Friday, 16 November 2007

Circles of Empowerment

Sorry that my first posting here is a bit of a whopper - I did it a little while ago, but it seems relevant to conversations we've been having lately.....

Circles of Empowerment

Power matters. Power is what drives social change, good and bad. More subtly, though, empowerment in itself leads directly to personal and community well-being. The sense of being in control of our lives, in a healthy relationship with our community, able to direct the energy which flows through us to achievable goals, is one of the main thing that enables us to be happy.

Where this is flowing well, it can lead to a virtuous circle, as suggested in the picture, where personal and community empowerment drives positive social change, and this positive change itself enables more empowerment. Unfortunately, in many ways, most of us feel profoundly dis-empowered, and many factors in our society combine to keep us that way. However, there are plenty of good models of empowerment and plenty of government rhetoric about personal and community empowerment - opportunities to be seized at least.

In this discussion, I want to ask the question:
How can we cultivate a situation where personal, community and global levels of empowerment reinforce each other, following a positive model of power - cooperative and compassionate, rather than oppressive?
I don’t have the answer, but I’ll point out a few positive models, which have the potential to fit together, and I hope this will stimulate thought.

1. Personal empowerment: our psychological conditioning
Most of us, having “un-learned” power to varying degrees in our childhood, need to learn to develop our power. We need to develop the tools and techniques of exercising power in a positive way, but also the belief, and experience, that our actions can have an effect on society around us.

Paulo Freire - who regards empowerment as being necessary for successful learning - talks about 3 levels of consciousness [i]. As described by Heaney [ii], these are :
- Semi-intransitive consciousness is the state of those whose sphere of perception is limited, to the demands of day-to-day life, and who are impermeable to challenges situated outside these demands. (It seems to me that most of the population are like this, most of the time, in our current society.)
- "naive transitivity." Freire characterizes this stage of consciousness by an over-simplification of problems, nostalgia for the past, an underestimation of ordinary people, a strong tendency to gregariousness, a disinterest in investigation, a fascination with fanciful explanations of reality, and by the practice of polemics rather than dialogue. (Sounds like Freire was familiar with party political meetings!)
- "Critical transitivity." This stage is characterized by depth in the interpretation of problems, by testing one's own findings and openness to revision and reconstruction, by the attempt to avoid distortion when perceiving problems and to avoid preconceived notions when analyzing them, by rejecting passivity, by the practice of dialogue rather than polemics, by receptivity to the new without rejecting the old, and by permeable, interrogative, restless, and dialogical forms of life.

The concept of “dialogue” is important to Freire: a multi-faceted dialogue, where we have the skills to engage with many others: on “our side” and “the opposition”: listening and intervening effectively. This is relevant to the idea of webs of power, which we will come on to.

There are techniques to support “dialogue” and empowerment. One example is “deep democracy” To quote Wilson [iii]:
“Imagine how the following three habits, if embedded in the culture, could build the basis for deep democracy:
- the habit of listening to understand the “other” before advocating a position
- the habit of reflecting on, and revealing, one’s own assumptions and values
- the habit of sensing together the emergent future of the whole organism or field.”

2. Community Development
Individual empowerment is intimately linked with empowerment of one’s community or social group. Illich [iv] (amongst others) has criticised the way that social initiatives which purport to help communities can end up becoming - at least partially - “part of the problem”. They often come to serve the needs of the professionals and the power-holders, and (perhaps unconsciously) act to “keep people in their place”.

The approach known (rather inelegantly) as asset-based community development (ABCD) [v] has developed an alternative methodology, and a detailed set of tools for an empowering approach.

Many community development initiatives start by identifying a set of problems or deficits in a community, which need to be “put right” through interventions from outside. (x% illiteracy, y% teenage pregnancies, z% drug use, etc..) This starting point can be profoundly disempowering. In contrast, ABCD starts with the assets within a community It is based on:
- Appreciating and mobilising individual and community talents, skills and assets (rather than focusing on problems and needs) The greatest assets are the qualities and skills of community members.
- Community-driven development rather than development driven by external agencies
It uses participatory approaches to development, which are based on principles of empowerment and ownership of the development process. The ABCD toolkit includes developing a community vision (including a picture of how it will look when the vision is realised), asset mapping, analyzing community data, selecting priority issues, establishing targeted outcomes, and developing detailed plans - leading to action.

ABCD is by no means unique: to name just one other approach: “appreciative inquiry” [vi] also takes community strengths and skills as a starting point, [employing a cycle of:
- collaboratively “discovering” the strengths and high points of the community,
- developing a vision for a better future, perhaps challenging the status quo, but grounded in the community’s strengths,
- designing a strategy to realise the vision,
- sustaining the progress by nurturing a collective sense of destiny. ]

3. Dealing with global issues and their overwhelming nature: “power with”, and webs of power
The sorts of empowerment described above engenders what Joanna Macy [vii] calls “power with”: power operating through sustainable networks of connections with other people. Macy contrasts “power with” with the common conception of power: “power over” - the power to prevail over another. [As she points out, this originates in the “traditional western” world-view, “which sees reality as composed of discrete and separate entities, be they rocks, atoms, people, ...” This is the underlying view when we talk of people “possessing power”, “building up power”, “wielding their power”. This kind of power tends to be associated with armour and rigidity, and with defending ourselves from “the other”. It sees power as a zero-sum game: “if you win, I lose”. ]

“Power with”, on the other hand, comes from being part of a living network. It is a process: something that happens through us when we engage in interactions that produce value. Power is exercised by influencing others. This influence is rarely on just one other: it propagates through a web of connections, flowing together with the power of others to produce results. Fluidity and flexibility are strengths.

This view of power has a number of consequences, which relate to the preceding parts of this article.
- We needn’t be so discouraged by the enormity of the task facing us, and the globalised networks which we need to influence. We are unlikely to be able to say “this demonstration which I went on stopped the war with Iraq”, or “this action has brought the cancellation of third world debt 1% nearer”. However, to expect this is to mis-understand the nature of our power. In reality, our power flows into and reinforces the power of others, and works through an incalculable web of influences. This produces a virtuous circle where our own empowerment and the empowerment of others go along with influence in our chosen issue, and knock-on effects on the web of issues relating to it.

- Process and product, our own empowerment and the results we are striving for, are inextricably entwined. Empowerment of individuals around local developments in their own immediate community will enhance those people’s learning (as Freire suggests) as well as leading to better outcomes in the community development. It will also improve the climate for global peace and justice. Reciprocally, engagement of people in positive peace and justice actions will also help with personal empowerment, which will enhance the ability to influence local developments.

- “Webs of power” - Starhawk [viii] amongst others, has used this image, and it has great resonance. Both our model of a peaceful, just society, and our organising principles for achieving this, have the characteristics of a web.

- The place of spirituality. A spiritual perspective very much chimes with the notion of “power with”, and personal empowerment being inextricable with the achievement of political goals.

Bringing it all together

I like the metaphor of “scaffolding”, where the various aspects of empowerment are built up gradually, but lastingly, in a mutually reinforcing way - as suggested in figure 1. For example, tools for empowering people and communities - like deep democracy, ABCD, and appreciative inquiry - could support Freire’s notions of individual empowerment and learning. The practice of “power with” could naturally flow from the use of these tools, and perhaps be explicitly drawn out, to help people feel empowered around global issues.

It is easy to say this, but making the links is unlikely to happen automatically. It would be really interesting to explore ways of making the links in practice, weaving strong, resilient webs of power.

[i] Paulo Freire “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” Continuum Publishing, 1970.
[ii] Tom Heaney “Issues in Freirian Pedagogy” -
[iii] Fieldnotes/Issue3/Deep_Democracy.pdf,
[iv] Ivan Illich: “Deschooling Society” Harper & Row, 1971 - see also
[v] See - for example “Agents rather than patients” - available from the Building and Social Housing Foundation -
See also the Asset Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University -
[vi] See - e.g. -
[vii] Joanna Macy, “Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age”, New Society Publishers, 1983.
[viii] StarHawk “Webs of Power”, New Society Publishers, 2002. See also

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