What to do when you feel powerless.

Last month I was given the opportunity to spend 2 days with the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition (MDRC). Some of my favorite peoples work there and I love, not just their mission, but the way they move in the world.

The training was meant to be a conversation about how the staff at the MDRC could practice Militant Self-Care while shifting into work with the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) and experiencing an increase in the number of times they may encounter sexual violence while serving their clients.

Feelings of overwhelm and powerlessness are common when working on the front lines of any move to end violence because, frankly, there’s so much we simply cannot control. We often know the intimate ways that people are being harmed, their unique vulnerabilities, and how the system is not set up to protect them, heal them, or offer them justice. And, on top of it all, we don’t always have the power to change any of that.

In preparation for this workshop, I googled ‘what to do when you feel powerless.’

Seriously. I did. Google is my favorite consultant.

And guess what I found?

If the goal that is important to people is control, then in situations in which people do not have power, they should seek situations that give them more choices. In situations in which people have limited choices, they should seek power.

Initially, I had suggested that they create a parking lot in their office for gaps in services that they identify to help them decided where to shift their programs or their funding asks in the future. Sometimes a response plan can help us keep moving. Choices.

What we did next was the real game changer because it helped the team focus on where they did have power.

I facilitated an activity where we discussed all of the things they could control. It was beautiful. Maybe someday they’ll share it with you. I encouraged them to hang it up somewhere visible in a nice frame.

It included things like;

  • having control over the messages they share and boosting the signal of voices that are made invisible by ableism and white supremacy
  • not replicating the harm of systems of oppression in their work
  • pushing back on funding restrictions that are not in the best interest of their clients.

In the end, we all stood back, took a deep breath, and smiled. I told them,

Look at how you do this work. There are things you don’t have control over but never forget this list. Hang it up somewhere so that you can remember that you are powerful. Not everyone is doing the work like this and I think that’s so special.

Power. Let’s not shy away from using it for good where we have it. Power can manifest as a boot on someone’s neck or the hand that throws it off.

A group of 6 people that are intergenerational and racially diverse. There are 4 people in the back of the group. From left to right, a black woman smiles and is wearing a black sweater and grey patterned shirt, one white women wearing glasses and her dark brown hair in a bun smiles, another white woman smiles with her brown hair up in a bun, and a white older man in a button down shirt and jeans. In the front is an older woman with white hair and glasses. She's wearing a turquoise shirt and glasses. A brown skinned woman wears a flowered sun dress, jean jacket and gold jewelry with curly hair smiles.

Maybe your office could benefit from this exercise. How good would it feel to focus on what you do have control over and why the way you work is so powerful? Or maybe this could be a conversation about the way you want to be doing this work. Maybe you need to spend time together thinking about your values and the way they are or are not showing up in your organizational moves.

Call me, maybe.

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PS – While I have you here, check out the Disability Visibility Project here and while you’re there, get your Ableism is Trash coffee mug, tote or t-shirt. Winter is coming so I opted for the mug but you do you.

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