Academic journal article Journal of the Community Development Society

Three Faces of Empowerment: Expanding the Theory of Empowerment in Community Development

Academic journal article Journal of the Community Development Society

Three Faces of Empowerment: Expanding the Theory of Empowerment in Community Development

Article excerpt


Empowerment as a process in leadership education is seen as fundamental to community development. Often, empowerment is considered only from the individual, psychological perspective in community development interventions. That is, practitioners may argue that individuals basically empower themselves through personal knowledge, attitudes, and behavior (self-empowerment). The extensive literature on empowerment also makes clear that empowerment is an outcome of interpersonal (mutual empowerment) and collective social action (social empowerment). The extent to which community developers are incorporating these dimensions into their interventions via leadership education is explored. The results of the literature review indicate that these interventions fall short of fully utilizing what we know about empowerment and its role in community development.

Keywords: empowerment, leadership development, community organizing, self-efficacy, power, influence



It seems in the past decade, empowerment has become a central buzzword in community development. Empowerment is (and has been) on nearly every community developer's mind. It appears in the program brochures on community leadership education and pervades community development language to the extent that one begins to get suspicious of the term (Rappaport, 1984). Does everyone understand empowerment in the same way? How many types of empowerment are there? Is empowerment for community development different than for corporate success? These are only some questions that come to mind in reaction to the frequency of the term empowerment in our language. Recent reviews of this concept (Craig, Mayo & Taylor, 1990; Dunst et al, 1992; Kabeer, 1999) note that empowerment is still "fuzzy" and without conceptual or empirical clarity. This lack of clarity is an intolerable situation as, I believe, empowerment is a core element in a theory of community development based on self-help principles (Christenson, 1989).

This paper has three goals. First, it explores three dimensions of empowerment, second, it tracks the place of empowerment in leadership education research; and third, it shows how community developers can use an expanded understanding of empowerment and the tools for empowerment effectively.

I argue that there are three dimensions of empowerment: self-empowerment through individual action, mutual empowerment that is interpersonal, and social empowerment in the outcomes of social action. Unlike much of the literature and practice, I consider these to be inseparable. By that I mean that the elements of theoretical work that focus on empowering individuals are inadequate for community leaders. Similarly, theory that only focuses on one person empowering another does not help community development. Empowerment through social action is generally ignored in community development practice--the exceptions are the work of community developers like Alinsky (1967). It is unfortunate and an initial effort is made here to correct this omission. Further, I argue that all three dimensions of empowerment are, in fact, interdependent. A singular focus on any one (or two) is insufficient for successful community leaders to introduce community change. For example, in the 1950s, any African-American female who was well-educated, experienced, and effective in her interpersonal relationships and recognized by her peers for her leadership capacity, could still not hold public elected office and could not vote. It took collective action to change the law to give African-Americans voting privileges to (more) fully empower such a woman.

I maintain, as does Perkins (1995), that community leadership development programs are most appropriate settings in which to consider processes and outcomes related to empowerment. Community leadership development programs provide a rich source of information about how practitioners think about the concept of empowerment and how practitioners work to empower community leaders through these programs since the fundamental purpose of these programs is to provide learning experiences and relationships that will empower successive generations of community leaders dedicated to change (Zimmerman, 1986). …

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