Since I started my social work training in 1998, I have spent a lot of time thinking about power and my relationship with it. When I was a student, I didn’t feel that I had ‘power’. It felt like it was being at the bottom of a professional hierarchy. Yet we learnt about ‘empowerment’ and how we, as students and (eventually) as social workers advocate and ‘empower’ other people.
It was a tired old adage. Social work is about ‘empowerment’ but it always sat a little bit uncomfortably. By saying that I empower someone else, that makes a number of assumptions. Firstly that somehow I have more knowledge and authority than the person that I am ‘empowering’. It is a patriarchal approach at best. I ‘empower’ you. What does that say about me – and about you and our views of the world? Secondly, I didn’t think – and we weren’t taught about empowering ourselves. It was about different ‘client groups’ we worked with. We learnt about oppression, prejudice and all those structural issues that exist in society but we weren’t, as students in a setting where we were very much amid and victim to massive issues of power differentials – with lecturers and tutors and with practice teachers – of empowering ourselves in relation to the course and the university. So all that theoretical teaching begins to take a hint of vague hypocrisy.
Sometimes I still see tutors talking about how they teach their students to ‘empower’ others. Is that what they are doing themselves? Are they empowering their students or encouraging their students to challenge them? I had a particular experience at university (when I was studying my social work MA) which colours my view. The leader of the MA programme was a bully. He enjoyed his power relationship with students. We didn’t see it at the time, but saw it for what it was fairly rapidly afterwards. He would talk about ‘empowerment’ while demeaning students and emphasising his own power within the context of teaching social work. It was the kind of thing that made me terrified of the thought that he had ever practised social work.
Then, when I was on my first placement, with my fantastic practice teacher – she said to me to remember my own power in the relationships with the people I saw on placement. I felt like a ‘little student’ – we had been disempowered as students as a part of the course by the attitude of this tutor and she told me that I had enormous power in respect to people who used the service we were providing. It helped me feel a lot less sorry for myself and helped me to understand power and empowerment much more clearly than anyone in the university was able to. You see, I hadn’t recognised my own power while I had been caught up in other people’s power games over me. We rarely recognise our own power. If I “empower” someone else, I am immediately putting myself in a position where the balance is skewed.
I have power. I can give you power. I empower you. No. I think that’s the wrong way of looking at the process. I can, perhaps, help you to recognise your own power so that you can empower yourself but I maintain that it isn’t possible for me to empower you. If I empower you, I immediately remove some of the ‘power’ from you because I am in the position of gifting it. I may be able to create conditions for you to recognise where and how power fits in between us. I can, perhaps, create an environment that allows people to seize power and challenge me. I hope they do. But I can’t ‘empower’ you as it isn’t within my gift to change the way you think.
That’s the way I see it. I struggle still with my relationship with power. It was a large focus of the ASW training when I did it. I was in a supremely powerful position where I was able to remove someone’s liberty without a court judgement. I could make a decision to detain another person in a hospital. That is immense power. Yet in my own organisation, in the NHS trust I worked in, I wasn’t trusted to give feedback to a woolly ‘consultation’ about the services we ran. My voice wasn’t heard when I did raise concerns about cuts in services or even, when we aren’t talking about money, about poor services that didn’t respect the rights of individuals. The shouting wasn’t always about cuts – sometimes it was about quality. I felt disempowered and yet I was in one of the most powerful positions it is possible to have – to make a decision to detain someone.
It made me think a lot about ‘empowerment’. As an AMHP, I had power. I had immense power. I couldn’t give that power away. I couldn’t empower people. I could discuss and consult. I had a duty to. But the power was mine and it was not mine to give away. In order to talk about power and empowerment, we have to confront our own power – even when we, as professionals don’t feel powerful within the organisations or systems in which we work. If we underplay our power, we do everyone a disservice, especially those who rely on us to use our power well and ethically.
I’m a in position now where I have power. Sometimes I feel disempowered but it is my responsibility to work on that. I don’t and can’t ask other people to ‘empower’ me. Can I ‘empower’ anyone else? I don’t think so. I can recognise – indeed, I have to recognise my own power. If I deny my power, I am denying the positive changes which I, personally, can effect. If I tell someone else, I will empower you, I am possibly taking power away from them.
Should we be teaching ‘empowerment’ on social work training? I don’t think so but if we don’t teach about power and our honest relationship with it – for good as well as bad – we do everyone who comes across us a massive disservice. We shouldn’t be afraid of the power we have. We need to recognise and learn to understand it so we can spread it and hope that it becomes contagious.