MOMENTS WITH YOUTH
More Thoughts on PowerThis month I continue some of the musing I started a few months ago with more thoughts on power. If you are a regular reader, please excuse me if I repeat some things I have said earlier. Some themes in my reflections keep reoccurring in new contexts. Seems like a timely moment to think about power, as it has become a major issue around the globe, just as it continues to an issue in our work. I do not consider myself very knowledgeable about philosophy. I am drawn to it though. There is something about philosophers that I can hear, but don’t quite understand. Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Foucault to name a few. Similar to the way in which I reflect on experience, my mind and eyes bounce around when I read these philosophers. I page forward and back through their narratives.
The way they write, almost as much as what they say, intrigues me – the rat-tat-tat of their words. I go back again and again trying to relate to what they are saying, sometimes literally going back to a library or bookstore to look again at a phrase or thought. Then after I put the book down I feel I am changed in some way, the way I am changed by a poem that has a little mystery to it, but whose images linger. It is this desire to understand, I believe, that makes me human. I want to know other, the world around me, and myself, and therefore I am.
Thus, in this fashion, I try (humbly) to share some of my thoughts about power as they emerged from my sketches and my reading of philosophers, artists, researchers, and child and youth care workers. My hope is that these thoughts will ring true with the reader’s experience and/or raise questions.
Power is something we all have within us. There are two general types of power, positive and negative. The competent worker’s power is positive. He or she is powerful. Negative power is often abusive. People who use their power in a negative way often feel powerless.
The powerful person does not impose or try to give power to or take power from someone else. He or she believes in the power of his or her self and therefore the power inherent in other selves. The powerful person cares for, plans and implements activities, and relates with others in a way that they can feel and take advantage of the sense of the power that is within them. These workers do not empower youth but rather create opportunities for youth to empower themselves.
The powerful person cares for self and for other. Because he or she truly values self, she or he values others. Because he or she cares for self she or he is capable of creating an environment with others where others can care for self and be cared for. The powerful person’s care for other, like his or her care for self, is unconditional and nonjudgmental. He or she accepts self and therefore accepts other.
Gerry Fewster writes a lot about how the major task of the worker is to be present in the moment, self aware, open and available to mirror back one’s experience of other. There is nothing more powerful that a worker can do than give a youth his or her undivided and attention and sincere genuine responses.
The amount of power one has is in direct proportion to the sincerity and effectiveness of one’s quest to know self. Those who want and try to know self are powerful because their power is an expression of their quest which manifests itself in respect for self and other, and subsequently commands the respect of others.
The powerful worker has presence. He or she can say no and expect an appropriate response, not because of imposing his or her power on the other, but because he or she is secure in his or her power, and the other senses and respects it and has on some level a desire to have a similar power. The powerful worker can say I think we can do this because the worker believes it about him or her self and the other, and therefore the youth, child, or parent believes it about him or her self. The powerful worker is in control of self when self needs control and therefore does not need to control others, because the worker believes others have the capacity to control themselves. A helping hand might be needed at times but the helping hand is offered with the belief that the child or youth can regain his or her own control.
The workers’ relationships to their power changes – sometimes they feel powerful and sometimes they feel powerless. This is normal, and part of the experience of being in child and youth care. Sometimes we feel competent, in touch, and powerful; and sometimes we feel incompetent, out of it, out of control and powerless. If the workers are aware of their feelings of powerlessness, children respond well to these workers because they recognize that the workers are human and aware of self, just as when the workers are aware of their feelings of inadequacy, sadness, etc. What is harmful is when the workers do not recognize their feelings and try to prove themselves with the children.
A former gang leader once said to me in a class, “You can’t teach me anything. I’ve been there and therefore I know what it’s like for these kids.”
This was not a powerful youth worker I told myself and responded, “Your experience is helpful if you understand it and how it has impacted your life, but if you really understand your experience then you would not assume it was someone else’s. You would be curious about what it was like for the youth, just as you were curious about what it meant to you.”
He stared me down in class as if he was “dissing” me. I thought how powerless this person must feel and wondered if he was still in a gang.
When I consult or sit in on discussions in team meetings and classes and the conversations shifts to “We need more control over these kids,” I usually respond with the question “Who is out of control?” sensing that it is probably the workers who feel that way about themselves. I often apply this same line of thing to myself when I find myself, a controlling person, trying to gain control again. “Am I out of control or feeling powerless?” I ask myself and usually the answer is yes. When I am in this state I am more likely to use my power to control someone who trusts me, and I am also vulnerable to being controlled and to losing my freedom, because I am willingly or perhaps inadvertently succumbing to those who would abuse power and control. So I try to snap out of it, and try help youth learn to do the same for themselves.
Like many workers, I sensed early in my career that some structure and control was needed with troubled kids but it took me a while to fully realize that this came mostly from me being confident and in control of myself when it was needed. Without a degree of inner certainty my power, and my ability to handle my fear and anger, my control and structure techniques were usually met with resistance. They worked much better when I had confidence and self-control. There were many things that went into reaching this point, not the least of which was an understanding of my own childhood and my relationship to people who I perceived, often wrongly, to have power over me.
Today when child and youth care workers say to me that they were in a power struggle, I say, “You lost.”
“Why?” they ask.
“Because to be in a power struggle your power has to be up for grabs, and if you believe that then your power can be taken away and it will be. Others can try to limit, usurp, diminish and overpower your power, but it can never be taken away unless you are willing to give it up. If you make the issue competition for power then you are more than likely missing the real issue, which is that the other is feeling powerless and so are you by trying to show you have it. The competent worker knows and believes that his or her power is not up for grabs. It is part of who he or she is, and it shows through.
A powerful person or society in general does not restrict the freedom of others, unless the other does something that infringes on the right to freedom of others. Freedom is part of care for self and thus respected in others. Using power to take away freedom is the most damaging thing one can do to other. Thus it is not taken lightly.
Powerless workers resort to “points”, “levels” and other artificial systems to control. They can’t control the kids with their own positive power, which emphasizes the youth’s power, so they have to create systems of reward and punishment that manipulate and impose power from the outside. “Level” systems work better when children and youth feel empowered in the systems to make choices for themselves that will lead a greater sense of self power, or the sense that “I can do it”.
Foucault, who studied abuses of power with the mentally abused and prisoners, speaks about the ontology of care for self, freedom and power. He refers to Greek philosophers who said that ethos was in the ability to care for self. The person who cared for self was not likely to abuse his power, but rather care for others and thus nurture the power within them. Doug Magnuson in our field, along with Mike Baizeman (“Google” them, as they say about internet searches), philosophers of sorts, wrote about youth as temporal agents of their own change as the focal point of a moral of praxis in child and youth care. Among other things, this article is an enlightening treatise on power and its role in child and youth care. The more we respect their agency, the more we recognize and nourish their positive power.
Children and youth who have been abused and neglected have not had as many opportunities to feel powerful or empowered as children who live in more healthy conditions. These abused and neglected children have been the victims of others’ abuse of power and their own propensities to do the same because it is what they know and have experienced. These children and youth have not been raised by people who care for themselves. These peoples’ powerlessness and inadequacy, and lack of self-awareness have been manifest in anger and abuse of other/self.
The child and youth care worker recognizes this and does not try to replicate what other adults have done to the child or youth. He or she does not abuse his or her power. The worker also recognizes that we live in a society where power is often displayed in negative ways, and freedom restricted by the images presented in the media, images that have a great capacity to lie and steal the power of choice from the viewer – hypnotic images that aren’t truthful. Images that say and get you to believe you need something even though you don’t. Images of superior humans are particularly dangerous. Think of Hitler and the power of his images of the superior German as depicted in the photos of the times (I forget the photographer’s name, a woman with great artistic talent but unfortunately the wrong message). Think of the modern ads with the perfect air brushed bodies, not that the motives are the same, but both abuses of power, I think, both adept at portraying images of something that does not exist.
The worker also realizes that we live in a society where groups directly or indirectly try to impose their power on others, men over women, straights over gays, white over blacks, and conservative Christians over all others, etc. These abuses of power have clever messengers in the media, cultures, families, communities, and religions. Distorted images of the powerful and oppressed are all around. Supposed champions of freedom blowing others to smithereens, defenders of human rights violating human rights, advocates of tolerance exposing their own religious intolerance, and advocates of families and childcare discriminating against those who do not fit their mold.
It’s confusing to say the least — these mixed messages about power and how one gets or buys it. The self-aware worker is challenged daily not to be seduced and fall into the same trap. He or she is not seduced into thinking his or her power is based on what he or she can buy. He or she does not hurt others in the name of preserving freedom, or use his or her gender or culture or social status to gain power over other.
There is power in doing. Power generally cannot be exercised if nothing is done. The powerful worker is engaged with other and the activities of daily living where power can be experienced with other. Children and youth are more likely to experience healthy power when they are involved with other rather than just sitting around. They can exercise their power in the task at hand and with the persons they are interacting with. Note the preposition “with.”
A worker cannot exercise his or her power sitting in the office with his or her feet on a chair. The worker has to be on the floor, both feet, metaphorically now, planted in activity and relationship.
Sometimes doing nothing, however, is powerful. The worker shows self-restraint. Instead of doing something for a youth, she or he lets the youth experience it, or instead of saying something the worker lets the youth figure it out. This too is powerful.
Being generous and mastering something are powerful acts. When one gives something valuable to someone else this is very powerful and fulfilling. Being able to master a task – playing a piano, drawing a portrait, doing dishes, raking leaves – is powerful, so is being independent. Mastering something and having something to give is liberating. Being with powerful workers is also liberating. Healthy identities and a sense of personal responsibility are developed in part when children and can incorporate parts of these workers into the development of a unique, free, independent and interdependent self.
That’s it for now. I’m out of steam, but not power. What are your thoughts on power? I’d love to hear them.