15 July 2010
What is community empowerment?
My dictionary suggests these usages of ‘empower’:
I empowered my agent to make the deal for me. The local ordinance empowers the board of health to close unsanitary restaurants.
In this same sense, in our political system, local elections empower the local government to manage the affairs of the community. It is the government that is empowered, not the community. In order to do the managing, the government has dialog processes, such as city-council meetings, staff meetings, public hearings, etc., by which the government ‘makes up its mind what to do’.
If the community itself is to be empowered to manage its own affairs, then there must be dialog processes by which the community as a whole can ‘make up its mind what to do’. And everyone’s voice must be included in those processes, or else it is some minority that is empowered, not the community. That is to say:
An empowered community is a community that manages its own affairs by means of inclusive dialog processes.
I offer that as a definition of an empowered community, but it remains to be seen whether such a community is feasible, in the context of our modern societies. It is not clear what the processes would be, that could include everyone’s voice, that would be practical and effective, that people would actually participate in, and that everyone would be reasonably happy with.
I also offer the Wise Democracy Victoria experience, along with Wisdom Councils and Dynamic Facilitation, as a starting point for our thinking about what kind of processes might do the job.
There is another aspect to empowerment as well. If we empower someone to pave the street, that makes little sense unless that someone has the means to do the paving. Similarly, an empowered community makes little sense unless the community has the means to take care of its needs.
And in fact there is a need for communities to find such means, in an era where global resources and supply lines are under threat, and the global economy is not functioning well. The program-based localization initiatives are aimed at providing the necessary means, by which a community can take care of its needs based on what’s available in the local region.
The localization movement, taken as a whole, contains the ingredients out of which an empowered community could evolve. If the community begins implementing programs appropriately, and if this process gradually comes to be owned by the whole community, through increasing use of dialog processes, then the community would be evolving toward empowerment.
I am not suggesting that the localization movement adopt community empowerment as a goal. A reasonable argument can be made that survival takes precedence over empowerment, that time is running short, and that a dedicated group of informed leaders / activists might manage the process of implementing survival-oriented programs better than could any process of community dialog. I will not try to dispute that argument.
Instead, in the next section, we will be reviewing the barriers that are preventing the program-based initiatives from escaping from marginalism, and we’ll be looking at how dialog processes could be used to overcome those barriers. Rather than being a diversion from the programs, community dialog can be the means of generating greater local support and involvement in the programs.
The main theme of this chapter is the exploration of potential synergies among the various localization initiatives. I suggest that the pursuit of those synergies can be expected to naturally lead communities toward empowerment.
The more people get involved in the programs, the more successful the programs will be. And the more successful the programs are, the more people will want to get involved. Enabling people to get involved, so that their voices matter, is where dialog processes come in. Taken all together, there seems to be a natural feedback loop that can be expected to push communities toward the realization of empowerment.
This document continues to evolve, based on continuing research. The latest version is always maintained at this URL:
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