ARTICLES Event feedback: Unusual Suspects Festival x Power Dynamics in Civil Society

Event feedback: Unusual Suspects Festival x Power Dynamics in Civil Society

Where does your power come from and how does it relate to power in the systems and structures around you? What power do we have as civil society and how can we deploy it for positive and transformative change?

What? We explored the topic of power in relation to civil society: what are the different types of power, what it means to us and how we can shift the unhealthy power dynamics we’re facing in our lives. We wanted the session to be experiential, interactive and ‘not another workshop’, so we borrowed methods from social presencing theatre, as well as moving conversations, or the soft shoe shuffle.

Where? We wanted to be in a space that in itself is a manifestation of civil society, so we chose to run a nomadic session around the Barbican Centre.

When? 16th June, 10:00am – 12:00pm

Why? We found that the ethos of the Festival resonated with the ethos of the Inquiry in aiming to create the space for different questions to be explored differently and bring different people together to debate and develop new approaches for the tough social and environmental challenges we’re facing as a society.


  1. There is no finite amount of power. One of the strongest insights from the session was that there is no finite amount of power. Power over, albeit the most commonly recognised form of power, implies a win-lose relationship where having power implies taking it from someone else, and then using it to prevent others from gaining it. In absence of other models of leadership and relationships, people end up repeating these power patterns in their workplaces, local communities, as well as personal lives. However, we debated in this session the more nuanced types of power, as defined by VeneKlasen and Miller: the power with (based on mutual support and finding common ground), the power to (shape your own life and the world), and the power within (which relates to a person’s self-belief and self-worth). These more nuanced types of power start to depict what the participants in the session experienced: a series of different situations and contexts where the amount of power was not finite, but a fine grain of emotions and feeling which led to a person or a group to feel ‘empowered’.
  2. There’s power in experiencing something together. The second insight from the session, was the participants’ recurrent reflection of the power of thinking through moving, of embodying situations and emotions, of role-playing and of experiencing something together as a group. Perhaps from a selfish perspective, we wanted to design a session where we got to play with new methods and processes that take us out of the post-it overkill workshops. We wanted to connect on a personal level with the participants, and together explore some tough questions – such as: ‘who has power in civil society and what do we do about it?’.
  3. We should practice what we preach – which is the difficult bit. Many of the participants work in the civil society space – whether in a CVS, or in a charity, local council, social enterprise or purposeful business. However, going beyond our day jobs, we are all part of civil society, when we pick up the post for the neighbour, act as school governors, organise the local choir group or even try to reduce the environmental footprint of our shopping basket. As a group, we reflected on how easy it is to talk about the need for change as part of our daily jobs, but how difficult it is to smart small, and enact the change in our daily lives. We reflected on the need to be braver and take risks – to embody the cultural shifts we advocate for in our own organisations, but also in our personal life.
  4. And lastly, that power structures start in our minds. One of the participants remarked that who we project power onto fundamentally changes the amount of power they have. If we project power only onto our political leaders and assume we, as individuals, networks and communities have no power from the outset, we unconsciously corner ourselves into a certain power dynamic. So, what would happen if from the outset we claimed that we do have power and used it intently?

So what?

A lot of people mentioned that they seldom reflect on what power means for them and the power structures and patterns they might be reproducing without blinking. We also know that power is a knotty subject and that exploring it needs to sit at the heart of the Inquiry, as much is left to be explored and learnt.