Understanding international development
Understanding international development

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Understanding international development

1.2.2 Issues of power and agency

Now you have completed Activity 2, let’s start considering each aspect of PASH using case studies and spray diagrams to help us; starting with power and agency.

Chapter 2 outlines how the dominance of different views on development is determined by the power and influence that a person or group of people hold. This in turn is linked to access to knowledge and the degree to which people can gain or acquire knowledge equally. The chapter focuses very much on power and agency at a macro scale, that is, within and between groups at a national or international level. While it introduces the notion of power and agency at individual or community level it doesn’t go into this in any depth. Therefore, we’d like you to think about power and agency at this micro level in the next activity. But before doing so, let’s just clarify in more detail what we mean by these terms.


Power has more than one meaning so it is helpful to consider three forms of power which some scholars refer to:

  1. Power over – control over other people through, for example, direct political control or control over resources. ‘Power over’ does not necessarily have to be overt, as when people internalise as ‘natural’ their power relations with others.
  2. Power to – having the capacities and capabilities to make choices and engage in actions; in other words the ability to change the conditions of one’s existence. It often embodies resistance to power over.
  3. Power with – refers to the ability to achieve control through joint action with others.


This is defined as ‘the degree to which agents are free to make their own decisions and follow their chosen path of action’.

Activity 3

Timing: 45 minutes

Listen to the audio below on the conflicted and contested nature of development and how it has shaped one individual’s life in Detroit.

Take notes as you listen particularly around the following issues:

  • examples of power over
  • examples of power to
  • examples of power with
  • examples of agency in action.
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Detroit audio (16 minutes)
Skip transcript: Detroit audio (16 minutes)

Transcript: Detroit audio (16 minutes)

Jenenne Whitfield was born and brought up in Detroit. She enjoyed a successful career as a banker, which she gave up to run the Heidelberg Project. That change of direction began eighteen years ago when she was driving through Detroit’s East side.
Jenenne Whitfield
I was attempting to turn down a street called Benson and a car was on my tail and literally forced me to miss Benson and turn down Heidelberg Street.
And it was that turn that really just, my mouth dropped open.
What Jenenne Whitfield saw in Heidelberg street 18 years ago changed her life.
And so as I rolled down the street very slowly I cracked my window and literally said to a man sitting on the kerb who happened to be the artist “What in the world is all this?”. And he invited me to get out of my car.
That man was Tyree Guyton. An African American artist who had the radical idea of transforming a run down neighbourhood in Detroit’s east side by using what he called ‘the power of art’.
Jenenne Whitfield
He was kind of militant, you know. I was a little nervous because that wasn’t my stomping ground. He invited me to get out of the car and we began to have a discussion. And my goal was to find out what in the world he was doing.
And I remember him striking a chord with me when he asked me “How was I giving back to the community”. I remember feeling insulted because I thought here I am, I’m a citizen, I’m paying taxes, I’m working everyday and you’re out playing.
So for him to ask me that was a little insulting. But at the same time it never left my mind. Needless to say I returned to that street many, many times. And a year later I completely gave up corporate America and came to work for the Heidelberg Project.
What really gripped me with Heidelberg was not so much of the message that Tyree was sharing with me because to be perfectly honest his gift was the paint brush. He wanted to take his paint brush off the canvas and take it out of the studio and bring it on to the street to provide children mostly with a new way of seeing things. Choices, colour, amazement, excitement, music and laughter and joy.
And then I realised that what this man was actually doing in his community was trying to create a sense of hope where it appeared hopeless.
But Jenenne could also see a role for herself in building an organisation that could be far more effective than just the artist on his own. But it meant giving up a successful career.
Jenenne Whitfield
My life was what was expected of me and I was achieving as had been hoped by my family. At that time I was a Loan Officer with what was known as Michigan National Bank. And I was serving the private banking clients. So I was dealing with very wealthy people and underwriting their mortgages.
And I was earning a great salary at that time, seventy grand a year was a really good salary, new house, new car and a lovely four year old daughter. Although I was single I was your typical African American woman who was climbing that corporate ladder.
And I’m sure that, you know, my goals and aspirations were that I would be the Vice President of somebody’s bank by now had I not taken that wrong turn. So it really changed my life.
It was tough. I faced a lot of backlash from family. People didn’t understand what I was doing. And they thought I was crazy.
Jenenne’s sister, Sherry.
Our family has not always been very behind this. This was a very risky venture. I come from a traditional background where you have to have a job, you have to have security and you have to have insurance and all the things that I grew up thinking were security.
And it takes a free spirit to take on what she’s done, the risks that come with that and still be surviving and you know, thriving and growing. And I’m her biggest fan.
It certainly has opened up my eyes, my mind, my thoughts about what is art and what it has the capacity to do. It’s captivating and I love to hear Jenenne speak. When she talks about it she comes alive. It’s like an animation.
Jenenne and Sherry come from a family that has close ties with the automobile industry. Their father, Dan, moved to Detroit from the south in the 1950’s in search of work and a better life.
I came here from Mississippi and I was brought up there. I was 17 years of age when I came here. And the reason I had an older brother that came here before. So I came here to live with him and that’s how I wind up here in Detroit.
And then I got a job in a factory, working for Chrysler. I worked there for a while then I got laid off. And I went to work at the Ford Motor Company. Worked there for a while and then after I was working at the Ford Motor Company Chrysler called me back and I quit Ford and went back to Chrysler and that was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made.
Because when I came back to Chrysler it wasn’t very long and I got laid off on never was called back.
But in those days it was easy to find work. And life for African Americans was very different from in the south.
When I left Mississippi it was segregated and it was kind of rough you know. And it wasn’t like that here in Detroit. That’s why when I came here I made this my home for that reason. And I never want to go back there to live.
Even when I first left there I couldn’t even vote in the election.
Once he was settled in Detroit, Dan moved from the east side to the more affluent west side.
I was kind of moving up a little bit when I moved to west side it was a little bit on the up scale you know. And once I moved on the west side I stayed on the west side up until now. I’m still on the west side.
And I kind of liked it you know. But the east side was where I spent a lot of time, on the east side.
We had two boys and two girls. She and I were best friends. My brothers, there’s a age disparity between those two but you know, everything, we did all kinds of childhood things that little kids today don’t even know anything about. Hopscotch, Jacks, jump rope. This was just everyday normal life.
We had active parents. We had a very active extended family. We were very active as a family unit. So there was lots of love. There was lots of encouragement. There were lots of reasons to be active and to be motivated. And I think we both picked up on that.
And their education was hugely important.
Jenenne Whitfield
I attended a school and the third grade that was in was more of what we call the African American part of the community of the west side.
And my mother wasn’t satisfied and so we moved to what was known as a more slightly affluent but low, moderate income area where perhaps the population was 85, 90% Caucasian in that neighbourhood and at that school.
And by the time, but say I am now in third grade, by the time I graduated it was 95% African American.
So there was always this concept of white flight. There was always this long standing division of, you’re over there, we’re over here. Detroit continues to be one of the most segregated cities.
But where I grew up I had more options. I had more chances. I had both parents in the house. I had both parents working. My father worked in the factory, my mother worked at the Post Office. But that was still a good living.
And although they didn’t pay for me to go to school they made it possible for me to have the kinds of opportunities and resources around me that I knew how to navigate.
As Jenenne was growing up Detroit was changing.
When I first came here everything, jobs was kind of plentiful you know. And back I’d say starting around the 70’s and late 80’s. Jobs started, you know, getting scarce. And a lot of people moved from Detroit to other places, you know, looking for work.
One of the areas which changed dramatically was the east side where the Heidelberg Project is.
Jenenne Whitfield
The Heidelberg Project community was really at one time the most thriving African American community in the city of Detroit. When people were migrating from the south looking for jobs in the automobile industry. That was the only place that they could live.
And that’s why there was a feeling of nostalgia because I remember that’s where my father lived. And I felt that and I was trying to see what was pulling me about this community.
And it was thriving with businesses. Over 300 African American owned businesses, you know, that’s the whole jazz scene. That’s where Berry Gordy was raised. That’s where the people were singing on the corners. And it was rich. And there was a wonderful jazz scene called Paradise Valley in that area.
But then came the 1967 riots. And then came this concept of urban renewal and that completely broke that community up. The concept of urban renewal came with basically freeways.
Freeways that came through our neighbourhood and really just kind of split it in such a way that people’s homes were taken from them by imminent domain. And a whole bunch of other things that basically just tore the fabric of this once thriving community. So it’s basically the Freeway 75, I75.
It was the decline of auto industry which led to a mass exodus from Detroit. A city that once had a population of 2 million and now has under a million.
It makes me feel awful bad because there’s a lot of vacant homes on my street where I live. About every two, three houses is a vacant house. And that’s all over the city.
It is a beautiful city and at one time it really was beautiful. There weren’t a whole lot of vacant homes and things. But now its kind of run down but it can be built up. And hopefully they will do that. I think its going to come back. I think its going to come back if they get the right people in the right places.
Jenenne believes that the Heidelberg Project is playing a crucial role in changing the city.
Jenenne Whitfield
We want to use art as a catalyst to rebuild this once thriving and important and historic community.
So when people say well what is it that’s so special and meaningful about the Heidelberg Project? It’s not tangible. Its inspiration. It’s those things that ignite and excite you from inside that make you want to do something, that make you want to change.
Its, you know, removes complacency. It removes just the common way of just existing through life.
But the community has not always been supportive of the project.
Jenenne Whitfield
There was a group of people that just didn’t get it, didn’t like it, didn’t want it. In other words the nerve of this man to take what people consider it nothing and junk. Reconfigure it and then tell us its art, we’re not having it. So the community really fought against it.
Winning the community over has been a major challenge but today the project is widely admired and attracts visitors from around the world. And many people feel more positive about Detroit and its future.
Jenenne Whitfield
The automobile industry was a blessing and a curse at the same time. But as I see it, nothing lasts forever. Things always change and this is what the artist talks about. And if you don’t change with it, you’ll be changed. The world continues to change around you anyway.
What’s happened is that it overshadowed so much that people weren’t really forced or given the opportunity to experience culture in other ways. They were just factory, got a good job, can buy a good car, can buy a new house, don’t really need anything else.
And now we’re being forced to really dig deep and say what else do we have? Who are we as a people? What do we know? And that’s why you see all of this new energy and resurgence just bubbling up. And it’s attractive to outsiders.
What the lesson is for people is that you cannot rely solely on what can happen outside of your realm. They’re people who are becoming much more creative because they are forced to. For example someone who’s out of work right now they have to eat, right. Well hell I’ll take this vacant lot next door to me and till the ground and I’ll plant some vegetables.
And not only will I plant them and bring them to my dinner table perhaps I can sell them. That’s the kind of creativity that people are being forced to explore. Because you have basic needs.
Sherry is seeing changes too. She works for one of Detroit’s biggest companies, Quicken Loans which is investing heavily in the city.
Like other local businesses it’s offering its staff financial incentives to rent or buy property in the city.
I’m looking into buying in the Old Boston district and it’s just the glory of those homes and the elegance of them. I’m excited for myself but I’m excited to see this resurgence coming into those areas because I expect that it’s going to start to restore them to their glory days.
I’m excited for what changes are going to be trickling down to school system.
Despite these positive signs of recovery unemployment remains high. Jenenne is also optimistic.
Jenenne Whitfield
That’s because my optimism does not rest in buildings and people and politicians. My optimism rests in who I am and what I can achieve and what I can do and how I can make a difference.
End transcript: Detroit audio (16 minutes)
Detroit audio (16 minutes)
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I made my notes on these examples in the form of a spray diagram (Figure 2). You may have picked up similar or different examples because, as I shall discuss in a moment, power is dynamic and different in various contexts.

Described image
Figure 2 Spray diagram of power and agency in Detroit

I don’t want to discuss my examples in any depth, however, I do want us to consider the idea that the Heidelberg Project is an example of ‘power with’ and agency in action. Some of you might contest this because of its origins as a project of just one man. But it is also a project that has increasingly involved the community and provided an opportunity for the community to consider their own futures more actively. In fact, Jenenne talks of the project as having its own ideology (she calls it Heidelbergology – listen to audio below) which highlights how they visualise their project as community driven agency (see Figure 3).

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Detroit audio (3 minutes)
Skip transcript: Detroit audio (3 minutes)

Transcript: Detroit audio (3 minutes)

Jenenne Whitfield
We have defined this concept, Heidelbergology and the definition of Heidelbergology is the study of artistic materials, i.e. founder objects incorporated into the structure and fabric of an urban community and the effects on that community.
So that’s where we’re starting and then out of that definition comes three principles that make up this framework.
And one is abstract advocacy. And we define abstract advocacy as the introduction of new information that in the short term changes your mind. And in the long term it changes your behaviour.
Then we have art as a catalyst for change. And the change is the concept of how we started first with these very seemingly meaningless things, discarded objects. Now we’re taking discarded objects to another level. And we’re literally going to build an arts centre out of found materials. And we’re going to train people in the community
how to build metal bail walls. I mean how hard can it be? Crush the metal, put the paint, I don’t know. But the fact is that we’re going to train the community on this work so that we have community buy in.
And so that’s a concrete example of art as a catalyst for change. Art as a catalyst for economic development. Art as a catalyst for re-building.
And then the third principle is art as a medicine. And I really like that one because that really demonstrates. See I didn’t necessarily think that I was sick maybe. But look at the result of where my life now in that I’m contributing certainly in a much broader way that can also affect other people.
And my concept of art was that it hangs in museums, that it’s for the elite and I don’t know what to say about the stuff. I don’t know why a painting would cost $1M and right around you you’ve got starving people.
So that has been a type of medicine. And initially from a community perspective the idea that art as a medicine, it was a bitter pill for the community to swallow initially.
But after the medicine gets in your bloodstream then it begins to work on you, and so people now are beginning to see the benefits of the Heidelberg Project and ways that they can benefit.
For example we had a festival in 2010. Thirty five hundred people from all over, all the neighbours sold the beverages and kept the money. That’s a concrete example isn’t it?
So the concept is that we’re starting a concept of re-building a community like a spiral. It starts in the heart of a community on one or two blocks. And the effects of it and the success of it will begin to spiral outwards.
End transcript: Detroit audio (3 minutes)
Detroit audio (3 minutes)
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Described image
Figure 3 Heidelbergology

Your answers to Activity 3 on power and agency might also have alerted you to the dynamic nature of power. It is not fixed, although undoubtedly some forms of power appear durable. ‘Power to’ can embody resistance, and the very notion of ‘power with’ implies some negotiation of the power relations between those who wish to act ‘with’ each other in order to enable and enact a greater power. It is important to challenge, therefore, the notion that power can be absolute. The apparently weak are able to resist, and there are many sources of power. The power of holding material wealth is obviously very important, but so too is forming alliances between people and groups. For others, a source of power lies in their expertise and knowledge.

It is probably more appropriate to think of power as relational, meaning that it exists and is negotiated in the relationships between individuals and groups, from local to national to international scales. Useful here is the concept of interdependence, which again is pertinent at the full range of scales. In international studies, the world system of nation states is often characterised as both anarchy and interdependence. Similarly, the integration of the world economy under the banner of globalisation implies interdependence. Shanghai and Detroit work as cities because of the interdependence of their many and varied elements. For example, the rich and poor of cities are often interdependent, with the latter providing essential domestic services for the former. Interdependence does not imply an absence of power relations, but put simply this power is never absolute nor zero in any one party to the relationship.

Activity 4

Timing: 45 minutes

Now review all your notes that you have made so far and draw a spray diagram that helps collate your notes around the issues of power and agency.


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