Navigating the Power Dynamics Between Institutions and Their Communities



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Byron White’s career experiences—as an impartial observer of community building, as an advocate working from within urban communities, and as a catalyst working from the outside—have given him a unique perspective into the dynamics of institutional/ community engagement. As he explains, “Basically, they have left me with three overriding convictions. First, the collective work of citizens is essential to any hope of significant, sustained transformation of urban America. Second, institutions can be powerful enablers of such citizen leadership or they can seriously impede it. Third, the determining factor governing which role institutions will play is the nature of the power relationship that is negotiated between citizens and institutions.”

In this Kettering Foundation study, White concludes that institutions cannot take the friendship of their neighboring communities for granted and they must work diligently to be considered partners; the scales of power are tilted too much in favor of the institution to presume that friendly advances are enough to lure communities into productive partnerships. Citizen leaders are not demanding a seat at the institution’s table; they want to set the table. They want to influence the research that defines their communities’ problems and devise the solutions right alongside the experts who march into their communities, claiming to know the answers. Partnerships between communities and institutions will continue to fail unless institutions concede that the full investment of the citizenry is essential to resolving community problems. Positioning and equipping institutional representatives to operate in a way that recognizes and responds to both confrontational and relational forms of community power—rather than trying to avoid either— are essential to finally getting it right.

Byron P. White is a veteran journalist and administrator in corporate nonprofit and academic arenas.

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