When people are accessing services, they are often disempowered in at least one area of their life. They may be experiencing poverty, exclusion as a result of mental health issues, addiction or family violence. Or they may be experiencing oppression or exclusion as a result of their gender, race, culture, sexuality, religion or economic situation.
When we use the term ‘disempowered’ to describe someone, it usually means they have lost their agency or capacity to act in a way that enables them to live in a hopeful, meaningful and future-focussed way.
In other words, they have lost their power.
Services often describe people experiencing powerlessness using specific terms. They may describe them as being disenfranchised, disengaged, disadvantaged, overwhelmed, and challenged, amongst other things.
By contrast, people who are ‘empowered’ may be described as hopeful, proactive, confident, resourced, future-focussed, engaged or active.
Our jobs often involve working alongside people to help create the conditions for them to move from a position of powerlessness or disenfranchisement, to a position that is more empowered.
Despite the fact that lack of power is such a fundamental driver of disadvantage, we rarely talk about it directly. So how can we open up a conversation about power in the work we do?
Understanding and naming power dynamics
A good place to start is to identify, understand and talk about the different places we find power. We can do this by doing some background research, talking to colleagues and inviting the people we work alongside to reflect on when they feel empowered or disempowered.
There are several different types of power that we, and the people we work alongside, experience every day. Some of the types of power that may regularly impact people include:
- the power dynamics in personal relationships
- the power exerted by services and institutions (sometimes that includes our own services)
- socio-cultural and ideological forms of power.
Often these kinds of power overlap. For example, a woman experiencing family violence may be experiencing power-over behaviour from her partner, gender-biases embedded in services and patriarchal social structures that exclude her from well-paid, permanent employment. Naming these different sources and sites of power can be helpful in and of itself.
Intersectional forms of oppression
Additionally, some people experience multiple sites of oppression which all create unique types of disempowerment.
If the woman in the example above is also of Aboriginal decent and is transgender, these may create multiple distinct, and overlapping, sites of disempowerment. (Of course, they also create powerful sites of insight, awareness and identity.)
We can also simultaneously be oppressed and an oppressor. For example, a woman of Anglo-Saxon decent may feel oppressed as a woman but may oppress others economically or culturally.
Can we ‘empower’ people?
The short answer? No, we can’t.
But we can create the conditions to help people empower themselves. To ‘empower’, in strengths-based practice, is about working alongside people to create the conditions for them to feel stronger, more confident and hopeful, more capable of exerting control over their lives and more skilled at enacting their rights.
Here are a few suggestion for ways you can support the people you work alongside to do this:
Name the different sites of power
Often power likes to be invisible. Just having an open discussion about different kinds of power can be empowering in and of itself. (If you are a worker or teacher, you are automatically in a position of authority or power, so this may be something you name and talk about with the people you work alongside).
Deliberately talk about social structures and their impact on people
Often, as social workers and teachers, when we are supporting someone to manage a challenging issue, we focus on the personal context—the people directly involved, the personal interactions and responses—without talking about the broader context.
For example, if someone is struggling financially, we may talk about budgets and how to get better quality jobs. We are unlikely to talk about how growing up in poverty may have impacted on the person’s ability to get a well-paid job, or on other aspects of their life such as their mental health or their capacity to care for their children.
Poverty is a social construct, over which we have very little control. Some people are born into wealth and some aren’t, and despite what the media tells us, it is difficult to move between economic classes—it is the exception rather than the rule. By naming the privilege inherent in wealth, we can help people feel less ashamed or guilty about their circumstances and support them to find ways to address any barriers they face in an informed way.
Support people to understand their rights
Again, when we work with people in services or schools, we often focus on supporting people to access the resources they need in the moment. We don’t often take the time to support them to understand their rights, how the system works, how to advocate for themselves, how to talk to politicians or organisational leaders to initiate change.
Most of the time, if one person is experiencing disempowerment as a result of a particular issue, so are others. By supporting people to develop the skills to advocate for themselves, they are also supporting others, which also helps create a sense of empowerment!
Educate yourself about power
Power dynamics are often hidden, especially if we come from the dominant culture. We only understand our own perspective so it is important to be curious and learn about other people’s experience of oppression, exclusion and disempowerment, so that we become sensitive to it. Try and become more aware of various types of power, both overt and covert, and to do what you can to reduce power imbalances.
This is fundamentally important if we want to support people accessing services to become more empowered in their lives.
** Have you supported people accessing your service to advocate for themselves? What has helped you feel more empowered in your life? We’d love to hear your stories and thoughts in the comments below.