“Nobody is as powerful as we make them out to be.” Alice Walker – Power
What makes one person more powerful than another?
We constantly compare ourselves to others, often concluding that they have it much better than we do. We spend much of life idolizing people, and in the process, give them power over us. Yet, what’s lost here is the stark truth that other people have just as many insecurities and problems as we do and we probably would do better to focus on ourselves and to recognize the power we have to make the world better.
Join Dan and Steve Fouts with Emir Davis, Director of Black Male Engagement at the Center for Black Educator Development, in a conversation about power in all its forms and why we are so quick to give it to others, or keep it for ourselves.
Dan Fouts 00:00
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here. We’re veteran educators from Illinois, who have created the Teach Different podcast to model how to have unforgettable conversations using a super simple 3-step method, and quotes from some of the world’s great thinkers. This method works with students of all ages and all types of classrooms, and can be used in online or face-to-face environments. So, if you’re a teacher, administrator, social emotional learning specialist, or anybody who loves the art of conversations, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome.
Hello, everybody. Welcome to the Teach Different podcast. Tonight, we’re extremely excited to talk about a quote on power from novelist, short story writer, and poet, Alice Walker. This is a really good one, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to banter around a little bit. We have one guest with us tonight, Emir Davis. I’ll let him introduce himself when we start in on the quote. Everyone who has heard a podcast from Teach Different before knows the drill, right? We’re going to start with the claim of the quote, what is Alice Walker saying in your own words, then we’ll move to a counterclaim, pushing against what she’s saying with something equally reasonable. We’re thinking philosophically here, not buying into one way, but giving oxygen to different opinions. We’ll end with an essential question to leave you with something to think about. So with that, let me give the quote from Alice Walker. I’ll say it twice, and then we’ll start. “Nobody is as powerful as we make them out to be.” “Nobody is as powerful as we make them out to be.” Does anyone have a thought on this one?
Emir Davis 02:07 – Claim
I’ll jump in. I am Emir Davis, and I’ve been an educator for the past 15 years. I’ve taught high school math and middle school science. I’ve led several middle schools in different cities, and am currently leading educators and anti-racist pedagogies around the nation. This quote from Alice Walker makes me think about the word powerful. Powerful is a comparative adjective. In order for someone to be considered powerful, we are comparing their qualities to someone else’s. I think Walker’s quote speaks to the habit that humans have to subscribe to the fallacy that we are less powerful than the ones we compare ourselves to. It’s human tendency to be self-deprecating and overly critical of oneself, while aggrandizing others, or even ignoring that they too are humans and, inherently, not all powerful. I look at this quote, as Alice Walker encouraging us as humans to tear down that fallacy that we are inherently less powerful than the ones that we compare ourselves too.
Steve Fouts 03:26
It’s great. I don’t even have much to add to that. I think that’s dead on right. I have a question that I have to ask you, Emir, and Dan, of course, why do we do this? Why do we make people more powerful? Is that human nature to need someone to be more powerful than we are, or is it human nature to be, like you were saying, self-deprecating, humble, or insecure? Maybe it’s a combination. I’m just wondering why we do it, and if anybody has an opinion.
Dan Fouts 04:09
That’s a good question. Emir, you’re right, we’re constantly comparing ourselves to people. It’s almost like we enjoy putting ourselves in a negative position or a weakened position, while exalting other people’s attributes at the expense of our own. I’m skirting your question, Steve. I don’t exactly know why we do it. Maybe it’s just misery. Misery loves company. A lot of people like to be negative. It’s a lot easier to be negative about yourself, than to sit around and say, hey, let’s share our great qualities. I don’t know. That’s my weak attempt at that answer.
Emir Davis 04:55
I almost wonder if it’s a defense mechanism. Rather than admit that, we absolve ourselves of any fault by saying we are inherently less powerful; and therefore, less capable of being better. We are encouraging ourselves to subscribe to the status quo or let things be as they are. But, we have a responsibility to be better, so we say that someone else is more powerful, or the system is more powerful; and therefore, insurmountable. We are extracting ourselves from the conversation by pushing things forward.
Dan Fouts 05:37
Are you saying, Emir, that in a way, we’re giving up responsibility for changing ourselves?
Emir Davis 05:45
Yeah, changing is an opt out. Absolutely.
Dan Fouts 05:52
Well, that’s not good. That just gives an excuse for people to be weak and feel like they can’t make change. Yeah,
Steve Fouts 06:09
Let’s just leave whether it’s good or bad and try to get the claim. What is really being said here? I think that’s just dead on. Think of the civil rights leaders in our country, and if they sat around looking at the apparatus that they were up against, thinking of it is all powerful and that there was no way to break through and made everybody out to be these untouchables, no progress would have ever been made.
Emir Davis 06:49
Absolutely. I am also conscientious, or cognizant of the structures that we made, that we exist in, that may tell us that we are powerless. I’ve been thinking about myself as a teacher. I could have run my classroom, like this, like I’m the all-powerful one. I actually do have that ability. We may get into this piece a little bit later, but I wonder what my students will say if I put this quote in front of them, and ask them for a counterclaim. I wonder what they would say. During some parts of my career, I’ve taught and run my school like no one is more powerful than me, including you students, you’re not more powerful than me. I took the power away from them to change me and to change their environment around them.
Steve Fouts 07:12
Do you regret it?
Emir Davis 07:56
Regret isn’t a word that I will use. I guess in some instances there were casualties that I’ve left behind as I’ve grown as a person, as a teacher, and as a leader. To truly run a school or a classroom that invites other voices, other perspectives, and validates those as equally powerful, meant that I had to grow in my maturity, and become less prideful, less threatened by the idea of being powerless. I don’t want to say I regret it, but it’s certainly a point where I’ll look back to draw inspiration to continue to grow, and to push other educators to grow in the same manner.
Dan Fouts 08:49 – Counterclaim
It’s funny that you’re mentioning this. That’s so true about teachers. When we give students their voice, the confidence to speak up, and to feel comfortable in their own skin being who they are, we do abdicate power. We relinquish power to them, but then, let’s twist this a little bit, we’re also gaining a different kind of power in the classroom. We are this power of a collective, a culturally responsive classroom where everybody feels like their voice matters. That gives the teacher and the students a measure of power that is amazing. It’s maybe changing the idea of what power is in a classroom.
Steve Fouts 09:48
Emir, I got most of my teaching experience on the West Side of Chicago at a high school in the Austin neighborhood. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Chicago, but this is a challenging school environment on a lot of levels. As a teacher, if you walk in there coming off like you don’t have power, it’s disingenuous to them because they know the deal. They know that you’re going to go to the principal, or you’re going to complain to somebody if they’re doing something bad in class. You might say, hey, you have a voice, I want everyone to be equal here, but they want to see that power. It pacifies them, and they don’t have to worry about the other students in class, because there is a central authority that they can rely on or respect.
Like you were saying Emir, I went through that learning curve. I tried to come off like I had the power at first. No, no, no! That’s not how you get it. You get it by building human relationships, through mutual respect. That does create a different type of power, like you were saying, Dan, when everyone respects you, and they see you as a humble leader, or whatever you want to call it, they’ll do anything for you. There’s your power.
Emir Davis 11:38
I agree with you, Steve, and Dan, when you mentioned this shifting of our definition of what power is. The real power, as Steve said, lies in our relationships that we build rather than relying on that positional power, coming down on students, and getting them to respect us as teachers and as our positions. The real power lies within the classroom, and your ability to build mutually respectful relationships where you hear students. But, you’re also guiding and shepherding their learning, while at the same time acknowledging their culture, and using their culture to inform how you instruct them. What if I’m coming in with this stance that I am the all-powerful teacher and you better not talk to me that way? Right? I’m actually going against this quote by Alice Walker that says nobody is as powerful as we make them out to be. I’m teaching in a way that disproves that, because I’m saying no, you are less powerful than I am as a teacher.
Dan Fouts 12:52
Yeah, that’s so true about the messages we send as teachers about power and relationships. This quote is making me realize how much of the teaching experience has to do with this power relationship. We usually don’t talk about it in these terms, but it’s such the case.
Steve Fouts 13:20
When you think about kids, they’re growing up in a classroom, in a school, around teachers. That’s one of the most common and familiar experiences everybody gets with a power dynamic. They get it from five to 18. This isn’t like a one shot deal. This is 180 days a year, six hours a day, when you’re growing up, and developing. If we’re going to model the right way to do this, it’s got to be in the classroom. Obviously, this is where you start, right? I’m thinking powerful might be a nice word to circle in this quote when you share it with students. When you circle powerful, you need to have a mini conversation about what that means, and get the students to realize that we can talk superheroes, sledgehammer, yeah, that’s power, but then somebody is going to come out and talk about different types of power. That would be a really good way, I think, to tackle this quote.
Emir Davis 14:35
I think, because it’s a heavily connotated word, I would certainly circle powerful. There are multiple ways that we can go about describing it. Some folks may describe it as physical power, or a domineering power. There are multiple ways to define it. Some folks would be less comfortable saying that you do have power in your classroom as a teacher, for good or for bad. Some people would shy away from that. But, I would circle that word first as an educator preparing to talk about this quote. I would circle that for myself and really get comfortable with the idea that I actually have power to shape, in a good or bad way, the experience for our students.
Dan Fouts 15:28
You just took the words right out of my mouth, the power to shape relationships. I don’t think kids think of power that way in the classroom. They’re thinking of it as domineering, like you said Emir, the domineering, top down, let me tell you what to do, kind of power, not the power to shape the direction of a classroom. Just ask the kids, does a teacher gain power by having a classroom that works together? They might think, well, I never thought of power that way. What does that give you? It gives you an amazing experience where you can grow, learn, and be accepted. So yeah, that word powerful, can be unpacked.
Steve Fouts 16:14
Do you think you could prompt them about power in peer groups? What does power look like among your friends? What does power look like, if you say at home, that can get dicey, in your community, on your block? How is that type of power different? I’d like to hear them talk about what it means outside of the classroom. I don’t know if you ever thought about that, Emir? How would they react to it on a peer level?
Emir Davis 17:00
Steve, I think that’s a great distinction. What you’re doing is advocating that we contextualize this, and unpack the different connotations that powerful may have depending on the situation. I think it’s important to bring in what is powerful for peers. There’s a number of different responses that our students may say. They may have the power to influence, or they may have the power to have an emotional impact, the power to encourage folks to break away from peer pressure for the good. I agree about power at home. Students may feel like, hey, I actually don’t have any power at home. There’s no way. I know I didn’t. My mom wouldn’t agree with this quote at all.
Dan Fouts 18:00
What would your mom say about this quote?
Emir Davis 18:03
Let me read this again, nobody is as powerful as we make them out to be. She would say, I’m the most powerful. I don’t know how my mom would be now, 30 some years later. She’s learned some things. Bringing a different context and getting them to understand the many different ways that power shows up, I think will be extremely powerful.
Dan Fouts 18:27
And you mentioned peer pressure, Emir, that’s an interesting angle to take on this. You could ask them if they’ve ever allowed their friends to convince them, or push them, into something that they shouldn’t have done. You’re giving them power? Why did you do that? Did you regret it? Even if the kids became a little bit more aware that they can influence others and others can influence them, it would be a beneficial outcome of this conversation.
Steve Fouts 19:09
Well, I have the million dollar question now. Are we talking just human beings, or do you see some students going religious with this quote? Some kids might think of nobody as God. I don’t know if you think the students would go there, but that could be a counterclaim. There actually are things that are even more powerful than we make them out to be. Maybe it’s not your next door neighbor or your airbrushed Instagram friend who’s making you feel like you don’t have any confidence because you don’t look as good in your normal life. You’re giving them way too much power. But, there are things that we need to revere.
Emir Davis 20:17
Do I want to touch this one? I don’t know. I will try to tackle it. I’m not sure how we would convey that to our students who are wrestling with that idea. I have to think about that more. The first thing that came to my mind was when we first talked about, or interpreted this quote, it was more about the efficacy of folks or the agency of people and whether you subscribe to a higher power. Whatever name you call that being or those beings, there’s still this agency that you have as a human, right? To some degree, even for a person who subscribes to a higher being, or the belief in higher beings, we walk this earth everyday, therefore, we do have some agency to shape it now, and I wonder if this is where we point them.
Dan Fouts 21:17
That’s where it gets delicate, right? You want to point them places, but you also want to let them to speak whatever’s on their mind, let it unfold. Did anyone else have anything on that idea? The religious idea? I was going back to the claim, thinking about celebrities, and what we do with celebrities. We make them out to be things that they are not. We do it in a way that denigrates our own self-interest. We think that we’re less than adequate. When celebrities mess up, what do we do? We jump in line to criticize them. We’re incredibly critical of people who have a lot of power, who then lose it. But, the irony is that we gave them the power in the first place. Why did we give them power over us in the first place, and our perceptions on who’s valuable, and who isn’t?
Steve Fouts 22:29
I’m sure there are powerful people or celebrities who don’t feel comfortable with what people think of them and how others think they’re perfect, and then others will get caught up in it. You don’t have to do anything, and there are going to be people who are going to think you are something and give you all kinds of power. They’re just going to offer it to you. That’s probably another conversation on how you might have to deal with that as a leader, when people are viewing you as too much. Maybe that’s not healthy for you or them. How do you scale that one back?
Emir Davis 23:22
I don’t know either. Our society makes billions of dollars off of idol worship, right? It’s a calculated, intentional system, but it’s not an all-powerful system. We can overcome it. I’m not about teaching students what they should believe in, I think we’ve raised the ability to critically think. How we define critical thinking is our ability to take in multiple sources regarding a particular topic. Write about a process, talk it out, be swayed, and then come back to a different conclusion that you may have had before. We can teach our students and allow our students to go through that process with anything, even with something that they may worship, like LeBron James or Kim Kardashian. They can think critically about the motivations behind that. We are giving them the tools, rather than telling them how they should think, or what they should believe in.
Dan Fouts 24:33
And that’s essentially what we’re getting at with this conversation method. We’re starting with a claim, then we’re going with a counterclaim, just when you think you understand something, let’s look at it a different way. That’s the DNA of critical thinking. People can take different positions about things. This is such an important skill.
Emir Davis 24:59
I think using a method like this brings in critical thinking. You can have a claim, and it may be a claim that folks subscribe to on their own. Then you provide counterclaims or counter arguments, like some very similar to this, and talk those out. Give the space for folks to agree with them or not. I’m not judging, I’m just talking it out. When I’m teaching students and we’re talking about something around these quotes, or some type of thing happens in our society, or when I’m talking to teachers about anti-racist practices, I don’t take offense to folks who are working through that continuum to be more culturally competent, or just working through a concept. I allow that space. That’s first and foremost. I may ask some questions to explain further or present a counterclaim that folks can consider as well.
Steve Fouts 26:04
That’s providing that environment of trust. Back to the human relationships. Once you get that set, you can talk about anything, you can move people to greater understandings.
Emir Davis 26:19
Dan Fouts 26:19
Yeah, you have to have the human relationships built so it’s not an adversarial conversation or relationship with people. The only way people can change the way they think is for teachers, or anybody in positions over young people, to give them the tools they need to realize it for themselves. That’s the only way for lasting change. Everything else is going to be a temporary thing in my opinion. That’s the hardest part of teaching. You essentially have to surrender the transformation process to them, but it also makes our job fun doesn’t it. That’s what is so great about our profession.
Emir Davis 27:19
Absolutely, we’re equipping that next generation with a different approach. It’s not about contentious argument that you may see in our political arena, which is more of a contentious back and forth, or something that you may watch on television. We are truly equipping our students to take different views, talk about them, and listen. To have their views be changed when there’s an argument about something different. I appreciate this conversation, and this method. It’s something I’m certainly going to use moving forward. I think this is like super dope, y’all really
Steve Fouts 28:01
We appreciate it. Yeah.
Dan Fouts 28:04 – Essential Question
You’re a natural at this. Your brain is already wired to see different perspectives, to empathize, to listen. You have the skills. Now, it’s a matter of sharing this with others. This has been fantastic. Such a great conversation. We like to end these with an essential question to get us moving forward. What makes one person more powerful than another? This is a question to leave with people, to have them think about what makes one person more powerful than another. It’s been great, Emir. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I really appreciate your ideas, and we think the work that you’re doing is so incredibly important. We’re honored that you came to visit Teach Different.
Emir Davis 29:10
Glad to be here. Thank you all. Thank you.
Dan Fouts 29:13
Thanks, everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and are confident that conversations like this are possible. It’s just a little bit of planning and a three step routine. Make sure you visit our Conversation Library to learn more, and try out some conversations we have ready for you. Don’t forget to teach different with conversations and make a difference every day.