The Organizational Context of Empowerment Practice: Implications for Social Work Administration

Article excerpt

During the past two decades, empowerment practice in the human services has emerged from efforts to develop more effective and responsive services for women, people of color, and other oppressed groups. The goal of this method of practice is to address the role powerlessness plays in creating and perpetuating personal and social problems. It can be distinguished by its focus on developing critical awareness, increasing feelings of collective and self-efficacy, and developing skills for personal, interpersonal, or social change (Bricker-Jenkins & Hooyman, 1991; Freire, 1973; Gutierrez, 1990; Pinderhughes, 1989; Rappaport, 1981; Solomon, 1976; Staples, 1991). Within our increasingly diverse society, empowerment has emerged as one perspective on practice that can be inclusive and supportive of diversity.

The literature describing empowerment practice is based primarily on empowerment theory and case examples of empowerment practice. The focus of this literature has been on definitions of empowerment practice (Parsons, 1991; Rappaport, 1981; Simon, 1990; Staples, 1991; Swift & Levin, 1987) and the description of specific methods (Freire, 1973; Solomon, 1976) and outcomes (Gutierrez & Ortega, 1991; Maton & Rappaport, 1984; Zimmerman & Rappaport, 1988). Less attention has been paid to how the structure, culture, and management of human services organizations can support the empowerment of workers and consumers. Yet some have argued that if clients and consumers of services are to gain power, some modifications may be required in the administration of organizations that serve them (Gerschick, Israel, & Checkoway, 1989; Mathis & Richan, 1986; Pinderhughes, 1989; Sherman & Wenocur, 1983; Zimmerman, in press). This article begins to address this gap by identifying issues experienced by workers and administrators in organizations that focus on the empowerment of consumers.

Empowerment Practice in Social Work

The term "empowerment" is ubiquitous, used by presidents and poets alike, yet its meaning often seems hazy and undeveloped. In the field of social work, a similar lack of clarity prevails. The concept of empowerment has been unevenly developed and has been used in different ways. Some describe empowerment primarily as a goal, others as a process, others as a form of intervention. This lack of clarity has contributed to considerable confusion in the field regarding the use of the term "empowerment" and the degree to which empowerment represents a particular type of practice (Simon, 1990; Staples, 1991). Yet a review of the literature suggests that a working definition of empowering social work practice can be developed (Bricker-Jenkins & Hooyman, 1987; Gutierrez, 1990; Solomon, 1976). The goal of effective practice is not coping or adaptation but an increase in the actual power of the client or community so that action can be taken to change and prevent the problems clients are facing. Because the effects of powerlessness can occur on many levels, efforts toward change can be directed at any level of intervention or can include multiple levels of intervention. Most scholars would agree that the empowerment of a group or community is the ultimate goal and that this requires change on multiple levels.

Research with practitioners concerning their definition of empowerment suggests ways in which this method is being integrated into practice. When asked to define empowerment, practitioners describe a psychological process of change. One critical element of this change is gaining awareness of the power that exists within any individual, family, group, or community. This focus on empowerment as a process is emphasized by practitioners involved in different levels of practice (for example, individual, group, or community work) and with different populations. The applicability of empowerment to varying foci of practice suggests an underlying unity to the concept: Although practitioners may work with individuals, groups, or communities that have different goals, empowerment is described as a method for developing personal and interpersonal power through a process of self-awareness. …