To begin, what is empowerment and what is the purpose of empowerment? Empowerment in it’s simplest explanation is defined as a ‘process of becoming stronger… especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights’ (Oxford, 2018). The empowerment approach follows this definition with a method in which social workers can use to lessen the sense of powerlessness in their clients (as cited in Solomon, 1976). Lee writes that as the general public is often to experience moments of powerlessness, it is then that the primary focus for social workers is towards the stigmatized groups of people who are in positions of powerlessness. Explained in the Australian Association of Social Work’s Code of Ethics, as a social worker, it is a duty and commitment to be able to engage “empowering processes to enable clients to further their desires and interests” (2010, p. 19) to the best of its potential and ability. As a result, various theories and concepts regarding empowerment and the approach of empowerment is vital in the development and growth of the social work practice.
There are beneficial elements of the empowerment approach that can provide a structure and tool to aid social workers when they are working with clients but also to provide a positive, long-term impact to the client’s overall lifestyle and future. The empowerment approach is very useful in reinforce the positive attributes of a client when a client is in a position of powerlessness. It also encourages social workers to incorporate themselves in their practices by sharing and investing themselves in their client’s perspective and general livelihood, thus creating a stronger bond and relationship with their client and personalizing their practices.
What is the empowerment approach?
According to Lee (1994) empowerment approach is a method that unites the single aim to the “unleashing of human potentialities” to build an esteemed community “where justice is the rule” (p. 33). This is therefore considered as a ‘clinical-community-oriented’ approach that embraces the “holistic work with individuals, families, small groups, communities, and political systems” (p. 31). Secret, Jordan and Ford (1999) supports Lee’s belief on how empowerment is an important theme that is often presented in “women, people of color, and other oppressed groups” (as cited in Gutierrez, GlenMaye, ; DeLois, 1995). There are four components that Lee believes what creates the framework of the empowerment approach (Figure 2.2, p. 55):
Professional Purpose: those who prefer to assist those who are poor and is oppressed by the environmental and structural system, thus repressing the efforts of those who wish to empower themselves.
The Value Base: those who prefer to work with those who are stigmatized, poor and oppressed and elevate change to oppressive environmental and structural organizations.
Knowledge base and Theoretical Foundations: those who look at the theories and concepts of an individual and utilizing these theories with knowledge, such as social and cognitive behavioral learning, that correlates to the results of oppression of people.
Method— Principles, Processes and Skills: the 8 step approach of empowerment relies on the values of what empowerment stands for. The method is applicable to individual cases, to small-scaled communities and to families. The method works to bring equality in all form of living as well as identify oppression in personal, interpersonal and political dispositions.
There are also three core levels of empowerment, as stated by Lee, which composes the personal level, the interpersonal level and the political level. The personal level of empowerment begins with the foundation of oppression through various social issues such as class and colour (Lee, 1994, p. 51). This expands to people’s own abilities and responses in coping to situations that may be challenging and the limits of life in regards to an individual. It requires the individual to strengthen themselves and challenge against the oppression that the individual faces. The interpersonal level of empowerment requires the social worker to understand how “families, groups and communities develop strengths to deal with oppression” (Lee, 1994, p. 52). A relationship develops when the level of awareness and consciousness of ones oppression corresponds to the collective agreement to take action to go against it. Having the understanding as to how a group are able to empower themselves is what Lee considered as “base knowledge” for this approach (p. 52). Finally, the political level of empowerment is what could be considered as the centre of oppression. As “oppression is a political problem that requires political solutions” (Lee, 1994, p. 52). The political level includes the wider social systems that surrounds the client, the services provided by the government and covers the majority of
Lee (1994) presents the 8 core principles to the empowerment approach, which is formed by the other principles based on the social work values, the practice of social work, a diversity of social work theories, concepts and human rights. The concepts and theories that values fortifies empowerment in social work practices are diverse in its origins therefore the structure of the how-to is a frame that can vary depending on the factors, the individuals, the social workers and what empowerment is to the client.
Oppression is destructive and should be challenged by social workers and clients alike. Both should be able to share their knowledge based on their own lives and unite against oppression.
The social worker should be looking at the bigger picture during situations of oppression. Social workers should develop the multifocal perspective in order to see the wider scene as well as being attuned to their clients.
Empowerment should come from the client. Social workers are there to assist. Self-empowerment is the responsibilities and rights of the client.
“People who share common ground need each other to attain empowerment.” (Lee, 1994, p. 60) This is a principle that focuses on the social worker to be able to assist “the power of collectivity in the empowerment process” (Lee, 1994, p. 60), which is often seen in groups.
Social workers should be establishing a relationship that is mutual and reciprocated. To have two people standing together is better than one when fighting back against oppression.
Often clients who have been in suppressed situations are likely to think and talk the way as their oppressor. As a social worker, it is urged to let clients speak for themselves.
“The worker should maintain a focus on the person as a victor and not a victim.” (Lee, 1994, p. 60)
Whereas principle 7 is more focused on the client and the personal role that it has in its journey to self-empowerment, principle 8 focuses on social workers to focusing on social change as a whole.
Ultimately, there is no definite structure or arrangement to the empowerment approach. Lee (1994) is most known for her theory and concept of the empowerment approach but this does not reflect on the multiple sources of theories and ideas of empowerment and the empowerment approach, what is its value and the benefits and disadvantages of the empowerment approach within the social work practices.
One of the benefits for a client that could be taken from the empowerment approach is that, in the long term, the client is able to function independently. One of the ways the empowerment approach could be viewed as a person-centred approach where it views the clients as fully capable in achieving their own growth of potential (Lindsay, McGinnis & Jayat, 2009, p. 22). What is often the case is clients who put themselves down in a way that what they believe doesn’t correlate to the actual reality of that particular individual, thus limiting themselves to the fullest potential that they have to offer (Lindsay et al., 2009, p. 23). What the empowerment approach is able to bring to the clients during a moment of oppression, such as the lack of belief in their own self-worth and potential, is the ability to realize their own strengths. One of the ways this could occur is through, a summary of, conditions. The first is to have the client and social worker to be actively present in their relationship; to have the client allow themselves to become vulnerable; for the social worker to regularly integrate themselves openly and freely in the relationship between themselves and the client; for the social worker to be accepting of the client regardless of its past and present circumstances; the social worker to empathize and communicate their empathy towards their client and finally is for the client to understand the social worker’s empathy and wholehearted positivity towards the client (as cited in Rogers, 1957).
One of the ways of empowering someone that a social worker can begin is by expressing a genuine interest and absolute dedication towards the client. Lord and Hutchison (1993) draws to the conclusion that moral support and mentoring are both some of the most beneficial ways for the client to
The empowerment approach within the social work practice has its flaws. Some of these imperfections include, but not limited to, the lack of structure and organization, the lack of a unified approach to empowerment and the definition of empowerment often being taken and used in its simplest meaning, which is unfair as what empowerment means for one could be different to another based upon their individual personalized situation and experiences. Fook evaluates some aspects of the empowerment model that could make the approach less of a solution and more of a problem. Fook deepens the complexity of what empowerment is. For some, a group may find their oppression to be a push for them to empower themselves, for other groups it could be the opposite. People don’t fit in categories such as ‘powerful’ and ‘powerless’ especially when there are cases where people find themselves in both in different elements (p. 47). Fook clarifies the dangers linked to the use of empowerment in practices:
the paradox of empowering without doing people’s empowering for them
one person’s empowerment may be another’s disempowerment
danger of dilution— from empowerment to enablement
dangers of addressing too many target groups and addressing none adequately
ambitious relationship between self-help and empowerment
(as cited in Adams, 1996).
Some of these points correlates to what Adams states. As briefly mentioned prior, the empowerment approach has no set of rules. It is made up of theories and conceptions over decades of authors. Examples given by Adams (1990) are Guitzierrez et al. (2003) who “illustrates the diversity of perspectives on empowerment”, Burke ad Cigno (2000) focuses on details in empowering children with learning disabilities and the second edition of Lee (2001) who states that empowerment is ‘the keystone of social work’ (p. 56-57). With a collection of examples similar to these, Adams came to four conclusions of the empowerment approach:
There is no definite agreement about what’s the right concept and model of empowerment/approaches for specific settings
There is a lack of organization as there are so many diverse empowerment theories and practices across all human services, especially in health and social care
There is the overall assumption that the idea of empowerment is a favourable value; that people benefits from it too the point that it’s rarely challenged. In spite of that, notable employees in health and social care shows very little interest in giving up the power that their role has.
There is an eagerness to following through the checklist, method and procedures would, hopefully, lead to a positive conclusion that is beneficial to the client.
(Adams, p. 58)
Due to the difficulty of pinpointing the united definition of empowerment, and with questions such as “who are we trying to empower?” and “what reasons should they be empowered?”, there are contradictions in the empowerment approach and if not careful, can be overused and even become disempowering. Not to mention that it is known that the notion of power being passed down is rare and when power is being shared, it is shared at the minimum expectations (Parsons, 1991). It is necessary for social workers to be clear, concise and well-informed about their client before considering the position of the client and making the decision if empowering their client will be suitable for the individual or group at that particular moment in time.
In conclusion, the empowerment approach holds various benefits for the client’s individuality and also brings a conceptual framework for social workers to use in their practice toward their clients. It’s an approach that provides the benefits of giving strength and power to the people and communities who may be oppressed, and in a seemingly powerless situation, to challenge the power that could be abusing its authority and rights. However, empowerment itself is far from simple and can be contradicting in practice. It is essential for the social worker to be holistic in its views in order to justly deem if the empowerment approach is or isn’t suitable for their client considering the client’s circumstances. The social worker also needs to be able to understand their client and elect which approach is best suited for their client.