I’ve been using the word ‘empower’ for years. It’s a great word – one that implies giving dignity to others; the whole ‘give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime’ type story comes up when I hear the word empower. It’s even in my organizations mission statement – we seek to empower individuals. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s the hot word of today’s non profits. We all want to empower others: the poor, the apathetic, the girl child, the slave, even ourselves! By definition it means “to give (someone) the authority or power to do something” or “to make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights”. It’s a great word.
I graduated with a masters degree in Cross Cultural studies where my focus was on children at risk and international development. I joke that after three years of talking about everything I could possibly do in my life and work (in context of working with the poor) there would be no escaping that I would screw up at some points. We were warned of everything that could go wrong: from the language we use being offensive or not up to date (should ‘at-risk’ come before or after the word child. If it’s put after, then they are first and foremost defined as a child, But if put before, they are defined as being at-risk. Therefore it is politically incorrect to say ‘at-risk child’ but somewhat acceptable to say ‘child at-risk’), to the organizational structure we implemented not having that perfect balance of both empowerment (see, there’s the word again) and accountability. I had a degree in cross cultural work and yet the fear of God put in me that nothing I would do could ever be right (this might be a slight exaggeration but truly, I graduated with a sense of deep humility that development work was not something to be taken lightly).
The word ‘empower’ never raised red flags in these years so I used it confidently and frequently.
Until a dear African American friend enlightened me. It had never crossed my mind before that what this word implies is that I have the power and you do not. Therefore, let me give you the power. This also goes against my theology of humanity: that no matter our circumstances we are all uniquely created in the image of God, with our own thoughts, our own beliefs, our own strengths and weaknesses. A beautiful messy collection of broken and poor people, this word ‘empower’ implies a giving of my strength to your weakness, rather than a mutual exchange of dignity. Thereby degrading you and elevating me.
I believe that we need to stop empowering and start inspiring. The word inspire is to fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something (especially something creative). We inspire by living an inspired life ourselves. It is natural to be attracted to and want to spend time around inspired people. People passionate about life, creative, honest and fully present. I am inspired when I am with these people to be a better me. So what if, instead of seeking to empower, we began to seek to inspire? To focus inward in an effort to live our own lives fully, to love deeply, to be conscious in our mistakes and present to our pain.