Empowerment: The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.
Empowerment has become a buzzword these days within the context of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and humanitarian work. Almost everyone claims to empower locals, but how are they doing that and is it really happening? This is something I have been contemplating a lot over the last few months.
There is a big difference between helping and empowering. Helping an individual could look like buying food or paying their rent. It could look like connecting them to the correct resources based on their particular needs. There are so many ways to help someone, but empowering someone looks different and is not nearly as easy. Empowering someone involves walking alongside them and building a relationship of equality, not a relationship of a giver and beggar. It involves encouragement and strengths perspective. It involves teaching life skills and building up the natural talents of an individual. You have to see the other person as equal, as deserving of the privilege and rights that you yourself have. That can be rare to find within the NGO context of developing countries. A lot of the missionaries/expats that come into countries like Uganda view the locals as poor people that need saving. They don’t see them as truly equals, and I don’t think it is possible to empower an individual if you don’t see them as an equal.
My job here at HEAL has put me in a really unique place of equipping and empowering our management team staff members. When Trey, our operations manager, moved back to the States at the end of 2019, it created a really great opportunity for our management team to step up and lead. Trey’s role has been divided up between the management team members, and now they each have more responsibility than they did previously. They still continue to look to me, the white person, to give instructions and lead. This is the unique position I have right now– I get to remind them that they have a voice and a say in the matter. Management gets to decide as a team; I am not the only one making decisions. All 12 of us get to make decisions together about what is best for the organization. I am loving this role that I have right now. I get to sit alongside these staff members and encourage them to use their voices and to advocate for what they believe is best. I remind them that they know more than I do, and that my skin color does not mean I get to make all the decisions. To be fair, I don’t always do it perfectly and there are days where I want to make the final decision because I don’t agree. But I have to remind myself to step back and listen to these hardworking wise individuals who know the culture and organization far more than I do.
I know that empowering our staff is going to be a long journey and change won’t happen overnight. But there is nothing else in the world I would rather do than try to empower the people who society treats as less than.