Distributing Power in Social Movements


A protest sign that reads: Sorry for the inconvenience, We are trying to change the world.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has the capacity and momentum to enact new forms of power and knowledge. Credit: Rose Colored Photo/ Creative Commons.

Historically, there are three different types of organization in social movements that reflect the style of leadership: centralized, decentralized, and distributed. The Occupy movement here in the U.S. utilized a horizontal approach in leadership. As the #blacklivesmatter movement continues to grow, we see more of a decentralized style of leadership irrupting in society. My question is: what style of leadership do we need to see radical social change? To see the eradication of oppression? To hear the amplification of marginalized voices?

As I consider this question and watch the unfolding reality of systemic racism and classism, among other -isms, I’m more and more convinced that the model we need is one of distributed leadership, where points of power are not centralized with one person or a group of people, as seen in the 2 party political system here in the U.S., but rather a style of leadership where power is distributed to all persons involved in the social movement. This is a radical paradigm shift, but one we need to rethink for the sustainability of our world, our societies. When we centralize power with one race, one class, or one group of ideologues, we have completely risked eclipsing all other voices and bodies. In a more distributed model of leadership, we embrace the risking and find a new mode of actualizing liberation through our shared relationships.
Finding a way to model new ways of leadership through relationships and distributing knowledge and power through the interconnected reality of relating with differences brings a new model for producing knowledge and practicing power. No longer is power centralized with one group or trickling down from one person. Power is actualized in community, among many, and shapes the ways in which our knowledge production impacts both our relationships and also our communities. In this way, power becomes not a force of surveillance but rather a mode of transparency within relationships.
The #blacklivesmatter movement has the capacity to embody this style of leadership and enact new forms of power and knowledge. I think in many ways we are seeing this new style of leadership and learning about ways to be in relationship with systems that threaten the livelihood of marginalized communities. We are learning to lean into the risk of relating with difference, with hierarchies that impose systems of power that are death-brining. In the leaning in of these relationships, moments of transformation happen because of our post-oppositional standpoints. We are seeking to move beyond the oppositionality of centralized power dynamics and re-imagine a more distributed reality of power and knowledge.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza is a Ph.D. Candidate in Constructive Philosophical Theology, Culture, & Ethics, researching the domains of ethics, ontology, and epistemology for the study of Religion & Philosophy at The University of Denver-Iliff School of Theology.

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