized hub, avoiding the use of titles, setting up a participatory grantmaking approach, and launching a steering committee to help formalize partner influence in decision-making.
Inspirational and motivational solutions included asking people to slow down and reflect on situations, having champions for different initiatives, establishing mutually beneficial goals, and re-centering everyone on the network’s shared values and vision.
Now what?: What challenges does your network have with power dynamics?
We can categorize participants’ challenges into three categories, with overlapping connections and implications across them: challenges around access, mindset, and equitable network influence.
Participants referenced challenges of access on multiple levels, including access to resources, both financial and informational, and the power dynamics between community members who access network services/resources and network members who hold access. The challenges related to mindset were in regard to the struggles to change network mindsets about hierarchy and competition for resources.
The challenges of ensuring equitable and equal network influence were multi-layered. For example, participants expressed the difficulties of identifying strategies to incorporate community voices into the collective actions of the network but also the challenge of having those voices equally valued once they were incorporated. Equitable and equal influence also referred to the perennial network challenge of decentralizing leadership and decision-making. It also calls for the necessity of including more types of voices including those from the Global South, BIPOC voices, disabled persons, and those from marginalized communities.
Highlights from the conversation
This synthesis above was the basis for reflection and discussion during the session which raised additional thoughts and ideas.
As noted by one participant, “There’s rhetoric [in networks] that ‘we share power’ and ‘we empower others,’ but power is not as one-dimensional as giving it up for someone else. There are lots of nuances that can also be particular to each group and their relationship with others/other groups.” Power dynamics can foster resentment, such as when some organizations are funded and others are not, yet they are expected to collaborate as ‘equals’ under inequitable conditions. At the same time, avoiding power dynamics can keep people away from each other, preventing depth, understanding, relationships, and intentionally-aligned contribution and flourishing. Participants highlighted the existence of productive uses of power, recognizing when it can be helpful and productive towards moving the work forward.
The role of the network manager and practitioner in shifting, managing, and working with (instead of against) power dynamics, some of which have been in place for centuries, is slow but necessary work. An important step in any situation involving power dynamics is to stop, pause, and check in with oneself and with the group. It also means acknowledging and putting in work to understand the dynamics of a situation before going into it, e.g. understanding how different communication and values may impact power when working in multicultural settings.
As summed up by a participant-shared quote from Bertrand Russell, “The fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense in which Energy is the fundamental concept in physics.” In other words, power will remain and its dynamics and needs must be constantly acknowledged and negotiated.
Miss the session? View the recording here.