The Power Flower
Alex Storer, Executive Director, Diversity Pride reflects on the responsibilities that come with social advantage.
Depending on your passions and interests, reading the words “power flower” might trigger different thoughts: some might think about cake baking (apparently the power flower is a revolutionary method to colour your chocolate & cocoa butter) or, if you are into DIY, it might make you think of electrical engineering (as this is also the name of a specific arrangement of energy collectors and antimatter relays). Or perhaps some of you might think of a certain plant with “medicinal” powers!
But as this is a website dedicated to workplace inclusion for diverse groups, hopefully the first thing many of you will have been reminded of when reading “Power Flower” is an exercise used to help people reflect about their advantages in life (or lack thereof) and the impact that this has on their lives and opportunities in the workplace.
The picture below shows an example of a Power Flower completed during such an exercise. If you look carefully you can even spot a hint of which Country this was carried out in:
The Power Flower outlines characteristics that often result in a comparative advantage in life, or, to call it like it is: privilege.
While each of these characteristics alone may confer some advantage, in combination their effect is cumulative: Being heterosexual, well educated, white, male, with no disability tends to result in greater privilege in many part of the world than any other combinations of personal characteristics. In other parts of the world, however, there may be a slightly different ‘optimal’ mix of characteristics which confers the greatest privilege. There may also be other privileged characteristics not mentioned above (such as religious affiliation, marital status, perceived beauty, social class, etc.), and these may vary or vary in importance from culture to culture.
When it comes to a workplace context, the carrier of this ‘optimal’ mix of characteristics will most likely find it easier to get a job, progress in it, and be successful compared to others that do not share the same identity (e.g. non-white, female, LGBT+ or disabled peers).
The point of this exercise, and the reflections it should hopefully trigger, is not to make anyone feel guilty or ashamed of their privileges. On the contrary, the aim is to make sure everyone of us is aware that the more privilege we recognise in our lives, the more power we have. Once we realise this, we can then choose to use such power to ensure others can benefit from the same opportunities we benefited from.
The second important message of this exercise is to help us all see that most of us have some privilege, whether we realise it or not. If we think hard enough, most of us will be able to identify times when an aspect of our identity or background helped us get something we wanted. Of course, on a superficial level, there is nothing wrong with getting ahead using the “assets” emerging from who we are or our upbringings. But, if we think a bit more deeply about it, we will appreciate that for every “easy ride” we got in life, someone else was left at the bus stop and was never even given the chance to compete fairly with us.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to live a life where everything is constantly handed over to me, where I would become unable to know what I am really worth, what I am good at. The joy and gratification of an accomplishment largely comes from knowing that you deserved that achievement, that you worked hard, that you were able to shine amongst your peers.
At this point the obvious question might be: What does that mean for me? I cannot change my upbringing or the colour of my skin, so what can I possibly do to make the playing field more level for everyone?
To adapt a famous phrase: with privilege comes responsibility.
It is our responsibility to use every ounce of privilege we have to work towards creating societies and workplaces where we can all thrive, and where success is based on merit alone. And the great news is that the “game of privilege” is not zero-sum: using our privilege to make the game fairer does not reduce our chances, it simply gives the same to others.
And this is what being an “ally” really means: choosing to use our position (or indeed the power that comes from our privileges) to support groups or individuals that have historically not benefited from the same rights or opportunities.
But to do that authentically, we must first and foremost accept that some of our privilege comes from historic and institutionalised inequalities that for too long have allowed one group in the population to get ahead for no other reason than who they were, how they looked, where they came from, or the accent they speak with. Only once we have truly grasped the negative impact of the inequalities created by privilege, can we truly embrace our role of allies.
And let us be clear on this point: we can all be allies to someone else, no one excluded. It doesn’t take expertise or extra time to be an ally. “Ally” is not a badge, it is a state of mind emerging from self-awareness.
The second responsibility that comes with the privilege of being an ally is to continuously listen to other people’s experiences and struggles and understand how we can use our voice, our position, our power to reduce that struggle and lift everyone up, ourselves included.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must remember that as we constantly benefit from privilege, our role as allies must also be constant: there is no such thing as a “part-time ally”!
So, let’s acknowledge our privilege and, whether it is a lot or a little, let’s use the power that such privilege gives us to create a world of inclusion and equal opportunities.
And if you don’t know where to start, if you are not sure what being an ally really means, at least engage in the conversation. You should always feel able to ask questions. Sometimes we get it wrong, and that’s ok, as long as we keep talking to one another with respect and with the genuine intention to learn and continue making steps, even small ones, in the right direction!