Power With, Power Over

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

By Robert C. Koehler

I don’t know if words can transform the world — I know they can’t bring back a murdered child — but I have a few of them to scatter on the grave of Derrion Albert, the Chicago boy whose brutal slaying two weeks ago stunned the city and the nation:

Power with, not power over.

I would ask that we sit with these words for a moment — in his name, in the name of uncountable others — until we feel a click of understanding, until profound possibility slides into place. We can make this a different sort of world, and the simplest, perhaps the only, way to begin is by altering our relationship with power, and with each other.

I say this having spent the weekend sitting in a peace circle, opening myself up, laughing till the tears streamed, looking into the eyes and bared souls of 14 other people. The idea was to talk about violence in Chicago and around the world, but far more importantly the idea was to build trust and develop an honest communication with one another as we sat together — in all our wariness, egoism and self-doubt — in a sort of vibrant equality.

The first premise of a circle like this is that everyone’s presence is vital — the ones with whom I disagree, the ones I don’t quite trust . . . even my own. Making a concept like this real is not easy, but what we begin to generate when we do so, when we listen with deep respect, when we speak our riskiest truths, when we discover our common humanity, is a collective energy that cannot help but change the world. It’s called, for lack of a better word, love, and it’s a force older than violence.

And this is what the term “power with” means: finding the leverage to meet my needs and accomplish my goals in partnership with others, not by dominating or outsmarting them or by beating them to the pot of gold. Cultivating the discipline to do this does not mean, as so many people fear, a subordination or loss of self, but precisely the opposite: the fulfillment of self beyond the wildest dreams we might spawn in our isolation.

Nor does it mean the sudden disappearance of conflict — or, eerily, its pseudo-disappearance, its burial under New Age platitudes: Can’t we all just get along? On the contrary, conflict is welcomed.

A core premise of the growing movement known as restorative, or transformative, justice is that conflict is opportunity. This is where we have our greatest chance to grow: at the friction points, as our emotions are heating up. We just have to face the situation with openness, calm and courage. Once again, this is no easy task. But the more we work at this, the more we realize the value of doing so, and the less inclined we become simply to swat our difficulties, and the people we blame them on, out of the way.

I’m convinced that uncoupling our inclination to dominate others to get our way and embracing “power with” them as our prime approach to life is the fundamental emotional shift necessary for the creation of lasting peace.

All of which leads me to the world to which I returned after my peace circle weekend, the one in which two mobs of angry boys recently converged after school and went at each other with two-by-fours and splintered railroad ties. Derrion Albert, age 16, an honors student, was simply waiting at the bus stop. He got swallowed up in the melee and was beaten to death. His murder was still so fresh and raw, we couldn’t help but hold the tragedy in our hearts over the weekend as we talked about crime, punishment and the criminal justice system.

Here’s the thing, though. This horrifying incident is just another symptom of a city, a nation and a world at perpetual war with itself. It’s merely one in a series of tragedies that we are numb to or never hear about or, because it happens overseas and at our hands (and we call it war), we wholeheartedly support. Even worse, it’s part of pop culture. Violence is our national distraction; we consume it as entertainment, whether in the movies or in the news.

And when it gets out of hand, we try to counter it with more of the same. We call it revenge, we call it punishment or we just call it victory. We support it with trillions of dollars annually, in our military, small-arms, prison and entertainment budgets. We are ever so careful not to see the larger context in which acts of terrorism or school shootings (290 in Chicago last year, 34 of them fatal) or any other act of violence occurs; we think we can distinguish between good violence and bad; and we condemn only the violence that isn’t institutionally sanctioned.

So in the name of one more precious child whose life was senselessly cut short, let us sit with the distinction between “power with” and “power over” and quietly imagine what life would be like if the latter were not our default setting. Let us imagine valuing empathy over victory and teaching our children the skills of complex connecting. Let us imagine the coming of the light.