Understanding Power

The overarching goal of Community Voices for Health is to build stronger engagement infrastructure that involves a broader range of people—especially marginalized and underserved communities—so their voices are included in health policymaking, their efforts to solve problems are supported, and their community networks are fortified.

This goal requires explicit efforts to shift power within organizations and within broader movements for equity. It requires constant reflection and table-setting as new ventures are undertaken and new people and organizations enter the process.

The below activities can be used to construct shared definitions of power and to understand how power currently exists and how to use it to create equitable systems.

Activity: Creating a shared understanding of power

Constructing a shared understanding of power is a crucial first step in a group’s ability to create a power analysis. The word “power” carries a lot of weight and history, for the individual and the collective. When working on social change projects, teams must first understand what definitions and views people hold about the term. We offer a few framing questions and definitions below to guide conversations:

  1. Grounding questions from the Greater Good Studio:
    • When was the last time you felt powerless?
    • When was the last time you felt powerful?
    • What do you love about having power?
    • When was the last time you gave away your power (deliberately or otherwise)?
    • When was the last time you usurped someone else’s power?
    • In what situations do you not trust yourself with too much power?
  2. Consider the following definitions of power:

Oxford Dictionary definition: noun:  The ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality; the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events

verb:  To supply (a device) with mechanical or electrical energy; to move or travel with great speed or force

Scientific definition: A measure of which energy is transferred over time

Just Associates: “In reality, power is dynamic, relational, and multidimensional, changing according to context, circumstance, and interest. Its expressions and forms can range from domination and resistance to collaboration and transformation. This is good news for social justice promoters whose strategies depend on new opportunities in the practice and structures of power.”

All of these definitions highlight a different aspect of power. Historically, having power has been seen as the ability of a few people to exert control and make decisions that affect many. However, the scientific definition of power is much broader: Power measures the movement of energy. The final definition contextualizes what the scientific definition of power can look like within social change projects. It highlights the importance of relationships, demonstrating the value of understanding both the nuance within a social challenge and how power plays a role within that context.

What we learn from these definitions is that power is relational and complicated. Depending on your relationship to power, some—or perhaps all—of these definitions may resonate within your team. It is important to understand how these definitions of power may be expressed simultaneously in a given context.

Questions to help guide conversation:

  • Which of these definitions of power resonate more with the experience and context of the work you are doing?
  • What other definitions might the team hold?
  • How would the community of focus describe power and its use?
  • How might you reframe commonly held beliefs about power to help you and your community overcome your challenges?

Activity: Analyzing how power works

As we navigate social change within a society where some hold power and others do not, it’s important to examine the power that we each hold. Important questions for people to consider in their power analysis are “Where do you hold power?” and “Where does that power come from?”

When we work on diverse teams with various life experiences, skill sets, and purposes for working on a challenge, it’s helpful to be aware of our power in order to use, shift, or change that power for the social challenge. University of Michigan’s LSA Inclusive Teaching Initiative Social Identity Wheel is a useful resource that individuals and teams can use to reflect on how power is held and experienced through different social identities.

Individuals or groups may find it helpful to investigate various sources of power, such as the 12 outlined in the Building Movement Project’s Sources of Power tool. We highlight below for the purposes of this activity. We recommend starting with internal reflection, then creating brave spaces for dialogue among teams and community members that are focused on these sources of power:

Cultural power, from the perspective of the dominant culture, means cultural norms, conditioning, and privilege regarding race/class/gender/age. As with positional power, this power is often invisible to the dominant group. To those with less power, it is a real, everyday experience. From the perspective of oppressed peoples, cultural power means a consciousness of community, class, or culture that serves to empower.

Reflection: We understand that the many intersections of identities affect the type and the amount of cultural power within an organization. The cultural dynamics of an organization and external societal dynamics and constructs influence the way this power is held.


  • What type of cultural power do you hold in society? (Think about the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and ability. Reference the Social Identity Wheel.)
  • What type of cultural power do you hold within the organization?
  • What, if any, are the differences between the power you hold in society and in the organization, and how often are they addressed within your organization?
  • How might the cultural power you hold affect the social challenge your organization is addressing?

Positional power comes from organizational authority or position (people providing capacity building/technical support have this power). It is often forgotten by people with the power, but rarely forgotten by those without it.

Reflection: In power-shifting organizations, those with positional power often dampen the power they have in order to create an equitable power dynamic. However, simply stating a desire to shift power is dismissive of the actual dynamics experienced by people with less positional power. To create a more supportive environment for those with less positional power, name the existing power dynamics and actively model power-shifting.


  • What type of positional power do you hold? (Consider titles within your organization and positions of power outside of work that might affect your position within the organization.)
  • How are you currently using that positional power within a specific social challenge?
  • What are ways you can commit to using that power for a specific social challenge?

Structural power is covertly or implicitly exercised through the dominant institutions of society (e.g., the resistance to alternative medicine from the American Medical Association and insurance providers, and the racism expressed and maintained by lending institutions through red-lining).

Reflection: Reflect internally on the positionality of your organization; then expand on your reflection through facilitated conversation with community partners.


  • How might your organization or group hold power over those who hold marginalized identities?
  • How might your organization or group experience power held over it by other entities (i.e., those who control how decisions are made)?
  • How might your communities view your positionality within the system surrounding your social challenge? For example, if your organization were a nonprofit delivering resources to a community, it would have the power to determine when and where those resources are distributed.

Exploring the types of power is not intended to categorize power as being used for “good” or “bad.” Every situation is nuanced and may require many ways of using power. The goal is to identify and consider the types of power dynamics so that organizations can mobilize them for positive social impact.

Activity: Power mapping for social change

Power mapping is a tool that has been used in community organizing and grassroots policy campaigns and within institutions to address social challenges. The goal of power mapping is to identify which relationships can be leveraged or challenged to cause a particular outcome. For example, if your organization wants to see a public health policy implemented, you might use power mapping to pinpoint which local decision makers to engage or which organizations are working toward the same goal and would be good partners.

Below are the steps to create a power map within a team. Community members and employees within organizations should perform this activity together to capture the nuances of the power structure. Before beginning, it is important to specify both the problem or challenge you’re trying to address and the goals of the power-mapping activity.

Stakeholder Mapping


The first step in this activity is to locate stakeholders on a graph. As a team, think about which stakeholders should be placed on the map and where they should be located given their position. Identify contextual factors related to the issue, such as the environments and beliefs that affect the issue. The team may discuss whether additional research is necessary to gain more information.

2×2 Matrix

Next, the team will map stakeholders from the analysis above based on their power (the vertical axis) and interests or personal investment (i.e., their “stake,” located on the horizontal axis). Be as specific as possible. In the stakeholder mapping activity, the team might have listed organizations and institutions, but for this activity to be useful, the team should identify people within organizations that it wants to work with or reach out to. For example, if someone holds a lot of power and is directly affected by the issue, their stake would be in the upper right quadrant.

Spend some time discussing which stakeholders might be missing and the position of each stakeholder on the map, reflecting on any missing information that would influence decisions. Repeat the exercise as new information becomes available and as new stakeholders are identified. Be sure to map members of your team and organization as well.


Once the map is charted, the team can determine which relationships to invest in and where and how to build support with stakeholders. For example, if your team is conducting a policy analysis and preparing to meet with local policymakers, people in quadrant II (who don’t have a high stake but have a lot of power) might be strong priorities for relationship building if voting is required. Since they don’t have an existing stake, they might be easily convinced to support an effort and use their decision-making power. The map is also useful for strategic shifts of power internally. For example, if someone in your organization is in quadrant IV and has a great deal of interest in an issue but has limited power, it may be beneficial to shift power to them rather than to someone outside the organization in quadrant II or III.