Power with, not power over

Julia Kraft

Social Empowerment is a process by which people reclaim their power, the power to shape their own lives and to influence the course of events around them. They use their power against oppression and exclusion, and for participation, peace and human rights.

This power is not "power-over", or domination, but the power to be and to do, "power-with" others that can be used to change oppressive or disempowering circumstances. This power stands against political repression, repression by institutions and also against the social patterns that pervade within society and which diminish the quality of peoples' lives. Power and influence within in society needs to be redistributed. As people become empowered they people a critical consciousness about the unequal distribution of goods, opportunities and knowledge within society, and how this social reality can be changed. Empowerment is also about locating our own resources, discovering what other resources are available, and learning to use them.

Phases of empowerment

The process of empowerment usually starts in response to crisis: an emotional or physical experience which causes a break or change in daily routines. When this happens, sometimes people realise that something has to change. They begin to lose confidence in politicians and decision-makers and look to their own ability to influence the situation.

In the second phase people are seeking and finding social support, locating other people who have, had similar experiences or have similar interests. At this point people discover their own abilities and take their first visible actions.

By the third phase people have reached a better understanding about societal connections. They have gained experience in taking action and may have begun to experience conflict, not only arising from the roles they have chosen within the group, but also with their family and among friends.

The fourth phase is a phase of conviction and "burning patience". Peoples' skills and abilities in handling conflict have developed, they understand that there is a link between conflict and growth and have come to the conclusion that they can influence society and change it, partially. This attitude helps us to continue the slow and difficult processes and also to support other people who are starting similar empowerment processes.

The personal, the group the social

Empowerment processes work on three levels, the personal (power-within), the collective/group (power-with), the social (power-in-relation-to-certain-ends, and power-against-certain-social-forces). These levels are not separate. Personal power often comes from a sense of connectedness, or membership of a group with like-minded people.

These groups have to make decisions, not just on their own style of operations but on what basis they forms coalitions, which alliances to make with which sources of power, and how these should function to establish a more enduring empowerment at the grassroots. These networks between groups, institutions and people play an essential role, as empowerment comes from the exchange of ideas, mutual support and joint actions.

The nonviolence analysis

Nonviolence contributes to social empowerment, in that the process of shaping one's life happens in a way that respects the rights and the humanity of all. Nonviolence can challenge existing power relations without increasing enmity. Nonviolence can strengthen elements of our social fabric, such as respect for diversity, mutual understanding, participatory forms of organisation and the practice of voluntary co-operation. Further it seeks to empower those who traditionally are perceived as having less power, and to empower people with different perspectives.

The contribution of empowerment

The study of nonviolent action has tended to concentrate on its role in bringing down dictators or resisting occupation; it is used in working towards goals ranging from independence from colonial role, to changing government or corporate policy, or their philosophy. However, its impact on those taking action, or on our culture, tend to be treated as a side-effect.

Many campaigns or social movements assess their effectiveness solely in terms of whether they have achieved their goals. This narrow view of effectiveness can lead to an "achievement-oriented", "instrumentalist" pattern of work, and a high rate of burn-out for activists. Moreover, this narrow view disregards an underlying motivation shared by many activists: to campaign on a specific problem in a way that will facilitate wider change, and enhance our ability to shape our own lives.

A perspective which centres on empowerment can contribute to nonviolent social movements and actions, and enable an inner view on the processes that happen within the people and groups involved in the movement or the action, or in the social cultures that arise from these movements. This means not only looking at whether the goals have been achieved by the action, but also at our personal growth and how groups may learn together.

Julia Kraft has been working in the German grassroots movements since 1994. She is currently involved in coordinating the War Resisters' International Nonviolence and Social Empowerment Project. See p13 for contact details.