What’s this about empowerment?

Power is a strange factor in our lives. How we experience it depends on lots of things: the identity ascribed to us in childhood as female, black, middle class, Muslim, straight, Scottish…and the identities that we choose for ourselves such as feminist, internationalist, anti-racist, hedonist, Buddhist; the way of thinking about how the world works that we have learnt from how we have been educated and the disciplines we have specialised in, for example sociology, nursing or train driving; the direction of our engagement with development opportunities, career and current job (See Eyben 2004). All these factors – and many more – mean we each have our own ‘take’ on power and its impact on our lives.

Confidence by Glenda Sims CC FlickrGaining greater control

Empowerment is defined as helping people gain greater control over their own lives and circumstances. Since we each encounter power in a distinctive way, our capacity to empower ourselves or to empower others is similarly particular. The ability of some groups or parts of the community to empower others may in general be limited or very great but within that situation, there will be some for whom empowerment is beyond them and others for whom empowerment is easy and apparently straight-forward. We can gain insight and skill in empowerment from one part of our lives and only over time come to apply it to other parts; we can be crushed and utterly shattered by a single experience or situation and find our level of empowerment has declined everywhere. Empowerment for ourselves and for others is always a continual process which needs tending and nurturing to grow and flourish.

Two Confusions

Two terms are sometimes confused with empowerment. First, enabling is often associated with a professional deciding on the goals to be achieved such as obtaining a new job and then helping the person concerned to achieve them. This works at only one level of empowerment – the personal – and fails to engage the individual’s own strengths and abilities in determining where the effort is best applied. Secondly, capacity building is similarly often used of pre-determined interventions to assist individuals and groups to better meet the objectives of the provider or funder. Such efforts can sometimes deliver real benefits but address the person or group from a deficit model. The perspective of empowerment starts from a positive assessment of the strengths and existing capacities of the person rather than (pre-)defining the goal in terms of their current failings and needs.

Determination by Mohammed CC FlickrAble to make a difference

Empowerment works at more than the personal level but psychological well-being is a central component of developing personal power. Many people see themselves as being merely the plaything of circumstances and cannot conceive the possibility of having a role to play in changing their lot. Fundamental to empowerment is the idea of ‘self-efficacy’ – the sense that you are able to have a real, tangible impact on your situation. Others write of a sense of agency, of being self-directed, the ability to make decisions for yourself and take responsibility for the results. These qualities lie at the heart of empowerment and as organisers, we are always looking to develop them further in ourselves and in the communities in which we work.

Starting (and stopping) with the personal

Often empowerment seems to stop at the personal level, or at most with the group. The goal of empowerment often appears to be to help people function better within the oppressions they suffer, rather than having the wider goal of challenging the existing cultural and structural factors that lead to disempowerment in the first place. Of course the ambition to for example challenge stereotypes or raise political consciousness is often there in intent but in practice, the difficulty of achieving personal breakthroughs with people deeply disempowered by life can prevent the broader agenda from ever being effective. Critical to this failure is the design of the empowerment, the assumption that personal empowerment has to take priority in time and effort.

Paulo Freire by novohorizonte de Economia Solidaria CC FlcikrBuilding awareness

One of the most telling approaches to empowerment is the use of narrative. In the work of Paulo Freire (pictured left), working in literacy work amongst the poor favelas of Brazil, we find a refreshing way to open up the assumptions of ordinary people about their world view and circumstances. Freire used pictures, news items and simple everyday objects to discuss in Portuguese and also to help each group of residents to dialogue about the way their lives were shaped by outside forces. He worked to raise their consciousness of their oppressions by engaging in a process of shared learning. His curiosity and intrigue about their daily lives and beliefs about how things worked both gave him insights into their world and opened their eyes to the wider implications of their experience. And most importantly, they took action on those insights.

Cultural empowerment

People tend to tell themselves entirely disempowering stories about their lives and communities. Such narratives lead to fear, despair and disengagement. An organiser’s role is to open up these stories and help groups of residents to understand how their lives are limited by their beliefs about themselves and their situation. Creating opportunities for community members to grow in awareness of the way their thinking is influenced by the press, by advertising and the TV is a central act of organising. Only as people become aware of the way power is exercised over them can they recognise the potential they have to live and act differently.

Che Guevara 26.01.2005 19-21-20 by Alexander Herrmann CC FlcikrThe voice of the marginalised

Empowerment of course needs also to tackle the structural level and this is where the question of ‘voice’ is best located. Some groups experience power over and their relative powerlessness as oppression and discrimination. Most people in such groups feel they are unable to make their views known, have their feelings and wishes acknowledged and know that they are regarded by the mainstream as of less value and often as worthless; they have no ‘voice’. These groups are marginal to the concerns of powerful players and are normally seen to lack the abilities expected of society’s full members. Women, black people, people who are differently abled, unemployed people, older people and lesbians, gay and transgender people all experience such disempowerment to an extent in our society – that’s most people!

Structural empowerment has many facets. The journey of working people to gain and preserve employment rights, the struggle for women’s rights and the fight for racial justice are but three of the axis’ of structural empowerment. To tackle power that is institutionalised, mainstream and bureaucratic, people have to get organised. Solidarity has often required people to put themselves at personal risk of imprisonment, injury or death to achieve change. Think of Mandela, Gandhi and Che Guevara (pictured above) and we are immediately aware not only of their personal qualities and cultural resonance but also of the titanic struggle they fought against the global forces of colonialism and capitalism. May we honour their memory and learn from their lives!


Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller (2008) A New Weave of Power, People and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation Practical Action Publishing http://www.justassociates.org/ActionGuide.htm

Rosalind Eyben (2004) Linking Power and Poverty Reduction World Bank Available online as a pdf http://preval.org/files/LINKING%20POWER%20AND%20POVERTY%20REDUCTIon6.pdf

Neil Thompson (2007) Power and empowerment Russell House Publishing – a short but valuable introduction to the theme aimed at UK social workers and others in community-focused work.

Jacqueline B. Mondros and Scott M. Wilson (1994) Organizing for Power and Empowerment Columbia – an evaluation of many different models of US organizing and how their impact can be improved

Carien Fritze (n.d.) The Theory of Paulo Freire Interesting introduction to Freire’s thought by a London community worker/organizer

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5 Responses to What’s this about empowerment?

  1. Andy Gregg says:

    Another great post Mark. Both Informative and inspiring!

  2. Joe Taylor says:

    Good post Mark. Paulo Freire is to Saul Alinksy what Karl Marx was to Che Guevara in my opinion.

    • Mark Parker says:

      The direct links between Alinsky and Freire are of course only seen from our perspective. They never met (to my knowledge) and Freire’s socialist / Marxist ideology would have been rejected by Alinsky. But Freire was clearly trying to open up power from below in a way that in retrospect aligns closely with Alinsky’s tactics.

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