More Than Money
Issue #11

Embracing Our Power

Table of Contents

“Changing the Roles and Rules”

If we were to take part in a game where someone inevitably wins and everyone else loses, most of us wouldn't want to keep playing unless the rules were changed. That's how many people feel about the current economic system in which wealth and power are becoming increasingly concentrated. This concentration is all too often at the expense of the vast majority's immediate needs and the long-term interests of us all.

To dare to change the rules of the game, we need to step beyond the walls of isolation, deference and pretense that keep the "haves" and "have nots" on opposing sides. The pieces that follow suggest ways to move past the roles and rules that often keep us apart, to build respectful alliances, and to take action.

Growing into Honest Partnership

Growing up, my family had five houses and employed up to 45 people to run them. When my parents traveled I was left with one or two domestic workers in a house with 30 rooms. It was easy to be tremendously arrogant, a little princess.

As I grew, my parents prepared me to follow their tradition of philanthropy and community involvement. The messages I got from them were, "It's important to work well with everybody" but (unspoken): "Always maintain your superiority." Over the past twenty years, my life's work has been to turn around that legacy of distance and to create respectful ways for people with wealth to work as real partners in social change.

After assisting over a thousand grassroots projects and hundreds of women with wealth, I clearly see that class patterns have tenacious momentum. Instead of relegating the responsibility for sharing power to each individual's initiative and awareness, we need to create structures that support people of all classes in working across differences.

Last year, I participated in such a structure: a work group with ten women from widely different racial and financial backgrounds. Our job together was to research potential nominees for the "Resourceful Women" awards. We started by each telling our own personal story. This simple sharing helped us go beneath the assumptions we had about each other.

Next--so we wouldn't slip unconsciously into typical roles, where the verbal, assertive rich women facilitated while the working class women took notes--we explicitly assessed our own skills and stated our goals to the group. My goals were these: to arrive on time, to give 100% of my attention to each person who spoke, and to follow through on whatever commitments I made to the group.

These goals may sound basic, but they contradict obnoxious, unconscious behavior I have been trying to change in myself for years (and behavior I see repeatedly from other middle-and upper-class people.) We wander in late and make promises of assistance we don't follow through on. We're used to people tolerating us not returning their phone calls because we're "important" and busy and our time is so precious. In meetings we're either dominating the conversation or distracted, rarely listening closely to others when they speak. It's embarrassing! Whether from early neglect or early spoon-feeding (or both) we tend to get very demanding and insulting to others about what we need and deserve.

At the end of our eight weeks working together, my nominations group had an evaluation where we asked each other, "How did I do on my goals?" I certainly didn't do perfectly, but many of us felt it was one of the best experiences we ever had working across class difference--honest, and genuinely sharing of power.

Years ago I assumed I joined groups in order to offer my expertise and help out. Over time I recognized that I'm coming to be part of a diverse community, and that I have as much to gain as to give. The self-awareness I gain through the process itself, although sometimes uncomfortable, is one of the most precious gifts I receive.

- anonymous author


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