Abandoning Empowerment: Semantics or Reality?

By Jamie Way, M.A. (Way is Village Earth’s Training Director.)

While attending an activist conference recently, I heard a plenary speaker passionately declaring his hatred for a number of words used by non-profits. Among the list of usual suspects (sustainability, etc.) he seemed particularly angry with the word “empowerment”.

At first I dismissed his argument as just another rant so common among activists and academics that readily discredit or abandon a word. Over the following few days, I kept trying to figure out what it was that he disliked so much about “empowerment.” Was it the word’s co-optation or its real significance?

What is clear is that this speaker represents a growing debate amongst organizers over the use of a handful of terms. Have they been so over-used and abused that once sacred terms like “participation”, “sustainability” and “empowerment” that were used to distinguish our work only have any significance if they are comfortably positioned next to a table illustrating their levels in an academic journal? Perhaps. If this was the case, I was confident that we could stand up to reclaim these words, rather than counting them as another casualty before adopting the next set of politically correct vernacular.

What started to concern me more, however, was if the term “empowerment” had as much significance as I had once hoped.

As a student of Political Science, I have long championed the idea of “development as empowerment,” (a play on Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom.) After all, as a literature review will suggest (read a literature review here), empowerment has been utilized in academic discourse to refer to support for the process by which a community gains power over their own future and increases their freedom of choice.

Seeing empowerment as just increasing self-determination, however, fails to note the connotations of the word in everyday language. A quick dictionary search yields a revealing list of related terms: confer, grant, delegate, give or invest. All of these words are used to describe how a presumably more powerful party “gives” power to a less powerful group. Colloquially speaking, it is evident that the term at least connotes a transfer of power.

The recognition of a power differential is not necessarily negative. Solidarity activists have long utilized their position of power to support the grassroots movements of less powerful actors. The term, however, is seen as problematic by some, because there is an aspect that implies giving agency, as if it is “ours” to give, rather than “theirs” to take.

In its best form, the literature on empowerment sees it as a means of overcoming structural limitations. (At its most paternalistic it speaks of increasing a groups capacity for decision-making.) Solidarity work is particularly effective when agency is limited by structural impediments, removing obstacles to liberation. Due to positions of privilege, there are times when allies are able to overcome structural limitations or be granted access to otherwise off-limit locations. But empowerment (in the sense of conveying power) seems to go a step beyond acts of solidarity. It raises the question of if we can actually transfer some of our position of privilege to others. And, if we can transfer power, is this a true means of liberation, or merely another form of the privileged having pity on the oppressed?

Perhaps the speakers annoyance with “empowerment” was somewhat warranted, at least if we use the term in its colloquial sense. Without some clarification of what we mean when we use the term, it seems to miss the point of Freire’s mutual liberation through process of discovery. It instead sees power as concentrated in ones’ hands and something to be given through a charitable act, not claimed through a dignified action. While the grassroots can use solidarity and the support of those in places of privilege, organizers should be careful not to recognize their agency as our gift.