Empowerment. What a complicated topic. As many know, the world of development loves to talk about empowerment these days. It’s a hot word. Many organizations make claims that their work empowers the poor. At the same time, others have been resistant to using models of empowerment because they are difficult to measure. It’s easy to quantify how many people you are able to give access to clean water, but it is entirely something different to claim how many people you were able to “empower.” Many have tried to do just this, and the results have been mixed. What makes empowerment even more difficult is that it is hard to create models of empowerment. Much of empowerment is a slow artful process that requires a long time of intentionality. One cannot simply barge into a community give some people at few inspiring words and leave if he or she hopes to empower someone.
At ThinkImpact’s Innovation Institute this summer, I have wrestled with the idea of empowerment. While here, our goal is to create an innovative product or service that the community members can turn into a business. However, the underlying goal is to inspire and empower our team members and other community members to see themselves as agents of change within their community. Even if the product or service fails, we hope that they will feel empowered to explore other innovations within their community, and believe that they have the capacity to do so.
These are some pretty lofty goals. I’ve been thinking about two questions in particular around empowerment. (1) How do you go about empowering others? (2) Can we actually create lasting change in our 2 months here in Rwanda?
The first question about the approach to empowerment has been on my mind constantly. How can I effectively go about inspiring/empowering my team members? I’ve tried in overt ways as well as more subtle ones. I’ve attempted it overtly by telling the team I believe they are creative and intelligent with lots to offer. I’ve tried it subtly by challenging people to think critically about our problem of light at night. I’ve tried it by nudging the team members to take stronger leadership roles in the team. For example, we presented a storyboard of our challenge and the way in which we hope to address it. For this presentation, we selected one team member, named Mama Mussa, to present with us. In our practice run, she began speaking very softly with a little bit of nervousness in her voice. By the time we got to the end of the practice run she became more energetic and sure of her voice. She ended up killing it in the actual presentation. I was so stinking proud. And so, this Institute has been an exploration of approaches to empowerment. It’s simply been a process of trial and error, and a learning of the art.
The second question has consumed me even more with whether or not we can create lasting change/empowerment in our short 2 months here in Rwanda. When I first arrived, I think I was full of lofty hopes of completely shifting the mindsets of those we work with leaving them forever impacted by the work we do together. I quickly came back to the reality that this is difficult work, and it’s quite likely that our impact will be very limited. I found myself almost in a level of paralysis because of how unlikely I thought the mind-shift was. Since then, I have returned to a more level headed approach accepting that our change may be limited, but it is change nonetheless. The goal here is to plant seed of mind-shift that may blossom in the future. It is important to take away the burden of creating mind-shift in my team members from the community. The burden will only inhibit our ability to effectively create that change. I think there is a happy medium, which understands the difficulty of the process, but takes small steps into that direction maybe creating that change at some point in the future.
Sorry, I think I got a little abstract and theoretical there. All in all, I am fascinated by the idea of empowerment. I’ve enjoyed exploring it through this experience, and look forward to exploring it in other contexts.