Chapter Two – Power

You want to change things.  You may have tried asking about making the changes you want (if not, go ahead and ask, they just might do it and you can skip all this or save it for another problem.)  But if you have asked and been turned down you don’t have to stop there.  If at first you don’t succeed…and all that.  When you peel away the niceties, I am writing about when you want something they don’t want to give you.  What do you do when they say no, and you don’t want to take no for an answer?


Types of Power

The core of the matter is control, or power.  What exactly do we mean by power?  We are talking about the ability to do, to make things happen, to control or influence what goes on.  Some of us don’t like to talk about power; for some it sounds like something bad.  However, if you have it, you can change things the way you want.  When someone else has it they have the ability to keep things the way they are, or change things in the way they want.


People or organizations with power to control or influence our society come in many shapes and sizes.  There are many types of power.  Think of the big shots in your community; who gets listened to?  Who gets to decide things or make things happen?  Let’s consider some of the main ones.  Financial power includes banks, wealthy individuals, businesses or organizations.  Financial power bases use money to influence how things happen.  Legal power includes attorneys, judges, and experts on laws.  Legal power entities use laws, courts and the like to influence outcomes.  Political power includes city councils, state legislators, Governors, Congress people and other elected officials; it also includes lobbyists and others who influence situations using the political process.  Media includes television, radio, blogging and print news.  Now it also includes social media like Facebook, twitter, and YouTube.  Media power sources get the word out about the subjects they chose and can influence opinion and understanding of an issue or situation.  “Mythical” power includes people and institutions that are generally agreed to have authority, though it may be hard to say why.  Examples include: rock stars and movie stars, family elders, community leaders and religious officials.  They may not have any direct way to control things, but because many of us believe that their opinions and actions matter, these mythical power bases have power.  Another type of power is based on information or special knowledge and includes universities, professors, research experts, “insiders” and others who know things that others do not, or who know how to find things out.  Military or physical power includes police or military forces, those who control us through strength and real or implied force.


Some of these powerbases work alone, some combine types of power. All of these kinds of power allow those in control to influence how things happen and what goes on.


The ADAPT flag flying over a large protest

“Despite all the odds… I see my people as the most powerful people in this country.  And I know we’ll get our civil rights because we are going to take them, if we gotta come back every day.” — Cassie James, Wheels of Justice March 1990

ADAPT protests people being warehoused in nursing homes at the American Health Care Association (nursing home lobby group) convention in Las Vegas, NV.

Photo: Tom Olin 


Power of the People

Most of us do not have these kinds of power and hence our struggle to make things happen our way.  However, through organizing we can create another kind of power often called people power.  Working together in coordination we can create our own kind of influence and often attract other powerbases to our side – thus increasing our clout.  After decades of organizing, I am still amazed and amused how this works so well.  There are plenty of famous examples of people power working: from the early union struggles to the civil rights movement, from ACT UP type AIDS activism to the Tea Party.  ADAPT is another great example of many victories won by simply working together using people power. How many more are there that are not well-known but still created positive changes for the people involved?  More than we will ever know.  People power is often down played, made fun of or ignored, but that doesn’t make it any less effective.  Sometimes being underestimated even helps.


Why can we feel having power or control is bad?  Perhaps we feel this way because we have had power or control used against us in many ways, forcing us to accept exclusion, second-class status, or worse.  Until we examine the situation, it may seem that is just how things are; that’s “the way it is.” As people with disabilities, or members of other undervalued groups, we are conditioned or taught that to question this or want something different is selfish or wrongheaded, that we don’t count and we should just accept this.  These kinds of responses are common, but if you want to make change you must learn to fight these reactions and get over them.  For many of us this is easier when we work together with other people; that way it’s not just about us personally, it’s about all of us.  That is fine, but we must also learn that in fact we do count – even alone.  That is what empowerment is about.


Why People Do Get Involved

It is useful to consider why people organize and why they do not.  This can give you insights into ways to get people involved and ways to remove barriers from their being involved.  Understanding what motivates others gives you tools to persuade.  Understanding others’ hesitations helps you think of how to address their fears and get them involved.


People organize to create changes they feel strongly are needed.  Organizing is not necessarily easy, so motivation is important.  If you have a group of people who want to see something done they can be united by that desire and the positive feelings from making it happen.  For many of us who want to organize, this justice, doing right, is an obvious reason to get involved and take action, but justice may not be as strong an influence for everyone who might want to get involved.  For many people there is also social value in working together.  Being with other people, helping, sharing the load and the fun all make for additional motivations to work together.  Anger is something that motivates people too.  Anger is another thing we are taught to feel is wrong, but that usually stems from the assumption that all anger is uncontrolled, unfocused anger.  Controlled and focused, fueling movement, anger can be very helpful. There are many good reasons to be angry: anger over the injustice of a situation, anger over being screwed personally.   Feeling ok about how you feel is another important part of empowerment.


And Why People Don’t…

People don’t want to organize for many reasons.  Often people are afraid of being called radical, of not being accepted – even when, or especially when, they are already not accepted.  Over the years we have found people feel even holding a sign or speaking up at a meeting is rude or improper.


For many reasons people will accept the unacceptable.  Sometimes we don’t even realize we are doing it as we have become so accustomed to things being the way they are. For example: having “public” transit buses – paid for by public dollars – which people who use wheelchairs could not get in and could not ride, or sterilizing people with disabilities so they won’t have children and pass on their disability – the well-respected Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. supported that when he declared “three generations of imbeciles are enough”[1].  As long as people accept these things, they go on.


People can be afraid of retaliation, intimidation or backlash, and these can be real problems, don’t dismiss these concerns. People with disabilities on benefits can be concerned their benefits will be cut off; people in low-income housing may fear being kicked out if they complain. But, different from challenging things on your own, a good thing about having a group of people is that you can respond to the threats.  An example of this is when ADAPT of Texas wanted our state to give funding for community services and less emphasis on funding nursing homes and other institutions.  Through public information requests we got and published a list of the top ten nursing home chains making more than a million dollars in profits per year in Texas alone!  The news was a sensation and travelled far and wide. The nursing homes were furious, since they had been crying poverty to the legislature for years.  Within a few days we received a letter from the nursing home association threatening to sue ADAPT if we did not stop sharing that information.  Instead of caving-in and cowering, we looked to ourselves and others for support.  We faxed their threatening letter to everyone we could think of; other advocates, disability groups, civil rights attorneys, media people, legislators and more.  When their bullying was exposed they looked even worse, and soon dropped their threat as folks flocked to our defense.


When some of our members who used the same attendant services agency complained about their attendant supervisor walking into their homes without making an appointment or in some cases even without knocking, our group went to their agency offices and refused to leave until the director and board members met with us.  Soon the agency realized that supervisor was hopeless and fired him.


Many of us have internalized messages about our inadequacies and don’t have the best self-esteem.  We fear we don’t know enough, or don’t know the right things.  Folks with titles, fancy talk, statistics and the like seem to know more.  And sometimes they do know a lot, about some things.  But we know much more than we generally give ourselves credit for knowing.  We have years of experience living in our skins. If we are having an issue that is shared among several other people we know why this is a problem and that it needs to change.  We actually know a great deal about living with a disability or other condition, we know about it in a way professionals seldom, if ever, will. We are experts.


Then there are people who don’t want to risk what they have even if it means something better.  They would rather not take the chance or not take the responsibility for the results.  After we won accessible buses with the ADA, some ADAPT folks went to San Antonio for a disability conference.  It used to be that riders of the paratransit in that town were so worried about being kicked off that service they would leave a meeting in mid-sentence if their bus showed up.  We thought they would be delighted with our victory as they could shed their oppressive system.  Instead one woman told us she didn’t know the names of the streets in her town.  We said “you can learn the names,” but she quickly told us “I don’t want to learn them.”  We have years of oppression to overcome.


The Be Nice Rule & The John Wayne Rule

When Trapp taught me about organizing he emphasized two rules that must be broken for effective organizing. The “Be Nice” rule and the “John Wayne” rule.


We are taught from an early age not to make waves, to “be nice.”  We have all seen the small child in the shopping cart who is complaining or making a fuss and the mother is saying “be nice”, or put less nicely “sit down and shut up.”  We learn we have a place and we should stay in it.  But what does that get us?  We are stuck in our place wishing something was different and quietly enduring. We are actually complying with our oppression, and often the oppression of others like us. Is that really nice?  And for whom?  By learning to step out of line, sometimes even a little, we quickly find that what was at first described as difficult if not impossible to change, is, in reality, quite possible.


The other rule is called the “John Wayne rule.”  Our culture teaches us to act alone.  The individual is the thing!  John Wayne is the classic example as he storms across the West alone, vanquishing bad guys and putting things right – solo.  The problem of course is that we don’t live in the movies.  Ever heard the phrase “divide and conquer”? Well that is what usually happens when we allow ourselves to be singled out to act on our own. Often we are labeled the crackpot, the whiner and similar dismissive labels, and once marginalized we are ignored. We miss the support, the sharing of ideas and work and the other strengths we get from acting together.  It is not that working alone can never work, but too often we are too easily dismissed, especially if we do not have one of the other types of power listed above at our disposal.   There truly is power in numbers.


Change the Power Relationship

The first step in creating change when we are being dismissed is to change the power relationship!  We must increase our power so the other side has to deal with us, whether they like it or not.  Using People Power we increase our impact and become the ones who get to set the rules, who decide or help decide how things will be.


We must raise the level of conflict to bring about a new situation.  Our strategies and tactics will help to do this.  However, we need to keep our eye on the prize and realize we mobilize our people power to raise the level of conflict to make our opposition, “the power” deal with us.


Be direct – Don’t be afraid to demand!  This is one of the pitfalls I have often seen groups fall into.  If we don’t say what we want, how is anyone else going to know what we want?  Along the way we have learned it is better not to be direct, but in reality, in these situations it is essential we say what we mean, and say what we want.  Not being clear can lead to our own people thinking multiple things and not being united, and to the other side brushing us off or giving us something we don’t want.  By demanding what we want we are saying: we are worth this and we expect the enemy to address this.  By this simple act we begin to change the power relationship and force the opposition to deal with us.


I will always remember going to a National People’s Action conference where a group from outside of San Antonio Texas spoke about the toxic water their community was forced to drink because some nearby large company was polluting so heavily it had contaminated the ground water and streams in the area.  People were getting cancer and the community was distraught.  NPA had arranged for representatives of the company to come and explain their reasons for not wanting to clean up the water.  As the company officials sat at the speakers’ table people from the community group asked them to drink from the glasses of water provided.  The community group spokespeople explained they specially brought the water from their homes; their children drank and bathed in water from this same tap. The company officials blanched, and yet were embarrassed that they did not want to drink the water while all the people in the room were watching.  They agreed to the community group’s demands right there.


In Cincinnati ADAPT members blocked a city bus while other ADAPTers crawled on the bus with the money for their fare in their hands.  When the bus driver refused to take them there was no possible explanation that would make such a refusal make sense.  Bus riders, frustrated as they were about the delay could see the inconsistency, as could the media. The Cincinnati transit company did not comply right then but we had exposed the issue and the problem to the community at large.



Getting some daylight on problems that are hidden to those who do not want to see them can start to create a climate for change.  It exposes the enemy and often pulls other powerbases to your side.  But more on that when we get to strategies.

[1] Buck v. Bell Supreme Court case 8-1 decision of May 2, 1927 . 274 U.S. 200 (more)

47 S. Ct. 584; 71 L. Ed. 1000; 1927 U.S. LEXIS 20

 The law was not repealed till 1974.  See site on website

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