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Engendering Bottom Up, Collective, and Participatory Forms of Power

March 31st, 2020

Engendering Bottom Up, Collective, and Participatory Forms of Power

By Ruha Benjamin, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of African American Studies, Princeton University

How do you define power?

Power comes in different forms: top down or bottom up, individualistic or collective, coercive or participatory, dominating or empowering, leaning in or expanding out. While top down, individualistic, and coercive power is the dominant mode that has been given new license to assert itself in the current moment, I choose to engender bottom up, collective, and participatory forms of power in which people most affected by unjust systems take the lead.

Which female leader do you most admire? Why?

Someone who embodies the form of power I most admire is Ella Baker, who said, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve gotten along the way?

An elder Black woman pulled me aside at a workshop when I was in my first year on the tenure track and said, “If you hold off doing what you care most about until after you earn tenure, by then, you won’t even have a desire do it.” Indeed, smothering our passion until we feel powerful enough to express it, is one of the ways in which we disempower ourselves.

How can women most effectively support one another on their path to success?

We can put the Ubuntu ethos into practice throughout all we do: “I am because we are. We are because I am.”


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