What on earth is strength?

I have often asked myself questions about strength. As a woman in engineering I would have been asked to strengthen my design, show strength or play to my strength. The word strength seems pivotal. Yet, to me, its meaning seems so nebulous. What is strength?

The ambiguity of the word strength becomes clear, to me, when I was thinking about the contexts in which the word strength is used. It’s often related to power and leadership (ie position of power – although altogether a very nebulous word itself).

In engineering, I strengthened my design by putting the final calculations in place to support the design. I would have revisited the drawing to make sure it was clear and presented without uncertainty. Showing strength, however, proved more difficult – to me at least. There the power aspect came into play much more. You can only show strength to others. Showing strength standing in front of the mirror is non-sensical in that context (although perhaps it can be a self-affirming act).  As soon as other people are involved, power comes into the equation. Hierarchies, formal and informal, open up. Social standing and job titles – the whole shebang. Age. Gender. Ethnics.

Showing strength, the way I tackled it, had to do with being honest and open, laying out my approach (often for wider discussion and adjustment), seeking comment to complement and improve the proposal. Yet, you may have guessed it, in engineering circles this means showing weakness. The style is closed, know-it-all or out.

Then. Playing to my strength. This is a real can of really wiggly worms. What are my strengths? Or, more to point, what did the other mean by strength. As a woman engineer, this often meant appearing feminine, but not too feminine. Appearing clever and smart, but not too clever or smart. Appearing with a smile, but not a loud laugh. There are technical strengths too, of course. But this was rarely what the other meant. A minefield for me to gracefully walk.

We strengthened our design

If I relate experience to cycle campaigning, a similar picture appears. When we started newcycling.org we did so because we were taken aback by the track record of the council in relation to cycle infrastructure delivery. This disappointment had happened over many months and on many levels (political, administrative, technical and in some cases personal too). The campaign’s approach was to work with the council as an open and honest partner, with an independent and transparent approach. The campaign soon learnt that this was a hard sell. The council worked more “effectively” with paid partners – as they could be controlled through fee payments. Independence was not valued. Too critical. Critique is something the council does not like. It chafes their reputation, especially when it leaves the council walls. Yes, it sounds like a futile process, and yes, it is a vicious circle. A downward spiral even. But newcycling had a strong design: a constitution rule book and clear aims.

We showed strength

And so newcycling kept going. We showed strength by demonstrating stamina. We weren’t going away. We created a movement – a membership organisation. Fun in numbers. The more the merrier, and louder if we needed to make a noise about a council inadequacy. In a group you can share stories, experiences, good and bad. You get strength from that. We created spaces to share, deliberate and plan our moves. Our strength was in persisting. Not going away. Resisting. We bore the numerous attempts to discredits us, dismantle the campaign or undermine individuals. Resisting the pushes and pulls of power. We stayed our course. We showed strength through endurance and resilience, through creativity and communality.

We played to our strength

The obvious example how a campaign group would harness strength is through its membership. A campaign needs many different skills. Knowing what you want and using your members’ strengths (skills and expertise) to get it is clearly a managerial aspect of campaigning. The perhaps less obvious example of “playing to strength” would be that we knew the council’s weak spot: reputation management. They had constructed an impossible image of themselves that they ardently try to maintain and protect. Well. Someone’s weakness often is your strength. Patriarchal structures, like Newcastle council, are a treasure trove of contradictions. On the whole, they cannot keep up their narratives for very long, as the organisation is first and foremost in place to keep itself in good position. One narrative fizzles out or gets buried – maybe it gets overshadowed by a newer narrative. Unsurprisingly many residents, at least the ones I talk to, find the council unintelligible.  The latest flavour of the month becomes a lasting sour taste.

There are many sides to strength. The strength that I was talking about was the strength to know what you want, know what you are good at and what you are not so good at, and: what collective good it brings (the ethical long haul!) then finding the strength to organise it together with like-minded people. The type of strength that I was not talking about is becoming a small cog in the machinery of hegemonic power.

My engineering experience taught me that certain social environments are not ready yet for a challenge to their hegemony. The campaigning experience with the council taught me that strength can be very fragile when in power.

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