When sophomore Jamie Lewis was cornered on the stairwell at Lincoln High* he was scared. The four boys who pushed Jamie against the wall warned him again not to report the drug dealing he’d seen a few weeks before. But being scared wasn’t his only feeling. He was mad.
He was tired of being afraid every morning when he came to school. He was tired of feeling that he had no control over what happened around his school or in his life. It was time, he decided, that the majority of students took back the power from a tough–but nevertheless outnumbered–minority.
Jamie didn’t just climb into a phone booth and come out swinging. The first thing he did was go to a youth agency he’d seen advertised on a school bulletin board. The agency specialized in helping kids fight crime. The counselor there said Jamie was on the right track. “What we’re talking about here is believing that you have the right and the might to take back your school. What we’re talking about is something we call empowerment.”
Jamie had never hard the word before. But it was going to become the most potent word in his vocabulary.
Taking Charge of Your Life
Empowerment, as the counselor explained to Jamie, is the process of taking charge of your life. It means no longer feeling helpless. It means believing you can change things. Ultimately, you empower yourself, but it also can happen that another person helps empower you. When your mom says you’re going to have to choose and fix your own lunches from now on, she’s empowering you. You benefit by gaining control; she benefits by gaining freedom.
You can empower others by being positive about their abilities. That helps build their self-esteem. And don’t do things for them that they can do for themselves.
Empowerment is a word that is used in many different contexts. Social agencies feel that empowerment of community people can help them to use their political influence. Empowerment, as used by government, means people helping themselves rather than relying on official resources. Empowerment in the education context means students taking more responsibility for what they learn and how they learn it. Empowerment used by mental health experts means helping people feel confident about managing their own lives. The term is used in business to refer to mid-level employees sharing authority with top-level executives.
The business world, in fact, has refined many of the concepts of empowerment. There’s the idea of “participatory” processes, which means employees take part in planning and decision-making. In some companies, for example, department workers plan their own budgets and set production goals. Business publications now write about “flattened hierarchies.” Think about a hierarchy as being a group of people arranged by rank, with a few leaders at the top making the rules for the many people below. A flattened hierarchy has fewer ranks within it, with more people having a say in what the policies should be.
All in the Family
Empowerment can be especially effective within a family. Delaney, for example, felt she had no say in what her family policies should be. Her father had lost his job, and he and Delaney’s mother fought every day. It seemed to Delaney that she and her family were out of control. She felt trapped in a situation that couldn’t be changed.
Delaney looked for answers from her favorite aunt. “You have the answers within yourself,” Aunt Judith told her. “You have the power to change things that you’re not happy with.”
She helped Delaney see how she could separate herself from her parents’ problem and concentrate on what she wanted for herself. For example, the family had no money to give Delaney to go on the class trip to Washington, D.C. So she got a part-time job. She felt tired a lot of the time, but she paid special attention to eating right and getting exercise. She was also uncomfortable with her feelings of divided loyalty to her parents. So she explained to her parents–and that wasn’t easy–that she didn’t want one of them to tell her tales about the other.
These were giant steps in Delaney’s empowerment. She took responsibility for her own feelings and stopped blaming others for “making” her feel mad or sad or happy.
Empowerment isn’t only for deep problems like gangs in schools or families falling apart. It can be part of everyday growing up, and it seems to have special meaning for teens. That’s the time you may naturally want an oceanful of independence and grownups are meting it out by the thimbleful.
In schools, adults plan curriculum, choose textbooks, hand out assignments, and make judgments in the form of grades. Students can be a lot more independent if they are empowered to take responsibility for their own learning. Empowerment for students might mean deciding what they want to learn (within certain guidelines) and how they want to learn it. That might mean setting up their own committees and planning their own deadlines. The teacher doesn’t give up authority; he or she still sets the direction, but the students figure out how to get there. This is being explored in some schools.
Where it has been tried, it’s harder than it sounds. It takes a lot more effort to set goals and figure out how to implement them than to just follow directions already mapped out by the teacher.
“Students like the concept of this, but not always the responsibility,” says a high school coordinator from the Chicago area. “And it’s a lot more work for teachers, too. They have to teach learning strategies as well as subject matter.”
On an individual level, empowerment starts when we are young. Parents can empower their children to be independent and responsible. When a mother tells her 3-year-old to decide whether he wants a cereal or toast for breakfast, that’s empowerment. When a father tells his daughter to talk to the baseball coach herself if she’s unhappy sitting on the bench, that’s empowerment. It’s giving children the feeling they can have an impact on others, that they are capable of getting what they want for themselves. This is not a new idea; thoughtful parents have used the technique for a long time.
Calling it empowerment emphasizes that it’s a two-way process–one party has power and hands it over; the other party has capability and accepts it. And–defying the rules of mathematics–they both have more than they started with.