Margins to Center
A few weeks ago I was asked to give a presentation to colleagues and members of the community about the ideology of empowerment. Empowerment is my primary job description so I can give a presentation about the subject with my eyes closed. Although it is an easy subject for me to discuss, truth be told, I feel that the concept of empowerment in American society is a cop out. Although I believe that the individual must be an integral part, and even the impetus for positive change, they are only one part of reaching true empowerment. An individual can change all they want but if they don’t have the structures and support to back them up that change means very little.
When asked what “empowerment” means, most people will say that it is an individual making choices that will improve their life. An empowered person will pull themselves up by their bootstraps; they work hard and persevere and then are rewarded for it. Meritocracy is, after all, the bedrock of the American dream and our concept of national progress. But when the modern idea of empowerment was first emerging in the late 1960’s, it was a response by feminists who were frustrated with the male-centric, establishment public policy being enacted world-wide. “Women’s Empowerment” was a transformational idea that challenged the existing structures of patriarchy as well as race and social class.
The empowerment movement was supposed to challenge the ideologies that justified social inequality and transform the structures that reinforced that inequality. This was a very popular theoretical exercise among feminists and much of the 2nd Wave literature addressed these issues. Feminists, however, are not a monolithic body and so there was no clear definition or agreed upon public policy platform to push those transformations forward. This allowed the word and its ideology to be usurped from its original purpose of systematic change to the idea we recognize today of individual power, achievement and status. The power in empowerment was effectively neutralized and the deep power changes that needed to take place in gender
relations and other social hierarchies never occurred.
This brings me back to why I was uncomfortable giving a presentation about empowerment; the empowerment model we have today does not work! When I first started counseling domestic violence victims the path to empowerment was pretty clear cut. Clients would get a job and then they would get housing, we would throw in a little counseling for good measure, teach them how to be assertive and how to make healthy relationship choices and call it a success. And our model was successful, 80% of our clients went down some variation of the path I mentioned before…until the empowerment model failed.
Like so many other subsets of our society, when the bubble burst and the economy crashed, the reality that remained was so much uglier than any of us could have imagined. Our successful empowerment model had only masked a deeply flawed and pernicious system of structural and relational inequality. Those of us in advocacy saw in even sharper contrast just how
disempowering our society is. For example, Arizona recently cut their subsidized daycare program making it impossible for low-income women to work and take care of their children. For women like my clients, their inability to work makes it impossible for them to obtain housing. Their options are to go from shelter to shelter, exist on the charity of friends and
family or go back to their abusers. On top of this, the legislature cut emergency cash assistance by 20%, making it even harder for mothers to stretch their already paltry income to cover the living expenses of their families. It is pretty hard to feel empowered when you’re worried about how your going to feed your children.
I understand why the Arizona State Legislature cut these programs; women who take from the system go against all of those notions of self-reliance we hold so dear. It is easy to see them as milking the system and the vitriol in which “welfare moms” are spoken with only further proves how deeply ingrained the meritocracy in our society is. My clients are literally on the margins of society and their needs are easily ignored or dismissed out of fear of “enabling”. I don’t believe that people who have power are mean-spirited, I just think they don’t know…they can’t see the human face of disempowerment.
I understand this because I too once believed that people on the margins either didn’t exist or were there because of their own failings. It was not until I started working in the margins that I realized in order for them to escape, it must be society who changes. I can assure you, as someone working on the front lines, that the women I work with are striving and fighting with everything they have to empower themselves. They work hard to provide a better, safer life for themselves and their children, but they cannot achieve true empowerment without systematic change to every power institution in this country. So let me suggest a starting point, bring the margins to the center. Give domestic violence victims, undocumented immigrants, homosexuals, racial minorities and all women a human face. Make the individual more than just a number, more than a nebulous concept with a need. The powerful will not give up their power easily but at least they won’t be able to ignore the problem…And that is half the battle.