Okay, so I hear this word "EMPOWERED" a whole lot!
"Women need to be empowered."
"Minorities need to be empowered."
First, the assumption is that they are not already empowered, or more apropriately, have some means of negotiating power, working with powerful people, and/or getting what they want. In my mind, and you are free to disagree, even those we assume are 'have-nots' or 'without power' -- those who we label 'marginalized'-- have various abilities, skills, strategies, capacities at surviving and working in an unequal, often harsh world and in doing so readjusting that unjust world in small but significant ways.
Second, we make the assumption that empowerment is GOOD. What I want to examine here is what we ask of people when we say-- as researchers, community developers, policy makers, volunteers or other-- these programs/ideas/actions will empower you?!?!
First, we assume the empowerment is GOOD (as opposed to BAD), and that programs for empowerment (or agency, if you will), will undo the evils of structural inequalities and 'free' people. We might even assume that empowerment is self-fulfillment. But, I would argue that empowerment can be very BAD. Empowered people can and do very horrible things. They take advantage of their relative empowerment to use or abuse those in less powerful places.
If empowerment can be BAD, or maybe both BAD and GOOD, then this brings me to my second point: If we ask people to be empowered or we create programs for empowerment, we have to admit that we are not asking people to do what they want, but to do what we want. In other words: when we make the call for empowerment, we in fact make the call for GOOD empowerment, not for BAD empowerment.
In seeking to give voice to the marginalized by empowering people we are making a call for our own conception of what is right and not necessarily for locally defined meanings.
PHOTO: that's me dressed up silly-like in Edgewood, BC back in 1999 (date?)