The Integra Review

Issue 5: Winter 1998

Dimensions of Empowerment

The theme of 'Empowering Excluded People' was discussed at a recent meeting of Integra projects. The discussion was opened with brief presentations from five projects.

  • Catri O'Kane (Tallaght Area Response Getting Employment and Training for Offenders - TARGET)

    "We see empowerment as facilitating and encouraging participants to make choices for themselves. In terms of working practices TARGET is a participant led project. That is, we actively involve participants in designing the project programme around their own needs. As workers our role is to provide information, impart knowledge and offer guidance. The main challenge we see arising from this is the need to keep checking ourselves that we are being participant led and not prescriptive, not taking over the decision-making. Also, there is a fine line that we need to find between being participant led but still having boundaries, high expectations and realisable outcomes. It takes nerve to run a project like this."

  • Deirdre Creedon (Towards Employment through Technological Education - A Multi-Dimensional Approach)

    "Cork Institute of Technology's project aims to empower long-term unemployed men by facilitating them to take responsibility for their lives, to think positively about their future, and by assisting them to increase their chances of obtaining employment. The practice of the project involves recognising that people have experiences, skills and resources despite the fact that they are unemployed and experiencing social exclusion. The project offers a Foundation Course for Higher Education. One-to-one guidance, assessment of individual needs and personal supports are integral parts of the programme. One of the challenges facing us is to develop a social partnership between the Institute, Cork City Partnership, the Local Employment Service and local community groups in order to motivate and empower the long-term unemployed themselves and their communities so that they can participate in economic prosperity and avoid further marginalisation."

  • Brid Burke (Family Project)

    "We discussed this at our team meeting and agreed that the following elements are involved in empowering excluded people: self-discovery skills - conversation; listening; building trust and confidence; producing skills that are shared; encouraging equality; allowing for individual needs; and, making the target group's issues public (in our case through community media / community arts). In working towards empowerment the Family Project creates an atmosphere where people feel they are heard and where their experience is acknowledged. Thus, they feel safe and secure in expressing, sharing and clarifying their issues. It provides elements of choice and a space where different opinions are valued. Positive reinforcement of cultural identity is built in. We see many challenges facing the project in terms of its approach to empowerment. For example, in terms of the concepts of "exclusion" and "inclusion" we are not simply engaged in a process of shifting people from an "exclusion zone" to a place of inclusion. We need to be continually alert, in our daily practices to the varying levels at and ways in which participants could be excluded and be responsive to this."

  • Clare Kinneally (Tipperary Rural Travellers' Project)

    "In the Tipperary Rural Travellers' Project we work towards empowering Travellers in a number of ways. First, by encouraging and promoting people to improve their life skills to enable them to solve and address issues that affect their lives. Second, by encouraging and setting up systems and an environment that promotes effective participation in the management of the project. Third, by working for systems and institutional change that promotes empowerment of Travellers through changes in policies and practices. Fourth, by improving the employability of participants to allow them take part in the workforce and economy. The main challenge we see is that the people participating in the project develop their skills and confidence and begin to seek changes in the systems and institutions affecting their lives but that they may be discouraged by the difficulties of actually making change due to ingrained and long-running prejudice against Travellers. "

  • Francis Byrne (Moving On Up)

    "Moving On Up essentially aims to empower lone parents individually and as a group. The promoting organisation - One Parent Exchange Network - is staffed and run by lone parents. The ethos of the organisation, and therefore the project, is about the inclusion and empowerment of lone parents at every level within the organisation and Irish society as a whole. The practices underpinning empowerment in our project are consultation (e.g., the project itself was designed following extensive consultation with our membership), providing information and support, and involving project participants in the management and direction of the project. The challenges of working in an empowering way - as opposed to disempowering - include: taking the time to meet people where they are at in terms of their own experiences and development; remaining open to learning from the empowering processes of the project; being realistic about what can be achieved; and, ensuring that everybody involved in the project is open to sharing the learning."

Following the presentations a wide range of reactions and comments were made by representatives of the other projects present. A number of the points made during the discussion are noted here as markers for further work on the theme of Empowering Excluded People. We hope that these will assist in the development of a clearer understanding of what is a complex concept and lead to a clearer view as to what the role of empowerment is in the context of combating exclusion.

Participant Led versus Participant Centred

There was general agreement that one could make a distinction between projects that adopted a participant led approach and those that adopted a participant centred approach. The case for the former was made in terms of the need to involve participants in driving and directing what is actually happening in a project if it is to be really empowering. That is, participating in decision making is a vital ingredient of empowering practices. Set against this was the view that not all participants are in a position to effectively participate in decision making on entry to a project. The participant centred approach is fundamentally based on a project-led responsiveness to the needs of participants. However, further exploration of these positions led to a view that there were pre-requisites for participation. Ensuring that participants acquired these involved the provision of information, developing the self-confidence and communication skills of participants, and, creating an environment in which the presence of conflicting views was recognised but in such a manner as to facilitate development rather than bottlenecks. Negotiation skills and mutual respect were seen to be important issues here.

Empowerment is Fundamentally
about Choices

There was general agreement that one of the central reasons for working with participants in an empowering manner is to bring about positive change for the participant where change is the result of informed choice (the collective dimension of empowerment is commented on below). One of the key issues arising here, however, centres on what we mean by positive change and by informed. Bringing participants to a position where they can begin to engage in making and being responsible for change in their lives was not considered problematic by any of the project representatives. However, a number of project representatives pointed out that it must be recognised that there is a difference between bringing participants to a realisation that "there is something I can do about my situation" and recognising that what they do is their own prerogative. The fundamental task in this regard is to ensure that participants are provided with all the relevant information and guided and supported to make what are ultimately choices and changes that they have to make and for which they have to take responsibility.

Individual and Collective Dimensions of Empowerment

Empowering participants at an individual level is mainly concerned with bringing about personal change and development. It is also about providing people with the resources (information, confidence and skills) to tackle the consequences of exclusion at a personal level. There is also a collective dimension to empowerment. This stems from the recognition that the causes of social exclusion are not to be found at the level of individuals. Therefore, empowering people to tackle the political, social and economic causes of exclusion has a collective dimension. This is reflected particularly in the work of projects seeking to develop the capacities of organisations working on the issue of social exclusion. In practical terms this can involve providing training to local people and to paid and unpaid workers in local and community based organisations.

Empowerment and Empowering Practices

One of the biggest difficulties that project representatives had with the concept of empowerment is what it actually means to be empowered. Is this some state to which projects attempt to bring participants and if so what is it? Project representatives present pointed to the severe disparities in power and in access to resources in society. In this context, it was difficult to talk of participants or groups being empowered in some absolute sense. Given this it was considered more useful to talk about empowering practices. Central to these was enabling and supporting people and groups to become involved in the identification of solutions to their problems. Empowering practices were contrasted with top-down approaches. Top-down approaches involved designing projects and programmes without the active involvement of people who were being targeted by these. In contrast, empowering practices recognise the insights of people experiencing exclusion into what is needed to tackle it and work to build projects that actively incorporate these into the activities of the project.

Next Steps

It was agreed that a useful way of contributing to the theme of Empowering Excluded People was to document the empowering practices that were being used by projects in Integra and to identify the outcomes associated with this at individual and collective levels. Further updates on this work will be provided in the next issue.

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