Reaching for Potential

In recent posts, I have been exploring the nature of power and empowerment. In my post on distinctions to be made in thinking about power here, I suggested that three levels of power made the most sense in community organising: personal, cultural and structural. This week, I want to consider power and empowerment at the personal level – for the individual and group – in some more depth.

Vines to Heaven by Orin Zebest CC FlickrTackling Dependency

As I have already said, power is found in action everywhere; it is ubiquitous and pervasive. When we think about empowerment, we can’t draw clear boundaries around the areas of our life in which it will operate. Our personal and professional lives are intertwined; our relationships with partners and friends, with colleagues and managers, with politicians and priests all come under scrutiny. Empowerment is partly about our practice but also about what we bring to that practice: ourselves. Empowerment is never what we do to or for others; rather its a partnership, committed to development, a two-way street. Any organiser working to counter paternalism and dependency needs to look at themselves and their personal experience of empowerment as well as at the other’s life. The danger otherwise is that – whatever the intent – empowerment becomes merely an instrumental tactic or rhetorical device.

Only as an empowered organiser can you hope to empower others. Stress is often caused by a lack of control (power) over your work and life. Too much work, a stultifying management, focusing on meeting bureaucratic demands, poor or unfulfilling relationships all sap energy and can create low morale and cynicism in the most committed. Together they lead in turn to burnout and a ‘learned helplessness’. This is the opposite of empowerment and someone in this position cannot deliver effectively on their role in the community.

Multi culture dolls by A.Currell CC FlickrGrasping identity

Much conversation about empowerment starts from aspects of identity – that sense of self that people ascribe to themselves and each other – such as class, race, disability, gender, sexual identity or age. Identity is amazingly multifaceted and flexible, including aspects with which we are born, some we inherit from our family, some have a legal basis whilst over others again we have choice. We choose to express our identity in different contexts with flare, huge flexibility and subtle nuance. It is easy to assume the importance of another person’s evident identity without being aware of their own more subtle focus for identity. A black woman may see her ethnic identity to be less important in a particular context than her age, sexual identity or gender.

Identity plays a critical role in community, often providing the means for finding common cause and building mutuality. A shared identity allows people to come together around ideas, information, resources and support, sometimes within a neighbourhood or village, sometimes across national borders. In terms of power, we all know that society ascribes different dimensions and levels of power to groups (or identities) and that some groups (or identities) derive significant benefit from the flow of power toward them. Other identities are not regarded so highly and as a result, people who identify with them face reduced opportunities and less control over their futures. This discrimination – often on the basis of people’s fundamental identity such as gender, race or ability – is one key aspect of disempowerment and hence a focus of the work of empowerment.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) skills by four quadrants per Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis by Stephen Lark CC Flickr

Emotional Intelligence

Life coming together

Empowerment is often about enabling someone to function more effectively within themselves and in society. As we grow up, we learn ways of interacting with others that can serve as templates for future patterns to develop. As we mature, we encounter new ways of reacting to circumstances and open ourselves to new experience which may reinforce those early patterns or undermine them. We face moments in life when our ways of coping come apart and we live through crises, crises that can offer a chance to relearn some key aspects of ourselves. Finding new ways of relating to ourselves and to others requires practice and others who have successfully negotiated the change to model our lives on for a while. This journey to self-belief and understanding is often based on the stories we tell ourselves, some of which are deeply disempowering and some of which can let us fly.

22a.NAMESProject.AIDS.Quilt.WDC.10oct92 by Elvert Barnes CC FlickrAlongside our identity and our psychosocial capacity, there are aspects of life that can restrict people’s ability to express their inherent power. These include fear, anxiety, pain and grief as well as debt, conflict, addiction and ill health. These real constraints come to us all at times, reducing our sense of control over life and leading us to be less able to express our power. But power is dynamic and flows around and between people and gives us all the potential to overcome these ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’ Power can generate new power; power can be generative in the individual, in relationships and in groups. Again and again, people who face the most devastating situation show that the human spirit can overcome even the worst the world can send them.

Empowering relationships

So the organiser and the person (or group) are in relationship over their mutual empowerment. One-way therapy will not do; empowerment is about the whole person – organiser and the other – facing up to your identities, to your capacity to function well and to the restraints to your expression of power. How can an organiser use this understanding of personal power and empowerment to develop their approach? Here are some questions you might ask of yourself:

  • Do I separate my professional life from my personal in watertight compartments? Can I do this and still form empowering relationships?
  • Where does my experience of my multiple identities help me be empowered and where am I disempowered? What ‘stories’ do I tell myself to positively shape my consciousness?
  • Do I know my strengths and weaknesses well? Can I function well in social settings? If not, what is preventing my empowerment?
  • What are the factors that help me be better at empowering others? Which factors hold me back?

Next time: Our communities are influenced by TV and the media, by ways of thinking and even by the way we use language. It all comes down to cultural power and how we can begin to break its hold.


Alison Gilchrist et al (2010) Identities and Social Action: Connecting Communities for a Change CDF Available as a pdf here

Inspire East (2008) Community Empowerment Discussion Toolkit new economics foundation Available as a pdf here

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

Just Associates (2006) Making Change Happen: Power, Concepts for Revisioning Power for Justice, Equality and Peace, Making Change Happen No.3, Washington: Just Associates Available as a pdf here

Raji Hunjan and Jethro Pettit (2010) Power: A Practical Guide for Facilitating Social Change Carnegie / JRF Available as a pdf here

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