I used to like the word empowerment, but now I hear or read about it so often, specially around the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit celebrated recently, that its meaning is becoming blurry, almost vanishing. In an attempt to make it regain sense and remember its influence in my life I looked up the different definitions of this word from different sources.
It’s a very common word in a variety of fields of endeavor. Depending on what field you are standing on, it will acquire a special meaning and will have different implications in practice. It has different theoretical and practical expressions in psychology and the social development field, and its effects vary from the legal world to the business world. For example, according to businessdictionary.com, empowerment is a management practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve service and performance. Empowerment is based on the idea that giving employees skills, resources, authority, opportunity, motivation, as well holding them responsible and accountable for outcomes of their actions, will contribute to their competence and satisfaction.
There is plenty of information out there about its different meanings and manifestations in practice, from different fields’ perspectives, but there’s not enough information about the attitudes that it entails on the human level. The reason why I always liked this word was because I felt that it starts from a place of justice and equality, and it implied a noble human driven to help others achieve their potential. But many of the definitions I hear now make empowerment sound like a mechanical practice, an equation where one party who holds some sort of “power” shares some of it with another party that is “powerless” in order to achieve a predictable outcome – an outcome that has been decided from the beginning. In some cases, this equation – this transaction of power– is performed primarily for the benefit of the empowering party (as in the business world), and in other cases, it’s primarily for the benefit of the empowered party (as in the social development field). In any case, looking at it from different fields, we could say that the generalized definition of empowerment can be related to words such as enabling, equipping, autonomy, freedom, participation and capacity; and it can be inferred that empowerment is practiced through sharing knowledge and/or capacity (material or immaterial) from one party to another. However, the definition that I want to recover is the types of attitude in the mental and emotional aspect that are involved in true empowerment from one individual to another, regardless of the specific field.
Empowerment is not a concept that can only be expressed in a professional field. Outside our professional life, in our regular daily interactions with other people, we are also constantly given opportunities to empower someone; it could be a family member, a friend, a romantic partner, a coworker, a stranger, a crowd or a community. We also often find ourselves being empowered by someone else, sometimes without noticing it.
Both in vertical and horizontal relationships, empowerment happens when someone is helped to expand their vision, capacity, and volition in order to act effectively towards bringing their own well-being and prosperity. In other words, where the person in need is not treated as a passive object to be helped, but as an active author of his/her own happiness. It doesn’t have to be a person in desperate need of help; it could be a person that at some point in their life could use assistance in taking charge of their own growth and in improving their material or emotional situation –basically, all of us.
Empowering means to create the conditions where a person, viewed as a conscious subject of their own growth, can develop capabilities to achieve it. This implies enabling the empowered to define their own purpose in order to act upon their own needs and, throughout the process, they must be encouraged to value their own abilities and respect their own selves as much as they respect their mentor.
It is understood that generally, empowerment entails that one party participates in a learning process and is the beneficiary of the products of knowledge or material resources; but this is not enough, even if they have a say in certain decisions for themselves. Empowering is more than allowing someone to participate in something. Just participating in an existing process doesn’t necessarily mean having the capability to influence it or change it; empowerment, on the other hand, involves that capability.
Teachers can teach without empowering, parents can educate without empowering, a friend can help without empowering, an organization can provide the material and structural means for a community’s development without empowering the members, and employees can be trained, given authority and awarded without being empowered.
Developing someone’s capacity for intellectual investigation – that is, to think systematically about their situation and search for solutions, and to deal efficiently with information rather than responding unwittingly to something or somebody else’s will – is only one aspect of empowering someone. Another aspect is to allow the empowered to exercise the knowledge that is being learned, applying their individual talents. In other words, to offer the time and space for the learner to learn by doing. But these two aspects suggest that the approach of the empowering person (or entity) is one based on trust. Trust that the empowered will learn in their own way and exercise the knowledge in their own style, according to their specific talents and goals; in doing so, the empowered will be influencing and generating new knowledge, and contributing in a substantial and meaningful way to their own and general well-being. Without this trust, just passing knowledge and enforcing the outcome of their learning, the result will be nothing more than repeating and perpetuating existing systems, and ultimately can turn out in oppression rather than empowerment.
In other words, it’s not about enforcing the solutions, or kind of life, that we think is good for someone, nor about imposing knowledge as if it was the absolute truth; it’s about allowing the empowered to discover and manifest some inner powers neither party can specifically anticipate; this way, those powers will add to the general knowledge and well-being.
Empowerment is a dialogue where both parts share, learn and grow. Nobody is the holder of the absolute truth. In an employer-employee, a mentor-learner or an NGO-community bond, it’s important to differentiate the roles but also to harmonize them, this means to understand and practice the idea that both parts complement each other – without a learner there would be no mentor. Therefore, a cooperative attitude is necessary, and the empowering should manifest the same level of commitment and care to the process as much as the empowered. Equally, when it comes to empowering someone in a horizontal relationship (for instance, a romantic partner or a friend in a given situation), the attitude is not to advise and leave, nor to enforce a perspective; empowering someone means to help liberate them; it’s about encouraging self-discovery, removing obstacles that prevent them from being their true selves, such as fear because fear is the enemy of learning and growing, fear only empowers stagnation.
The misconception that empowering entails a person who is in a position of power or privilege and has the capacity and volition to share some of it with someone in a disadvantaged position, cripples any attempt to help anyone to reach their real potential and true happiness. I want to go back to when I thought this word had a deeper meaning and believed in the idea that empowering begins with a person who holds the power of love, kindness, solidarity, honesty, and wisdom, and shares these powers with whomever they have an opportunity to do so (sometimes even only through a conversation), with the purpose of bringing out the gems hidden within them. Gems that are sometimes unknown to both sides; without specific expectations or trying to dictate the outcome of the empowerment journey.
Following this understanding of empowerment, a crucial attitude that the empowering party must genuinely manifest during the entire process is sincere humbleness and detachment, as well as a developed sense of equality and justice.
We must strive for mutual empowerment in our relationships at all levels of society.