Digging into Empowerment

This week I began a somewhat daunting task. I dug into a feminist genealogy of the word ’empowerment’. My committee suggested this undertaking following my preliminary round of exams, with the hope that I would actually be able to do substantively richer theorizing if I had fully grappled with the long history, diverse lineage and multiple meanings and conceptualizations of the word. As I begin, I am realizing how right they were.

I’m bringing a fair amount of energy and excitement to this project. As my partner alluded the other day, ‘it’s like a scavenger hunt’ – a fun hunt to see what I find, where new definitions lead, where citations take me. It’s also a chance for me to put into practice a methodology exercise I was exposed to recently: feminist recitation (Hemmings 2011). In this practice, we complicate the genealogy and historiography of particular ideas and concepts by mixing up our citation practices. Rather than cite Butler as always following the lineage of Foucault, for instance, we might get a different story about feminist theory’s relationship to post structuralism if we cite Butler in relation to Wittig, a poststructuralist feminist, a contemporary of Foucault. I am trying to keep this idea of recitation fresh in my own reading and digging into ’empowerment’s history and evolution. Rather than assume I know the path and story, I will keep an open mind as to how different intellectual influences come to bear on one another. Today, I stumbled upon an excellent article, now 15 years old, coming out of feminist social work. It is a really interesting piece to re-cite critiques of empowerment that were starting to come out of feminist development scholars in the global South.

However, while I begin this genealogy (a task that, conceivably, has no real ‘end’ point…), I am keeping in mind the reasons that I care about this concept. I am not digging into 30 years of literature just for the fun of it. I’m doing it because I am committed to better understand how terms like ’empowerment’ are conceptualized, operationalized, and experienced by multiple nonprofit actors. In my reading today, for instance, Trethewey (1997), sees empowerment as practices against subordination. Human service organization clients were empowered when they resisted the dominant discourses and practices of the top-down, paternalistic and patriarchal human services they relied upon for support. This is a very different understanding than the discursive work ’empowerment’ seems to do when deployed in mission statements, as donors, staff and volunteers seek to do empowerment for others.

So, part of my process right now is to uncover how empowerment has been utilized in hopeful ways. Hopeful theorizations. Who is doing empowering work? What does it mean to empower oneself? [Can this ever really be true?] Is it possible for empowerment to be deployed, and still be successful? What lessons can be learned from social movements and consciousness-raising (Collins, 2000) that might be applied to nonprofit work?

Tomorrow I am getting lunch with two of my favorite folks, who work for Seattle Youth Garden Works. Empowerment is in their mission. And, while I’m kind of taking a hiatus from volunteering with them right now, I really value my relationship with this organization. I am so curious about what my two friends/mentors/peers understand ’empowerment’ to mean. How they see this playing out in the organization? How they feel about the tensions between short-term change (definitely improving the lives of a handful of youth, undeniably), and long-term change and advocacy (something the organization is not equipped to do, but nonetheless is an important goal).

From a social movement perspective, ’empowerment’ creates enabling relationships of power, wherein individuals and community raise consciousness of collective experience, and then enact multiple forms of resistant to oppressive and hegemonic power dynamics in their individual and community practices (Trethewey 1997, Simon 1990). While I value individual level social services, confidence building, support systems, etc., I wonder about the perpetuation of the status quo.

In other words, it’s great to help these kids, right now. But what are we doing to prevent 10 more kids from filling their spots? What are we doing to end systemic inequality that makes certain young people more marginalized in the first place?

When I say it like that, people seem to get it. They nod. They understand that I’m not in the market to just critique nonprofits til the cows come home (though, I am pretty good at that). If it’s really about ’empowerment’ from a sense of challenging structures of oppression and dispossession, then it’s vital to also unpack and reflect on the work that gets done in the name of empowerment. It is not to say that benefits don’t occur here. But what do we miss? What is elided? What do we presume?

With these things in mind, I am excited to continue this scavenger hunt. I am also feeling energized and honored and slightly nervous to get lunch with my peers/friends/mentors tomorrow. It should be a formative, fun and enlightening conversation.

I invite comments on this one: what does empowerment mean to you?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *