Academic journal article Social Work

Empowerment as a Dynamically Developing Concept for Practice: Lessons Learned from Organizational Ethnography

Academic journal article Social Work

Empowerment as a Dynamically Developing Concept for Practice: Lessons Learned from Organizational Ethnography

Article excerpt


This article describes the process of developing an empowerment approach in a comprehensive child development program that defined its mission as empowerment of families living in poverty. This description is derived from a seven-year organizational ethnographic research project that included data from participant observation, agency documents, individual interviews of staff and family participants, and focus group interviews with staff. Findings concerning empowerment are presented in two areas: (1) resolution of contrasts and dichotomies related to the nature of services, understanding staff roles, and working with the federal government; and (2) lessons learned for program effectiveness. Implications for empowerment-oriented social work practice and policy are offered.

Key words: child development; empowerment; ethnography; organizations; poverty

Considering the continuing popularity of empowerment as a rubric for practice, as well as the importance of knowing "what works," it is timely to consider what can be learned from comprehensive family services programs so that future efforts can have maximum success. Therefore, this article provides findings from a detailed analysis of the process of conceptualizing and implementing an empowerment approach as it unfolded over time, based on a seven-year organizational ethnography. The ethnography was conducted at Project EAGLE, a Comprehensive Child Development Program located in Kansas City, Kansas, which is an ethnically diverse midwestern urban area. EAGLE is an acronym for "early action guidance leading to empowerment." Project EAGLE served families with preschool-age children for a maximum of five years per family. This analysis produced a realistic portrait of empowerment practice in action, including key lessons learned that may benefit similar long-term family social services programs.

Establishment of Comprehensive Child Development Programs

Despite decades of government and private initiatives to reduce poverty, almost 13 percent of the U.S. population lives in poverty (Dalaker, 1999); one in five children live in families with incomes below the poverty line (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 1999). Poverty presents a myriad of social problems that threaten children's development and families' well-being (Children's Defense Fund, 1990; National Commission on Children, 1991). In 1988 concern about the failure of programs to adequately address the needs of children at risk led to the establishment of Comprehensive Child Development Programs (CCDPs) that provided expanded services to families with children ages 0 to 5 years (Comprehensive Child Development Centers Act of 1988, P. L. 100-297). Overseen by the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF), these comprehensive care programs focused on enhancing child development through empowerment-oriented work with the entire family. They addressed early childhood ed ucation and parenting education through a case management model including home- and agency-based early childhood education, family support and mental health services, adult education and job training, and coordination and integration of community-based services. A central mission was to enhance the development of children and families through empowerment (ACYF, 1991).

Empowerment Practice in Human Services Agencies as Defined in Social Work Literature

Although the term empowerment has become popular across disciplines and organizations and in policy discourse, it escapes easy definition. It is often used vaguely and polemically. It is given drastically different meanings, from Marxist radical activism to conservative capitalist "trickle down" economic programs (Holmes & Saleebey, 1993; Rappaport, 1984; Robbins, Chatterjee, & Canda, 1998; Zippay, 1995). Yet, in the social work literature there are certain common themes that fall between these extremes. …

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