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Portland, power and connection: reflections on a summit that’s not really about domination at all

Saturday, July 14, 2012 by Marianne Elliott

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Last week I was in Portland, OR.

Portland is one of my favorite places in the whole world. Partly because some of my favorite people in the world live there, partly because of the food (if you go to Portland please eat tacos here, Thai here, Indian street food here, pie here and icecream here) and partly because of all the bike lanes.

I’m coming to realise that I’m a repressed cycle-lover and the only reason I have never fully embraced my love of cycling is that I live in Wellington, a city blessed by steep hills, narrow streets and a Southerly wind that can blow a grown man off his feet. In Portland I rode a borrowed bike everywhere. And loved it.

This year I planned my annual visit to Portland (this was my 7th year in a row visiting PDX) to coincide with a certain summit that you may have heard of. This summit was organised and hosted by Chris Guillebeau, whose work I admire greatly. He’s smart, generous and I know I have a lot to learn from him.

Chris also lives in Portland, which just goes to prove how smart he is.

I decided to attend the summit this year because a lot of people who I like very much were going to be there, and because I really wanted to hear Brene Brown speak in person. If you’ve been reading here for a while you already know that I am a HUGE fan of Brene’s work and that one of my proudest achievements is helping Brene overcome her fear/dislike of yoga. That’s why I’ve got her testimonial for my yoga course on my home page.

I’ve been yoga-phobic my entire life. Marianne Elliott changed that (and my life in the process). She’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever experienced. ~ Dr. Brené Brown

Pretty awesome, huh?

As it turned out, the entry price was worth it just to be in the room while Brene told 1000 people (who were all secretly worried they weren’t cool enough to be there or wouldn’t fit in) that: 1) the only true currency is what we do when we are being uncool, and 2) no-one belongs here more than you. She then got all 1000 of us to sing and dance along to Journey’s Don’t Stop Belivin’, which was conference heaven for a Glee fan like me.

I swear, that woman is going to save the world.

To make things even sweeter, I got to teach yoga under some trees in the park to people who I’d previously only ever met online – including the lovely Sarah J Bray who is as delightful in person as you would imagine from her delightful website and work.

I got to hang out with people who I love, meet people whose work I admire and listen to some very smart people talk about things I care about. All in all, it was a very good time.

The only problem with all this was that I couldn’t bring myself to say the name of this summit out loud.

Fortunately, the name is kind of long so everyone has taken to shortening it to ‘WDS’, which I had no problem saying. This was very helpful because it meant I didn’t have to do charades every time I wanted to refer to the event we were all at.

Are you wondering what my problem is?

Well, there are a lot of possible answers to that question. The first of which is that I am ridiculously stubborn. I blame my father for that. Mostly because he doesn’t get blamed for much, and getting blamed for things is in the father job description.

Another answer is that I care about language. I think the words we choose to use are important. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf argued that language shapes thoughts and emotions, determining one’s perception of reality, and from what I’ve seen around the world, I agree.

The name of the event is the World Domination Summit.

I’ve never entirely understand why it’s called that. Because Chris really doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who wants to dominate the world or anyone in it. But maybe we have different ideas about what it means to dominate something.

To me (and, as it turns out, most dictionaries) the word ‘dominate’ carries the sense of exercising control or power over someone or something.

I have no problem with power. Especially not if I use Kenneth Boulding’s definition:

Power is the ability to change the future.

I’m all for the ability to change to future. I like us all to have it. That’s largely what human rights is about. The power to change our own future.

My discomfort is with power in the form of domination – which is power over.

Here’s where I get a little bit nerdy about words again. People who study power have distinguished between three types of power.

“Power over” is the ability to dominate another person or group, and it usually comes from force and threat.

“Power to” is the ability to do something on one’s own. It refers to our own abilities, intellect, resources, knowledge and stamina.

“Power with” also reflects ability, but it is the ability to work with others to get something done by cooperation. This is the power of consensus, of people working together.

Domination – or power over – is the form of power that I’ve seen do the most damage in the world. Whereas I’ve seen power to and power with transform relationships, communities and cultural systems, creating more freedom, more justice, and yes – more power – for everyone.

But here’s what’s really interesting.

At the World Domination Summit, what I saw were people almost exclusively interested in developing power to and power with. Which, if you are a word nerd, is a little bit confusing. And – more importantly – if you are a teeny bit stubborn, is a little bit discombobulating. Because when I got out of my own way long enough, I discovered something surprising.

A summit named after domination turns out to actually be about connection.

And about the kind of power with that is possible when we connect with people who share our belief that everyone, everywhere can (and should) have the power to change their own future and the future of the world.

Thanks Chris.

The $100 Startup by Chris GuillebeauI have a copy of Chris’s new book to giveaway. To be eligible to win a copy of The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau just leave a comment on this post.

Here are some of the things people are saying about this book:

Thoughtful, funny, and compulsively readable, this guide shows how ordinary people can build solid livings, with independence and purpose, on their own terms. ~ Gretchen Rubin

With traditional career doors slamming shut, it’s easy to panic, but Chris Guillebeau sees opportunities everywhere. Making a career out of your passion sounds like a dream, but in this straight-forward, engaging book he shows you how to get it done, one simple step at a time. ~ Alan Paul


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20 Responses to "Portland, power and connection: reflections on a summit that’s not really about domination at all"

  1. Meeting you in person was one of my highlights.

    Yes, it was all about connection. I felt so many things all weekend and am still in processing mode, takes me a bit. But all I keep thinking is how I blessed I feel for all of my new and loving connections.


  2. sas says:

    one of the joys of not going to WDS was watching the connections of people i follow on twitter and instagram who attended and met for the first time.

    let me know when you are speaking there and i’ll get my ticket xxx

  3. asiyah says:

    This is really interesting. I had the same issue with the word ‘Domination’, just because I work in Afghanistan and so much pain is as a result of the power plays there. As accounts of the summit pop up on my reader, it does seem like it was all positive though.

  4. kerin rose says:

    this looks like it was an incredible time….I hope to make it to Portland someday, but who I really want to meet is the fictitious couple from ‘Portlandia’!…..
    seriously, though, like you , I have issues w/ the word ‘domination’….my word-nerd self deeply appreciates the other perspectives on its meaning!

  5. Krissie says:

    Always wonderful to read your posts, and how good to know that I’m not the only one for whom the word ‘domination’ doesn’t associate well. I’d love to read more about connections/your highlights. 🙂

  6. Claire says:

    Language is so powerful. I also have reservations about the choice of domination but it certainly sounds like an interesting gathering.

  7. Jodi says:

    Wonderful roundup and so great to have met you in person.

  8. Sorry to have missed you at WDS, but I was so happy to see yoga included. I was wishing for a restorative yoga afterparty!

    I have struggled with domination since the beginning also. The word is so contrary to my experience of the community. Not to mention how much time we all waste explaining it.

  9. Milo says:

    Nice post Marianne. I agree that ‘domination’ it doesn’t feel congruent with what the event was actually about.

    I was asked a number of times by locals what the conference was and felt embarrassed to tell them the name. Still, maybe there is a power in putting people off the scent.. and only attracting those people who ‘get it’ despite the name?

  10. Yay Marianne…I was so stoked to get to meet you and do yoga with you! It was my first time EVER (except on my Wii…which is slightly embarrassing). The whole “connection” experience was amazing; and even though in my jet-lagged state I totally missed getting a ticket for next year, I’m going to try to snag one for 2013.

    As far as “domination” goes, whenever I told anyone about the conference, I felt a little like Pinky and the Brain. “What are we going to do tonight, Brain? Same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world!”

    I hope I’m not the only person who remembers that. 😉

  11. melissa says:

    thank you for this generous offering. and for your honest, wholehearted reflections on power (your ideas and insights resonate profoundly as I often think about these concepts, especially given my PAR work). gracias. xo

  12. Serene says:

    Hi Marianne,

    I’m a total word nerd too! In fact your post made me remember that with all the recent blog posts from different people I follow talking about WDS, I’ve just skimmed over the content, until I realize what I’m doing and go back and read about their positive experiences there. I think it’s because the word ‘domination’ actually repelled my attention. I didn’t want to read about world domination. And I did feel an uncomfortable disconnect between the name and the positive content of the posts/conference.

  13. Pauline says:

    Hi Marianne,

    Power to and power with …

    From the UK I also wish for the world changing to come in that form.

  14. Christina says:

    you have a lovely blog! i love the quote, “power is the ability to change the future.”

  15. Ange says:

    Damn I feel so far away from where it’s all happening while over here in France. Have been working on giving the Frenchies some alternative definitions for the word ‘power’ as well by bringing in the power of choosing one’s own thoughts and the power of connection and sharing information in a very fear dominated society. Looking forward to reading Chris’ book, whether I win it or not 😉
    Hopefully I’ll be able to make it to one of these conferences someday.


  16. meg says:

    I followed the summit via the #WDS on Twitter and it was inspiring to see the dynamic and energy between so many participants. How good it would be to be able to harness this energy and carry it forth across continents.

  17. Kathryn says:


    I’m a fellow word nerd. When I first heard about the WDS, my first thought was “the last thing we need in the world is more domination.” I’m glad to have had the opportunity to learn more about it through your and other’s writings because the event really sounds wonderful, despite the name.

  18. sKY says:

    Hi Marianne … I am a fellow yoga instructor and believer in all things different than the norm. I look forward to following your journey after discovering your site from Chris G’s blog on the WDS. Both my husband and I both hope to attend next year, fingers crossed!

  19. Oh, so it’s not just me who questioned the use of the words ie those words, ‘Domination’ and ‘Army’ There was a time also when Chris G called all of us like minded people ‘a small army of remarkable people.’
    I once asked a direct question on his blog concerning his choice of these two words, ‘domination’ and ‘army’ because I couldn’t quite reconcile them with what AONC seemed to be about. I never received a reply and figured that I’d have to come to terms with the situation somehow.
    It became clear that, as you say Marianne, the domination is predominantly all about connection and being a part of that is inspiring and very special particularly in a room full of 1000 people all wanting the same thing.
    I may never bring this up again but I am interested to see here on your comments, who also raises these questions.
    Nevertheless. for those of you thinking of attending next year for the first time I would say, do so, without hesitation.

  20. beautiful response to what many of us were questioning. xx

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