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May 7, 2014

Avoid this Disempowering Mistake of “Empowerment”

Susana Rinderle

Often in the diversity and inclusiveness sphere, I hear talk of empowerment. C-suite leaders want to empower middle managers. Middle managers want to empower employees. Advocates and change agents speak of empowering entire groups of disenfranchised, marginalized, and underrepresented people. Consultants strive to empower C-suite leaders, and entire organizations.

The very notion of “empowering” disempowers, and replicates or reinforces the very problem the well-intended “empowerment” agenda is meant to address.

The issue begins with the semantics. To “empower” means to give power to another; to grant them something. This implies the recipient of empowerment doesn’t have power of their own; that it needs to be bestowed upon them by someone else who does possess it. It reinforces the notion that power is scarce and some have it, and others don’t.

But everyone has power, defined simply as the ability to create a result. Indeed it may be true that some of us have more ability to create results on a mass scale than others. Some (most?) of us exercise power – create results – without meaning to, or being aware of having done so. Some aren’t yet aware of their power or take ownership of it. But everyone – everyone – has some form and degree of power. To deny this is to disrespect the sovereignty and creative potential that is the birthright of each human being, and to make people victims.

Even those who have been victimized have power. I very much like Tom Atlee’s description of four types of power: POWER OVER (the power to control, determine or influence what will happen; to get people or things to do what YOU want), POWER WITH (the power of being, doing, and having together in ways that achieve what WE want), POWER FROM WITHIN (the power that arises from oneself – especially in one’s engagements with the world – such as sovereignty, capacity, integrity, presence, sanity, attunement, and purpose), and POWER AS (the power of embodiment – which manifests or clears a path for energies associated with what is embodied: a universal force or quality, an archetype, zeitgeist, the Other, or social role/position.)

The issue deepens with the implications. Not only is the concept of “empowerment” inaccurate, its impact is anything but empowering. If power is something that some have and not others, than as it is granted, it can be taken away. Those that empower still hold the power, and those that are empowered still beholden to those that “empower” them.

Finally, empowerment doesn’t work. It’s not sustainable. It doesn’t build capacity. It doesn’t encourage self-reflection, awareness, humility and ecology in those of us who hold greater depth and breadth of macro-level power and privilege than others. It gets in the way of healing unhealthy dependence and feeds victim mentalities. It reinforces hierarchy and the status quo.

Instead of touting “empowerment”, we need to do two things. First, those of us who believe that someone else somewhere needs something we have (money, opportunity, a good home, etc.) must look into our own shadow. We need to take radical responsibility and critically examine how our individual and collective actions – conscious or not – create and co-create the very conditions we want to change. We need to look at our own lack. Maybe we are the ones feeling some form of (spiritual or emotional) poverty, misery, or not-enoughness, perhaps even more so than those we claim to “help.”

We need to ask more questions and insist on answers. In the famous words of Brazilian human rights activist and liberation theologist Dom Helder Camara, When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” We must ask why those we perceive as not having power don’t have as much (macro) power as we do. We must ask how we are creating those conditions, even unintentionally, then take responsibility for making changes there. We might even ask how it serves us, individually and collectively, that certain people and groups are perceived and categorized as powerless or less-than. We can listen, get out of the way, shift priorities, redistribute resources, insist on justice, do our personal work, facilitate, and support. But not empower.

Second, those who are the recipients of empowerment must start discovering, accepting and acting on our own powerfulness. We need to take radical responsibility for the role our choices and behaviors play in creating our lives. We must recognize and take a fierce stand for our needs and wants, and those of our beloved communities. We must face and heal our wounding and our very real grievances, while also taking ownership for what we contribute to the current state of our lives and the power we wield in creating new possibilities.

We need to break down this barrier of either-or and us-them binary thinking. For ultimately we all are both “empowered” and “disempowered”, and we all have a part to play in creating something truly new and r/evolutionary that creates a world that works better – for everyone.

One Comment on “Avoid this Disempowering Mistake of “Empowerment”

Tom Atlee
September 26, 2017 at 8:36 pm

Hi Susana,

You might enjoy the expanded exploration of power at https://www.wd-pl.com/modes-of-power/.

Coheartedly,
Tom Atlee

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