Understanding Community Power Structures

Power.  Who has it in your community? How do you gain it? When do you lose it? These are questions frequently asked during community education training programs for various school districts, community organizations, and government agencies from around the state trying to understand local community power structures.

In understanding some concepts behind power, it is advantageous to first be aware that power is not a product or service that is sold in a local store or purchased through a mail order business. Nor is power acquired in large quantities similar to buying shares of stock in a company investment plan. Rather, it is a descriptive attribute or quality we attach to leaders, heroes, the “rich & famous”, politicians, actors & actresses, sports figures, and other persons in our perceptions who we think are “influential”. These are persons considered to be powerful. We all know people who are classified as powerful individuals in our own communities. Usually, community power actors have been “white, middle to upper income, self-employed, professional, males” who have made up power networks in almost any given community. However, the traditional power actor is changing. Gradually, more and more women are becoming power actors either through “connection power” (based on the person’s connections with influential or important persons inside or outside the organization) or through “referent power” (based on the person’s ability to be liked or admired by others because of personality) .

CommunityPowerThese are only two types of gender power bases. Many other power bases can and do exist in local communities. The most successful strategy for a community leader is to recognize who are the power actors in their community and identify the source of their power base.

Power, stated in its simplest form, is the ability to exercise control or influence over another person or organization. Why then, is it important to know who the community power actor/leaders are in your community? It is advantageous for some of the following reasons:

  1. Gives official sanction for actions.
  2. Provides suggestions or ideas for improving community projects.
  3. Provides various resources unavailable to most community members.
  4. Provides access to other resources otherwise not available to you.
  5. Promotes the program to the rest of the community with legitimacy.

While most individuals who work and relate with their community power actors do not view them in a special aura, rest assured that the community power actor views him or herself differently.  In 1949, Bertrand  de Jorivenel wrote the following about community leaders in his book  On Power: Its Nature and the History of Its Growth“The leader of any group of men…feels thereby an almost physical enlargement of himself…Command is a mountain top. The air breathed there is different, and the perceptions seen there are different. from those of the valley of obedience.”

The era of change in our communities is accelerating rapidly due to the dramatic increase in power groups operating inside local communities. These power groups are seeking and desiring an improved quality of life for themselves and others. Future gains or rewards are determined by the nature of your interaction with the power network. As a community member and advocate who supports improved lifestyles, it is highly desirable to possess the skills necessary to be successful with community power actors. Such skills are needed in order to minimize potential conflicts and maximize access to valuable resources.

Joseph P. Herrity

Preferred Visions
“Consulting Solutions for Organizations”