Editor’s Note: How do you define power?


Toan Nguyen wants to harness the collective power of small businesses in his cooperative, C'ville Central. Photo: Ashley Twiggs Toan Nguyen wants to harness the collective power of small businesses in his cooperative, C’ville Central. Photo: Ashley Twiggs

Power. Hah. It’s a construct. A misconception. A vision of the world with puppet strings. True power is in God’s hands, or it is the electric-water life force that runs through all things, as evident in the beating of the butterfly’s wings as in the groaning Grand Coulee Dam. Power cannot be a human depth chart.

And yet, the minute we think we can move things, the instant we choose to strive, the depth chart becomes real, and we are vulnerable to its force. At that moment, the man on the top floor in the corner office with the window that looks down on the world can make your livelihood go away by clicking “send.”

At that point, so many eventualities fall into place between him and you that, at times, you feel totally powerless, even to improve the fortunes of your children, much less to pick your own path. Like many other things that are important, the truth about power is paradoxical. It cannot be what it seems to be, but it is.

When I was a naive and hopeful community organizer in training, I underwent a weekend-long boot camp in the desert due east of San Diego. Men and women, some young like me and others at transitional moments in their lives, gathered in bunk houses to learn about collective power as the temporary alignment of individual self-interests grouped around an issue affecting them. No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, the trainers said. Such a cool and calculated resting place for the desire to change things.

This week’s feature obeys the time-honored law that newspapers live in the material world. A clear-eyed (perhaps cynical) place, described as it is, not as it should be. But it also offers a caveat from a powerful player that the hardest thing of all to do is to organize other people to do something good. Collective power lives in crack construction teams, tiny churches, startup companies, community bookstores, and yoga studios, but it’s been a long while since it filled a stadium…or a ballot box.