One month in.

It has been one month of summer ‘vacation’ – one week of full-on, no-work, sleep-til-10 vacation, and three weeks of summer – sleep-til-8, have slow, luxurious mornings, attempt some school work for a few hours (or not), do one or more of the following activities the rest of the day: garden, run, see friends, cook, clean my house, yoga, see a movie, volunteer, plan eat for equity, go on walks, read a book, nap, swim. Not bad.

I am at the point of this genealogy project where I think it is necessary to check in and reflect on where I am at, what I have learned, what new questions have been raised.

There are a few core themes or findings so far that I think will guide the questions I bring to the rest of the project:
— the way we think about empowerment is based on how we think about power —
— empowerment, broadly speaking, is either seen as something ‘given to’ or something ‘taken’. this difference will impact where the responsibility for empowerment lies —
— management and organizational communication studies go ga-ga over empowerment, and while their conceptualizations are about productivity, efficiency, and worker satisfaction, much of the language appears in the nonprofit world —

I am balancing the multiple meanings that appear in different genres and disciplines, practicing ‘recitation’ (Hemmings, 2012) to put multiple scholars in conversation with one another. The findings in management and business studies, for instance, see empowerment as a process begun by an employer. It is the responsibility of those with power (primarily supervisors) to make sure that power is made available to their subordinates (primarily, employees). They must create conditions that foster non-hierarchical relations of power, and that allow all employees to feel they have input on decision making processes (interesting side note, as I indicated in an earlier post, this is often called self-efficacy. less about your actual ability to make change, but your perceived ability to change your circumstances).

On the other side of things, women’s empowerment movements, often traced to gender and development (GAD) movements, sought to improve the experiences of women in the global South who experienced increased marginalization at multiple scale of the family, village, city, state or nation. Much of the early women’s empowerment work (Dingo, 2012) recognized that women’s marginalization was not limited to economic terms, or singular indicators of poverty. Instead, there were broader social, cultural, political and economic constructs that yielded women as more marginal to their male counterparts. And, of course, women’s experiences were exacerbated through other factors such as religion, class, caste, physical ability, age, literacy, and health. In this lineage of empowerment, power is to be taken by more marginalized groups, through consciousness-raising, social movements, and larger efforts for transformative justice that do not stop with individual women, but work to make more just social and political contexts.

These two uses and conceptualizations of ’empowerment’ seem disparate at first. In fact, as I indicated above, they are almost incommensurable, due to their different understandings of power and where power originates. But, in some ways, I am beginning to see how the nonprofit sector is an area where these two conflicting understandings of empowerment come together. In fact, I wonder if  nonprofits can be seen as spaces of transmission where empowerment is enacted, understood, performed, practiced, translated, learned, passed down, codified, internalized, projected, critiqued… the actions are quite endless, really. Much of my understanding of this concept is informed by Policy Mobilities (McCann and Ward 2012, Temenos and McCann 2012) and feminist transnational rhetoric studies (Dingo, 2012). Different parties bring their own understandings of rhetoric, discourse, language to the organizations in which they participate. The way these get inscribed into practices is so interesting to me, and could be a way that more supervisor/subordinate understandings of empowerment find translation alongside more social movement / pedagogy of the oppressed practices. Finally, I am interested in putting these two parallel fields into conversation (or re-citing them) with relational poverty studies, social movement theory, and feminist scholar activism.

My most recent beacon of hope in this whole project comes from the insights of relational poverty studies and feminist social theory.  I often can see the cynical ways that donors transmit hegemonic neoliberal notions of successful, responsible citizen-subject-hood to youth participants. What if, rather than propagate status quo subjectivities, donors, volunteers, staff and participants come together to work towards understanding oppression, privilege, systemic issues of justice, in order to better see how they all  can be / are working towards systemic change. This is lofty, yes. But. It is a way that donors, (or those with more power, in a conventional sense) are actually empowered to see their ability to change the system we live in. This is the work that Resource Generation and Social Justice Fund Northwest undertake.

So, some thoughts for now. I am going to continue reading some of the early writings on empowerment from each of these fields to really get into its lineages. See what I can tease apart. How I might be able to find new combinations, recitations and conceptualizations that map onto nonprofit work in (new) ways.

Another month, here we go!

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