Empowerment and Democratic Education

Empowerment and Democratic Education

By Irma Gonzalez

Vol. 13, No. 4, 1991, pp. 3-6

IN THE LAST DECADE, empowerment has surfaced as an important theme in the women’s movement, community organizing and the progressive movement for peace and social justice. It has also emerged as a concept in the push for democratic education.

Virtually all serious discussions of empowerment emphasize the importance of community–of support and shared struggle in the process of empowerment. In fact, most empowerment theorists see individual and community destinies as interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Thus, empowerment is often described as a process of individual and group transformation in which individuals develop “mastery of their lives” and “participatory competence” through group problem-solving and collective action. Empowerment comes through dialogue and shred work to improve the lives of all members of a community. In the classroom, the empowerment of any one student is thus tied to the empowerment of her or his classmates. Or, as one teacher describes it, it is the climate of mutual respect in her class, where the group accepts that

There are compelling links between empowerment and democracy. A democratic culture fosters the progressive evolution of peoples’ capacities to control their lives and act with others to fulfill individual and community goals. That is, democratic cultures are empowering cultures. Likewise, empowering teaching is democratic teaching. Yet the kinds of teaching and learning to which most students in this country are subjected are neither democratic nor empowering, and they do much more to perpetuate undemocratic forms of social relationship than to create and sustain a democratic society.

Over seventy years ago, John Dewey argued that education needs to have an anchoring idea and ideal, and that in the United States we had such a concept available–democracy. In placing democracy at the helm of the educational enterprise, Dewey situated education squarely

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at the center of his theory of democratic society, exploring the role education could and should play in the continued creating and maintenance of democratic cultures and institutions. A commitment to democracy is not a commitment to process alone. It is rooted in and informed by a moral agenda guided by a commitment to human dignity, social justice and liberation. It is through democratic empowerment that we can break free from the constraints of domination in our institutions, in our cultures and in our everyday experiences.

Indeed, empowerment and democracy are complementary ideas. On the one hand, genuine democracy depends for its survival on having empowered citizens. It can only be created and maintained by individuals with the skills, values and dispositions necessary to frilly participate in their communities. On the other band, democratic institutions and social processes are uniquely able to provide the conditions for individual and community empowerment.

Empowerment embodies the idea of self-determination, a process through which individuals and communities increasingly control their own destinies without imposing on others. The link between controlling one’s own life and valued resources while simultaneously respecting others’ rights to do the same is crucial to empowerment theory. It is this dual dimension of empowerment that makes the nature of power such a vital and problematic question.

Democracy and empowerment need a conception of power that is not based on relationships of domination. A democratic theory of power must encompass the power that restricts freedom and denies popular sovereignty, the power that is manifest in resistance to domination, and the power that is the expression of liberty and self-determination. Such a theory must be able to describe a power that empowers people to democratic participation.

Educators seeking to understand the process of empowerment and to develop pedagogies of empowerment are confronted with fundamental questions relating to the nature of power relationships in their classrooms. These questions include: What are the dynamics of power relationships in classrooms? How do teachers and students relate to one another in empowering classrooms? How do students relate to their peers? Put differently, what is the nature of power that empowers and is empowering?

Most discussions of power share a common conception of power as a relationship of domination, as power over. Dominating relationships are characterized by inequality: situations in which an individual or group in order to fulfill its desires, has the ability to control the behavior, thoughts, and/or values of others. Power over is characterized by competition, hierarchy and win/lost situations.

Power with is an alternative conception of power appearing in an obscure but growing literature. Power with is manifest in relationships of co-agency. These relationships are characterized by people finding ways to satisfy their desires and to fulfill their interests without imposing on one another. The relationship of co-agency is one in which individuals and groups fulfill their desires by acting together. It is jointly developing capacity. Power with is characterized by cooperation, synergistic interactions and the possibility of win/win relationships.

Power over is inadequate to describe a power that empowers people to democratic participation. Power with, on the other hand, offers an aspect of power which resonates with the possibilities of community, participatory decision making and democratic empowerment.

Seth Kreisberg conducted an in-depth dialogical interview study with six educators who were active in Boston Area Educators for Social Responsibility. The interviews examined the nature of power that the teachers experienced within ESR and that they sought to foster in their classrooms. The six teachers saw themselves as the locus of power over in their classrooms and identified entering into power relationships with their students as their greatest challenge. The central themes that emerged from this study were the importance of supportive community, dialogue and shared decision making in empowering pedagogy.

Building an Empowering Community

The six teachers’ experiences of power in empowerment suggest key themes for developing models for the empowerment of teachers. First, teachers must share control over their schools and their teaching–they must be equal participants in decision making in their schools. Teacher empowerment will only be supported when teachers can come together to solve practical problems

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and when they have opportunities for dialogue. Teachers must be able to develop and express their voices through the ongoing practice of pedagogical reflection and action. Empowering schools will provide teachers with ongoing opportunities to develop a critical awareness of their lives and experiences, of the meaning and impact of their teaching, of their students’ lives and learning experiences, and of the nature of our society.

To begin a process of empowerment, teachers must initiate a process of personal and institutional change that will lead to the transformation of both the structure of the schools in which they work and their relationships with their colleagues and students. One teacher describes the structure of his classroom:

The implications for the practice of education are dramatic: to transform our schools from places characterized by human isolation, competition for scarce resources and relationships of domination, and submission into democratic communities in which people enter into critical inquiry characterized by mutual support, cooperative decision making and synergistic learning. In such learning communities people can meet express and act on their concerns for themselves, their communities and the greater global community. They can discover and begin to live the meaning of democracy. After one year in a democratic classroom, a student noted:

The challenge for teachers committed to transforming their power relationships with their students and creating empowering and democratic classrooms is complex and difficult Teachers are situated within institutions that are saturated by cultures of control and domination which are deeply resistant to change. Indeed, these educators encounter resistance on all levels, including resistance within themselves. They question the value of their efforts and find their past experiences difficult to transcend, their old patterns difficult to break. Outside the classroom they face resistance from administrators, colleagues and parents who question whether “real” teaching and learning is occurring and whether students are learning what they need to learn to “survive” and “succeed” in the “real world.” After the first year of co-creating a democratic classroom, one teacher comments:

Inside the classroom, these teachers often face resistance from students who may ask why the teacher isn’t “teaching.” Students may feel uncomfortable being asked to think and choose for themselves, and may be unwilling or unable to take increased responsibility for their learning. In fact, students arrive in their classrooms having been shaped by and conditioned to respond to teacher-dominated teaching and learning. They often come to class feeling so powerless, mistrusting and cynical that creating a supportive context with transformed power relationships is a struggle for both teachers and students.

The fact is, students do not come to these classrooms with the predispositions nor the skills to take control of their learning. Working with students to create a more democratic and empowering learning environment takes time, skill and patience. In the process teachers mediate between conventional rules and structures and their students’ emerging abilities to participate in and create an empowering community. As one teacher in the study noted:

How can we create classrooms that more fully acknow-

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ledge the humanity and aspiration of young people?

At the center of the challenge is the struggle to break down structures and patterns which dehumanize and disempower and to cultivate forms of relationship that provide affirmation, hope and a sense of possibility. Maxine Green addresses this when she writes:

We can create such spaces. But it is not easy. If we are to make democratic education in our culture a reality we must come to understand how teachers and students can and do create spaces where they encounter on another as persons, spaces in which lived worlds are being examined, and in which imagined worlds begin to be lived.

Irma Gonzalez is associated with the Peace Development Fund in Amherst, Mass. This article is based on the work of her husband Seth Kreisberg, who died in December 1989. Transforming Power: Domination, Empowerment and Education by Seth Kreisberg is being published in January1992 by the State University of New York (SUNY) Press, Albany, NY.