After our last episode with Srilatha Batliwala we felt like we were not even close to done with our exploration of power in the workplace, and wanted to dive deeper into understanding and transforming repressive power dynamics within our organizations. In this episode Srilatha builds on the themes in our last episode, helps us identify complex hierarchical structures, and gives us the tools to begin dismantling them.

Srilatha’s work has spanned grassroots activism, building movements of marginalized women, policy advocacy, and capacity building of young activists around the world.

She currently serves as Senior Advisor, Knowledge Building with CREA, (Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action), a global organization based in New Delhi, India, that works at the intersection of gender, sexuality and human rights.


Walking the Talk: Addressing Power Within Presentation Spanish Translation: Walking the Talk: Addressing Power Within Exercise Walking the Talk: Addressing Power Within Exercise Achieving Transformative Feminist Leadership Manual

Full Transcript

Mallika Dutt: Welcome to Leadership Moves presented by INTER-CONNECTED. I’m Mallika Dutt. In this episode, Walking the Talk: Addressing Power Within, we’re going to go on a journey with Srilatha Batliwala to explore how we create more justice and equity within our organizations. After all, if we can’t figure out how to do that in our social justice spaces, how can we do that in the rest of the world? Srilatha Batliwala is a globally renowned feminist who has been writing and teaching about power and hierarchies for decades. She’s currently a senior advisor with CREA, Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action.

Mallika Dutt: Welcome again everybody from around the world. Today we’re going to be doing a deep dive, a deeper dive into how we understand and analyze power within our organizations. We had a session with Srilatha last month where she went over this issue in great detail and many of you wrote in and said that you wanted more time on this and more practical, hands on time on this. So after I introduce Srilatha to you, we’re going to have a really short overview presentation and then just break us out into the small groups, as we discussed.

Just a couple of things that I want you to keep in mind. This is a practice session. When we explore power within organizations, the different ways in which power is held, wielded, challenged, transformed, it can often be very stressful because we’re not used to having these conversations. And I think that certainly in the last year, certainly with Black Lives Matter, certainly with the ways in which we have all been looking to transform our organizations into more inclusive, egalitarian, creative spaces where intergenerational voices can be heard more clearly that this today’s exercise is about learning the tools and finding the words and the vocabulary to do that with one another from a place of a little bit more proficiency.

So my invitation to you is to see this exercise as a way to learn together. Like I said, this can often be a challenging thing to do. So, have some compassion. This is about a shared educational experience. And certainly we believe that on the other side of this it will help us to create much, much stronger, more resilient, and the kinds of organizations that we all desire to be a part of and lead. So without further ado, I’m going to introduce Srilatha to you. Srilatha has been a feminist, an educator, a teacher, a guide, a writer for decades in the women’s movement. She was also once upon a time at the Ford Foundation, as I was, so we’re both delighted to be in this conversation with all of you. She is a senior advisor with CREA (Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action), which is a global organization addressing sexuality and rights that is based out of Delhi. Srilatha does many other things as well and I invite you to look at the bios that we’ve shared in prior emails. So without further ado, I am going to hand this over to you Srilatha and welcome back. And thank you so much for agreeing to do this again.

Srilatha Batliwala: Well, thank you very much. And I have to say, good evening, which is what it is in my time zone, but also very good early morning. I see somebody from Seattle, and a good day to all of you in different time zones.

Srilatha Batliwala: Thanks very much for asking me to come back and do this follow up session. For those of you who were in the first one you know that we just about touched the tip of the iceberg. So we’re hoping to dig just a little deeper today. And I do hope that those of you who are joining this session for the first time, have had a chance to look at the presentation last month and some of the concepts that were introduced there because otherwise they’re going to seem a little out of left field, as it were.

So what I’m going to do is try to bring everybody up to speed, at least with some of the basics, by doing a brief recap of some of the issues that we discussed last time.

So what did we talk about last time in terms of key concepts that we have to address and understand in order to deal with how power operates inside our own systems. And not just in our organizations, but for that matter in our movements and even informal formations like you know collectives and you know, unions and neighborhood groups and so on.

So, we introduced several key concepts. And the first being, you know, what is the nature of organizations? What are the assumptions that we make about organizations and how do those assumptions become problematic? What are the forms or faces of power in organizations? And I had led the group through a very brief overview of understanding the different faces of power and how they operate.

Then we looked at this concept of the deep structure of organizations. We looked at power under, which is a very, very important and critical concept I think especially in our social movements for reasons we’ll see in a moment.

We talked about how is power constructed and sustained in organizations. And why tackling deep structures is actually critical if we want to transform the organizational culture and change the environment within an organization, and most importantly, if we want the organization to mirror the values and the goals that it claims to be pursuing in the larger world.

So we started with this interesting question, which is why do social justice and feminist organizations reproduce oppressive practices of power? And we’ve seen in the recent past, and in the last five or ten years, in fact, all the revelations and the exposés about sexual harassment, other forms of harassment, of you know, racism, of different forms of hidden power and privilege that are operating inside social justice organizations, or feminist organizations that claim to be seeking, you know, equality and inclusion and so on in the world beyond.

And we saw that this is because we expect organizations to be rational entities, but in fact they are not. They can’t be, because we create them and we are not entirely functioning as rational entities. So they are actually mirrors of the social context in which they are created. And so patriarchal, unequal, discriminatory societies are inevitably going to produce patriarchal, unequal, discriminatory organizational environments. But in the case of a social justice or feminist organization, unlike say a business or something like that, or you know military organization, these inequalities cannot be expressed or practiced overtly, obviously because they are contradictory to the values and the mission of the organization. So they get submerged or hidden in what is called the deep structure, some call it the deep culture of the organization, which is really what the organization is about.

So we realized that like societies themselves, organizations contain three forms or faces of power. Very indebted to feminist colleagues Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller of Just Associates for giving us this sort of a framework.

Srilatha Batliwala: So, one form or face of power in an organization is the visible one. Visible power, which is the formal leadership, the formal hierarchy, the decision making, structure, the policies, the rules, you know your HR manual, or whatever.

And then there is a hidden face of power in the organization, which is the deep structure, which is where a lot of embedded power and privilege get reproduced in various subtle, sometimes not even very subtle ways. And then there’s a kind of invisible power that’s operating, which, one example of which is power under.

So, let’s take a quick look at this. So, what about deep structures? So, on the surface the organization looks like this. But underneath is the deep structure and this is what the deep structure contains. It’s a lot of informal norms that are different from formal rules. Like those who work late, who work on weekends, who you know surrender themselves to the organizational work are valued more highly or rewarded or recognized, even if the formal rules say you know it’s nine to five and weekends off or whatever. That’s just a very crude example I’m giving you.

You’ll always have some individuals or groups that have greater power and influence. And in different organizations I’ve worked with we’ve seen, for instance seniority, the number of years I’ve been in the organization, all these kinds of things, or because certain people belong to a similar you know class, or ethnic group, or educational background, or whatever, they actually exercise greater power and influence, even if it is hidden and in an informal way.

And then you have all sorts of informal and invisible processes that actually influence formal decision making. You know, the executive director is a good friend of so and so, who works in Ford Foundation and you know discovers Ford is now prioritizing x, y, z programming areas and that leads to certain sort of shifts in the programmatic strategies without anyone really understanding why. Again, I’m giving very crude and quick examples.

There are a lot of personal biases and a sense of privilege that get reproduced there. And this would be on the basis of, you know, race, class, caste, ability, you know your sexual expression, or whatever. There can be a lot of for instance hidden homophobia, or ableism, or ethnic biases, etc.

And then you have certain kinds of behavior that is rewarded and others that are penalized. I’m sure you can all think of examples of that. And then finally you have power under practices.

So let’s take a quick look at power under, because it’s a very potent idea. And last time I had invited everyone and I have shared the link to the document. This is a concept developed by a psychoanalyst called Stephen Wineman, who worked with survivors of severe trauma, violence and you know oppression of different kinds, including survivors of genocide, battered women, survivors of child sexual abuse and so on. And he basically gave us this concept and he essentially says that power under is based on the powerless rage that anyone who’s been a victim has, over that victimization. And that when they survive that oppression they come out with a belief that there are only two ways or two roles that you can occupy in the world: The role of the oppressor or the role of the oppressed. And so the only way to ensure that you don’t become the oppressed is to become oppressive. And so that is a very interesting explanation of why many people in social justice movements and organizations who have, you know, a strong mission to overcome the oppression they face, can actually become very oppressive in leadership roles.

Srilatha Batliwala: I want to here now summarize something I didn’t touch on last time, which is what have we learned about creating deep change? Why do we need to pay attention to deep structures, in fact?

And here I want to use the very powerful and useful Gender at Work framework, which is based on Ken Wilber’s Integral Framework, where you draw two transversals, one from the individual level to the systemic level, and one from the informal domain to the formal domain. And so if you actually look about strategies for change whether they are at a social level or internally, what you see is that you can intervene in any of these four domains or in several of them. You can intervene in the individual formal domain, which is where, you know, we fight for certain kinds of rights, entitlements, greater access to resources for instance, for marginalized women, or marginalized people.

We can make interventions in the formal systemic quadrant by demanding better laws, better policies, better enforcement by formal institutions, budgets that, you know, give greater benefits for, for instance, poverty eradication or empowering women, or whatever.

So, these are the two commonest quadrants, in which a lot of our social justice interventions take place, if you plot your strategies. But what we’ve also seen is that intervening in these domains without addressing these on the left side, which is the individual informal and the informal systemic, is deeply problematic. So, unless we change, for instance, the norms of society, beliefs, and practices, and unless we change the way people think what they, how they see themselves in their heads, and feminists know this very well because we are the first, I think, ideology that, in terms of change strategies came up with the idea of consciousness raising. What is consciousness raising? It is actually trying to shift women’s internalized patriarchy and belief about themselves as, you know, secondary or subordinate or whatever. So, interventions that focus on both the informal domains as well as the formal are far more likely to create impact.

So, I’m going to give you here an example to bring this out a little more clearly, which is what are the barriers, and this is based, even on my own work on my own grassroots work, but also the work of many people around the world trying to enable women’s access to claim their rights or to assert their rights. And what we have found in many cultures is that the first barrier you face is women’s own awareness, or lack of awareness, or willingness to embrace the concept that they have rights, or that this is a violation. That, for instance, domestic violence is a violation of their rights, when they have been conditioned to believe that it’s normal, it’s the right of the husband, blah, blah.

The second barrier, once you create awareness, is that in order to claim that right she has to negotiate the permission of the family, the clan, the social norms, the local power holders. Let’s take the example of reporting a rape. Many of us in our early activism, our first struggle was to actually get past the restrictions imposed by families, by the, you know, local community saying, “Don’t report it, there will be a stigma there will be shame, she will never be able to get married,” etcetera, etcetera. So, she has to negotiate that capacity to claim the right and get past the local, sort of, door keepers. Then she has to have the resources, because there is always an opportunity cost to asserting rights, right? Even if it means going and registering a complaint, the loss of a day’s wages, the cost of transport, maybe the cost of, you know, the health service, or the legal aid, or whatever. Then that service has to be available, there has to be a law that says domestic violence is not okay, or that sexual violence is not okay. So, you need accessible, enabling laws and policies and services.

Srilatha Batliwala: And the final barrier, which in many ways is the most interesting of all, is the one of the attitude, and the behavior of the duty bearers, and the enforcement authorities. And very often, for instance, that is one of the hugest and most difficult barriers to bring down because that’s where the social norms are operating, no matter what your formal law says, yeah? “Shameful woman coming and complaining against your husband. Shameless girl coming and reporting a rape, you want the whole world to know that you were raped.” You know, this sort of reaction, which prevents people from actually pursuing the right. So, it’s only when she crosses these five barriers. Now, look at these barriers later and tell me how many of them get resolved by simply having the good law and having, you know, good resource allocations? They don’t, you really have to work on the consciousness and on the informal sites.

And I’ve just given an example here that I won’t go through, of how for decades, you know, the women’s movement around the world mobilized, advocated stricter laws, stricter penalties for gender-based violence, and all this. And while it improved rates of prosecution, the fact is that the prevalence of such violence has not been reduced substantially. The research is pretty clear on this. And in some countries that seems to have increased. All that’s improved is reporting of complaints.

On the other hand, initiatives that focused on changing the norms of masculinity, changing social tolerance of, or responses to violence, especially at the local level, shifting individual and community attitudes has had much deeper impact.

So, approaches that shift on the left quadrant and utilize what has been enabled and provided on the right quadrant, that’s when you see any real impact. Now the same is true in organizations, this is the simple point I want to make. That focusing on changing the formal policies and hierarchies, you know, let’s have flattened decision making and so on, has limited impact if you don’t touch the deep structure, if you don’t deal with all this embedded, submerged power dynamics that are going on.

So, if you create ongoing and sustained processes and mechanisms. First of all, if you recognize that deep structures exist, and all of us know they exist, but we don’t talk about them, or we talk about them, you know, quietly or in the corridor, or over coffee outside, or something like that. But if you create mechanisms that consciously address the deep structure dynamics, bring them to the surface, and dismantle them (but you have to do it repeatedly, this is not a magic bullet that works if you do it once), it leads to actually changing the organizational culture in a much deeper and more meaningful way. And so, to do this we need to develop tools to analyze and confront the deep structure dynamics. And that’s what we are hoping to make a start with in this session.

So, the first slide is just, you know, summarizing the three faces of power in organizations. And this is summarizing the deep structure issue – why are deep structures important to address. That this is where the hidden an invisible power in the organization is located, and it’s what creates the actual atmosphere or the culture of the organization, and it is a set of unspoken codes, norms of behavior, etc., and that it is the ‘shadow organization’. I like that term, that’s why I wanted to introduce it here – the one that’s not openly acknowledged but everyone knows is very real. And it’s often the place where the organizational values and mission get contradicted and where all these forms of bias get reproduced.

So, for example, there is an organization that’s dedicated to peace building that’s internally, full of conflict. Or where both leadership and staff are actually quite poor at relating together in constructive and peaceful ways.

Srilatha Batliwala: So, the idea is that each breakout group will discuss one deep structure dynamic that you have seen occurring in organizations, okay? And here are the six that you could choose. A couple of them slightly overlap but I’ve just articulated them distinctly.

First is the dynamic of informal norms that are actually different from the formal rules. So, the formal rules say one thing, but the informal norm or expectation or what’s, you know, rewarded is something different.

There are informal groups who have hidden power and influence in the organization based on whatever, longevity, seniority, place, and, you know, relationship with those and leadership, etc.

There are informal processes or groups or individuals who actually influence formal decision making. So, there are informal dynamics that influence formal decisions.

Certain kinds of behavior is valued and certain kinds is punished or penalized in subtle ways. There are personal biases or social privileges, internalized privileges that are reproduced in the organization. Not overtly or openly, but in very clear ways.

And finally, there are these power under practices, this very oppressive use of power in leadership or subversion by those who are not in leadership and who constantly feel oppressed, so their way of hitting back is to subvert in different ways, the organizational work.

So, these are the six dynamics that we’ve identified and you get to choose which group you’d like to go into, which dynamic you’d like to discuss, or which dynamic sort of speaks to you strongly. Okay, and when you’re in your group here’s your task – you basically have three steps that you have to follow. You have 45 minutes.

You have to first identify some specific expressions of that particular deep structure dynamic that you have seen playing out in organizations that you know. The second is, you have to look at what does that dynamic reveal about how power and privilege are operating, whether that power or privileges coming from the positional authority or from, you know, informal or formal control over resources or people, or it’s based on race, class, ethnicity, caste, gender, gender identity, sexual expression, ability, religion, whatever, nationality, I could go on. And when you have discussed how that power and privilege is operating in the deep structure ways, then you have to identify two things, which is what organizational strategies and mechanisms are needed to be put in place to tackle this, to dismantle it, and who needs to take the lead in that strategy, and who else needs to be involved? Because we don’t want to say, well, you know, the leadership has to fix it. The point is, all of us have to take ownership of ensuring the organizational strategies and mechanisms.

And, secondly, what are the individual strategies that will be used to tackle this dynamic, so that we as individuals inside organizations also own responsibility and feel accountable for transforming the environment? For instance, by calling out power under behavior when we see it, by calling out the exhibition or expression of internalized privilege, when we see it, in whatever way we think is most constructive. So basically, you’ll identify the expression of the dynamic, you’ll look at how does that dynamic display power and privilege operating, or different forms of power and privilege operating. You’ll look at what our organizational strategies for tackling this and who needs to be involved in those and what am I going to do as an individual in dealing with this dynamic. So, I hope the exercise is clear.

Mallika Dutt: As you’re all coming back. I would love to hear from you in the chat room about what you got from that – an insight, a challenge, something that you’re able to take back with you. It would be great to hear from you.

Chevalier Lovett: It was quite, I think it was a therapeutic session for most of us to hear that we’re not the only ones in the world that are going through what we’re going through. And mostly it was a kind of deep dive into some of our informal norms that we have versus kind of what we have on paper. An example that was brought up, that we kind of landed on just a little bit, was around an informal norm around selfcare, what that could particularly look like informally. We talk, we speak about it often, “Take the time that you need to do what you need this. This work is hard. So, make sure you do what you need.” But formally our policies don’t match up with that on paper. So, is it particularly, are we living through the values of what we’re saying informally to have it on paper? And if not, one of our colleagues talked about a process of how to change the policy. What does it look like to have inclusion within policy change for the organization, or for really, for its people? We went through several, several examples, but that was one, you know, smaller example that we landed on. And then how do we propel our organization forward with, kind of, the informal things that are working to make them a little bit more formal on paper?

Mallika Dutt: So, was it helpful to have the structure that Srilatha laid out, or did you find yourselves kind of in a more informal discussion?

Chevalier Lovett: It was very informal. We kind of opened it up with the first question, but, and then it turned into an informal discussion and then it deviated in a way where, I think, where it super landed with the group. But the first question was, it was a great starter for us.

Mallika Dutt: That’s great. And it’s so wonderful to see people from all over the world from different organizational contexts and cultures coming together to have these conversations. Did anybody else get picked to be their reporter back for their group?

Marion Mondain: Hi. Sorry, I was not the reporter, but I was the facilitator, so I can give a few words about our group if you’re interested.

Mallika Dutt: Yeah, that would be great. Thanks.

Marion Mondain: Okay, so, our group was about personal bias and social privilege. And we started the discussion by trying to define what it means for us. And we had a very interesting discussion about the fact that very often those privileges and biases are actually unconscious. They often replicate models of norms, of social norms that are entrenched in our minds. A lot of it comes from post, post colonialism dynamics, structures, assumption that basically the power of those who know best are located in a headquarters. And we had a discussion about a lot of organizations, having a predominant white, how do you to say, senior management team located in a headquarters, and more diverse people who are based in the regions in the world. And there is definitely a deep culture, and again, these social norms that are entrenched in the mind, that it’s very difficult to change and influence different practices.

And we also discussed about the fact that there is a need to have a discussion generally in these organizations in order to be able to confront different points of views, and understand the two points of view, and your reality might not be the point of view, and the reality of others, and there’s not ultimate truth, but it’s a question of finding a middle ground.

And then we had a discussion of how to get past these social privileges and personal bias. And again, we’re discussing about discussing. We had a very varied group, we had some people working for organizations on disabilities, we have sexual orientation, someone presenting an organization working for human rights defenders or women’s human rights defenders, or

activists working in the extractive industries. So, we’ve had a very good panel of people, which was interesting.

Marion Mondain: And so basically, some of them were saying that it’s definitely a challenge and they’ve tried to implement some policies to get past these prejudices and biases. And often, or in some instances it created some kind of Pandora’s box, generating a lot of difficulties within the organization between people, a lot of misunderstandings, but they mentioned that it was still worth working on these issues because it’s important and potentially absolutely necessary for the longevity of the organization.

We’ve had someone who also expressed his view as a grant maker, emphasizing that very often those grant makers hold the power, and it’s something that is difficult for them because they hold the power, but they want to empower the social communities. So, it’s a difficult dynamism between everyone and it’s difficult to implement procedures that permit these local communities to file grants, and ask for grants in a way that is not completely burdensome in terms of bureaucracy.

And yes, I mean we concluded by saying that, again, it’s, it’s a difficult conversation, it’s not easy. Those power dynamics definitely are entrenched in decades and centuries of replication of the same systems, but it’s something we need to tackle very seriously in order to be more resilient.

Mallika Dutt: Thank you so much Marion. And just in there so many different threads – old colonial structures, formal, informal norms. The thing that I was really struck by in your presentation is how you described the number of issue areas that people represented in their organization in your group. And isn’t it fascinating to see that, whether you’re working on sexuality, or whether you’re working in the community with indigenous rights issues, or issues around violence against women, or a whole range of issues, so many of the challenges and patterns that we see are the same?

And I think that really goes to the point that Srilatha made in her presentation in the beginning, which is that our organizations also reproduce and are mirrors of the structures that we are trying to dismantle and change externally. So, thank you for that very rich presentation.
So, would love to hear from another group. Would anybody else like to share?

Derek Seidman: I was in the group that addressed the issue of certain, that certain behavior is valued or penalized, without necessarily being said so. And a few of the themes that came up were that, like, often there’s good intention in organizations, that, for example, like, have been, you know, like in white organizations that want to change and to, you know, listen to different voices. But that like they’re, they say that but that they’re actually not really listening. They’re, these voices are not really being valued, so there’s, like, a kind of incongruity between, like, what’s being said, like, is the intention or like, and then what actually happens in practice. And then also just, like, different ways that, like, the work of an organization and the way that the work is conceived is like sort of silently shaped by, like, a class or racial position or education in ways that, like, include and exclude or value and or not value others. Those are a couple of things we touched on.

Mallika Dutt: Thank you so much. So, we’ve had three amazing presentations and I’m certain that every single conversation unveiled layers and layers and layers of this. As we said at the outset. This is a practice session. This is really about learning how we can talk about power more easily with one another and within our organizations, so that we can actually be in the enterprise of healing and transformation, and building the world that we all care about.

Srilatha Batliwala: I just wanted to share two thoughts. It was really, one of which was, you know, I normally never agree to do this kind of session in such a short timeframe. I was sharing that with my small group because I know it’s inadequate. But I think the idea was to make a start, and I think all of you really sort of engaged with the concepts and your discussions were very rich, and real, and deep. So that makes me feel better about how short our time was.

The second is to encourage you to use the toolkit. It was created some years ago, and I’m hoping to have an opportunity to revise it. It’s called Achieving Transformative Feminist Leadership, a Toolkit for Activists and Organizations. I shared it with Mallika and Ambika. And I think they can share it with all of you as well, as one of the resources that sort of backs up the session. And it does try to lay out some exercises. So, I’m just encouraging all of you to continue with this process, because my question to you was, have you done this before?

I mean, you know, it’s, it’s such a rare thing to have organizations actually sit down and introspect on their internal environment. And even rarer to have them ask, does our internal environment simulate (because this is the reason we need to address deep structure), does it simulate in any way for people working inside it, does it give them a glimpse of that changed reality that we are saying is possible in the world? So, if you can’t do it in this little space (maybe some of those spaces are not so little, but they are spaces under our control to a great extent), if we cannot create this transformed world, this more just, more equitable, more peaceful, more equal reality inside our organizations, what the hell do we think we’re going to change in the world? I’m being intentionally provocative here. Yeah?

And finally, I just wanted to say that I believe very, very deeply that we cannot change the world if we can’t change ourselves. So, beginning with ourselves. And for me the essence of leadership for transformation begins with the self. Thank you. Thank you all.

Mallika Dutt: On that note Srilatha, thank you so much. Thank you so much for taking the time. We have to do the inner work that is necessary for social change and social transformation. I think we’re all understanding that even more deeply now as the pandemic forces us to revisit so much about our lives, our communities, our organizations, our movements.

And what an amazing opportunity we have as the BUILD community to be in relationship with one another as we learn, as we share, as we experiment. And as we do the challenging and joyful work of redefining power, because that’s what this is ultimately all about, it’s about how we redefine power, so that all of us humans, and all of the amazing species that we inhabit this planet with, all of us can thrive together. You know, power can be delicious and yummy and amazing if we exercise it in ways that allow all beings, all of us to thrive. So, with that, I wish you all the very best.

This series of Leadership Moves is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation. Stay connected at

This series is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation.

Theme music from Mann ke Manjeeré: an album of women’s dreams,  (c) Breakthrough 2000. Used with permission.

Production team: Mallika Dutt, Devadas Labrecque, Ambika Pressman.