Empowerment and Strengths-Based Perspective: Social Work

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Empowerment and a strengths perspective which support the development of innate abilities and recognize differences in a positive manner are also helping social workers increase the individual client’s capacity to learn to use his or her own systems constructively

More than a simple linguistic nuance, the notion that social workers do not empower others, but instead, help people empower themselves is an ontological distinction that frames the reality experienced by both social workers and clients (Simon, 1990, p. 32, quoted in Saleeby, 2006, p. 98)

Introduction:
This paper firstly looks at empowerment, what it is, and how it can assist social workers in enhancing their client’s competence through development of self-efficacy, mastery, and their ability to use their own resources (both inner and outer) in a productive and beneficial manner. The paper then looks at the Strengths Perspective and how social workers can use this lens to assist clients in re-framing their sense of self, and therefore enhance their client’s capacity for self-determination. The paper then looks at empowerment and the Strengths Perspective in action, through the utilization of Solution Focused theory.

In this paper it is argued that the action of empowerment is fundamental to the application of a strengths perspective. It is also argued that a positive recognition of ‘difference’, such as for those experiencing mental health issues, or who may be gay or lesbian for example, can assist clients in normalizing their lived experience.

Empowerment:
Empowerment is both a theory and a practice. It is also a process as well as an outcome (Zimmerman, 1995; Gutierrez, DeLois and GlenMaye, 1995; Carr, E.S., 2003).

The practice of empowerment grew out of the women’s and black rights movements of the United States in the late 60s/70s where it was recognised that these two powerless/oppressed groups did not have equal access to human services. This had a negative effect both at the level of the individual and at the level of the institution of the family, which meant that the “impaired systems [were] unable to shield individuals from the negative effects of the oppressive institutions” (Gutierrez et al, 1995, p. 534), thereby self-perpetuating the oppressed state of those, and other subjegated, groups.

The “goal of empowerment is to increase personal, interpersonal or political power, so that individuals, families or communities can take action to improve their situation” (Gutierrez et al, 1995, p. 535) —Australian examples of empowered communities would include the Women’s Electoral Lobby and the Tent Embassy, also developing in the 1970s for example — This goal means “an increase in the actual power of the client or community [as opposed to their coping with, or adaptation to, the dominant paradigm] so that action can be taken [by them] to prevent or change the problems they are facing” (Gutierrez et al, 1995, p. 535). A crucial aim of empowerment is therefore “enhancing the possibilities for people to control their own lives” (Rappapport, 1981, p. 15) and augmenting their sense of self-determination.

The process of empowerment, involves the development of consciousness — consciousness raising/conscientization, and psychological empowerment (Carr, 2003, p. 15; Zimmerman 1995) — facilitating a reduction in self-blame, an assumption of personal responsibility for change, and enhancement of self-efficacy (Gutierrez et al, 1995, p. 535). Empowerment also involves the understanding by oppressed people that the nature of their oppression is structural and systemic and is not self-inflicted (Cowger, Anderson & Snively, 2006). Further, empowerment “involves a commitment to challenging and combating injustice” (Pease, 2002, p. 136, quoting Ward and Mullender).

Consciousness raising, practiced by many a feminist in the 1970s for example, is learning about, and increasing one’s self awareness of, their individual social fit within...
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