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Power, love and justice

Rebecca Freeth
May, 2012

This article explores the element of justice in the power-love configuration and what this combination might mean for all of us who navigate social change.

Over the past several years, Adam Kahane has articulated a fresh way of thinking about how to navigate the complexities of social change by drawing attention to the dance between power and love. This kind of navigation evokes for me images of a tango, with two people paying exquisite attention to their own individual embodied scripts while deeply attuned to each other: taut and fluid, alert to the possibility of the moment and submerged in timeless sensuality. This tension between power as self-realisation and love as connection strikes a deep intuitive and conceptual chord with audiences whenever I see Adam present it. It has been a rich resource to my own work as a facilitator.

In this article, I’d like to add the element of justice to the power-love configuration and explore what this combination might mean for all of us who navigate social change. In the tango, our eyes may be drawn to the couple in the middle of the dance floor, but the dance doesn’t take place in isolation. We still need to take into account the music, the other dancers, the audience – and even those excluded from the dance hall altogether. I have found that the presence of injustice is a significant stumbling block to social change. Every country has its own brand of injustice. In South Africa, where I work, it is most evident in terms of racial discrimination, past and present.

Across Divides of Privilege

Injustice stymies social change in several ways; I am particularly aware of two. Those with relatively more privilege often – not always – have a particular set of blind spots regarding the impact of their privilege on others. And those with relatively less privilege often – not always – bear resentment and anger, exacerbated by acts of privileged blindness. When social challenges affect us all and require us to collaborate with each other across divides of privilege, we may collapse under the weight of our deep mistrust and fear of each other. Unless we can openly discuss the injustices that make it difficult to work together and unless we aspire toward greater justice and equality, our social change efforts may prove to be inherently unsustainable. And if we who dream up, lead, convene, or facilitate these processes are unaware of the privilege we and other collaborators carry, our efforts may unwittingly perpetuate the injustices embedded in our social systems.

Martin Luther King, Jr., recognised that power and love were insufficient on their own for creating a equal and fair society. In his last book before his assassination, he wove the intricate threads of power, love, and justice together, stating, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” He concluded, “Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all.”

But what does this riddle of power, love, and justice mean? What might it look like in practice? And what is justice anyway? The rest of this article will try to define justice and tease out of this riddle some meaning for people interested in social change. The ideas here represent early practical formulations and will benefit from your responses and critique.

What Is Justice?

John Rawls, one of the leading figures of American moral and political philosophy and author of A Theory of Justice (1971), believed that justice is based on rational norms. Almost four decades later in The Idea of Justice (2009), his student Amartya Sen makes the case that, rather than being rigid, justice is participatory, creative, and dynamic. Sen, who also wrote Development as Freedom (1999), emphasises justice-as-process and assumes that engaging issues of injustice will provoke complex human emotions, including outrage (as opposed to impartiality) and sympathy (rather than simple and cold self-interest), alongside the capacity to reason.

Both Rawls and Sen deal primarily with what is known as distributive justice, which focuses on fairness regarding the distribution of resources or capabilities in a society. Nancy Fraser (2001) expands on this perspective by suggesting that justice “spans two dimensions of social ordering, the dimension of distribution and the dimension of recognition.” She argues that these two dimensions coexist in a mutually “enriching and complicating” tension. In her framework, they are bridged by a third element, the “parity of participation,” which creates the conditions for everyone to have a voice when engaging in a process designed to produce greater justice.

These ideas imply that justice is both a means and an end – a process and a product of that process. In other words, it is both about how we navigate our way through social change processes (being conscious of unequal degrees of privilege, seeking parity of participation, being willing to engage with our own outrage and that of others) and the direction in which we point our social change efforts (toward greater justice). Not surprisingly, this scheme doesn’t make our work any simpler. The features of justice described by Sen (creative, contested, full of human emotion) conjure up images of a messy process and a messy product. He writes that a participative process will produce a “plurality” of competing possibilities rather than a one-size-fits-all solution for creating greater justice.

Implications for Social Change

This complexity has two implications for us at Reos Partners and for others working with social change. The first is that messy processes require strong design and facilitation. The second is that the Change Lab methodology, which generates and is able to cope with many simultaneous innovations in response to complex situations, is well suited to Sen’s “plurality” of competing possibilities toward a more just future.

Sen writes that while the shape and form justice takes is likely to be elusive until members of a social system cocreate it, we instinctively recognise the injustice already present in that system. I would add that we are particularly attuned to injustice when it is done to us. As with privilege, we may be less alert to it when we are a part of a system that benefits from those injustices. Those bearing injustice – conventionally thought of as the “victim” – “taste” injustice when they bear the consequences of other’s choices and actions, especially when the others either do not notice this impact or, if they do notice, do not care. If we look at it from the position of the one who metes out injustice – the “perpetrator” – injustice is when others pay the cost for my choices and actions, and I am unaware or unwilling to do anything about it.

In social change work, we often find ourselves balancing on the edge between what Adi Ophir calls the “preventable suffering” of those on the receiving end of injustice and what Martin Luther King, Jr., described as the “unenforceable obligation” on the part of those who benefit from the current status quo. The privileged have options: they can choose to use their social power and influence toward a different, more equal future; they can fail to notice; or they can notice and choose not to put their privilege at risk. If the suffering caused by injustice is preventable but actions to prevent or mitigate it cannot be enforced, where does this leave us?

A Sense of Liberation

In my own experience in working with issues of race and racial injustice in South Africa, I am increasingly finding this area to be rife with possibility. When white people become alert to the fact that their relative privilege continues to give them a particular social power and that they can choose to use this power to benefit not only their black fellow citizens but to benefit the whole society, they often feel a sense of liberation.

One middle-aged white South African man described joining discussions in a mixed-race group at a point when he felt alienated by the social changes in the country. He told me that he had been feeling a lack of “connection to what is happening,” a sense of being “powerless,” asking himself “how do I fit in?” During the group process, which extended over several conversations about race, he came to realise that “I can be powerful in how I engage in this society, with a consciousness around my impact. … I’ve earned privilege which I can now use to good effect.” This realisation and “awareness of the collective” renewed his feeling of belonging, which he expressed as “an incredible sense of, this is my country. I love it, and I’m scared of it, and I have a deep commitment to making an impact.”

This man’s description of his own internal change represents the gradual unraveling of the riddle of power, love, and justice. By recognising injustice and his part in it, he does not abdicate his power through shame or guilt, but instead steps even more firmly into it. He is determined to be more self-realising, but in relationship to and in the interests of the whole.

A black woman in the same group explained that “the feeling of being heard and acknowledged for the experiences that we’ve had as black people … releases the urgency and the desperation” of pent-up feelings. “There’s always been this build-up and no space to express things,” she said. When white people in the group listened to black people’s experiences of injustice, it enabled connection: “If you’re listening to my story, that is hard and painful, I can listen to yours.” Just as her white counterpart gained a sense of legitimate belonging, she gained a sense of legitimate self-expression. “I love talking; it gives me such joy to connect. I could have conversations with anyone I meet, but I couldn’t do that with a white man, never. And I knew that there was a part of me that was not me in my fullness. So there’s something very liberating about that, it’s almost as if I can be myself in my fullness with that group of people as well.”

A second black woman reflected on her experience of self-realising in the context of connecting with others about injustice. “There is limited growth and healing for me doing my work on myself. There's work I need to do in interaction, in relation to the other, for my growth. … I can't imagine how I would in my little corner work with rage about injustices from the white role. It had to be in interaction with the role itself that I could heal.” This experience in turn generated further self-realisation: “The other thing I noticed in that group was that I was allowed to lead. I mean if I think of myself growing up being black in South Africa, being black in the world, I can't quite remember where I've been allowed and supported to lead in a space of mixed race. And be followed. It feels like I found my voice.”

Implications for Neutrality

Bringing justice into our social change work implies awareness of injustice in our context, acknowledgement that we’re part of that system of injustice, and a willingness to set a direction of change toward greater justice. But what does this mean for the neutrality of people trying to fix stuck social situations – whether they are leaders, conveners, or facilitators? I suggest that neutrality is neither possible nor desirable. At the other end of the scale, activism is equally problematic. What lies between neutrality and activism? Part two in this two-part series on justice will consider this question, from an applied and personal perspective.

To return to the tango metaphor: in the midst of the deeply absorbing love-power dance, we are being asked to also pay exquisite attention to the place in which we are dancing, and to deliberately pick a path across the room rather than circling endlessly around it, ignorant of what is happening just beyond the door. By cultivating this level of awareness, we stand a greater chance of noticing, engaging with, and disturbing patterns of distribution, recognition, and participation that benefit some at the expense of others.


Fraser, N. (2001). Social Justice in the Knowledge Society: Redistribution, Recognition and Participation. Produced for Heinrich Boll Stiftung.

Kahane, A. (2010). Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Read the Introduction here

King, M.L. Jr. (1968). Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? New York: Bantam Books.

Sen, A. (2009). The Idea of Justice. London: Penguin Group.

Tillich, P. (1960). Love, Power and Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rebecca Freeth is an associate in the Johannesburg office of Reos Partners. She specialises in deep dialogue and teaches Systems Thinking and Effective Group Facilitation at the Reos Institute. Rebecca has recently completed a Master’s in Philosophy in Sustainable Development at the Sustainability Institute in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Download Rebecca Freeth's thesis entitled Just Facilitation: Facilitating Sustainable Social Change in Contexts of Injustice. 

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