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

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.

In our view at Human Impact Partners, power is a central component to advance health equity, as we’ve said in other blog posts and in the work we do with health departments who are serious about advancing health equity. Others believe this too, and are calling for public health to “evolve our research, conceptual frameworks, and metrics” to advance power-building strategies.

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?

The 4 dimensions of racism. Image from

Internalized power is about whether people feel they have agency.

Many people facing inequities feel like their voice doesn’t matter and feel rather hopeless about change for the better. They then don’t engage in making change — by voting, by organizing, by participating in the political process.

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

It’s typically about having power over someone, domination. Interpersonal power can come from named authority or positional power (the kind of power a boss has, or a police officer has). It can also come from power associated with social hierarchies such as those that come from race, gender, age, etc.

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

Law enforcement agencies wield a great amount of power, as does the NRA. Health departments, less so.

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

A current example is how Republicans have the power to appoint a new Supreme Court Justice right now, even though they lost the popular vote in the last presidential election. Because of the electoral college, because small states have the same number of senators as large states, because of gerrymandering, because of systematic voter disenfranchisement through voter ID laws, incarceration, and other mechanisms, and because of dark money donations from the wealthy and corporations that stand to benefit, one person does not equal one vote currently and a wealthy few have manipulated those systems to maintain structural 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.

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



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Human Impact Partners

Human Impact Partners


Bringing the power of public health to campaigns and movements for a just society