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Power, Relationships and Language

A few months back, I had the opportunity to work with the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the IDEA Partnership. Our focus was on “self-determination and youth investment” for young people with all sorts of abilities. The group included the deaf and hard of hearing, the physical disabilities community, the autism community, the mental health community, and the intellectual disability community.

Beyond any strategic facilitation purpose, I like to start with conversations about power because it is already in the room with us, and we rarely talk about it. Everyone has it. Everyone has lost it. Everyone has used it. Everyone has been used by it. Everyone intuitively knows what it is, but few know how to talk about it.

We opened the session by having participants (adults and a couple of youth) picture themselves as a youth and then recall a time when they felt that they had power during their youth. Going around the room, you can just imagine the stories, the inspiration, and relationships that were shared among these complex lives. Responses varied from having the chance to drive a car to being told as a young woman that she is “just as good as the boys”; from the first experiences of saying “no” to a parent and making her own decision to holding his first position of formal leadership; from being genuinely listened to and supported by an adult as he overcame his physical challenges to experiencing accountability and ownership of her own mistakes and of her own education; from holding that first job to staging a walk-out to protect and save a school for the deaf and hard of hearing.

These were powerful people. We all are powerful people.

Power is not something we do but underlies what we do. It has no innate value, good or bad. It is not a choice we make but is reflected in the choices we make. It is not the substance of our relationships but defines the nature of our relationships.

And while we don’t talk about power very often, we talk around power in most of the work we do.

As I listened to the stories of these leaders, I began to write down some of the language we were using and its relationship to power. The following is the short (incomplete) list of words I captured in my margin:
Inclusion: sharing and/or balancing power
Actualization: living into one’s power
Self-determination: choosing how to use one’s own power (requires the power of true choice)
Voice: expressing power
Leadership: acting on power

This is just a start from my notes that day and I invite you to look for the other assumed, unspoken and/or unacknowledged power underlying our language, our actions, and relationships.

At the end of the day, we cannot individually enforce inclusion; we cannot singularly define actualization; we cannot provide self-determination; we cannot create voice; and we cannot prescribe leadership. We don’t have the power.

The power to achieve any of these is within each of us and is manifest through powerful relationships.

Anderson is currently working on his Master of Business Administration at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. He received his B.A. from Wake Forest University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art. Email Anderson Williams.

This article is one in a series on the topic of Engaging the Public in Public Education. It was developed to provide a set of resources to assist schools in discovering innovative strategies for engaging the full spectrum of stakeholders in the education process. To read other entries in the series, please click here. To download the entire series with links and resources, please click here.

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