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Effective Advocacy: Understand Power Dynamics

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“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.” ~ Raji Hunjan and Jethro Pettit

“There’s this whole other form of power out there (created power). And it’s not that it has to be taken, but it does have to be created. Because no one is ever going to offer it to you. And you create it by being good at what you do, and gaining folks’ respect, and daring to do things that other people wouldn’t think that it’s their place to try. And here’s the secret about created power. It’s the only form of power that has the ability to create huge systemic change.” ~ Lindsay Kirkpatrick

At its core, power is the ability to act or to produce an effect.

Power can both hinder and advance our social change efforts, so understanding the power relationships around an issue—including our own power to take action and to influence the issue or other people—is central to being able to address it.

Here are some things to consider about power:

1. Everyone has power.

Like nonhumans, all humans have some amount of power. However, the amount of power that we have can change, and it can vary depending on the context. And it’s important to remember that power is not a finite resource.

Think about the different contexts in which you have more power, and those in which you have less. Then think about your issue of concern and about who does and doesn’t have the power to act.

2. We can wield power in ways that help or harm.

Of course, power can be wielded by others to help or harm us, but we can also wield power in ways that benefit or hurt. For example, we can use power to protect and uplift ourselves and others. Likewise, shame and coercion are examples of power that can harm.

Think about how you have used power (whether consciously or unconsciously) in a way that has caused harm to other people. To nonhuman animals?

3. There are important historical and cultural biases around power.

The way a lot of us think about power stems from patriarchal and ethnocentric biases. Many of us have been taught to value power as something to wield over others, as something to collect and keep, as something not to be shared.

But instead of associating power with dominance, violence, and coercion, we need to cultivate a new worldview about power that reflects humility and that emphasizes cooperation, collective leadership, nonviolent conflict resolution, and problem solving—capacities that we share with many nonhuman animals as well.

Think about what biases you’ve been taught about power and brainstorm some ways to develop new capacities around power.

4. There are sources of power and positions of power.

Authors Raji Hunjan and Jethro Pettit talk about people drawing on sources of power. Those sources can include capital, culture, geography, knowledge, networks, technology, physicality, and personality.

And positions of power are contextual; as Hunjan and Pettit say, “where power lies and who has power will always change according to the context and setting.”

Take note iconIt’s important to remember that nonhuman animals can have power as well, though we tend not to think of them having power except as through some sort of hierarchy of dominance. Our misunderstandings of other animals and their relationships with each other are based on human projections (informed by preoccupations with hierarchies such as patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, etc.), which are then turned around and further projected on other humans.

Power can be found in our vulnerabilities, including those that are linked to our animality.

John Samuel, from the National Centre for Advocacy Studies, says “To effectively influence the power structures of government or corporate interest, one needs other sources of power. In the context of public advocacy, six major sources include

  • The power of people and citizens’ mobilization
  • The power of information and knowledge
  • The power of constitutional guarantees
  • The power of direct grassroots experience and networking
  • The power of solidarity
  • The power of moral convictions”

This fascinating research on invisible power and “visible everyday resistance” of people in the Buenaventura region of Colombia highlights the importance of acknowledging the many daily forms of active resistance as an essential form of power.

Think about what are considered the traditional sources of power (e.g., control, wealth, force), and then think about alternative types of power (e.g., solidarity, knowledge, our own experiences).

Think about all the different sources and positions of power related to yourself and your issue of concern.

5. There is usually an unequal distribution of power.

In most contexts there will be an unequal distribution of power. In our historically white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal, heteronormative, ableist, speciesist culture, our society has cultivated systems and institutions that benefit some by oppressing and exploiting others.

Think about what unequal distributions of power you’re aware of. Consider the unequal distributions of power among humans, and also between humans and nonhuman animals.

6. Power is dynamic.

Power can change at any time, so it’s important to pay attention to the power shifts so that we can maintain our effectiveness.

Think about when you’ve seen or experienced a power shift. What happened? What were the root causes? What was the result?

7. There are expressions of power: power to, power with, and power over.

  • Power to: is our own ability to act
  • Power with: is our ability to act together
  • Power from within: is our internal sense of self-worth and confidence
  • Power over: is our authority or control over others

Think about how you can express power to, with, and within in positive ways.

8. There are different forms of power, including power that’s visible, power that’s invisible, and hidden power.

  • Visible power: this includes the formal power structures we see, like rules, institutions, and procedures (e.g., laws and budgets)
  • Invisible power: this includes the norms, beliefs, privileges, and culture that shape our views of ourselves and the world (the behind the scenes action and influence)
  • Hidden power: this includes people and institutions in power maintaining their influence by manipulating agendas and marginalizing the voices of those with less power

These forms of power can also manifest in positive ways within ourselves. Think about ways that you have visible power, invisible power, and hidden power.

Here are some things to consider about our own individual and collective power:

  • We can increase our own power.
    • We can build our skills and capacities.
    • We can collaborate with others.
    • Our belief that we can effect change influences our power.
  • We can manifest visible, invisible, and hidden power as individuals in ways that are positive and productive.
  • What’s happening in the world requires the consent and/or acquiescence of the people. When we bring our collective will and power to bear, we can transform harmful systems.
  • We need to listen to those on “the margins” so that we can ensure that we’re including important perspectives and addressing relevant needs.
  • We can influence not just what others do, but what they know and think. And so can those who oppose our efforts.

Here are some things to consider about the people in power and authority:

  • Identify who has the authority to make the desired change.
  • Identify who has the authority over others and how they’re using their power.
  • Identify who owns or controls the resources, sets the agenda, and makes the decisions.
  • Recognize that those in power usually want to keep their power and may say and do whatever they can to do so.
  • Recognize that, as Bill Moyer writes in Doing Democracy, “[The] power elite generally uses its influence to benefit itself at the expense of the general welfare and the majority of the population.”
  • Be aware that those in power will often declare an issue settled or unchangeable, or they may say one thing but do another, in order to maintain their power.


Analyze Power

When planning strategies to address your issue of concern, consider the following questions (be sure to include both humans and nonhumans in your analysis).

For example, if your area of concern is factory farming, your responses might include:

QuestionsExample Responses
Who has the most power?Meat and dairy industries and those entities that serve them
State and federal governments and their agencies
Who has power over?Corporate power over workers, farmed animals, environment
Consumer power over workers, farmed animals, environment
Who has authority over others and how?Federal government has power over farmers (e.g., subsidies), workers (e.g., OSHA, labor law, immigration law)
Humans have authority over animals, as they’re legally considered property
Who owns or controls the resources?Largely corporations and government
Who has the least power?Animals, workers, people living near factory farms
Where’s the visible power?Power of government and corporations in laws and regulations (or lack of)
Where’s the invisible power?Speciesism, racism, classism, wealth inequality, capitalism, corporations as people
Where’s the hidden power?Corporate lobbyists, campaign contributions, threat of worker deportation, failure to hold corporations accountable for violating regulations, power over the lives of animals
How can you strengthen your own (and others’) internal power?Reveal the power that our choices have on how systems operate (these things don’t happen without our tacit consent)
How can you strengthen your own (and others’) external power?Educate people on what the issues are, where the leverage points are, what a vision of an ethical, plant-based food system looks like
How can you build collective power?Build a coalition of allies (e.g, people concerned about immigration, worker rights, racial justice, climate change, environmental protection, and animal protection) working to dismantle the system of factory farming and create a new system
Download the Questions for Analyzing Power chart.

For other tools for analyzing power, consider:

The Power Cube
Power Mapping
The Power Matrix


A New Weave of Power, People, and Politics by Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller
Power by Participatory Methods/Institute of Development Studies
Power: A Practical Guide for Facilitating Social Change by Raji Hunjan and Jethro Pettit

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