Tag Archives: empowerment

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!

Self-efficacy, self-regulation and success

Earlier this week, I wrote a post in anticipation of getting lunch with two of my close peers/mentors at Seattle Youth Garden Works. We enjoyed big bowls of spicy pho, and caught up about the development of the summer program. I was asked to come in as a guest chef for one of their days of meal prep, which, with a crew of 40, is not unlike Eat for Equity! I have not met the new crew yet, but there are 8 youth that have continued from last year’s year-long program, all of whom are a complete delight every time I reconnect with them.

While brief, our lunch reiterated to me the importance of asking questions about the meaning and use of ’empowerment’. I began our conversation by alluding to much of the cross-disciplinary reading I’ve been doing that situates empowerment from a supervisor-employee position, a position whose goal is to increase worker productivity. Both of my friends laughed, acknowledging how counter intuitive that felt to real empowerment. So what was real empowerment, then, to them? Robert, the farm manager, has a background in psychology. He framed ’empowerment’ in regards to a few ideas (ideas which I was starting to see recur in the literature I’ve been reading).
1) self-efficacy. to Robert, self-efficacy means the perception of being in control or having power. He referred to a study in which folks were given tasks to do, and a very annoying noise was playing. One group was told there was a button that they could press at any point that would end the noise (a button which, in actuality, did nothing). The other group was not given a button. The group with the button demonstrated much more happiness, productivity and satisfaction — and never even pressed the button. The mere belief that they could change the situation, though, increased their self-efficacy.
2) self-regulation. This is a concept I’ve heard Robert talk about before, and as best I can understand it, self-regulation is about delaying gratification, being able to break goals into small, achievable pieces, and then regulating oneself to achieve goals those goals. This is a skill that can be taught. One of Robert’s greatest goals it to help the youth identify goals, (and, relating to self-efficacy, to have them believe they have the power to actually do/change certain things in their lives), and then teach them how to break large goals down into smaller pieces. And, finally, to develop the tools to manage one’s life so that those pieces fall into place. The classic example he gives is to be able to set an alarm, wake up with enough time to get where you need to be, to take initiative and call if you’re going to be late, to get directions, to be prepared, etc…
3) That ’empowerment’ is an amalgamation of these two ideas — you can’t really get to self-regulation without self-efficacy. He ties this into an idea of ‘possible selves’, meaning, being able to look to the future and see many possible ideas and paths for oneself.

Kristen, my fellow Eat for Equity organizer and the program coordinator at SYGW, followed up with some thoughtful questions here, prodding and asking for clarification. In fact, in another life, I think Kristen could be a really amazing feminist ethnographic scholar. She is emotive and poses inviting, open-ended questions. I am continually inspired by her.

I followed up to both of them, asking if they thought that multiple people at the organization would agree with those ideas. “Of empowerment?” they asked. “Yes,” I said. “Definitely not…Especially if you asked the youth.”

Bingo! While I was not fishing, this is exactly a question I have been floating around.

“Oh yes? Do you think they’d be into that?” I asked.

“Yeah! What if you, like, did a video project? You could ask them all what they think it meant? That’d be neat.”

Bingo again! This is totally the type of project I was envisioning, especially for my Public Scholarship capstone project: filming and collaborating with the youth. Asking them about a possible narrative they would want. Doing some editing. Asking them about possible audiences for the video.

At the end of lunch: “I mean, I love this idea. I’m going to mull it over. But… I want to make sure they youth would be into it. I don’t want to force this idea on them.”

“Oh. They’ll love it. They have always been excited about these types of projects, especially if they get to speak on camera. They’ll love it.”
[I am skeptical on this last point, and would want to develop this project more closely with the youth I already know, rather than assume they’d be into it. But, encouraging that both staff were the ones that suggested the idea I already had brewing! How neat.]

So, I can look forward to getting to know the youth crew as a guest chef and volunteer, continuing to read and contextualize ’empowerment’ across many disciplines and activities, and, eventually, developing a possible video project. Great things.