power differentials in action

if you’ve been reading for a while you know i am passionate about advocacy.   i believe we are called to stand up for the oppressed, be a voice for the voiceless, and to raise awareness of injustices with more than just words.   my last specific rant about this subject was when i wrote make advocates not buildings; i shared about an experience i had going to social security offices with a single mom on disability.   i have seen it in action many a time–the doors that someone with education, titles, credentials, skin color, and a host of other distinguishers can open that those without power, voice, or margin can’t.  last week, i had yet another perfect and shining example of why it is so critical that we stay in close & long-haul relationship with those who do not have the same resources as us, whatever that looks like.  we need each other.  here’s what happened:

my friend recently became disabled (she gave me permission to share this story).  she worked an assembly job for many years and was a very faithful employee.  over time her health issues mounted and she no longer could hold a job due to a lot of limitations.  she definitely qualified for disability and went through the laborious process of applying for it.  during the time that she became disabled and was waiting for approval of her disability in the system friends and family helped her with medical expenses in any way we could.   she pays her regular bills on time and lives off very little.  the only problem is that even though she had some temporary insurance coverage, she had a stay in the hospital and a few procedures that produced some extra bills.   an advocate from our community helped her write a letter to get one of her bills reduced; it worked, but there was still a nice chunk of change to be paid.   she called herself on one of them and they told her that they could work out a payment plan on it but it would have to be $300 a month.  she said she couldn’t pay anywhere near it, and they said that the absolute lowest they could do was $150 a month.  it is a hardship for her to have a bill that high each month on her disability, but she is honest & faithful (and really scared of going to collections) and said she could.    she already made her first payment.

so the other day i made a few phone calls on her behalf.  she has been extremely anxious; bills all of a sudden started threatening collections and all of the data can make her feel pretty paralyzed.  she made the phone calls with me; i just said i was her advocate,  trying to help her sort out this mess and see what we could do with her extremely limited income.  in a snap, i got one bill taken down 40%, another one on a very reasonable payment plan. and as for the $150 one that they told her they absolutely couldn’t lower one dime less, well, for me, they immediately halfed it to $75.   this is so wrong! of course, i am relieved for her, and that’s what counts; what we negotiated is definitely a hardship but she can make it work for the next year or two.

but on the whole, the entire debaucle infuriated me because of the obvious injustice against those without certain kinds of margin and education and experience. it reminded me of the time that another single mom of 6 kids had a really high power bill.  she was struggling to make ends meet and received a shut-off notice; she called to make payment arrangements several times.  they told her it wasn’t possible.  i called as her advocate, as a pastor from her community, trying to figure out a way to make this work.  literally, in one minute we had a good payment plan set up that she could do.  i kindly asked them, in that moment, “how come she has called and begged you multiple times for help and you never could make this happen and i call and it’s a snap?”  they replied, “ma’am, thank you for your time.  goodbye.” i had told jose for a long time about these kinds of advocacy things that drive me crazy. he believed me, but recently saw it in action when he was going to visit a client in jail.  the advocate, a woman from a local agency, couldn’t get a lick of information from them.  he walks in, says “i’m a lawyer,” and the doors magically open.  these are just a few of the bajillion examples i am sure people could provide on what power differentials look like in action.

i could go on and on and rant and rave for hours, but it won’t do any of us any good.  i have more-productive-than-ranting thoughts for us to consider, though.  some i have already written about before in re-thinking power & what could be: diffusing power. but here are a few questions on my mind in the moment:

how can we use our power on behalf of another? this doesn’t have to look like clear-cut advocacy relationships.  it might be in our offices, schools, neighborhoods, churches, ministries, families, oh all kinds of things.  as we develop hearts to  notice power differentials, we can extend our power on behalf of another–hand the microphone to someone who usually doesn’t get to hold it, stand up against the bully, nurture a least-likely candidate to an office promotion, vote in ways that represent the underrepresented, cultivate diversity in any way you can,  find ways to use your voice, time & heart on behalf of someone who can’t use theirs.

how much do we subtly or directly expect that people should be able to do on their own? this is a huge hot button for me because so often we look at a person and assume “they are able-bodied, they just need to figure it out.”  and actually, we have no idea what’s going on internally, physically, emotionally, oh, in all kinds of ways.   we make an assumption–if you just do A, B and C, then this will happen.  i am not saying that people are not capable of certain things they think they can’t do, i am just reminding us all to be careful of false and unreasonable expectations.  even with my friend, i knew that she couldn’t just call and have a smooth & easy & strong & confident conversation on the phone with the billing department.  this also happens sometimes related to women in leadership or some other under-represented group getting involved; some say “just go do it” but they forget that without some help, some moving aside, some encouraging, “just doing it” isn’t actually possible in certain systems.  we can never underestimate how deeply engrained systems of oppression & poverty & lack of personal power really are.

how much are we stuck in a “to” and “for” instead of “with” mentality? i think “with” relationships are the kinds a lot of people have the most trouble with.  “to” someone, “for” someone, well that’s fairly easy.  but what ends up happening in these kinds of relationships is that it keeps the power differential going.  the one doing something “to” or “for” always holds the power.  “with” relationships mean that it’s two way.  my friend who i made some calls for, well, she was the first one who called me and said “i’m coming with you to court” when i had a bench warrant issued for an unpaid ticket last year (yeah, it was humiliating!)  we are friends.  she loves me and i love her.   yes, not all relationships can be like that; that’s okay, but i think when we are talking about incarnational relationships, it means we both give AND receive.  people who never receive retain all the power. i wrote a piece last year that fleshes this out a little bit more; it’s called why prepositions matter.

how can we build relationships & connections & bridges to people who need our help to find & use their voice? i never have any easy answers to that, but it usually starts with the same place Jesus seemed to be drawn toward–those on the margins, whatever those margins look like.  over and over again, that seemed to be where he went & spent a good deal of his time.  this will require us moving out of our comfort zones, giving up all kinds of things we are used to, and stepping into new and beautiful and scary and messy relationships with all kinds of people.

my hope, my deepest desire, is that we notice our power and use it for good, whatever that looks like, however small, however big.

* * * * *

ps:  for more on the topic of power differentials &  how to change deeply engrained systems, check out jeff mcquilken’s latest post why men must not be passive. also, issue #7 of voca femina is out.   tomorrow i am going to tag along with jose on his flight to rome.  we’re only there for 36  hours & are staying right by the vatican. i haven’t been there since college &  am really looking forward to our whirlwind visit.  hoping my back holds out!  …ciao!

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

11 Comments

  • awesome Kathy as always. really stretches me. not sure I’m doing this in any fashion or way at all.

    very powerful. no pun intended.

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  • Sure seems like Jesus understood how this was all going to need to work when he started washing the feet of the guys who were following him.
    I found out this weekend during that abduction for the invisiblechildren how often times we just need to stand up, make a noise, or be counted in. It was first time I’d done anything like that. And being there…seeing all we needed was someone with MORE of a voice than ours to step in and say count me in too…and waiting and waiting and waiting for that person. I was extremely frustrated with the media, our government, and all those who have that loud voice. It definitely started struggle and a discomfort in me that hurts, but I don’t want it to go away. I don’t ever want to be apathetic when I hear someone needs a voice to speak for them.

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  • Kathy:

    I do not have time today to write much of a response, but I just wanted to thank-you for this post and the message it sends — advocacy is so important and those of us who have a voice that can be heard — need to use it for those who have a voice — but their voices are not heard because of the injustice society that we live in.

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  • Your post helps me understand my own role a little better. In Honduras, I have prestige and power merely because of my nationality. How can I use that for the greater good? Can I resist the arrogance that can come with that attribution? On the other hand, many times I am at greater risk for being taken advantage of or in actual danger because of my citizenship. Then, I have to rely on those with local prestige to help me. For example, I regularly rely on a poorer, local couple to buy food supplies that we distribute because they get a much better price than I am quoted. So I need to rely on my Honduran brothers and sisters at times for things that I cannot do for myself. Interesting post, Kathy.

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  • I’ve been on both sides of this table now, and find the inequality wretched…. reminds me of what Orwell said– “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” How right he was in that observation… I MUST keep standing for what is right and true and good.

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  • Hi Kathy: Wow we must be hearing similar thing from the heart of Father this week. Last week the poem you shared struck such a cord in my heart that I started one of my own here. You may have noticed I shared little more of that poem on facebook well tomorrow I will be sharing the final draft as my blog entry for the week over at http://www.ReligionFreeJesus.com

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  • mimosa – i am so glad you are reading from afar. we had a great trip. rome in 24 hours is pretty wild, but we had a great time…i am going to try to go on any trips i can because i am a travel nut & our kids are getting older and it’s easier to get away. where are you again?

    jeff – you are writing some good stuff, my friend.

    randi – me, too, i feel constantly stretched in this area, that is for sure.

    jim – yeah, you saw it up close and personal just last week. a few years ago at the refuge we watched the invisible children together & i remember thinking that if there was oil in uganda, the whole thing would be a different story. i am with you, i don’t want it to go away. the only thing about once this gets stirred up in us is it leaves us very frustrated between what is and what could be, but i think that’s a good thing. just hard when apathy was so darn easy! love to all of you down there, hope to see you soon.

    jeff g – i think you nailed it on the head: our friends have a voice, it’s there, down deep, it just isn’t being used, hasn’t been developed, nurtured, called out, allowed. as we journey together, the bigger idea is to cultivate & strengthen & empower others to be heard, but boy are we working against a formidable foe–history & patterns of opppression & marginalization.

    pops – yep, it sure shouldn’t be this way, but i have great hope that as more and more folks use their voice and time and heart and all kinds of things on behalf of others, that things will continue to shift in good & beautiful ways…

    laurie – you are in the thick of it, that is for sure. i think what you said is one of the most important–that we just begin with noticing our power, period. i remember a long time ago confronting someone who was in power at a former church saying “you have the most power here, how are you going to use it?” he got mad at me and said “i didn’t ask for this power in the first place.” and i was like “but you have it, period, and people are watching and listening and following. what are you going to do with what you have?” yeah, bad story because the power was used for not-so-good things but i will always remember the interaction related to power. any power we have is God’s anyway. so what would he do with it? give it away, use it for good, use it on behalf of those who didn’t have any. oh one of these days i hope i can come down there and visit. united doesn’t fly to el salvador or guatemala anymore, though, so it’s much harder to get down there. and jose’s uncle just retired in el salvador on the beach, too! anyway, thinking of you from afar and praying for endurance and hope….

    tami – i agree that we need to keep walking in this direction on behalf of each other.

    tom – love your passion for the marginalized…

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  • Kathy I’m a travel nut too! Don’t get to go and see as much as I’d like to though.. I’m in the UK, Scotland to be exact, but I’m from Finland! I’ve spent half of my twenties in the UK but am Finnish as said 🙂

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