Sunday, June 15, 2008

Power Imbalance

Our Sunday community lunch can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand you have up to 90 people from a variety of backgrounds, many of them with mental health or drug and alcohol issues, as well as a number with physical and intellectual disabilities. You learn very early to let go any fantasy of having control over the whole situation - if you're lucky there is an appearance of order occasionally. On the other hand, considering what can be a potentially volatile mix, we rarely have any real difficulties and many people pitch in to lend a hand with the various tasks of the day.

I spend a lot of the time on a small stage with my guitar but I am also frequently sensing moods across the floor. Today an issue arose right in front of me between two people - someone was unhappy with on of our servers, a volunteer from the community program himself. I watched to see if this would be a brief exchange or whether it would escalate and prepared myself to intervene if necessary (I was also singing a song at the time). In the end it was relatively minor but I still felt uneasy about it. The issue for me was an abuse of power imbalance - a larger, older man intimidating a smaller, younger man.

Of course, when I intervene this immediately creates a new power imbalance. I tried to minimise this by waiting until the song was finished, both parties had separated and the older man had sat down again. I went over and knelt beside his seat so that I wasn't standing over him and expressed as calmly as I could my dissatisfaction with his behaviour. I doubt that my efforts were wholly successful - he tried to fire up at me for a while - but I couldn't sit by and watch such intimidation without following up. Our efforts to establish an alternative culture of grace, which doesn't follow the rules of the street, aren't perfect but on the whole I think they succeed more than they fail.

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