Power Literacy for Just and Sustainable Transitions

A report by Yannick Overzee

Sustainability Transitions are immersed in power dynamics, whether it be that of incumbent regime actors or structures, those contesting and resisting it, or expressions of power at the personal and domestic level. Power is pluralistic and multifaceted with important implications for justice, making it a difficult topic to navigate. So how to go about it? This blog summarizes some of the main insights from the event. Find more information on the panelists and the facilitators here.

The inherent complexity and obscurity of the power relations that exist in society are reflected in the field of just sustainability transitions. Powerful incumbent actors are like behemoths not easily shoved aside to challenge the status quo. And how does one go about activating the power held by the masses? How does their knowledge contribute to the exertion of bottom-up power? And what goes first; changing within ourselves and our organizations, or altering the structures that guide our relationships to each other? If there were clear answers to these questions, there wouldn’t have been a need to speak about power literacy.

These big questions about power cannot be answered, let alone resolved, at one single event, but good pointers were given to get started on them. Embrace and reflect on the nuance of your own power, and take the steps to do the work yourselves; whosoever has some power shouldn’t leave it up to marginalized communities only to address the failures of intersectionality within our own organizations. Nitya Rao put it best: “Nothing succeeds like success”. Our own accomplishments at navigating the oppression of structural power hand us the tools at fighting it at larger scales.

Relive or discover the panelists' insights from the event:

Power Literacy for Just and Sustainable Transitions | Video

Highlights from the conversation:

#1 Don’t shy away from speaking about power

The omnipresence of power in our daily lives warrants the continued conversation and reflection on the ways we are subjected to it while exerting power ourselves. It’s important to render this power visible, because it is its invisibility that allows for the unperturbed perpetuation of current imbalances. It’s important to renounce the narrative where power is a “dirty word”. When we speak about power, it can help reveal the important actors to mobilize to exert resistance in the face of dominant paradigmatic actors. This also means bringing power into discussions where the social sciences are typically exempt. For instance, how does one go about instructing architecture students on the power dynamics underlying their work? It’s important to bring reflexivity in the classroom to begin these crucial conversations and decolonise curricula, all the while remembering that power literacy does not need to demand full academic knowledge of power.

#2 Be reflexive of power in yourself and your organizations

Too often the sustainability movement fails to tackle the internal power imbalances it hopes to address externally. Addressing this means actively unlearning presuppositions and prejudices systemically ordained and reinforced. For Laura Pereira, this was the embracing of epistemologies other than the paradigmatic positivistic one; for Nitya Rao, the acknowledgment that knowledge is not limited by literacy which allows marginalized rural populations to engage with narratives of change; or Chris Vretos’s unlearning of knowledge itself, questioning dynamics of cultural and material homogenisation sometimes pushed within the environmental movement, alluding to the notion of uncommoning. In the meantime, this unlearning ought to happen within organizations themselves, while embracing the nuance of responsibility for injustices and unjust power relations within them. It’s easy and important to point the blame at structures, but this shouldn’t go without acknowledging our own reproduction of it. Avoid forcing marginalized groups to be the only ones doing all of the work rectifying justice at organizational levels.

#3 Don’t lose track of whom you are fighting

Power is relative, and this is what causes injustice pertaining to it to permeate the work on sustainability and forcing this need to reflexivity. Nevertheless, neoliberal individualism’s focus on the self at the personal and organization level can also distract from the higher aims of the movement. It’s important to ensure that the power imbalances within organizations serve to better the organization without forgetting to exert it at the behemoths, their disproportionate power, and the latter’s reflection in the scale of their social and environmental harm perpetuated. Power is ultimately also cumulative and no zero-sum game; work for the empowerment of others and learn to navigate its dynamics together to pose resistance to the largest culprits of socio-economic and environmental degradation. One trend throughout the conversations echoed Nontokozo Sabic’s words; “We can’t underestimate the power of the people”, and the work done within our organizations should follow this line. Create a narrative of allyship in the face of power structures to span the rope that will make them

About the event

This interactive online event served as a platform for any person or institution, academics or activists, to bring their burning questions to a panel of experts and practitioners in the field of justice and sustainability transitions who are well versed in the navigation of such power dynamics. There were 85 participants at the event. To enable active and democratic participation, we employed a new facilitation strategy called the ‘chat storm’ in which participants effectively self-facilitate the discussion.

Resources from the webinar

About the organizers

This event was organized as a collaboration between  DRIFT, Vital Cities & Citizens (VCC), Urban Arena on Sustainable and Just Cities (UrbanA),  ECOLISE and the Social Innovation in Energy Transitions (SONNET) project on the 17th of February 2022. The panel consisted of Laura Pereira (Wits University, Stockholm Resilience Center), Nitya Rao (University of East Anglia, Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development), Chris Vrettos (Electra Energy Coop), Nontokozo Sabic (Nonty Charity Sabic, Rise Ubuntu Network), Molly Walsh (European Climate Foundation), and Flor Avelino (DRIFT, VCC). The event was facilitated by Lucia di Paola (UrbanA) and Tessa de Geus (DRIFT).

About the Author

Yannick Overzee is working as a research intern for the Vital Cities & Citizens initiative on the theme of Just Sustainable Cities. He holds a MSc in Cultural Anthropology: Sustainable Citizenship at Utrecht University and is currently pursuing his MSc in Industrial Ecology at the Technical University Delft and Leiden University. His research interests include urban agroecology, food justice, social movements, and sustainability transitions.

More information

Vital Cities and Citizens

With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens, Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes:

•    Inclusive Cities and Diversity
•    Resilient Cities and People
•    Smart Cities and Communities 
•    Sustainable and Just Cities

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

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