How Empowerment Can Drive Real Change

Empowerment has been defined as an intentional ongoing process centered in the local community, involving mutual respect, critical reflection, caring, and group participation, through which people lacking an equal share of valued resources gain greater access to and control over those resources. This is a process by which people gain control over their lives, democratic participation in the life of their community, and a critical understanding of their environment. Empowerment is a collective rather than just an individual process. It is no doubt important for individuals to take control over their fears, addictions, and other self-destructive or socially disruptive thoughts and behaviors. Empowerment through participatory action with others is, in fact, one of the most effective ways to master one’s fears, obsessions, or disdain for self or others. It has many important individual benefits, including greater health, wellbeing, life satisfaction, and happiness. A possible outcome of feeling empowered is the belief that a positive change to one’s life is actually possible.

Kierkegaard, born in 1813, is widely regarded as the father of existentialism. He produced a series of powerful essays that explored the territory of conscious experience, suffering and despair. Of the latter, he considered it in rather modern terms, as a common aspect of everyday life: “Just as a physician might say that there very likely is not one single living human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows mankind might say that there is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare try to know.” This observation prepares the great theme of existentialism, that the human condition is a forlorn and anxious place. We are faced with pathways all around us, but to know which pathway is best for us, this is more frightening.

Existentialism achieves the distinction of placing the individual at the very center of the possibility of change. The freedom it emphasizes is above all a freedom to create values for oneself. “Nobody can do this for you,” might be the rally cry. Jean Paul Sartre emphasized that existentialism is a philosophy of action – and the individual is the key actor. The contention of existentialism is that we are never trapped by our conditions. Think about how a set of properties might be applied to you: your class, your race, your social status, your job, and so on. The description might be objectively accurate, but exactly how these properties actually affect you and your sense of self will also depend on how you interpret them. And this interpretation is yours to make. In other words, whatever your circumstances, you are still free to decide what meaning you attach to them.

One of the criticisms that postmodernists direct at modernism is its reliance on the development and maintenance of hierarchies. Hierarchical institutions are valuable if we believe that what the hierarchy perpetuates is more important to the well-being of society than what individuals might want. We might not have the ability to recognize what is important to the well-being of the greater society, this argument goes, but the hierarchy keeps the society’s needs in balance. If the postmodern spirit were to be summed up in simple terms, it might lie in this inherent struggle to avoid hierarchy in any way it manifests itself. Postmodernism has reacted to the authoritarian hierarchization of culture by subverting conventions blurring previously distinct boundaries and rejecting traditional aesthetic values. Lyotard believes: knowledge has become a commodity and consequently a means of empowerment; grand narratives are authoritative, establishing their political and cultural views as absolute truths beyond any criticism.

The invisible-hand metanarrative is more like a thumb on the scale for the world’s elites. That’s why neoliberal globalization has been unmasked as bogus economics but keeps winning politically. The existential threat of global climate change reflects the incompetence of markets to accurately price carbon and the escalating costs of pollution. Neoliberal ideology is so useful to society’s most powerful people – as a scholarly veneer to what would otherwise be a raw power grab. Democracy funded and fueled by corporate power disenfranchises the individual, provoking some to search for empowerment through identity politics. Within neoliberalism a person’s identity becomes so undermined by the system that he/she must adopt a social identity in order to create a sense of personal identity and connection with others. The power elites presently manipulating the system claim that inequality is a key part of the economic system, and rely on doublespeak to explain it.

Are Republicans afraid of Trump? Actually, no – he’s destroying democracy and they love it. But these actions of the former president are possible only with the craven acquiescence of congressional Republicans. As a group, they are pushing towards replacing democracy with a system where a powerful minority holds disproportionate and borderline tyrannical control over government and blocks the majority of Americans from having meaningful say over the direction of the country. No, many Republicans clearly feel empowered by Trump. He frees them to reveal their darkest desire – which is to end democracy as we know it, and to cut any corners or break any laws necessary to get the job done. In contemporary usage, “populism” is generally understood to mean political movements and individuals who channel widespread alienation and frustration by claiming to speak for “the people” against forces that are said to be destroying cherished ways of life. Beware that populism of the right creates a culture of victimhood to use as a tool to sustain conservative politics.

The perception we have of our own ability to change – to find an inner means of repair and strength – is instrumental in the pathways of mental wellness. Often we have to acknowledge that change is sometimes difficult or close to impossible. Empowerment happens when individuals and organized groups are able to imagine their world differently and to realize that vision by changing the relations of power that have kept them in poverty, restricted their voice and deprived them of their autonomy. Let us focus on empowerment that focuses on increasing poor people’s freedom of choice, and action to shape their own lives. Where is the main resistance to change? There is a small group who have been made very wealthy by the existing system. Change is a threat to them. It is this group that loves its status quo so much that it sees its own change as an underhanded attack on its way of life.

As the pandemic has demonstrated, however, it is not the existential dangers, but rather everyday economic activities, that reveal the collective, connected character of modern life beneath the individualist façade of rights and contracts. While cell phones have enabled citizens to document how the cult of individualism supports the use of police brutality to control minorities, concerned citizens now see how political nihilism creates something that is seriously wrong with the underlying structure of the current social and political system. Jürgen Habermas warns of the crisis around the demise of ideals from inept politicians and the dark forces of the market. With respect to postmodernism, it implies re-inventing modernity, believing in the possibility and the necessity of social progress. This includes the need to steer social development and to think about the Good Society. As Habermas noticed, the Enlightenment is an unfinished project – we must aspire to a public sphere that serves to make things better.

Power is best seen as an invisible force linking individuals and actors, in a state of constant flux and renegotiation. Empowerment of excluded groups and individuals involves the redistribution of that power, so that it accumulates in the hands of women and men living in poverty. Power for excluded groups and individuals can be disaggregated into three basic forms, each of which can be promoted by state action: Power within – a sense of rights, dignity and voice, along with basic capabilities. This individual level of empowerment is an essential precondition for collective action. Power with – ability to organize, express views. People living in poverty come together to express their views and demand their rights. Power to – ability to influence decision makers, whether the State, economic power holders or others. Thus, poor people’s voices become effective in influencing those in power. Empowerment can be thought of as the life and outlook-changing outcome of such a process for individuals, organizations, and whole communities.

Empowerment should be driven primarily by those whom it is intended to benefit – poor and excluded groups. Marginalized people and their organizations need to be in the driving seat, whether leading on their own, with allies, or exploring and co-creating solutions with government. The role of government in promoting such power is subtle, but important. On their own, policies and laws are seldom sufficient to achieve tangible social change. The underlying challenge is often the existence of enduring social and cultural norms that create relations of power and disadvantage between different social groups based on gender, class, disability, age, caste or ethnicity. More broadly, governments can help create an “enabling environment” that makes it easier for marginalized groups to empower themselves. Empowerment is not a goal or outcome of participation or leadership, but rather as a key part of the process of both developing and applying political and civic leadership.

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