A disempowered culture favors the few who garner in their own coffers the riches of society. As divisions increase so do tactics that provoke fear, distraction, indifference and, ultimately, violence. The countercultural effort of creating milieus of empowerment runs the risk of posing a threat to the privileged minority and discomforting people conditioned to apathy.
The Spanish language has two usages of the word Poder. As a noun, it is translated as power. As a verb, it is translated as to be able. Empowerment enables the effectiveness of an individual, a group, or a nation. It is the first tool of social change.
I spent twenty-eight years as a clinical supervisor for Victor Family of Services. I started with the Regional Adolescent Treatment Program. Inspired by its founder, the late David Favor, the program pioneered the effort to take children out of the state mental hospital and provide a community-based alternative. Of the many treatment interventions we developed, the chief one was to create a healing milieu. Everyone strived to be on the same page, to provide an experience of normalcy for children who not only saw themselves as mentally ill and possibly dangerous, but were viewed that way as society as well. We had four tract homes on our own spacious cul-de-sac. We found a school site off the grounds, staffed it with credentialed teachers and offered high-school units. We certainly were not successful in every case, but we began to see some youth graduating from our program, even reuniting with restored families. We saw the power of the milieu, staffed by courageous and caring people, some hired right from the community with no special certification.
Before that I was the pastor of an impoverished Catholic parish on the outskirts of the diocese. Its membership consisted primarily of three separate racial communities, with one racial group feeling particularly entitled. My goal, stated in my opening homily, was to create a community where everyone felt welcomed. I was able to assemble a like-minded pastoral team. We strove to treat everyone the same. I cannot say we did not experience resistance; I can say, when I left six years later, I left a community known for its hospitality.
I have learned a few things about creating a milieu: It takes time. It is a process that requires patience and persistence. It can't be done alone. People come together for a common goal. Expect resistance. Change disrupts the status quo. You will experience failures. It is possible. It is worth the effort!
Creating Milieus of Empowerment
Where can be found milieus of empowerment? Families where members are invested in the good of one another, where the aged are cherished and share accumulated wisdom, where parents understand their mission of nurturing the emerging identity of the child, are the first milieu of empowerment. Neighborhoods with common goals; service institutions like school and church bent on improving their quality of service; government agencies striving to be responsive to the citizenry; wherever people have a project in common: there, though not always actualized, is the potential for milieus of empowerment.
On 11/8/13 a massive wall of water from a storm surge caused by super typhoon Haiyan slammed into Tacloban City on the island of Leyte in the Philippines, leaving over 5000 people dead. There are terrifying stories of people torn from one another's arms -- husband from wife, wife from husband, parent from child, child from parent -- with one swept out to sea, never to be seen again, and the other left behind. I was moved to prepare a training for religious leaders, that I shared with the church there, on restoring resilience for children that had suffered traumatic loss.
Victimization inevitably engenders a sense of powerlessness. Sustained stress is neurotoxic to early brain development, inhibiting those areas that affect such things as emotional regulation, impulsivity, decision making. Trauma simultaneously affects neurological, biological and physical functioning, imprinting helplessness and danger on the experience of the self.
How can the victimized children of Tacloban feel safe in a world that is demonstrably unsafe?
The child's experience: Devastation of the disaster; Parents and other adults are powerless; Loss, from residential to loved one. Complicated by the stress of ongoing and pervasive poverty.
The critical role of the significant adult figure: Authenticity; Attention; Explanation; Trustworthy; Humor; Coping skills.
The significant role of the church in Philippine society:. In times of disaster people naturally turn to God from awareness of their own powerlessness. Dismiss a manipulative God who controls the course of nature or human lives; Embrace surrender to a Loving God; Express anger with God if needed; Individual and communal Prayer
Nourish Resilience: Rebuild trust In Self; In God; In others, particularly significant adults; In the processes of nature. Resolve trauma Rediscover the wonder and joy of childhood Restore an environment that encourages childhood imagination; Encourage sharing through listening, age-group discussion, nonjudgmental feedback; Storytelling; Play; Song; Dance; Laughter.
A disempowered group may be easy to recognize:
Secrecy (vs transparency); Hidden information (vs shared information); Low morale (vs satisfaction); Wage discrepancy (vs parity); Defensiveness (vs openness); Fear/discrediting of authority (vs respect of authority); Displaced credit (shared credit); Blame (vs responsibility); Confused Communication (vs clear, direct communication); Distraction (vs attention); Ignoring (vs listening); Criticism (vs leadership by example); Win/lose (vs win/win); Control (vs autonomy); Underdeveloped skills (vs competence); Lies (vs honesty); Lack of trust (vs reliability); Resentment (vs regard); Overlooked effort (vs recognition); Dead ends (vs opportunity); Disinterest (vs investment) Boredom (vs fun).
The Empowering Leader
A servant leadership that sustains conviviality as a mental model for social change is a leadership that empowers. This is a leadership that is participatory, engaging and enjoying the efforts of the participants.
Elements for a servant leadership:
Inclusion: Everyone who has an investment in an action is invited to be part of the process, if practical. Others may provide important insights and information. Voice: Hearing, attending to and listening others' Voice. The considered opinion of participants is recognized and valued. Dialogue: Exchange of ideas that clarifies and prioritizes. Inclusive of all participants. Consensus: Resolution or determination that best engages and reflects the feelings and ideas of participants.
Implementing Inclusion, Voice, Dialogue, and Consensus, positively invests others in a project or action. If it meets difficulties or initial failure, they are less apt to give up or find fault. If it succeeds, they can celebrate and own a share in in having created an effective action (shared empowerment).
The events of the 60's were particularly devastating to many of us, memorialized by image of a small child saluting the passing casket of his slain father. After the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Martin Luther King was slain on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. Sometimes the right words articulated at the right time can empower. Before he was about to attend a rally in an AfroAmerican ghetto in Indianapolis, Robert Kennedy had the challenge of announcing King’s death to the crowds. Too late to prepare a substitute address, he searched his heart and delivered those few words that helped to galvanize the recovery of the whole country:
"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another; and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black."
Or the right words may be no words at all. In his visit to the Philippines after the deadly typhoon in Leyte, Pope Francis met with the survivors. He sat with them in silence, all sharing prayers in their hearts. When he met with the street children in Manila, he simply said, "The truth you have is more important than the paper I have in front of me."
Liberation is empowerment:
Compelling Vision: Whereas the team analyzes values, comes up with a mission statement, identifies goals and actions, the servant leader articulates a compelling vision that attracts and inspires. A chief responsibility of that leader is not to let the vision be forgotten.
Oppression of peoples throughout the world cries for a solution, yet the solution remains shackled by the forces of evil, sustained by the ignorance and greed of those who have political and economic power.
Too often service institutions unwittingly become partners of those forces. This is true of the church, whose record of good works is often marred by evil actions.
The Latin American Bishops, overwhelmed by the oppression of the people and the violent repression by the government and military, came together in conference in Medellin, Colombia in 1968 . They made a historic effort to refocus the work of the church towards a "preferential option for the poor." This was met by resistance not only by government but by dignitaries of the church, not only in Latin America but in other places of the world.
This "refocus of power" could have ended there, nice theology but best left in writing, too difficult and too controversial to achieve, more pious "pie in the sky". But there were dedicated religious servant-leaders for whom "preferential option for the poor" became their "Compelling Vision." In El Salvador, Lives were put on the line and a new age of martyrdom began. Four female U.S. Catholic missionaries, lay missioner Jean Donovan and three nuns, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel, were raped and murdered by members of the National Guard. Six Jesuit priests, now further articulating and applying "liberation theology", along with their housekeeper and her fifteen-year-old daughter, were dragged from their house and slain by the military. Bishop Oscar Romero (now canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church) was shot and killed in the pulpit while delivering a homily.
The "preferential option for the poor" was no longer a pious ideal but is becoming a lived response throughout the world, due to the insight of the Bishops of El Salvador and the empowering action, to the point of blood, of martyrs for the cause of justice.
The theory of parallel process suggests that what takes place on one level of experience tends to replicate itself as another. For instance, when I worked as a clinical supervisor, if I modeled nonjudgmental listening with my supervisees, they, in turn, would be more inclined to exercise those same skills with their clients. A servant leadership that empowers is democratic and participatory. Exercising justice in the workplace, the family, the community, the parish ... leads to a more just world.