Knowledge is Power
by Donna McIntosh, MSW
Whatever your working definition of empowerment, we generally concur it has a central element of having control (power) over decision-making about one’s life and destiny. Empowerment can be seen on a continuum that is personally defined similar to the concept of self-actualization. It is individually determined. What does empowerment mean to you as a human being and as a professional social worker?
When I was a social work student, the word empowerment was not yet in our professional vernacular. We built upon the self-actualization from Maslow’s 1943 Hierarchy of Needs and assertive training for women like myself coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, but there was no word empowerment (Bonham-Carter, 2012). Early introduction and reinforcement of this term did not seem to result in any clearly agreed upon definition, and there was much examination about how power is given, gained, and exchanged and to what end (Page & Czuba, 1999). It is possible we are still trying to determine exactly how empowerment is operationally defined (Gwanmesia, 2010).
In the early 1990s, when the term empowerment was being researched and integrated into our vocabulary, I was working in the mental health field. A new schematic of the psychiatric rehabilitation model, which had purportedly been around since deinstitutionalization, emerged from Boston University (Anthony & Farkas, 2009). Central to its core was a form of empowerment. If a person with a serious mental illness wanted to live independently, rather than the system of experts assessing this as too high a risk, the goal was to establish the steps it would take to get that person, now called a consumer under that model, to that level of self-defined independence. I sat through trainings on this model with several other well-seasoned mental health experts. I wasn’t as seasoned and certainly was no expert. I remember thinking to myself that at the core of this model is the social work value of self-determination, a historically lacking value in the mental health system. A national policy of deinstitutionalization is not synonymous with a policy of self-determination. So when a seasoned mental health professional raised her hand and said she didn’t understand this model, I felt a sense of doom for how well this this new schematic of the psychiatric rehabilitation model was going to be adopted. What was there to understand? It’s a central core value that I was educated in both in my BSW and my MSW program. The model made perfect sense to me. It aligned very well with our social work values. The seeds of the word empowerment can be found in our value of self-determination (Gwanmesia, 2010).
If we work to promote self-determination and empowerment, how can we honestly achieve this with people we call clients if we ourselves give up some of our own empowerment? At the most fundamental base of our own professional empowerment is being knowledgeable about the laws and polices under which we operate as social workers. This would compel us to read the actual texts of policies and laws that govern our work with people in need. Many professionals work in public and private organizations where policy advocacy and involvement in systems change is an area of specialization relegated to top administrators and boards or farmed out to professional lobbyists. There are many reasons, those that are legitimate and those that need to be challenged, that policy advocacy has become a specialization in our profession. We have come to count on those who specialize in the creation of the laws and policies, the majority of whom are not social workers, to interpret for us regulations and areas of compliance/enforcement. We also count on specialists who are lobbyists and policy advocates to interpret through position papers, testimony, and research those aspects of policies that affect not only the lives of clients, but our professional lives, as well.
When I teach policy advocacy to undergraduate social work students, I talk about helping them to find their voice in the political process for change. Even if they don’t end up liking it, they know they can and should be involved. I also teach a very strong message that I also taught staff I used to supervise, and that is: “Know what you are talking about and who you are talking to.” In other words, do your homework. Knowledge truly is power. Read the actual policy. Know it inside and out. There is a funny urban legend that happens with policies. It’s like the old telephone game. People tell others what the law or policy says, and by the time it gets to you, there are many interpretations to it.
Let me give you an example to illustrate. A group of non-social work students in an advocacy and activism class I taught a few years ago wanted to change the outside smoking policy on campus. They were disturbed by the blow back through windows and doors of the dorms when people stood smoking just outside the entrance. I asked them what the provisions were of the current state clean air act with respect to smoking in public areas outside of buildings. They almost all agreed that they knew it was a 25-foot radius from the entrance. Well, if this was true, then it became an advocacy issue of enforcement. If it wasn’t true, then the advocacy focus would take a different course. I had them research the law, and it turns out that was not what the law said. They were amazed that had they not first properly researched the law, their advocacy efforts not only would have been misdirected, but also would have been flawed. Having the actual law in their hands gave them knowledge by which to make an informed decision for a course of action. They were empowered. I caution that it doesn’t mean you always achieve your goal—it simply means you are an informed advocate.
A graduate of our program works in a very large bureaucracy. I asked her a few years ago how she liked it, and she said, “I know all the rules inside and out, and I have found ways to make them work to the advantage of my clients.”
Find the law or policy. Read it. If you Google “actual text of law...” or go to reputable websites such as Findlaw.com, you can locate the actual text. How can we be fully empowered to navigate through a system we don’t fully know well when we haven’t read the actual laws and policies of that system?
Even if you work for an organization that doesn’t allow you to be empowered to participate in policy advocacy, the best way you can start to empower yourself is to read the actual laws and policies under which you operate to help others. The same advice applies to our personal lives as citizens.
Remember, knowledge is power.
Anthony, W. A., & Farkas, M. D. (2009). Primer on the psychiatric rehabilitation process. Boston, MA: Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation.
Bonham-Carter, D.. (2013). Introducing assertiveness: A practical guide. London, England: ICON Books.
Gwanmesia, I. (2010). Strategic empowerment in social work practice: Analysis of the meaning of empowerment and the strategies for maximizing users’ empowerment in social work. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/31302583/Strategic-Empowerment-in-Social-Work-Practice-An-Analysis-of#scribd
Page, N., & Czuba, C. (1999). Empowerment: What is it? Journal of Extension, 37(5). Retrieved from http://www.joe.org/joe/1999october/comm1.php
Donna McIntosh, MSW, is a professor of social work at Siena College.