- William Sloan Coffin, Jr.
Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess
"Power concedes nothing without demand." — Frederick Douglass
A process through which disenfranchised groups work to change oppressive policies and structures and fulfill their needs.
Members of oppressed and disenfranchised social groups and their allies.
Empowerment is often understood as a redistribution of power from the powerful to the powerless. However, this understanding of empowerment can actually be disempowering. The appropriate role of the person or group with power is to share, not to convey or impose. If I give or even lend you my power, you are beholden to me for it. If, on the other hand, I help you build your own power base, the power is yours, not mine. I may do this as a mentor, a researcher, a facilitator, or an ally, since leadership and spokesperson roles need to remain with the group that is in the process of empowering itself. The group must make and own its decisions, so that group members can develop and experience their own power. The strategies for empowering disenfranchised and oppressed people can be grouped into three general approaches: education, organization, and networking.
Empowering educators must learn to draw out their students' knowledge and responses. Teachers present the material to the students for their consideration, and re-consider those presentations as students respond with their own ideas. To bring about the deep change required to resolve conflict, educators must be willing to challenge their own deeply-held assumptions, as well as the assumptions of their students/clients. This assessment can be a wrenching process. It is also important to educate adversaries and potential allies of the lower-power individual or group. While at first, many who benefit from the status-quo will be reluctant to "give up" their privilege in order to create a more equitable social system, some will be willing to do so if they fully understand their part in the system. More are likely to be willing to help empower low-power groups, if power is understood to be a positive-sum (more for all) commodity, rather than a zero-sum (win-lose) commodity. If power is conceived of as fixed, then the more one group has, the less another group has. But another way of viewing power is not "power over" (the ability to push someone around), but rather "power with" or "power to." Here power is the ability to get things done. This is a positive-sum view of power, because the more powerful people you have working together, the more likely you are to be able to accomplish your goal.
An organization gives people a way of expressing their group needs in a way that cannot be ignored. This is the message that '60s community organizer Saul Alinsky presented so powerfully in his books and organizations. While many groups come together around specific issues, Alinsky advocated a different approach: first, the building of an organization and then, focusing on specific issues. In addition, confrontational strategies (such as marches, strikes, or publicity campaigns) geared to overcome the existing imbalance among the parties are crucial. Without a well-organized campaign, small victories may be won, but the overall climate and structure will remain.
Members of disenfranchised groups can realize and extend their power through networking with others, both inside and outside their own social groups. Informal meetings can help participants exchange resource,s and build alliances, and learn skills.
Mediation may not be appropriate until power imbalances been addressed, but some activist mediators argue that balancing power is, indeed, part of their job. Third parties can provide assistance, and can work as allies for lower power groups, in order to prepare them to negotiate effectively. This will make the mediation go better for everyone, and will maximize the likelihood of a successful outcome. It is not appropriate, however, for outsiders to take on leadership roles in group organizations, since the result may actually be disempowering. From the outset, small-group meetings need to be led by people from the community itself.
One of the clearest examples of empowerment is the United States Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. American blacks took the initiative to organize and educate themselves and succeeded in making lasting changes in American society, politics, and economics. However, empowerment can take smaller forms. Naomi Wolf describes the effectiveness of "power groups" of women who meet each month. The structure that Wolf identifies revolves around a gathering at which members share a meal, talk to each other informally and share resources, contacts and information. In Wolf's group, these contacts have resulted in a wide range of new ventures by the women involved, from new jobs to putting on a benefit.
Negotiation and mediation usually work best when the two parties have roughly equal power. Thus, empowerment of the oppressed group becomes important for both sides of the conflict. Even outside explicit conflict, however, empowerment of low-power groups helps them achieve their fundamental needs and rights--therefore preventing future conflicts before they even develop.