Sharing Power (v. Empowering)

A friend asked me the other day to remind him why I don’t like to use the word empower when I am doing organizing work. I believe that when we talk about “empowering” people, we make an inherent assumption that the people we are working with don’t already have power, and our action is what gives them power. I believe that everyone has power, and that my job as an organizer is to support people in using their power, share my power with them, and build collective power to stop oppression.

According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition, empower means “to give official authority or legal power to” or to “enable.” includes “to permit” in its definition. Roget’s II, gives as the primary synonym for empower the word allow.

I don’t want to work in a way that implies that people do not have their own power, or worse, that they need someone’s permission to use it. I want to work in a way that recognizes that each person has power and that they have a right to use it to seek justice.

There are several types of personal power. Different sources name them different things, but some common names include: coercive power, informational power, legitimate (or positional) power, reward power, ownership power, knowledge (or skill) power, trust (or respect) power, self-determination (or agency) power. There is, of course, also collective power, which is the result of people or groups joining together to share their power. Building collective power is one of the main reasons people organize.

Power analysis is an activity where a group (or a person) identifies all of the different types of power they have and what the sources of their power are. They also identify the types of power that are held by all of the other stakeholders for the issue being considered. Then, they look for ways to balance or shift the power so that their concerns will be considered fairly.

Sometimes when a group is feeling like the underdog, the story gets told within the group that they don’t have power, and so they look to outside sources to “empower” them. They might get excited, for instance, when a decision maker (who has legitimate power) offers to let them speak at a hearing, or they might respond quickly when an email (written by an organizer who has informational power) urges them to “click here to make your voice heard.”

All too often, when a group has not done the work to figure out what gives them power and to decide how they want to use that power, they find that their power is disbursed, and they are easily defeated. However, when a group works together to do the power analysis and then continues to work together to build their collective power, they will find that they can often accomplish things that seemed impossible.

When we as organizers talk about “empowering” people, we do them a disservice by implying that they don’t have their own power, and that without us, they can’t achieve their goals. When we work with them to find and build their own sources of power, we realize that building collective power makes each individual stronger. This work is sometimes difficult and time consuming because our society places a high value on individual power, and we are not taught about the many different forms of power or how to use them. When a group does this work, though, it is both exciting and inspiring, and it often leads to results the group did not even imagine.