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Understanding empowerment practice: Building on practitioner-based knowledge

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RECENT DISCUSSIONS AND PROPOSALS on domestic policy suggest that empowerment should be the focus of our efforts to reduce poverty and other persistent social problems. These policy discussions parallel a growing body of theory and research in the social sciences and the social professions that attempt to explain how individuals and groups can be empowered (Fay, 1987; Freire, 1973; Kieffer, 1984) and how programs and policies can support empowerment rather than dependency (Gutierrez, 1990; Pinderhughes, 1989; Rappaport, 1981; Simon, 1990; Solomon, 1976; Stensrud & Stensrud, 1982). In social work and other professions, empowerment is presented as a means for addressing the problems of powerless populations and for mediating the role powerlessness plays in creating and perpetuating social problems (Garvin, 1985; Gutierrez, 1989; Kahn & Bender, 1985; Lum, 1982; Pinderhughes, 1989; Shapiro, 1984; Solomon, 1976).

Empowerment practice in social work emerged from efforts to develop more effective and responsive services for women and people of color. Both of these practice areas build upon the assumption that the experience of being a member of a group with little social or political power has personal as well as social costs. Unequal access to resources prevents individuals, families, and organizations in oppressed communities from gaining the social goods that they need. This inequity is compounded by larger social institutions creating and perpetuating feelings of powerlessness, which in turn can lead to poor functioning in community or family systems. These impaired systems are then unable to shield individuals from the negative effects of the oppressive institutions (Bricker-Jenkins & Hooyman, 1986; Pinderhughes, 1989; Solomon, 1976). The empowerment perspective proposes that this cycle can be reversed only through changes in the distribution of power.

Empowerment theory depicts power as originating from various sources and as infinite because it can be generated in the process of social interaction...