I’m ditching the word “empowerment”. Here’s a better word to use...

For a while my discomfort with the word “empowerment” has been growing. And that’s a teeny bit ironic because it’s one of the four principles of the movement I lead, Alongsiders.

We’re passionate about what we call the “Circle of Courage” – our four core principles – Belonging, Mastery, Empowerment and Purpose.

Frankly, I love the central IDEA of empowerment, in the sense that those who lack power in this broken world, should gain power and ability to make their own decisions and set their own course in life.

But the word “empowerment” has been used to plaster over all sorts of abuses and power games.

Dear poor people. We love you and we have a wonderful plan for your life.

Dear poor people. We love you and we have a wonderful plan for your life.

I heard of a Canadian church today that created a five-year plan for transforming and empowering a community… in the Dominican Republic. In case it’s not obvious, that is not empowerment. The power, decision-making, planning and leadership all lay in Canada. The local people were merely passive recipients of someone else’s plan.

In an age where the poor and vulnerable are still pushed aside – we need to work harder for a world where they have more agency.

But built into the word “empowerment”, is the sense that someone is giving power to someone else. To empower someone, you need the powerful to give power to the weak. And if you can give power to someone, you can also take it away.

And that doesn’t sit quite right. Does it?

You see, we shouldn’t need a transaction to take place for the vulnerable and marginalized to be heard. We shouldn’t need the agreement of the privileged for the poor to participate and lead.

One of the biggest blind spots for privileged people engaging with impoverished communities is that there is a massive power differential. Western missionaries and churches come in thinking – imagining – that they are on equal footing with local folks. What we don’t always realize is that wealth is a powerful factor in any context of poverty.

What if we recognized that people in poor communities already have power? They have the power to bring change to their own context. Yes. They really do! Local people already have the power to understand what is needed in that place better than anyone else. And they have the power to lead that change. If only we would stop robbing them of that power and then pretending to give it back.

So, screw it, I’m ditching the word “empowerment”. And I’ve got a better word that feels stronger and more definitive. It captures the essence of what we’re looking for more clearly.

Are you ready for it?

That word is Ownership.

Ownership is really just a state of being. Either the Dominican Republic village owns the five-year plan or they don’t. There’s no middle ground. And there’s no transaction that needs to take place. They’ll only own it, if they were central to the creation of that plan. They’ll only own that plan if they are the ones clearly benefitting from it. They’ll only own it if they’re the ones leading it. And they’ll only own that plan if they really believe in it and really want to do it.

As Seth Godin says, no-one ever washes a rental car. Cos they don’t OWN it. No-one truly takes care and responsibility for something unless they own it. So ownership is crucially important if we want real change.

Patricie in Rwanda explains why she wanted to become an Alongsider,  “As an Alongsider, it’s my responsibility to help others but it is also from a passion that God has put in my heart”. She chose Shukulu as her little sister.

Patricie in Rwanda explains why she wanted to become an Alongsider, “As an Alongsider, it’s my responsibility to help others but it is also from a passion that God has put in my heart”. She chose Shukulu as her little sister.

We had to learn this the hard way in Alongsiders. Our first pilot group of 10 Alongsiders were “matched up” with their little brothers and sisters - by the leaders.

It didn’t work.

That first bunch of Alongsiders mentors didn’t “own” the relationship enough to carry them through the hard times.

Since that initial mis-step we no longer “match” Alongsiders with their little brother or sister. We ask them to pray and ask God to show them who they should choose.

They own that decision.

They choose their own little brother or sister.

They form their own groups and choose their own group leaders.

Ownership.

It’s kind of amazing that the Almighty God of the universe came, “not to be served, but to serve”. That is a radical posture of giving up power.

If the One who is all powerful – Jesus - took such a humble approach, then MAYBE, just maybe, we need to embrace that same humility.

What do you think?


Hey next month, we’re celebrating the first ever Flip Flop Sunday. It’s one day to put on your flip flops, jandals, thongs, slippers, or whatever you want to call them, and walk alongside in solidarity with vulnerable kids around the world - just as the Alongsiders in those communities do every day. Let’s celebrate what they are doing to transform their own communities. Check it out and sign up here.

Craig Greenfield