Breaking Down Forms of Power (so we know what we’re up against)

By Jonathan Heller

This is part of a semi-regular series of blog posts on power. Contact us if you’d like to submit a guest blog post for this series!

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GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee members and Rachel Mitchell at Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on September 27, 2018. (Image from AJplus via Twitter)

We need to deepen our understanding of power.

One thing that has come up for me recently is how the 4 dimensions of racism — internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and structural — are also dimensions of power. How so?

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The 4 dimensions of racism. Image from

Internalized power is about whether people feel they have agency.

In turn, those benefiting from inequities — the wealthy in particular — have no doubt about their ability to make change.

Interpersonal power is about “positional power” and is often linked to racism and other forms of oppression.

When we talk about “power and privilege,” we are generally talking about interpersonal power.

Institutional power is about what societal institutions have power and which do not.

Structural power is about how different structures that underlie society, across institutions, wield power.

One component of maintaining structural power currently is to use racism and other forms of oppression to maintain a social hierarchy in which White, cis-gender, heterosexual people benefit from the status quo.

My favorite framework about power is from the Grassroots Policy Project and focuses on this last dimension, structural power. It looks at 3 (or sometimes 4) faces of power:

  • “Organizing people and resources for direct political involvement in visible decision-making arenas”
  • “Building durable, long-term political infrastructure to control what is on the political agenda”
  • “Making meaning on the terrain of ideology and worldview”
  • The 4th face they sometimes include is state policing power that can shut down on dissent.

These dimensions are just a rubric to help us examine power. They are not truly distinct and are, in fact, deeply intertwined. For example, we need to organize people and change their internalized view of power so they engage in work together to gain institutional and structural power.

We need to make progress changing all these dimensions of power if we want to advance health equity.

Changing structural power must be our ultimate goal, though, to make the deep and enduring changes that will allow everyone to thrive.

Jonathan Heller is co-founder and co-director of Human Impact Partners. Jonathan co-directs the organization with Lili Farhang, setting its strategic direction and advancing its mission. He’s dedicated to advancing health equity by addressing the main causes of inequities — social, economic, and environmental policies — as well as the causes of inequities in those policies: power imbalances and racism and other forms of oppression. He’s thrilled to see public health starting to engage more deeply in social justice work these days.

When he’s not at HIP, Jonathan is likely hanging out with his wife, 2 kids, and/or dog, supporting social justice in other ways, or doing all of those things together.

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