The Power in Ceding Power

How can we see power with new eyes? How can we cede it with new relationships?

When I was a teacher, we often used a model called the black box concept to facilitate inquiry and understanding of natural phenomena. In this model, students are asked to discern the inner workings of an opaque box using only the inputs and outputs that they observe, in addition to their understanding of how the world works, without being able to see into the box itself. (For instance, one year, we poured specific quantities of water into the box and observed how it did — or didn’t — flow out to learn about a principle of fluid dynamics.) The goal of the black box model is to practice reasoning skills, explain observable phenomena, and provide a framework to understand and make sense of future phenomena. 

When I used the black box model, my goal was to create a set of input and output data that was intentionally confusing in order to stimulate learning about inference, deductive, and inductive reasoning. Ideally, every student would feel curiosity and engage in productive struggle during the experiment, eventually coming to the correct conclusion about the mechanisms at work inside the box. However, my role as the teacher and designer of the experiment put me in a position of great power: I could just as easily have created a scenario that none of my students were equipped to solve, resulting not in learning but in stagnation and frustration.

During my time in the classroom, I began to notice patterns among my students’ reactions during the black box exercise. Many would engage as I intended, but others became frustrated and often gave up completely. And it wasn’t just my students: I’d seen many educators give up on the black box as well. In fact, only science teachers, whose specialized training gave them the foreknowledge they needed to engage productively with the experiment, regularly did so with curiosity rather than frustration.

The black box, it turned out, wasn’t just an effective way to demonstrate fluid dynamics: It could also teach about power and privilege. I realized that frustration and belligerence weren’t a sign of defiance; they were an indicator that the individual needed more information to engage in the productive struggle that would result in learning. The educators who struggled with the box weren’t stupid; they just didn’t have the scientific background to understand solely from a series of inputs and outputs what scientific principle was at work inside. And when I shared a little more information with my frustrated students — essentially, when I reduced the power differential between us — they quickly became inquisitive and engaged.

This was an important lesson for me as a teacher, but it carries far beyond the classroom. A person who is chronically neglected, underserved, or marginalized doesn’t just give up on a single challenge; the experience of marginalization can become a part of their identity. “I can’t figure this out” can become “I can’t understand science”; “I can’t succeed in college”; “I won’t get that job”; “No one will listen to me even if I speak up.” This results in less visibility and less voice for those without privilege and entrenches power with those who have historical privilege. Unless we design intentionally for equity and consciously create relationships where power flows from those with privilege to those without, we will only maintain the status quo.

Like in the black box exercise, sharing power requires making the invisible visible and allowing everyone — not only those with privilege — to connect, engage, and learn. So the next time there is a conversation about power, look for what moves. Is it money? Is it access? Is it time? Is it grace? Is the movement across lines of privilege and oppression, or does it stay within privileged groups? What do you need to say and do to make it visible to others? What can you design to reconcile any harm that is revealed? This pause — to evaluate, make visible the unintended consequences, and correct for them — is how we design for equity.