Empowerment Through Education - How it Works and When it is \\\'in Con
Nov 9, 2009 Learning Methodology 2369 Views
The concept of empowerment is not new; it's been around for a long, long time. Certainly when I was training as a community development worker and a youth worker, I first learned of (and learned to love) the concept of 'empowerment'.
Empowerment is the realizing of personal power, and it incorporates a gaining of confidence and skills, the strengthening of relationships and a sense of belonging (within a community) and the addressing of issues which might act as barriers to empowerment such as poverty, violence, mental health issues and substance abuse.
As a new community worker I fully embraced this concept. It made sense to me and it appealed to my utopian idealism and values around human kind. You see, I believe in people. I like people obviously, but I also believe that people have the potential to overcome almost any obstacle they might face. More especially I believe that when people choose to work together in collectives the groups are incredibly powerful. The group is almost always greater than the sum of its individual parts.
One of the challenges for community workers is to direct groups in such a way as they overcome their natural inclination to reject potential new members of the group. This is community development.
And so we apply a range of strategies to enable people to enter groups and learn new skills, gain confidence and acceptance within the group and to overcome the barriers which might hold them back. I use education because education was the single most powerful influencer in my own life. But I also find that education (in the purist sense and not to be confused with 'schooling') is a natural vehicle for empowerment.
Now I teach. I teach people how to develop their own communities and to carry out community development as professionals in other marginalized and disadvantaged communities. I teach in a relatively formal education environment. It needs to be formal because not only do we 'teach' but we must also 'assess'. We are the "key masters" in a sense. We hold the key which will allow (or disallow) our students to move to the next level.
The conflict for me personally lies in the differences between the underlying assumptions. In a formal setting, the student either passes or fails. In community development every participant 'succeeds' by participation alone. People are by definition, already a "success" because they have made an active choice to participate.
And there can be other conflicts. In community development we embrace the notion of diversity; we recognise the latent power of differences between people. In a formal assessment process, diversity can be seen as a problem; we need to assess each student using a range of uniform measurements and diversity is the antithesis of uniformity.
So how do I overcome these conflicts? Firstly I acknowledge that my students are coming to me seeking insights and explanations. Often my students are themselves survivors of something difficult in their own lives and they want to reconcile, use and 'make sense' of those experiences.
They talk of wanting to take their own negative experiences and channel these toward positive outcomes for others. We talk at length about a professional development continuum. We talk of how they may have once been a victim and then a survivor, how they found themselves in the helper role, how they chose to become a student and how they will ultimately progress to a helping professional. And I talk of the use of professional boundaries, and models and approaches as they move through the continuum.
Secondly, I use a lot of activities. I prefer my students to be active in class; lots of laughter, lots of talking and lots of interaction!
I've considered this issue at length and I've narrowed down what it is that I actually 'give' my students and it involves three things. I give them information and I give them insights. The information is just data and it's mostly available on the net, so it's not particularly special. The insights come about through the introduction of models and theories and while they're also available online I imagine most people enjoy having someone direct them to them and explain how they work.
And thirdly I give my students an experience. It starts with the way I prepare the environment. I enjoy moving the tables and chairs around creating big circles and little pockets, and creating a 'board room' or a meeting room. A good environment also needs clear rules and norms. We do that together and we agree on some basic expectations around acceptance, participation and respect for each other. We talk of trust and privacy because much of what we'll discuss can be sensitive.
Then I work out what the experience will be. I ask myself, what do I want them to 'feel'? It's often about building awareness. We use powerful role plays, theatrical makeup kits, scenarios, games and activities. At the end of each class, my students mostly come away with a heightened sense of feeling. I need them to 'feel', because they will work with people who need them to be sensitive and understanding. Often they will work in settings that confront their values and I need to know they can navigate safely through these conflicts, protect themselves and still feel they are making a difference.
All of these things create empowerment in my classroom. My students are gaining new skills (and insights), learning new things (with new information), and gaining confidence as the group accepts them and encourages their diverse set of skills and their participation.
The experiences we create, while confronting on some levels work to strengthen the relationships between me and them and the student group as a whole. These powerful relationships will endure beyond the academic year. Past students talk of their time with us as being an incredibly important moment in their lives.
I am fortunate, because my students often consider me to be the creator of this incredible experience. I know that all I do is create the opportunity; the group, the information and insights and the relationships create the experience.
They come to class because they want to learn how to work with communities and how to make a difference, but the process of empowerment carries them to another place. Do I still feel conflicted by the differences between formal learning and empowerment? No, not any more.
Empowerment comes about through education. Empowerment and education are partners in the process of human growth and development. And because of my intrinsic beliefs around the need for human growth I can make room for any differences.