Academic journal article Social Work

The Politics of Empowerment

Academic journal article Social Work

The Politics of Empowerment

Article excerpt

There has recently been a resurgence of interest in a component of social work and community development practice that has not received wide attention since the 1960s: the "empowerment" of low-income populations.

Although efforts to empower poor people have traditionally been associated with liberal reformers, recent calls for its use have come from an ideologically diverse group of policymakers and funders seeking solutions to social problems including poverty, drug abuse, and crime. In an ironic turn of events, conservative Republicans have been among the most vocal and enthusiastic of its recent proponents. Members of the Bush administration repeatedly used empowerment as a central theme in their speeches on urban issues, with Vice President Dan Quayle calling empowerment the heart of the Republican agenda (DeParle & Appelbome, 1991). Former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp declared that his vision for a new War on Poverty could be summarized in one word: "empowerment." And President Bush regularly maintained that his domestic proposals would "empower" people to make their own decisions and control their own destinies (DeParle & Appelbome, 1991, p. A18).

The Republicans have not been alone in their interest; the Clinton administration has also picked up the theme. In his first State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton pledged to "change the whole focus of our poverty programs from entitlement to empowerment" ("President's Address," 1993, p. A14). He has described a goal of his National Service program as the "empowerment" of young people and has promoted an urban development initiative that funds economic planning and social services in neighborhood "empowerment zones" (DeParle, 1993).

Other recent supporters of empowerment strategies have been foundation and corporate funders. Over the past few years millions of dollars in grant money has been offered from sources including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Prudential Insurance Company, and the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) for social welfare projects that empower and develop the capacity of low-income populations to solve community problems.

Does "empowerment" carry the same meaning among these diverse advocates? Many of the social welfare professionals who are attempting to respond to calls for the implementation of empowerment and capacity-building strategies are, not surprisingly, perplexed. They have few sources on which to draw to clarify the definitions and methods of programs that empower low-income groups - a situation due in part to the variety of voices calling for their use and to a paucity of information in the literature on their recent use in social work. Meanwhile, the number of foundations and federal granting agencies that are requesting the incorporation of empowerment strategies into community programming make such information imperative.

This article describes how empowerment has been defined by the social work community and discusses how the concept is currently being interpreted and applied by various policymakers.

Community Development and Empowerment in Social Welfare

As a mode of social welfare planning, community development involves "efforts made by professionals and community residents to enhance the social bonds among members of the community, motivate the citizens for self-help, develop responsible local leadership, and create or revitalize local institutions" (Barker, 1991, p. 43). With the goal of improving the social, physical, or economic conditions of a neighborhood or community, the development process consists of two core intervention components: promoting the participation of community members in the change process with a focus on self-initiative and providing technical assistance to enable leadership development.

Defining Empowerment

Empowerment represents a means for accomplishing community development tasks and can be conceptualized as involving two key elements: giving community members the authority to make decisions and choices and facilitating the development of the knowledge and resources necessary to exercise these choices. …

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