Power and the Importance of Inclusion During Periods of Change

The benefits of, well, pretty much everything tend to accrue to those with the most power and privilege. This fact helps explain why communities that have been most disadvantaged historically are sometimes also the most skeptical about “change” or “reform”.

There is little in the historical record to create confidence that the benefits of change will be distributed evenly, or distributed at all. And that is assuming the promised change manifests in the first place. Countless change efforts never make it that far, at best layering on to the status quo without fundamentally shifting power, privilege, opportunity, or resources. 

Sometimes the hoarding of benefits by those in power is aggressive and purposeful. We all know that throughout history many white people in particular have been straight gangster when it comes to creating change in their interest, developing ex post facto rationale to justify the caper, and accruing the benefits of it without reflection or remorse. Unfortunately, this continues to feel like an inescapable reality, and is by no means a bygone element of history.

Often though, the uneven distribution of the benefits of change is much less purposeful, or even directly contradictory to the purpose under which the change was initiated. An effort starts out with the explicit purpose of expanding equity and opportunity, and ultimately (somehow, WTF!?!), achieves the opposite.

Part of the reason for this is that we have a flawed understanding of the relationship between process and outcomes. There is the idea that we can follow a non-inclusive and inequitable change process, and through it, arrive at an equitable and inclusive outcome. If only things were so forgiving. The reality is that there is no “end point” to most change efforts. The process IS the outcome. So if the process is not inclusive or equitable, the outcome will not be, either.

A second reason is that leaders are biased to assume that others think the same way they do, have the same experiences, and want the same things. They create a change effort in their own image, which, as well-intended as it may be, mostly benefits other people in their own image. That initial benefit seems like a success, and it becomes easy to stop measuring the success of the change before really understanding if it made any progress toward equity.

A third reason is what I call my “iftersections” thesis. The change effort is premised on a long chain of “ifs”. If this happens then this will happen, and if that happens then this will happen, and if that happens THEN we will have more equity. As the change effort unfolds, it is gradually watered down at each of these “iftersections”. By the end, many of the more moderate changes have layered onto the status quo and benefited those with a powerful seat at the table, while the more potentially transformative elements have been weakened, and ultimately left behind.

All of these factors are nuanced and could be unpacked at length, but they all lead in the same direction. People with less power and privilege must be included in, and given influence and leadership in the change process itself. And as such — by nature of the definitions of power and privilege — that means leaders must be willing to relinquish some level of control over the process and outcomes. Diverse voices must be at the table throughout, and change efforts seeking to increase equity and opportunity must also seek to meaningfully share, redistribute, and expand access to power as part of the process.