The Meaning of Empowerment and How to Facilitate It

By Lauren Bennett Cattaneo

Efforts that are aimed at empowering others must rest on a clear understanding of what empowerment means, argues Lauren Bennett Cattaneo.

Community worker assisting Arab-American women in New York; empowerment programs need to proceed from the needs and priorities of the communities they serve [© Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images]

In my work in the area of intimate partner violence, I consult with law students who are representing victims in court for the first time. The students are smart, resourceful and energetic, and want very much to help their clients. They sometimes say, as do many organizations that work on behalf of this high-need population, that they aim to empower their clients.

I would like to make the case that they cannot do so. In fact, none of us can empower the clients, communities or loved ones we wish to benefit. What we can do is facilitate the process of empowerment in which people are already engaged. In some ways, this point is a matter of semantics. These law students in my example are doing good and helpful work--does it matter what we call it?

I believe that it does matter. Empowerment, in its truest sense, connects to social justice. It has the potential to be a profound and lasting change that goes beyond many forms of help, even when that help is necessary and effective. Empowerment is something more.

The Elusive Meaning of Empowerment

Empowerment is a compelling concept. It resonates with values of justice, self-determination and focusing on people's strengths rather than their deficits. Consequently, the term is ubiquitous across contexts. It is both appealing to think of one's work as empowering others and to think of oneself as empowered.

However, an Internet search quickly reveals how the attractiveness of this concept has muddied its meaning. In essence, empowerment has come to mean almost everything that is done with the intention of helping a person or community. In the area of intimate partner violence, I became frustrated with the lack of clarity of the term, which prevented clear research and evaluation and provided little to guide practice: If those wishing to promote empowerment do not have consensus about what it is, how can we develop an understanding of best practices and share information? As I reviewed the foundational work on the topic, I discovered that this is a problem that extends far beyond my field. I developed a model that I hoped would help set the stage for clear and consistent use of the term across contexts.

The Empowerment Process Model

The model I developed and refined with colleagues defines empowerment as "a process in which a person or a group: sets intrinsically meaningful goals related to power; takes action toward those goals; and reflects on the impact of those actions, drawing on their community resources, self-efficacy, skills and knowledge."

Three key points emerge from this model:

1. Empowerment is about power, and therefore it is both psychological and social.

People have long understood that power is not a thing a person possesses privately; it is enacted socially. It is the ability to influence others, to be heard by others, to pursue one's own goals with the help of or despite others or to resist the demands of others. Empowerment, therefore, as a shift in power, requires something from the social world. If no one else knows about it, it is not empowerment.

At the same time, the ability to influence, be heard, pursue goals or resist social pressure has profound psychological impact. Therefore, empowerment is a bridge between the psychological and the social; it is a shift in both places.

The law students, for example, may work themselves to the bone advocating for their client, and their client may feel really good about that work; when the client enters the courtroom for her hearing, she may feel confident--she may even feel powerful. However, if those feelings do not translate into a shift in her social world--if the judge does not listen, if the abusive partner does not listen--these feelings will be short-lived, and the result may actually be disempowerment.

2. Empowerment is in service of goals that are intrinsically meaningful.

If it is to serve those who lack power, rather than perpetuating the existing power structure, empowerment must be consistent with the priorities and values of marginalized people.

Interventions that miss the mark in this vein are often well-intentioned. Service providers or activists genuinely believe they know what their clients or communities need. They may be right, but the Empowerment Process Model urges us to be sure. This aspect of the model suggests that we need to develop an insider's view of the priorities and values of those we mean to help, and we need to be responsive to those priorities whether or not it is convenient or fits within the culture of our particular professional vantage point.

For the law students, this point requires them to consider their clients' priorities that do not fit within the legal system's understanding of their problem and what it would mean to solve it. Research has shown that for many trauma survivors, involvement in the legal system is a way to gain leverage in their relationships; this leverage may or may not require actually going all the way through with the legal process as the system has set it up. Policies exist in many US states, however, that require the victim to stick with the legal process all the way through regardless of her priorities. Such policies have the potential to be disempowering.

3. Empowerment is a process.

As a faculty member in a clinical psychology doctoral program, I work with students learning to help people who are in significant distress. Like the law students, in their genuine zeal to help, they often mistake their chapter in their client's life as the beginning of the story--as in "I'm here. Let's get started!" In fact, the best starting place as a helper is understanding the larger picture of that client's story and then exploring the best way to facilitate her movement toward her own goals.

Empowerment is a process with fits and starts; failure to reach one's goals precipitates new thinking about those goals, new understanding of the limits one faces and new efforts to gain resources. This complex, many-chaptered process is the reason empowerment is not something that can be given as a gift. However, it can be facilitated or hindered in powerful ways. The better we understand where our clients or communities are coming from, and how they have struggled to reach their own goals before we entered the story, the more powerfully we will be able to play a positive role.

Facilitating Empowerment

Consistent with the multiple pieces of the process of empowerment (defining goals, taking action, considering impact, developing self-efficacy, skill, knowledge and community resources), it is possible to facilitate or hinder empowerment in many ways. In order to do work that facilitates empowerment, it is not necessary to target the entire process. It is necessary, however, to locate work within that broader context: How does the work facilitate both social and psychological change? How does it relate to goals that are intrinsically meaningful for clients or communities? How does it relate to the larger story of clients' or communities' journeys?

While this broader notion of the process of empowerment complicates the way we talk about work with vulnerable people and communities, it also has the potential to link good and effective short-term work with profound and lasting change that goes beyond the level of individual lives to the social structures that frame them.

Lauren Bennett Cattaneo is associate professor and director of clinical training at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Her research focuses on empowerment theory, the interactions between victims of intimate partner violence and the systems designed to help them and service learning as a mechanism for social change.