59 responses to “Too vulnerable for empowerment?

  1. Pingback: Too vulnerable for empowerment? « Social Exclusion,Marginalization & Resistance

  2. dsalaborblogmoderator


    Thought you might be interested in this

    Just concluded, the first ITUC World Women’s Conference, entitled “Decent Work, Decent Life for Women” examined how trade unions are taking the lead on economic and social justice and equality. A major focus of the program will be on reaching out to the most vulnerable and exploited women such as domestic workers, while discussions will also center on the position of women within trade unions, achieving gender equality through collective bargaining and extending social protection and social security.


    • Thanks for the link! I still remember my first women in labor conference; I translated for some Mexican maquila workers who had come to share their stories of resistance. It was a really powerful gathering. Obviously, I believe that only solidarity and collective action can create the safe spaces in which the most vulnerable among us can fully advocate on their own behalf. Trade unions hold this promise.

  3. Something which prompted me to convert to this profession is the ability to educate, empower, engage, and edify. Here, you discuss one component – empowerment. Increasing another’s spiritual, political, social, or economic strength and developing confidence in his/her own capacities promote warm fuzzies. I agree that empowering clients is crucial when it comes to advocacy. In my practicum last year at a local domestic violence shelter, I heard similar comments about the deficiencies in clients which prompted a “mothering” approach to advocacy. But, if we do the work for our clients, are we really helping them?
    It is especially imperative in those instances when our clients are too poor / overwhelmed / scared / uneducated, that we educate, empower, engage, and edify them. I agree that we must do so within the limits of legality, ethics, and morals. We cannot not act because we fear what clients might do with that power. Our work is a constant struggle between enabling self-determination and conferring disciplined restraint. It reminds me of Proverbs 22:6, “Teach your children to choose the right path and when they are older, they will remain upon it.” We have to have faith that when we give our clients tools – like the notion of empowerment – they will use them and use them well.

  4. Kuddos to this post!! One of the main reasons (I think) that individuals and groups continued to be oppressed is because the very individuals they trust to lead and guide them do so with limitations. This ties back into your other post on fear, if we as social workers are fearful of change or those obstacles to be changed then how can we expect those around us to be empowered. What would your suggestions be to a manager that is trying to change or re-focus an agency on full empowerment? Are some strategies more effective than others?

    • Operating from an empowerment perspective requires a culture change, Leah, which is never easy. The folks at the Building Movement Project have done a lot of work on this with direct service providers, including compiling case studies of organizations undergoing this transformation. I think that acknowledging the power issues within practice is important, as is finding ‘bright spots’, rather than focusing on people’s reluctance to change. What do you see, from your work? Where does resistance come from, and how can we use our social work skills–motivational interviewing, authentic relating–to connect with people and help them push themselves?

  5. To me, there is no question about whether or not we should empower instead of shelter our clients. Rather, this discussion makes me wonder if empowerment as a theory and practice has been struggling to infiltrate the profession. In undergrad, the term “empowerment” was present in just about all of my courses. However, I haven’t heard nearly as much about empowerment in the social service agencies I’ve worked for. I might come across it in a policy or it might get some lip service from time to time, but it doesn’t seem to have entirely transcended the status of a pretty buzzword in the field. It will require individual social workers and groups of social workers within these agencies to help create cultures that really buy in to the concept. However, without some form of support, it is incredibly easy to acclimatize the predominate culture of your employing agency. In hindsight, I would have benefited from more in-depth discussions in undergrad about the realities of social service agencies and what strategies we could take as new professionals to counteract some of those bad habits in our agencies. I think it is important for us, as social workers, to push ourselves to stay connected to these types of debates and forums—continuing education isn’t really enough. It is particularly challenging when you are one of the only social workers in a given environment and/or when social workers are not in management positions.

    • Absolutely, Anna–so much of what you’ve said here resonates with me. We give short shrift to discussions of organizational culture and how to impact it, in social work education, and that doesn’t equip social workers well to work within the confines of their employing agencies while seeking actively to transform those environments. And, as you said, the reality of interdisciplinary practice only heightens those potential tensions. Do you see ‘bright spots’? Are there examples of where organizations have embraced empowerment practice and are thriving as a result? If so, what might we learn from those inspirations?

  6. I echo some of what Anna said. Sadly, there are times I have felt like I had to get permission to empower a client. It isn’t so much about my agency, but the state agency with which we contract. More and more I feel like social workers, in my area of practice anyway, aren’t allowed to freely do what we do. A bright spot: recently I have been involved in a roundtable process that really allowed for youth empowerment.

    • Yes, Michelle, there are so many ways in which social work settings serve as barriers to empowerment–often without meaning to. What made this roundtable process work? What about its structure really facilitated youth empowerment? Is there any way in which it could be an inspiration/model for other efforts?

  7. Michelle Williams

    The roundtable brought people together from all agencies, who are normallly in competition with each other, to talk about the most vulnerable of youth and how those youth can achieve legal permanency. The youth were not present, but their ideas and plans and aspirations for their life were presented. Ways for those ideas, plans, and aspirations to come to life were discussed and people from all agencies were given tasks to complete to help the youth. It was an awesome experience and a good reminder that even though we may work for competing agencies, we all have one very important thing in common, we all want what is best for the kids. That common goal unites us and is very powerful.

    • That sounds great, Michelle! What are opportunities to include the youth themselves in these discussions, and how could those set the stage for shifts towards the direction of empowerment practice? How did the other professionals process the experience, and how might some of them be allies for your work around empowerment cultures?

  8. True empowerment is a great thing. Those who can do it effectively, provide people with the information they need to make choices. Often, we work with clients that have to make some very difficult decisions, particularly when they don’t necessarily feel that they have a choice. But, indeed they do. Empowerment is a skill that takes careful thought and patience. It is often a word tossed about too freely, such that when I hear it being heralded, I want to know “how and wherefore.”

    Empowerment can be delivered in various ways, but when performed with the right intention, a sense of magistery comes over me and I am humbled by the architect. Michelle said it best, “It was an awesome experience and a good reminder that even though we may work for competing agencies, we all have one very important thing in common, we all want what is best for the kids. That common goal unites us and is very powerful.”

  9. What an inspiring post! I think many social workers get so caught up in the small victories for the individuals that they serve (which I absolutely do not discredit), that they forget to look at the big picture of the purpose of social work. If we’re truly advocating for our clients, then that means we’re teaching and empowering them to advocate for themselves. While reading this post, I thought of an agency that serves and houses individuals who are considered chronically homeless. Recently, staff from this agency went to Washington D.C. and they took several of their clients with them to lobby. I bet this was an exhilarating experience for those individuals who have probably never had such an opportunity to have their voices heard. After all, who could portray the experiences of those who are vulnerable better than those who are actually living it?

    • I love that story, too, and I would live to hear their reflections on the experience. We must always be sure we are not interfering with empowerment, even by good intentions!

  10. This post made me think hard on how client/population personal stories are used in terms of advocacy.

    I find the use of personal stories to be a grey areas in advocacy. At my agency we give bus tours to groups (students, volunteers, professional associations, etc.) in an effort to shed light on KC’s “invisible population”. The tours consist of 5-7 stops during which an “urban educator” (UE) will come on to the bus at a stop connected to the personal experience. The UE will spend a few moments vividly recounting their story (payday lending, gambling, addiction, homelessness, domestic violence, prostitution) to a group of complete strangers. It is intimate, powerful, and evokes great emotional response from all parties present. Utilizing personal stories in this manner I agree with and fully endorse. The goal is to provoke a visceral response that will more than likely bloom into a word-of-mouth chain reaction of education and acknowledgment. It is when this emotional sucker punch tactic is used in the political arena that I get a little itchy… I don’t find it safe or empowering. Emotional pleasing no longer sway policy makers. To me, providing knowledge of how legislation works, confidence, and verbiage would be empowerment. If the oppressed individual/population can articulate they difficulties they face in a language politicians speak (dollars, needs, lack of resources) then they enter the political arena prepared to speak to not plead with a legislator. Does that make sense? I’ve always been more of a “I choose the pen, not the sword” kind of human, if we can arm the oppressed with words and let individual make “one cut” then perhaps they too can collective overthrow their oppressors.

    • Yes, absolutely it makes sense! I have had fellow advocates argue that preparing clients to testify or otherwise engage in advocacy would somehow make their contributions less authentic, when what I think it does is set people up for failure, certainly not an empowering experience. What about the bus tours is particularly important, do you think, in making that an uplifting and transformative experience? Is it the audience? The preparation of clients? The selection of the clients? The debriefing afterwards? I’m just thinking about how that could be replicated in other contexts. Thank you for sharing that example!

      On Tue, Feb 4, 2014 at 11:46 AM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  11. Nothing about the bus tour aims to be “uplifting”. By design, the bus tour has shock value, and strikes at the audience’s emotions. It wants you to never be able to un-experience it. The UEs are provided pre- and post- services and are fully informed of what the tour is meant to do. They’re nervous, they stumble over words, they cry, but they are never alone during the process. The experience is made as mentally/emotionally safe as possible for the UE. The same can’t be said for the audience.
    The informal yet extremely intimate setting (have you ever put 55-60 adults on a school bus and then driven them through East Kansas City?) in which the UE recounts their story is what I believe to be most transformative.The delivery setting engages you physically, it incorporates your senses. You can almost TASTE the horror and frustration exuded by tour passengers. You HEAR the raw emotions and vulnerability in the UE’s voice. And then the silence on the bus as it drives to the next stop. It is purposeful and almost scary, but I believe it creates an all encompassing and unique experience for all parties. The UE has a voluntarily captive audience. There is a power-shift. not from one to another, but to a place of equality. And the after the tour ends? For the audience…It doesn’t. There’s not getting off the bus and “washing” away what you just FELT. You will talk about it. It will bother you. The experience is revisited at every stoplight in KC when you SEE women and children standing in the snow waiting for a bus… they’re no longer faceless citizens. You’ve breathed in their story and every time you revisit it, you’ll realize you’ve yet to exhale.

    How do we replicate it in other contexts? It depends on the population. I would never endorse this kind of emotional tactic with child clients as “educators”. It depends on the end goal. Are you trying to get funding/donations? This is not the way to do it. It depends on the agency’s dedication to provide their clients safety and services. You don’t have guaranteed access to mental health services? Don’t ask your clients to expose themselves in this manner.

    Like I stated previously, using client personal stories is a gray area and it can backfire. It’s not something that should be attempted half-cocked.

    • Yes, Vyonne–such an important reflection, from an organization that I agree does so much to put clients’ stories center stage. I really appreciate what you say about how these interactions are not intended to be ‘uplifting’ or even comfortable…and that the organization must, then, be OK with making its stakeholders uncomfortable. That’s a critical point. How often do you have other social service organizations’ representatives come on the tour? I’m thinking that could be a really important learning for them, in how to structure these kinds of experiences, so that they could then think through what a similar effort might look like in their context.

      On Sat, Feb 22, 2014 at 4:54 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  12. My agency, The Willow Domestic Violence Center, is an agency that says they are founded on empowerment. Honestly, sometimes I think we are so “empowerment focused” that we do a disservice to our clients. For example, we are anti case management because it “isn’t empowering”. My Field Instructor and I have talked on numerous different times how this can actually be not helpful for clients to not even have the option. My Field Instructor and I would probably argue that empowering a client would be giving them the option for case management or not.

    This post reminded me of when I started doing anything nonprofit related as a social work student in my first practicum. I think I equated empowerment with fixing clients problems for them, identifying their experiences (as opposed to them doing that), or being so excited I overwhelmed them with information. I think a lot of social workers starting out make that mistake, but it’s good I am realizing that now before starting in the field 100% a professional.

    • These are really important questions, Adele–what does ’empowerment’ really mean, and really look like, and what mix of services is most likely to facilitate it? We certainly can’t assume that withholding services is necessarily empowering–after all, if that was the case, our clients would be ’empowered’ in the society as it exists today, and that’s certainly not the case! Nor can we assume that empowerment is something that we can bestow upon people with the right mix of services, either. Importantly, it’s much more a journey than a destination, more of a mindset than an accomplishment. That doesn’t lead us neatly to answers, but maybe it helps us ask the right questions?

      On Tue, Mar 4, 2014 at 2:44 AM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  13. This is an excellent posting, and something that touches my heart currently in my work with one consumer. I am working with an individual right now who is struggling with his diagnosis of schizophrenia undifferentiated. Despite this, he wants to be an active voice for those individuals with mental illness, because he whole hearted dislikes the stigma surrounding those with a mental illness. As a result he want to volunteer/join up with N.A.M.I. Despite my support for his decision, I am getting resistance from my organization, and his case manger when it comes to actualizing his desires to become and advocate.

    I am very surprised, that within a CMHC that he and I would get so much resistance. The agency’s overall mission, and vision support what he wants, but other individuals do not. This is interesting and something that we all need to remember. Advocacy need to take place internally many time in order to provide for others to have a pedestal for which to launch their own actions in the future. As workers, and in the case for those involved in this persons care, I believe that we all need to continually be aware of our biases, and constantly remind ourselves that everyone has the capacity to change. Reviewing the Code of Ethics, is one great place to start.

    • Wow–your comment really got to me, too. What is your sense about why your organization is resisting this client taking on this role? Are there some clinical concerns about his ability to function with the added responsibility? Does it seem to be more a fear that he would not represent the organization ‘well’? Are there conflicts with the advocacy organization with which he wants to affiliate? Or some combination of these concerns? What are your thoughts about how to proceed? How can you help him understand his rights and the potential consequences, from your agency, as he proceeds? How can you support him in pursuit of his self-actualization?

      On Mon, Apr 14, 2014 at 8:56 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


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  15. Sarah Thompson

    This reminds me of Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability. Similar to what you stated, if people allow themselves to be vulnerable, the world could change (in my mind). The possibilities are endless. Our views as social worker’s can dictate our client’s achievements. If we believe they are only so capable, how are they (broke down and powerless) supposed to believe in themselves to achieve goals? That’s setting them up for failure, which is completely unethical. So it is a must that we figure out a way that gets us social workers out of our ways to purely believe in our client’s capabilities and not predestine the limits of their work. It is a priority of ours to help client’s in claiming their power, not limit that power.

    Also, if practice makes perfect in this situation, wouldn’t it be somewhat harmful (not necessarily unethical) knowing you are practicing in this circumstance at the client’s discretion? For social workers capping their client’s achievements with their own perceived ideas about what clients are and aren’t capable of, this idea of unlimited capability and growth in clients won’t happen overnight, if workers have the ability to change their outlooks. This begs the question on whether social workers can change their perceptions of clients, initial or not. I believe they can, which puts me in a good mindset as a practitioner!

  16. So is part of your concern, Sarah, a perception that some social workers begin their practice with an unhealthy skepticism about their clients’ capabilities? That’s really interesting–in a super disturbing sense–and I’m thinking about what our responsibility, then, as social work educators is, to address this when we see it. What do you mean by the sentence beginning, “Also, if practice makes perfect…”? I’m very much interested in the ethical dimensions of paternalism, where it’s not just bad practice, in other words, but indefensibly unethical. I’m just trying to make sure that I understand your point there.

  17. Thanks for this post Melinda. Yes, there could be plenty of hesitations and ‘excuses’ to be given on why clients cannot advocate for themselves. However, as you point out, limiting our clients voices/ actions can really impede their future.

    Your example reminds of the tipping point in advocacy and empowerment. The women in India had reached their tipping point, and took drastic measures to make change. I have met and heard of too many instances, where an ‘outsider’ would consider advocacy needs to happen, but ‘insiders’ think change cannot happen or in some instances should not even happen. I once had a homeless man say ‘that a home would be nice, but I have everything I need’. Does a man without a roof over his head really have everything he needs? I also have had many people living in poverty say, “well that’s life” or “at least I have a roof over my head”. These persons could only see what is in front of them, and were constantly living in crisis mode. I think this is where a social worker is absolutely essential; these people need help to see past their own crises. They needed to get to that tipping point, and see what was on the other side.

    Your example made also think of this really great organization I visited while in India. Here is the link:

  18. And, yet, Kendra, I think that sometimes social work and social workers can actually prevent that ‘tipping point’, by sort of shielding our clients (even the fact that we call them ‘our clients’, as though they belonged to us in some way…), which can serve to keep them from agitating for fundamental changes, out of fear of rocking the proverbial boat. How do we avoid that? How can we ensure that our services are supports and not crutches? How can we protect against thinking we know better?

  19. Recently a colleague and good friend of mine told me about a client she was working with being very upset he could no longer go to the pool or the movies. He had interpreted the new regulations on TANF to mean if you receive an kind of assistance from the government you can not go to these places. How sad! Yet as we dialoged about what change we could make from this story as we often do, I said what if he tells his story. My friend stated no he can’t articulate things very well. I said well that’s real and that is what people need to hear. The effects of regulations, regulate more than they are even made to regulate, they disempower a whole group of people. As social workers it is our duty to stand by this individuals as they empower themselves. We talked about ways he could use his story to help others, again we were doing all the thinking. I stated that she needed to ask him how he felt and give him the opportunity to make a difference she just needed to pave the road for him to do so. Her client has decided to make signs he say he will put up at the swimming pool and movies, to make a difference, and we are proud of him.

    • Oh that is tremendous, Emily! It reminds me of when (then) SRS changed the rules on pro-rating immigrant families (adjusting their incomes to adjust for family sizes), a change that then made it a lot harder for children in immigrant families to qualify for SNAP. One of the immigrant families I was working with made posters explaining the new rules–with marker and posterboard and simple language–to put up in Mexican groceries. It was really effective in dispelling the myth that non-citizens were now ineligible for food stamps. And a courageous and innovative act of advocacy. Very cool!

  20. It’s interesting that social workers are having that response, as it is not very strengths-based, which is a little counter-intuative. It is our job to ensure that our clients do feel empowered to take action, regardless of their state. Sure, there will be times when advocacy or searching for resources or processing something difficult isn’t always possible on the part of the client, but that is where we provide extra support. I think it is our responsibility to ensure that social workers in practice are encouraging clients to feel empowered by educating and building a healthy relationship. As administrative social workers, we should be aware of the systems at our agencies and whether or not they are user friendly, as well as promoting clients to feel empowered and encouraged. Some of those hesitations that prevent action, do so because they feel overwhelmingly large. This happens to all of us. We just have to remember that the things that feel larger in life usually are not, and then impart this notion onto clients.

  21. I have worked primarily with children and adolescents. Helping them try to find empowerment is particularly challenging because they typically are not allowed to make decisions for themselves. The girls at the PRTF where I work are sometimes involved in their treatment review, but most of the time it’s their primary clinician, therapist, parents, and insurance company talking about them and their progress without their input. The juvenile offenders at my practicum have even less control. A judge decides their placement length and they are then court ordered to abide by it. There are little things the agencies do to make them feel like they are more in control (community meetings, contact with POs to give a good report, letters to PCs about why they feel they should be discharged), but I have always felt these are table scraps, designed to keep them sated without actually having to include them in any big meals of actual decisions.

    These kids cannot rise up in revolution, because that will just be taken as evidence they need to be there or must stay longer. A lot of the girls keep their heads down for 2 months because they only want to go home, not cause trouble, even if trouble would help them work on their goals (some of the girls cause trouble as a way to distract from their goals, but that’s besides the point). I don’t know how to help empower them in a meaningful way because there is so little room for them to speak up in the system. The majority of the things the girls bring up in community meeting ( such as wanting to wear leggings or eat less processed foods) are either flat out shut down, or “being looked into,” which is a longer process of shutting it down. What’s empowering about that?

    • Wow, Emily–so discouraging; I’m sure even more so for you! Yes, the issue of empowerment is even trickier with involuntary clients. How could your organization maximize empowerment, even when the balance of power is so obviously tilted in the direction of the institution? What would that look like? What would it matter, really, if these young women ‘won’ on some of the issues they’re raising? How could that make a difference, including in their outcomes?

  22. I completely agree with what you said about us being the largest barriers to our clients’ full empowerment, because they tend to live up to our expectations. I think this is increasingly clear at the Housing Authority as Housing Specialists first act as accusatory, assuming consumers don’t really need the service we are providing, or are trying to game the system. Automatic distrust does a disservice to our residents, as that is how they generally proceed. I believe our language is the most important thing to avoiding this negative behavior. We cannot empower someone if we don’t believe they can handle it. To quote you “we need to unconditionally and immediately support our clients.’
    I listened to a great podcast the other day from The Hidden Brain about stereotype threat and how we assume certain things about certain groups of people and don’t like/understand when they don’t comply with these narrow molds of what a person should look like. We cannot be fearful of change, or we will absolutely do no good for our clients, ourselves, or our agencies. We need to recognize the power we have to recognize the power of our clients.
    I used to always want to do things for my clients, because it was easier to do it myself in the short term than it was to let my clients struggle through it, but eventually I came to the realization that I wasn’t helping myself or them any because they weren’t being empowered in the long-term, and ultimately I was damaging my helping relationships. This sense of power being passed on to the clients is what makes a good social worker, rather than a sense of martyrdom.

    • I love that podcast! 🙂
      Yes, Kendra–how often do our rules seem to start from the assumption that clients cannot be trusted, and then we wonder why there’s a climate of suspicion? Is it really that our clients are ever too vulnerable for empowerment…or do we not feel strong enough to live with clients exercising their true power?

  23. Kelly Harrington

    I really enjoyed this blog post, Melinda! Empowerment at my practicum site is interesting because our immediate clients are not people, but are instead organizations and coalitions. My practicum site also focuses on sexual violence prevention, a field in which power is a pivotal concept for understanding the norms and beliefs that lead to sexual violence. I think this awareness of power lends itself to my field instructor’s work with her clients (again, organizations and coalitions). She gives the clients, the coalitions especially, the opportunity to conduct a needs assessment and tailor their strategies to their unique communities, and my field instructor’s role in this is asking question, providing resources, and possibly making suggestions. For example, one coalition has been struggling to identify community-level change strategies to take on. Instead of giving direction to the coalition, my field instructor suggested that she and I, as neutral parties, facilitate a consensus workshop to help them identify what their role is in sexual violence prevention in their community and what strategies could best address their needs. While this approach prompts reevaluation and, hopefully, action, the dialogue and decisions will belong to the coalition members rather than to my field instructor.

  24. And I would hope, Kelly, that these coalitions would then mirror those empowering interactions with the direct service participants with whom they work. Those who have experienced power are more likely to support others in experiencing their own. Thanks for sharing!

  25. Every time the topic of empowerment comes up I think back to a discussion I had with my field instructor when I began the MSSA program at Case Western Reserve University. She told me that it bothered her when helping professionals would say that they empower people, which, to her, suggested that the only way the people we serve can be successful in their own lives is if we give them something they don’t already have to become something they never would have been without us. This was a long conversation she and I had nearly two years ago, so I don’t remember exact details, but what stood out to me is the fact that she, having been a social worker nearly two decades never thought she empowered anyone and that none of us (social workers or other helping professionals) can, do or ever will empower people. My interpretation of her logic is that empowerment is an internal process that must take place in the clients we serve and that our role is to guide the process of clients recognizing their own power and utilizing their potential to their capacity, at which point we may guide them to a deeper level of empowerment whereby their potential expands and they can more efficiently navigate the path and processes that lead them to autonomy, independence and self-sufficiency.
    I liken empowerment to working a well. The person-in-environment is the well; the location of this person will determine how much work must go into pumping water (drawing upon the potential of the individual and the resources they already have)– we may find that the soil conditions aren’t ideal and so may have to dig deeper and wider to reach the water (we may find our asset maps are a little bare and have to search harder to find adequate resources; we may realize that our clients are dealing with psychological and emotional issues that need to be addressed before we can deal with the surface issues like child neglect or homelessness); nevertheless, we cannot move outside of this well or become the well to draw from, we can only be the pump that goes deeper so that we can finally reach good water. The sustainability needs of the well will vary according to its depth; the more deep we dug, the more people, tools, and work will be required to sustain the health and viability of this well. In this way, social workers may continue pumping our clients and may refer them to other resources that can keep them flowing adequately until maintenance becomes natural to them.
    “Empowerment is defined as a process whereby the social worker engages in a set of activities with the client (…) that aim to reduce the powerlessness that has been created by negative valuations based on member-ship in a stigmatized group. It involves identification of the power blocks that contribute to the problem as well as the development and implementation of specific strategies aimed at either the reduction of the effects from indirect power blocks or the reduction of the operations of direct power blocks.” (Solomon, B.: Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities, New York 1976.) http://www.agef-saar.de/AHOI/Lima/Base/Chapter4.htm
    In sum, I think empowerment can be encouraged but never given. Many wells exist and remain inactive because the power to produce is not being encouraged by helping hands. Our clients don’t need us to give them empowerment, they only need us to help them recognize that it already exists within.

  26. I honestly don’t think I have anything substantive to add to this, Jessica! Maybe ‘yes, yes, yes’?? 🙂 I really appreciate this point, that we can’t dole out empowerment as a gift that we bestow, and that the greatest service we can do is to change the context and conditions that, then, allow people to move into the power that they had all along…and to see that power recognized by others. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this.

  27. While reading this blog, I think of the whole reason (at least a very large reason) that I love being a social worker. I chose this profession to work WITH people to better society for everyone. Long ago, I was in class and a professor told me it was my job to speak for those who could not speak for themselves. This greatly bothered me. I am not an elegant speaker or writer, I do not live in the communities or from the communities that I seek to work with, and quite honestly my voice is not some booming voice that commands attention. It was right then and there I thought about changing my course of education. However, I began researching organizations that I would like to work in or greatly respected, and decided it was the professor that had it all wrong. I hate to say that of a professor, but it is true. I need to say right here that it is not a professor from KU! When I think of empowerment, I think of just amplifying the knowledge, means or venue of expression, and/or confidence of the individual or group. It is not my job to speak for a group of people that I have not had the same experiences as them. I cannot express the life experiences with the same passion, because I have not lived them. This is not to say that I have never read a letter from and individual in front of a group to try to help advocate for something, but I have to say that it really isn’t the same as the individual being there. I understand the circumstances do not always allow this, but I just don’t feel true justice is done. However, I do my best. It is my goal to work WITH a community to utilize the systems within, including individuals, to help them find what is needed for them to be more empowered to improve their lives and societies. I do not give empowerment, it is already there. They just need the resources to utilize it. If I, or someone else, speaks for them, it does not let the individuals/group experience the unforgettable strengthening of being able to take control of a situation that greatly affects them.

    • Hear, hear, Shelly! Even worse is the idea of ‘speaking for the voiceless’…which further oppresses those already disadvantaged by stripping them of a core human right: to give voice to one’s own story. Thank you for sharing this, and for seeking to be a megaphone for others’ voices!


  28. This blog post makes me think of the time that Mike from Stand UP KC came and spoke to our class. He was telling us all about how these low wage workers would protest and block a freeway, with many of them getting arrested, just to have their message be heard. When I heard this, I have to admit I was perplexed about the protesters facing arrest. I first thought, would I face arrest for something I was passionate about? I then thought, would I tell my “clients” that they should be willing to face arrest for something they are passionate about? My next thought was how would that arrest negatively impact the client? Would they lose their job for missing work because they were locked up? Would they have trouble finding future work because they now have a “record”?

    I guess the answer to the first few questions should be yes, and the next three would be apart of “informed consent.” Maybe the trouble with social workers “being the biggest barrier” to our clients is that we are so used to having to navigate the system in such a way that we are scared about what will happen if we do not cross every t and dot every i the way we are supposed to. We know what it is like for us to compete for scarce resources for our clients, so we can only imagine how difficult it is for our clients to compete with each other for even scarcer resources! I think challenging the system is how change happens though. I guess the way we can get over ourselves is to model how to challenge the system for our clients.

    We should tell our clients the possible challenges they will face when they challenge oppression or injustice, but we should never assume they are incapable of bringing their strengths to the fight! Social work has an underlying “theme” that everyone has something to offer, and we are setting ourselves (as social workers) back when we think that our clients wouldn’t understand or couldn’t do something to help advocate for change.

    • Absolutely, Jamie, and some might feel that they have relatively little to lose; in any case, only an individual can make that call for him/herself. Even if clients will be harmed by what they decide, is that harm any greater than that wrought by loss of autonomy and self-determination?


  29. I think one of the biggest obstacles in my own thought process is the idea of adding ‘one more thing’. And maybe because my professional experience is limited to drug addicts who have been court ordered to participate in services. However, our clients have so much happening already. We ask so much of them. For these clients it involves rehab and parenting classes and finding a job and steady housing. It’s a lot in a short period of time. It seems like adding to their burden to also ask them to rise up and advocate for themselves and others in their same predicament. I suppose I need to re-frame my thinking to consider this an opportunity for these clients to broaden their horizon and (for some) to do something they never though possible. Maybe because I worked with very few clients who had long periods of stability and recovery. I just remember wanting to do as much as I could to ease their burden, not add to it. But maybe in the long run, I’m harming them by doing so? This idea is one I have emotional buy in for, I just need some intellectual re-framing work.

  30. These are really important questions, Sarah. In the long run, I think it’s absolutely not ‘one more thing’; in fact, having clients take more control of their own recovery and the requirements they have to meet as they move through it could ultimately dramatically reframe that whole process (like, is it certain that they need parenting classes? I can’t imagine that all parents struggling with addiction lack knowledge, specifically, that would help their kids?)…but I think it’s less clear how we help people bridge through the interim, when their lives could absolutely feel very precariously balanced. And, yes, I think that substance abuse problems may present some particular challenges, since that journey is far less of a neat trajectory than in some other domains, but I think that’s also an opportunity to break out of our ‘well/needy’ false dichotomy, since we’re really all somewhere on the spectrum of health and brokenness…and simultaneously very capable of taking charge of our own lives. I’m happy to keep thinking and talking about this with you.

  31. This blog post reminded me about Lens’ chapter on ‘don’t think of an elephant’. I think it can also be critical that we take into account our client’s framework and ways in which information and action can be resonate or distant for them. This isn’t an excuse for anyone not to take action, but it is a factor that definitely can play into how we, as social workers, present these actions and how others could receive it. Part of leadership is knowing the story others tell, and that can be really difficult because it means it’s not ‘our’ story. However, it can be a powerful tool when mobilizing others to act because it allows us to look into what frameworks we must use to create conditions under which others, including ourselves, can be empowered enough to make change and to work outside of their comfort zone. It is also critical for us as social workers to be able and gauge when we have pushed someone to far out of their comfort zone, which can lead to disengagement.

  32. Thanks, Danny. I admit that I don’t totally see the connection between Lens’ article on negotiation and advocacy communications, Lakoff’s book on framing, and this story of never underestimating people’s ability to claim their own agency. Can you explain more of what you see as the connection? I do think it’s always important to remind ourselves that only our story is ours to tell…which doesn’t just mean not paternalistically telling others’ stories, but also being willing to tell our own (including why we do this work and why it matters), even when that feels overtly personal and, even, somewhat Too often, I think, we try to make it ‘not about us’, thinking that’s empowering, when it can often lead, instead, to the perception that we’re ‘above’ this work, in a way that ends up distancing ourselves from the causes we care about and the people with whom we’re working.

  33. Wow, what a powerful story! That really is such an amazing example of people’s potential for change and overcoming obstacles despite even the most challenging of circumstances. I haven’t heard of that book before but I’ll add it to my list. My experience has been somewhat of a mixed bag in terms of feeling able to empower clients and being supported by the different agencies I have worked with to do so. At times I have felt restricted by my role or even the population being worked with (being a representative payee, or with children in state custody). In both cases, clients are often in very restricted and monitored lifestyles where opportunities to help them harness and use power are not clear and may even go against the agency’s priorities. I certainly have asked clients while in those roles what their goals are, what they would want to change in their lives, and what they would change about those agencies. However, in many cases what they wanted to change often were things that I perceived I couldn’t help them influence. This story makes me feel like maybe I just wasn’t confident enough in our abilities or not prepared enough professionally to help them take the first step. However if this story can happen, when there is will there must surely be a way (abiding by our ethics, of course). Also, in those roles and others I think I have commonly found myself in organizational cultures where staff members have a paternalistic or an expert relationship with their clients. Although I have been learning about empowerment and how to use it in practice, it is challenging when you don’t typically see others doing their jobs in that way. It is hard to know what successful empowerment really looks like, what skills people use, and what actions they take. Maybe if I continue finding myself in agencies like this the real work that needs to be done first is changing that culture and building the agency’s capacity to act in a more empowering relationship with clients. That sounds like incredibly hard work to me now but also seems so essential to the well-being of those I’ll work with.

  34. That is a terrific point, Kevin, about how the roles we play in organizations can limit the extent to which we can help to empower those with whom we’re working. Both of the specific jobs you mentioned are absolutely limiting in that respect. There are certainly still ways that you can optimize your utility to clients, even in that role, but you will likely chafe against the expectations that you serve organizational interests and a relatively narrow conception of client ‘agency’.

  35. Every time I hear the word “vulnerable,” I now think about Brene Brown and the notion she proposes that vulnerability is in fact a source of empowerment. We are naturally inclined to believe vulnerability is synonymous with weakness, and that weakness implies one is on the wrong side of a power differential. As social workers and advocates, I think it is critical we learn to confront our own fears, our own shortcomings, and our own despair over the power differential that is inherent in the struggle against injustice and inequity. We become disillusioned ourselves in fighting what at moments feel like losing battles and I believe, inadvertently transfer our own feelings of hopelessness onto our clients. I hear workers all the time who seem at once deeply committed to fighting the good fight and resigned to a belief that fight is in vain.
    If we are really to show up for clients, and to always show them unconditional positive regard, we must truly believe they can change. To be effective social workers, we must always believe change is possible. Even though for many of the folks we seek to serve, the deck is stacked against them, we must believe they are part of the small fraction of individuals who can overcome the impossible.
    We acknowledge in our Code of Ethics our role to take up the cause of those who are most vulnerable in society but we should be keenly aware there is strength in that vulnerability. A life without problems is really no life at all. As we age, we begin to embrace the difficulties of life and understand them and even embrace them. Those difficulties make us stronger and we become proud of the strength we derive from them. It is not our duty to erase our clients’ pain and strife. We are there to help equip them to navigate their own struggles, so they may too become empowered through their vulnerability.

    • I really appreciate this, Marqueia–I reacted to this story, originally, out of rejection of the ‘vulnerable’ label, from the sense that we cannot paternalistically presume that anyone needs our protection, especially from the self-liberatory activities to which people are drawn, but your reminder–that conceding our vulnerability doesn’t mean that we are not simultaneously strong and powerful–is a crucial one. We need to live into this duality, of strength and need, with those with whom we work, and to create these spaces for ourselves, too. Thank you for sharing your reflections.

  36. You ended this post so well, it really does come down to hesitation. I feel like as social workers we are encouraged to advocate and be the voice “to those without a voice” but forget to let each other know that maybe advocacy is also supporting our clients in becoming their own advocates. For me, it is often a no brainer, I encourage my clients to be engaged and begin to formulate their own ideas and bring their own voices to the table. I doesn’t even bother me to see them have a different opinion than I do so long as they are making use of that voice towards something that they believe would benefit themselves most. It might be an internal conflict with social workers…I sometimes wonder because we are seen as helpers and we often have that perception of social workers do we feel the need to do “all” the work? I too fallen prey to these ideas of “my clients are too busy trying to catch up with bills, why are we asking them to go to legislative meetings.” I think it happens but we need to challenge that process and way of thinking because who better than our clients to be advocating for themselves. We may know their stories, see how they are affected by certain issues, and have the skills/tools to address the issues; but they know all that plus how it feels. They are far more connected to the issues we are helping them with than we can ever be unless we have fallen victims to the same systems that put them in vulnerable situations. I now encourage my clients to become advocates, to take on leadership positions on boards and even run for elected positions. I encourage my clients to put their voice out there go to events and meets and not shy away from expressing their ideas and needs. I have personally attended meetings with clients and stood by them as they expressed their concerns to the city/county commissioners, I have helped clients apply to be on the boards of the agencies that serve them and I hope to continue to advocate for my clients to become engaged in advocacy.

  37. I had the most fascinating exchange about these ideas today, Gallal–I was meeting with some staff at a CMHC, to talk about incorporating voter engagement into their operations. At first, their reaction was really, instinctively, that their clients wouldn’t be interested, couldn’t possibly get involved, would even, probably, be traumatized by being asked to register and vote and get engaged. We talked, then, about the issues that clients are concerned about, about how the organization could restructure itself so that clients can experience their power around decisions about programming, for example…and you could almost see staff shedding their initial hesitation (which was really part protecting their clients and themselves against a newcomer–me–and part their own sense of powerlessness politically and anxiety about where policy is headed). By the time I got done, they were planning events to bring policymakers to their center to meet with clients, and you could sense how the atmosphere had shifted; it was like they had to free themselves, a bit, to imagine how this could evolve in their work, as part of their most crucial mission: helping clients improve their lives.

  38. You’re right, we need to get over ourselves. Our job is not always to advocate for others, but instead our job is to empower others to advocate for themselves. It is that paternalistic (or maternalistic, maybe) attitude that makes us think that we have the special expertise or authority over people. As a mom and as a helping professional, I often have the urge to do things for others who need help because of my empathetic nature. Part of this is noble, but I must recognize that the other part of this is arrogance. If I remain the authority or the expert, I retain my position of power. I (and we) need to learn how to resist that urge to take over.

    No matter how effective my voice may be to speak for others, the collective voices of those experiencing adversity resonate much louder. They are the ones with the personal stories of discrimination, abuse and other maltreatment, and they are also the ones with the personal stories of resilience and ingenuity. They are the ones who have a much more personal stake in their actions because they will be personally affected by the changes they make. We need to learn to encourage and empower them along the way so they will be the ones heard.

  39. Melinda,

    As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    I work for an agency that does macro level work – mostly providing technical assistance to community coalitions in the substance abuse prevention field. Seldom do I hear talk of empowering our clients. I feel this is especially interesting given that our “clients” are predominantly community members who want to make a difference. They are often not oppressed or marginalized persons, yet it seems that our organization still is afraid to empower these community coalition members. Sometimes I feel that we have fallen prey to the bureaucracy of the work – we are providing assistance to communities because we are paid to do so, and at one point we decided that this cause was noble or valid. Your post has motivated me to work towards incorporating a facet of empowerment into my organization. I believe that if we helped community coalitions claim power (rather than maintaining our power through technical assistance that totes our “superior” knowledge and/or position), we could begin to work ourselves out of a job—a goal I find to be admirable.

  40. Thank you for this candid assessment of the work, Austin. I think that there is always–or at least often–a risk of technologizing, so to speak, our macro work–focusing on the mechanics of how policy advocacy can be won or how evaluation can/should be conducted, or some other technical aspect of that work…which can make it easy to sort of forget about why that matters, or even how we might pursue the work in such a way as to reduce the need for us to do it, in the future. What leverage points do you see for making inroads on this? What have you observed about the culture and operating procedures of the organization that suggests how such a change would have to be introduced, for it to have a chance of taking root? Do you have any internal allies with whom you could broach such a shift?

  41. Stephanie Stauffer

    Half the Sky is a work that resonates so deeply with me. It stays on my coffee table and I find myself re-reading it often. I know for a fact that our clients are more resilient than we allow ourselves to imagine them to be. I talked about this in a recent assignment, but often by the time a client has found their way to an organization, they have faced (and had the fortitude to overcome) obstacles and barriers that we would never even imagine. We do not commend them enough for that. When we view clients as too vulnerable or too weak to speak for themselves, we invalidate their years of tough, hard-earned existence. I agree wholeheartedly, that in attempts to “save” clients we often infantilize them and impede their ability to heal and advocate for themselves. We unintentionally contribute to a system that has always told our clients: “you are weak”, “you are unable”, “you are x, y, z”. And in that way, social workers must be careful not to perpetuate systems of oppression. Instead, we must find ways to encourage our clients to be their own advocates through skills development, coalition building, etc.

  42. Fantastic reminder, Stephanie, of the lives clients live before and without us, and how recognizing that reality honors our clients’ full identities. I was just on a listserv today with someone who was talking about showing the Half the Sky documentary in a social work class and processing the reaction of her students–I love these interconnections!

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