Empowerment Theory for Anti-Racist Practice
"An abundance of literature demonstrates that mandatory diversity trainings not only fail on their own terms, but can make things worse. That is because every diversity training I’ve experienced, including those I organized and facilitated earlier in my career as a diversity officer, begin with either the behavioral or the interactional component of empowerment. They tend to skip the intrapersonal component that prepares an individual for fair-minded critical thinking and coexistence in the first place. Mindfulness and metacognition should be a much bigger focus if we truly want to get things done. Otherwise, we may remain in our prefigurative bubbles, running on metaphorical treadmills, getting nowhere."
- Erec Smith 
"In A Critique of Anti-Racism, I offer empowerment theory as a framework for anti-racist work, whether it is activism or pedagogy. Empowerment theory is derived from psychology and social work, prominently championed by Marc Zimmerman and Judith A.B. Lee, respectively. It also has a tacit presence in the work of writers like Chloé S. Valdary and organizations like the Greater Good Science Center. And it overlaps with theories of emotional intelligence set forth by Daniel Goleman, George Kohlrieser, Vanessa Druskat, and Richard Boyatzis. (The work of Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Donald Laurie in Leadership Studies is also relevant.) Empowerment has three components: the intrapersonal, the interactional, and the behavioral. One needs all three components to be truly empowered.
The intrapersonal component involves how we speak to ourselves—what rhetorical scholars like Alexandria Peary and Jean Nienkamp call “internal rhetoric.” It involves self-awareness and self-management and is meant to help people build self-confidence and self-esteem. Ultimately, it is intended to provide what psychologist George Kohlrieser calls a “secure base,” a condition that helps us develop a sense of protection and encourages us to “focus away from pain, danger, fear, or loss toward a focus on reward, opportunity, or benefit.” Without a strong intrapersonal component, it is hard to make use of the other two because we are too focused on self-protection and fending off “pain, danger, fear, or loss.” Activists in this situation may believe they are fighting for a better world, when in fact they are simply searching for a secure base to assuage their sense of powerlessness.
The interactional component of empowerment is concerned with the world around us, in which social awareness and relationship management are key competencies. Empathy, active listening, fair-minded critical thinking, and an acknowledgement and respect for context and socio-material influences are of particular importance. This requires critical awareness, which refers not to the search for power dynamics per se, but to what is known as organizational awareness reflected in concepts of moral dialogue and negotiation. Moral dialogue implies a shared goal, while negotiation is the recognition of shared values as the starting point for understanding and co-existence. In my article for the Heterodox Academy entitled “A Rhetoric of Common Values,” I encourage us to find commonalities in discourse—understanding discourse and one’s place within it is a key to fair-minded critical thought and engagement.
The behavioral component, also sometimes referred to as the political component, informs the nature of collaboration. This component deals with actual social and material realities in civic and professional contexts, which makes it most incompatible with prefigurative politics. It requires the competencies of teamwork, achievement orientation, conflict management, and adaptive leadership. The behavioral component is also informed by pragmatism and the need to gauge the reality of a situation and make rational moves toward particular goals.
If we were to apply empowerment theory to pedagogy, it might look like problem-based learning (PBL), which is student-driven and focuses on engagement with real problems from real stakeholders. For one of my courses, “Communication in Professional Cultures,” I spend the first half of the semester exploring rhetoric, professional writing genres, and the importance of empowerment theory and emotional intelligence in civic and professional life. These discussions are then put into practice as students are asked to examine a concrete situation using mindfulness and metacognition (the intrapersonal), an understanding of context and competing interests (the interactional), and an ability to work as a team to discover and convey practical solutions (the behavioral).
PBL accomplishes several things. First, it demands reality testing; a problem cannot be solved if one refuses to acknowledge the contexts in which it arises. Second, it provides a locus of control that allows the components of empowerment to emerge by forcing students to develop agency and efficiency. Third, it enhances diversity and tolerance because all involved have to work together to get the task done, irrespective of their identity.
Political scientist Kurt Burch argues that the democratic, deliberative, and interpersonal nature of PBL means it will improve “the participation, achievement, and enthusiasm of women, minorities, introverts, and those frustrated by the competitiveness and alienating isolation fostered by typical classroom instruction.” Burch believes that the relationship between participation and diversity is reciprocal—that each enhances the other. Why? Because “problems are vehicles for learning… Problems transport students from the classroom to tangible, real-world situations that stimulate their curiosity and creativity.” Identity has to be transcended or, at least, de-emphasized in most cases to achieve authentic and effective solutions. Stakeholders just want the problem solved; they don’t need it to be solved “blackly” or “whitely.”
Problem-based learning is so conducive to true empowerment that it can be effective beyond the classroom. In an essay for the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum argues that collaboration is the way to transcend current societal divisions:
Get potential protesters of different political views into a room and ask them, “How are we going to protect our state capitol during demonstrations?” Ask for ideas. Take notes. Make the problem narrow, specific, even boring, not existential or exciting. “Who won the 2020 election?” is, for these purposes, a bad topic. “How do we fix the potholes in our roads?” is, in contrast, superb.
At the local level, people with apparently disparate values, attitudes, and beliefs can nevertheless collaborate to address things that actually matter and yield benefits that improve the lives of all concerned in the process. Joy DeGruy argues that what she calls “improvement science”—a societal PBL similar to that described by Applebaum—could help assuage or remedy Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. This societal PBL is a “learn-by-doing” approach, she writes, that has the fundamental goal of ensuring that “improvement efforts are based as much on evidence as the best practices they seek to implement.” This approach can “zero in on the problem quickly and involve engaging with partners and stakeholders from the beginning of the process and throughout the life of the project.” This requires “an outward focus that investigates how the environment, history, and human systems have created the problem that is in need of solving.” The self-absorption of a narrow focus on the primacy of identity precludes a clear understanding of the social and material realities that need to be addressed.
Empowerment theory has particular relevance to diversity and implicit bias trainings which illuminate the importance of a strong intrapersonal component. An abundance of literature demonstrates that mandatory diversity trainings not only fail on their own terms, but can make things worse. That is because every diversity training I’ve experienced, including those I organized and facilitated earlier in my career as a diversity officer, begin with either the behavioral or the interactional component of empowerment. They tend to skip the intrapersonal component that prepares an individual for fair-minded critical thinking and coexistence in the first place. Mindfulness and metacognition should be a much bigger focus if we truly want to get things done. Otherwise, we may remain in our prefigurative bubbles, running on metaphorical treadmills, getting nowhere." (https://quillette.com/2021/02/19/towards-practical-empowerment/)