Community Empowerment in Social Work

What is Community Empowerment?

Community empowerment refers to the process of enabling communities to increase control over their lives. "Communities" are groups of people who may or may not be spatially connected but share common interests, concerns, or identities. These communities could be local, national or international, with specific or broad interests. 'Empowerment' refers to how people gain control over the factors and decisions that shape their lives. It is the process by which they increase their assets and attributes and build capacities to gain access, partners, networks and/or a voice to gain control. "Enabling" implies that people cannot "be empowered" by others; they can only empower themselves by acquiring more of power's different forms (Laverack, 2008). It assumes that people are their own assets, and the role of the external agent is to catalyse, facilitate or "accompany" the community in acquiring power. (WHO)

Read: Empowerment and Women Empowerment

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Community empowerment, therefore, is more than the involvement, participation or engagement of communities. It implies community ownership and action that explicitly aims at social and political change. Community empowerment is a process of re-negotiating power to gain more control. It recognises that if some people are going to be empowered, others will be sharing their existing power and giving some of it up (Baum, 2008). Power is a central concept in community empowerment, and health promotion invariably operates within the arena of a power struggle. (WHO)

Empowerment occurs at three levels: the individual, the organisation or group, and the community. Empowerment at one level can influence empowerment at the other levels. Furthermore, empowerment is multidimensional, taking place in sociological, psychological, economic, political, and other dimensions (Fawcett et al., 1995; Hur, 2006; Maton, 2008; Rich et al., 1995). Community-level empowerment "challenges professional relationships to communities, emphasising partnership and collaboration rather than a top-down approach" (Wallerstein, 2002, p. 74).

Community empowerment addresses the social, cultural, political and economic determinants that underpin health and seeks to build partnerships with other sectors to find solutions. Globalisations adds another dimension to the process of community empowerment. In today's world, the local and global are inextricably linked. Action on one cannot ignore the influence of or impact on the other. Community empowerment recognises and strategically acts upon this inter-linkage and ensures that power is shared locally and globally.

Community empowerment consists of two concepts: `community` and `empowerment`. Communities are groups of people that may or may not be spatially connected, but who share common interests, concerns or identities. Communities may be local, national, international or even global in nature and may have either specific or broad interests (Laverack, 2007). Empowerment in the broadest sense is ‘...the process by which disadvantaged people work together to increase control over events that determine their lives’ (Werner, 1988). Most definitions of empowerment give the term a positive value (improves people's circumstances) and embody the notion that it must come from within an individual or group and cannot be given to an individual or group.

Community empowerment includes personal (psychological), organisational, and broader social and political actions. Community empowerment is, therefore, both an individual and a group phenomenon. The conceptual roots of community empowerment come primarily from international development work (poor communities needed to become more powerful), the women's health movement (which challenged the prerogative of others to define women's health concerns and remedies) and community mental health activists (who stressed that people with mental disease deserved similar rights to others and ought to be treated in 'empowering' rather than controlling ways). Community empowerment is most consistently viewed as a process in the literature (something used to accomplish a particular goal or objective), for example, '...a social-action process that promotes participation of people, organisations and communities towards the goals of increased individual and community control, political efficacy, improved quality of life and social justice' (Wallerstein, 1992). However, it can also be viewed as an outcome (in which empowerment is the goal or objective itself) and is specific to the individual, group or community involved. The consequences of community empowerment can have a very long time frame, often taking several years to begin to show results. This should be an essential consideration for the design of health promotion programmes.


Fundamental (17) Principles of Community Empowerment

Community empowerment goes well beyond political or legal permission to participate in the national political system. It includes the capacity to do things that community members want to do. Empowerment provides capacity building and strengthening in various dimensions. Here are sixteen elements of a community that change as the community gets more robust.

1. Altruism: The proportion of, and the degree to which, individuals are ready to sacrifice benefits to themselves for the benefit of the community as a whole (reflected in degrees of generosity, individual humility, communal pride, mutual supportiveness, loyalty, concern, camaraderie, sister/brotherhood).

As a community develops more altruism, it creates more capacity. (Where individuals, families or factions are allowed to be greedy and selfish at the expense of the community, this weakens the community).

2. Common Values: The degree to which members of the community share values, especially the idea that they belong to a common entity that supersedes the interest of members within it.

The more community members share, or at least understand and tolerate, each other's values and attitudes, the stronger their community will be. (Racism, prejudice and bigotry weaken a community or organisations).

3.     Communal Services: Human settlements facilities and services (such as roads, markets, potable water, access to education, health services), their upkeep (dependable maintenance and repair), sustainability, and the degree to which all community members have access to them.

The more members have access to needed communal facilities, the greater their empowerment. (In measuring capacity of organisations, this includes office equipment, tools, supplies, access to toilets and other personal staff facilities, working facilities, physical plant).

4. Communications: Within a community, and between itself and outside, communication includes roads, electronic methods (e.g. telephone, radio, TV, InterNet), printed media (newspapers, magazines, books), networks, mutually understandable languages, literacy and the willingness and ability to communicate (which implies tact, diplomacy, willingness to listen as well as to talk) in general.

As a community gets better communication, it gets stronger. (For organisations, this is the communication equipment, methods and practices available to staff). Poor communication means weak organisations or communities.

5. Confidence: How much confidence is shared among the community when expressed in individuals? E.g. an understanding that the community can achieve whatever it wishes to do.

Positive attitudes, willingness, self-motivation, enthusiasm, optimism, self-reliance rather than dependency attitudes, desire to fight for its rights, avoidance of apathy and fatalism, a vision of what is possible. Increased strength includes increased confidence.

6. Context (Political and Administrative): A community will be more robust, more able to get stronger and sustain its strength more, the more it exists in an environment that supports that strengthening. This environment includes (1) political (including the values and attitudes of the national leaders, laws and legislation) and (2) administrative (attitudes of civil servants and technicians, as well as Governmental regulations and procedures) elements.

7. The legal environment: When politicians, leaders, technocrats and civil servants, as well as their laws and regulations, take a provisioning approach, the community is weak, while if they take an enabling approach to the community acting on a self-help basis, the community will be stronger. Communities can be more robust when they exist within a more enabling context.

8.   Information: More than just having or receiving unprocessed information, the strength of the community depends upon the ability to process and analyse that information, the level of awareness, knowledge and wisdom found among critical individuals and within the group as a whole.

When more valuable and practical information, the community will have more strength, not just more in volume. (Note that this is related to, but differs from, the communication element listed above).

9. Intervention: What extent and effectiveness of animation (mobilising, management training, awareness-raising, stimulation) to strengthen the community? Do outside or internal sources of charity increase the level of dependency and weaken the community, or do they challenge the community to act and become stronger?

Is the intervention sustainable, or does it depend upon decisions by outside donors who have different goals and agendas than the community itself? When a community has more sources of stimulation to develop, it has more strength.

10. Leadership: Leaders have power, influence, and the ability to move the community. The more effective its leadership is, the stronger is the community. While this is not the place to argue ideologically between democratic or participatory leadership, in contrast to totalitarian, authoritarian and dictatorial styles, the most effective and sustainable leadership (for strengthening the community, not just strengthening the leaders) is one that operates to follow the decisions and desires of the community as a whole, to take an enabling and facilitating role.

Leaders must possess skills, willingness, and some charisma. The more effective the leadership, the more capacity has the community or organisations. (Lack of good leadership weakens it).

11. Networking: It is not just "what you know," but also "who you know" that can be a source of strength. (As is often joked, not only "know-how," but also "know-who" gets jobs). To what extent do community members, especially leaders, know persons (and their agencies or organisations) who can provide valuable resources to strengthen the community?

The beneficial linkages, potential and realised, exist within the community and with others outside it. The more effective the network, the stronger the community or organisations. (Isolation produces weakness).

12. Organisations: The degree to which different members of the community see themselves as each having a role in supporting the whole (in contrast to being a mere collection of separate individuals), including (in the sociological sense) organisational integrity, structure, procedures, decision-making processes, effectiveness, division of labour and complementarity of roles and functions.

The more organised, or more effectively organised, is a community or organisation has, the more capacity or strength it has.

13. Political Power: The degree to which the community can participate in national and district decision making. Just as individuals have varying power within a community, communities have uneven power and influence within the district and nation.

The more political power and influence that a community or organisation can exercise, the higher level of capacity it has.

14. Skills: The ability, manifested in individuals, that will contribute to the community's organisations and the ability of it to get things done that it wants to get done, technical skills, management skills, organisational skills, mobilisations skills.

The more skills (group or individual) that a community or organisation can obtain and use, the more empowered is that community or organisation.

15. Trust: The degree to which members of the community trust each other, especially their leaders and community servants, which in turn is a reflection of the degree of integrity (honesty, dependability, openness, transparency, trustworthiness) within the community.

More trust and dependability within a community reflects its increased capacity. (Dishonesty, corruption, embezzlement and diversion of community resources contribute to the community or organisational weakness).

16. Unity: A shared sense of belonging to a known entity (i.e. the group composing the community), although every community has divisions or schisms (religious, class, status, income, age, gender, ethnicity, clans), the degree to which community members are willing to tolerate the differences and variations among each other and are eager to cooperate and work together, a sense of a common purpose or vision, shared values.

When a community or organisation is unified, it is more robust. (Unity does not mean that everyone is the same, but everyone tolerates each others' differences and works for the common good).

17. Wealth: The degree to which the community as a whole (in contrast to individuals within it) has control over actual and potential resources, and the production and distribution of scarce and valuable goods and services, monetary and non-monetary (including donated labour, land, equipment, supplies, knowledge, skills).

The more wealthy a community, the stronger it is. (When greedy individuals, families or factions accrue wealth at the expense of the community or organisations, that weakens the community or organisations).

The more any community or organisation has of the above elements, the stronger it is, the more capacity it has, and the more empowered it is. A community is a social entity (See Community); it does not become more robust simply by adding a few more facilities. Community strengthening or capacity building involves social change ─ development ─ which, in turn, affects all sixteen of the above elements of strength.


5 Principles of Community Development

Principle 1: Community control

Support communities to successfully take more control over decisions and assets. Public bodies support communities to take greater control over decisions and assets. Effective processes are in place, and public bodies support a fair and sustainable approach. 

Principle 2: Public sector leadership 

Strong and clear leadership on community empowerment sets the tone and culture of the organisation Leaders provide a clear and consistent message, set clear objectives and priorities, encourage ideas and innovation, community leadership and support communities to develop sustainable approaches. 

Principle 3: Effective relationships 

Build effective working relationships between public bodies, local communities and local partners There is a healthy working relationship between communities, public bodies and local partners, marked by reciprocal trust, openness and transparency. 

Principle 4: Improving outcomes

Evaluate whether outcomes for local communities are improving and inequalities are being reduced. Public bodies are continuously improving their approach to community empowerment, evaluating local results and experiences and learning from others. This includes evaluating the impact on regional inequalities and understanding and learning from seldom-heard groups' experiences in communities. 

Principle 1: Accountability

Be accountable and transparent Public bodies are clear and open about their approach to community empowerment and provide regular information to understandable, jargon-free, and accessible communities. Public bodies are responsive to local communities when reaching decisions with a clear rationale for making difficult decisions and provide regular feedback.


Importance of Community Empowerment

Community empowerment enables people to take action based on their day-to-day experiences. It also starts a chain reaction in which the empowered individual helps others empower themselves by sharing experiences and forming partnerships. Community empowerment allows community members to expand their networks and meet new and influential people. An empowered community can influence the social and economic aspects to seek its rights. Furthermore, when working with others for a common goal, individuals develop a sense of worthiness. Those who are actively involved in community work and community service have the potential to become tomorrow's leaders.

Because community empowerment strategies deal with people, unexpected events may occur. True, community empowerment benefits both the individual and the community; however, people are not always free to participate in community activities. Furthermore, people are hesitant to participate in community activities due to a lack of trust because many activities are based on selfish motives. For example, political parties may solely become involved in social activities to improve the government's image.

Community empowerment focuses on addressing the social, cultural, political, and economic determinants of health and seeking collaboration with other sectors to broadensthe scope of community empowerment. The local and global are inextricably linked in today's world. Action on one cannot be taken without considering the influence or impact on the other. Community empowerment recognises and acts strategically on this interdependence, ensuring that power is shared locally and globally.

Communication is critical to ensuring community empowerment. Participatory communication approaches that promote discussion and debate result in increased knowledge and awareness and a higher level of critical thinking. Critical thinking enables communities to comprehend the interplay of forces at work in their lives and assists them in making their own decisions.

This conference track will focus on the conceptual and practical issues involved in creating empowered communities. Using examples and case studies, it will examine how successful partnerships with communities can be formed even in the context of vertical health programming. It will investigate how empowerment-oriented health promotion can be implemented in local and global settings.

Community empowerment enables members to expand their horizons and meet new and influential people. An empowered community can influence a country's social and economic sectors to secure its rights. Additionally, when individuals work together for a common goal, they develop a sense of worthiness.

3 Approaches to Community Empowerment

A Utopian Approach

A Utopian Approach oriented to a vision of a future community whose members will be able to fulfil their human and social potential. This approach draws its inspiration from the utopians of the 19th century. Although it is far from the idyllic scene of adults and children who are cultured, educated, strong, healthy, and possess high moral qualities, which group together in a rural setting to grow vegetables and weave clothes, it too preaches egalitarianism and autarchy. The separation from society is necessary to realize the members' critical social goals (Friedmann, 1987).


A Rehabilitation Approach

A Rehabilitation Approach focuses on the situation of ethnic minorities, and more recently also of other minorities, such as the disabled (Dolnick, 1993). On this view, the community struggles with life beside a different and sometimes hostile society and grapples with the dilemma of integration into this society. Here too, a utopian vision exists: to revitalize the intimate and supportive community in which, more by necessity than because they want to, people whom the society isolates and discriminates against live today (O'Sullivan, 1984; Friedmann, 1989; Rivera & Erlich, 1984, Cendeluci, 1995).

A Social Approach 

A Social Approach redefines community and departs, perhaps too sharply (because quite a few people still live in traditional communities in our time too) from the orthodox community as it used to be (Warren, 1975). The new community is a collective social entity, and the image appropriate to it is one of the people with joint problems and generally a common dependence on service providers. This community does not include all the aspects of existence but responds to those needs in people's lives for which it was created (Reinharz, 1984). Parents of children with Down's Syndrome can build a community to deal with all aspects of their lives as parents of these children: the child's care, raising, and development. However, they may also have life interests that they do not share with this community (Handler, 1990).


6 Step Model for Community Empowerment

The six-step approach to community empowerment was duplicated in areas with varying geographic, racial, and age demographics from the initial application. The 6-step model is recognized as a new approach that incorporates a social-ecological framework in a stepwise empowerment process (Bartholomew, Parcel, Kok, & Gottlieb, 2006; Goodman, Yoo, & Jack, 2006). This model (Yoo et al., 2004) includes six steps: (a) gaining entrée into the community; (b) identifying issues of interest or concern to the community; (c) prioritizing identified issues; (d) formulating a strategy to address a priority issue; (e) developing and implementing an action plan to resolve the priority issue; and (f) transitioning to a new issue and leadership. The model can be characterized as a community-based participatory approach because it emphasizes gaining each community’s buy-in, building trust, guiding group processes, and developing community leadership, all of which are facilitators of community health improvement through collaborative partnership.

Step 1: Entrée Into the Community

Steps 2-3: Identification and Prioritization of Community Issues

Step 4: Strategy Development

Step 5: Implementation

Step 6: Transition

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