Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Empowerment Is A Dirty Word
Empowerment Is A Dirty Word
By Dana Krals
Earlier this year I did an exercise that has you create your own personal mission statement. It's a great thing to do and I highly recommend it. Essentially what you are doing with this exercise is aligning yourself with your life's purpose. The idea is that you do have a purpose, unique to you, and that your strengths and talents will lie in a particular area that allows you to take action on that purpose. Pinpoint your purpose defined with a mission statement, and use it as a guiding force that allows you to align your outer life with your inner design.
For example, I did the exercise and decided that my personal mission statement is "To educate, inspire and empower for the sake of transformation". Now, when opportunities, products, money making endeavors and so on come my way, one of the ways I know if I am or am not aligned with them is by going back to my personal mission statement and checking in.
Shortly after creating my mission statement, however, I began to have a problem with the word 'empower'. Now, I went to school for social work, and empowerment is very big over there. The reason why everyone likes empowerment is that it is the whole 'we'll teach you to fish rather than give you a fish' idea. Giving out fish, or solving people's problems for them, is absolutely enabling and ineffective over the long term. Empowering implies that even when the fish giver is no longer around, it doesn't matter, because you can fish on your own. It all seems very nice. But since empowerment was part of my personal mission, I began to think about it a bit more. And then I decided I didn't like it.
The reason is that really, when I say I am empowering you, what I mean to say is that I know what's best for you, and I'm gonna teach you how to get what I think you should have. It's really about me. It's not about giving. Yes, I empowered you. Even the statement, "I am empowered" implies that you got it from someone else, and didn't do much for your own self. Here, work this program. Here, get this job. Here, study this text. It's a little bit like a social work mission trip. Since the time your village gave up sacrificial cannibalism, your religion has been working fine for you. But here comes someone on a mission trip ready to empower you.
Now, I do not say that we stop helping people, just that we stop empowering them. Another thing they like to say in the social work field is, "People can't be expected to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps!" True. Sometimes they do. But they can't be expected to. There are collective issues that occur as a result of our collective crap, and we have to do something about it collectively. I'm talking institutional racism, poverty, hunger, things like that. I know you personally didn't do it. But in a sense we all did. We're a bit like a corporation. All the corporate employees are proud to belong when the new advertising commercials or paychecks come out. No one, however, cares much about the corporate carbon footprint or follows the hourly wages paid to the overseas workers making the product. Someone else is responsible for that! That's how the collective crap comes about, and while I'm not big on empowering, we certainly should take responsibility and help out.
So, me, I took empowerment out of my personal mission statement. It was really about me feeling good about myself. So I'm going more with the education piece, and added in 'providing tools'. I think that choice should always be there for the person receiving the helping, as much as possible. They should pick the tools that work best for them and with their own knowledge and critical thinking, decide what works. For them. And it might not be what works best for me, or what I thought would work best for them, but since they're the one living their life, I have to trust they can in fact, live their own life. For now my personal mission statement reads: "To educate, inspire, and provide tools for the sake of transformation".
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