Why is empowerment so hard?

 “Community work is concerned . or should be concerned – with empowerment.
By empowerment I mean empowerment through consciousness raising to active
analysis rather than keeping the people happy where they are, or finding ways
to keep them happy where they are. I think empowerment, rather than .capacity
building., is particularly important at the moment. Don’t fool yourself, they
are not the same. Capacity building is about stretching the elastic as far as
it can go. Consciousness raising is about kicking the ball out into the next
field and getting out yourself as well after it”

 Stasia Crickley: Head
of Applied Social Studies,NUI Maynooth

 I’ve been
stretching the elastic I feel.  This is
what we have been given, now how can we make it work.  In work, structures, funding, deadlines,
communication difficulties etc all combine to make thinking creatively or
radically difficult.  Time for
reflection, criticism, clarifying purpose or direction is limited.  Yet to be an agent of empowerment of oneself
or a resource of others is what I set out on this life path for. 

 Even in my own
community I struggle.  Work time,
personal time, family time, educational time for the children, crisis time with
family, voluntary work, relationship time. 
Where to make the time?  How to
create the space? Where to find the courage?

 Although I have
practiced and experienced both capacity building and empowerment in my life and
work, I know that empowerment leads to lasting change. But it’s the most
difficult, to experience or to support. 
It comes at a price. 

For me it can be
broken down into two particular areas conscientisation and participation. 

 Conscientisation is the term used by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.  Through it local communities become aware of
the impacts on them.  Via his
action/reflection cycle community participants:

  • Think about their problem
  • Plan what steps to take
  • Act on their plan
  • Reflect on the outcomes and think
    and plan the next steps.

Participation is the other key element to empowerment.  Bakers ladder of participation defines the
difference between what he terms on the lowest rung of the ladder pseudo
participation, to the top which he calls community participation.   Information provision is what he determines
as pseudo participation.  In this
information is centrally decided on what is relevant, centrally generated and
then dispersed with little or no mechanism for active feedback.

The next rung is
community consultation.  Here the
information is circulated in a controlling manner, the community or
participants are asked for their opinion but have no real control on how their
feedback is used.

The third rung is
community representation.  Here members
of the community get to sit on the respective decision making bodies and have a
say. There are numerous issues with this representation from deficits in resources,
capacity, skills, experience and the access to power brokers.

Finally community
participation. This builds on the previous three rungs but here the local
community is centrally involved in the decisions and are there for the
implementation and evaluation of such decisions also. 

Empowerment for me
is about both these elements working with people where they are at, reducing or
removing the barriers to a minimum and essentially actioning the issues most
relevant to a community as defined by the community.  But it comes at a cost.  Time. Commitment.  Energy. 
Gradual change which flies in the face of many people’s yearning for
instant results.  Ultimately it challenges
the existing power holders in a community or society.  Who wants to lose control?  It’s a scary place for anyone.  Thus effective empowerment is a struggle, a
hard slog, potentially frightening and difficult to deliver.   

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