Empowerment is central to social work. Social workers strive to empower individuals so they can overcome personal challenges such as substance abuse or eating disorders, personal or family illness, and the emotional trauma resulting from divorce, abuse or the death of a loved one. However, social work does not focus exclusively on individuals. It also aims to empower groups and communities, particularly those with histories of oppression and marginalization. Social work can—and should—involve advocating for policies that promote greater social justice and equity.
Social workers use an array of practice methods and theories. For example, empowerment theory social work focuses on promoting self-development and awareness and helps people address the oppressive forces that block them from thriving.
What Is Empowerment Theory?
Empowerment theory social work involves using intervention methods to guide people toward achieving a sense of control.
People may feel helpless in their lives for any number of reasons, but empowerment theory focuses on how oppression contributes to this experience. It centers on helping marginalized people at individual, group and community levels gain the personal, interpersonal and political power to improve their lives. Additionally, the model seeks to challenge systems that prevent or hinder people from having their needs met.
What can prevent marginalized people from feeling empowered to take control of their lives? Empowerment theory social work explores several key factors:
Direct Power Blocks
Direct power blocks are the structures that stop people from achieving goals such as better employment, advanced education or safe housing. Examples include inequitable access to well-funded and high-quality schools, discriminatory lending practices in housing, or sexist attitudes in corporate culture.
Social workers can help promote awareness of direct power blocks and energize social movements against them by developing programs that help individuals overcome marginalization. For instance, programs that cultivate pride in LGBTQ+ youths could also help take action against the discrimination of their community members. Additionally, social workers can advocate for policy reforms and corrective laws.
Indirect Power Blocks
Indirect power blocks refer to internalized oppression. Groups with histories of mistreatment often absorb the negative messaging of the abuse they receive. They develop stories about their limited options and ability to achieve and then pass those ideas down across generations. However challenging, these deeply ingrained thoughts need to be resolved.
Social workers can investigate proven interventions, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), which evidence shows can change thinking patterns to help clients work through their internalized oppression. For example, a mentoring program using TF-CBT could help improve the self-image of youths from historically oppressed communities to support their empowerment and potentially address the cultural trauma that has hurt their academic performance.
Dimensions of Empowerment
How can empowerment theory social work help individuals and communities tackle the systemic oppression and societal barriers that prevent them from reaching their full potential? Awareness is essential. The empowerment approach works to develop awareness on several levels.
Individuals must build their power by cultivating the belief that they can change their circumstances. This requires addressing some of the indirect power blocks interfering with their self-actualization.
Social workers can guide individuals through therapies that help clients explore their beliefs, why they hold them, and how to change them. They can also help individuals develop coping skills to adjust to their environments.
Individuals need to develop a deep understanding of the complex social, economic and political realities in their environments that negatively affect them. This involves examining their roles in these environments and seeking out potential ways to work around the structures blocking them. Establishing this type of consciousness allows people to share their experiences and connect with others in the same or similar situation.
Sharing allows people to learn from one another and not feel as alone in their struggles. For example, social workers can organize programs in which participants discuss how racism affects their lives and explore forces that support racism. These programs can help people unravel their internalized oppression and improve their ability to confront direct and indirect power blocks.
Building awareness is important, but without the interventions that address negative thinking patterns and unfair social and political realities, people can only get so far.
Areas for intervention include:
- Therapy that uses techniques to emphasize peoples’ strengths, helps them develop skills needed to confront social and political difficulties, and offers alternatives to dysfunctional and self-defeating thought patterns can cultivate self-worth and empower people to overcome indirect power blocks.
- Case management can empower individuals to become their own advocates. Social workers can encourage clients to take an active part in identifying their needs and teach them how to register with an employment agency or find health services that can empower them to become their own advocates. Establishing this autonomy is key to social work, which strives to build strength and independence.
- Insight techniques, which social workers implement when they deliver case management, therapy or social programs, can empower clients to achieve their goals through a self-examination process in which clients evaluate how they can change their situations and solve problems.
Additionally, social workers can help organize collective action within communities:
- Political advocacy engages government agencies in efforts to change laws and policies that disproportionately impact marginalized or disadvantaged groups in negative ways.
- Program development can be used to educate the public about social issues and engage community members. This might involve working with community members in a program to revitalize a neighborhood, organize a social campaign, or canvass for a proposed law.
- Research projects can identify factors that contribute to social inequities or measure the effects of discrimination and other oppressive forces on specific populations, providing data that informs evidence-based practices.
Empowerment Theory Social Work in Action
Empowerment theory social work uses a five-step problem-solving model to achieve its goals:
- Identify problems.
- Define strengths.
- Set goals.
- Implement interventions.
- Evaluate successes on a collaborative level.
To successfully implement the model, social workers must develop key understandings, consider diverse perspectives and ask critical questions.
How Can Social Workers Empower Groups and Communities?
- Know the group’s history of oppression. How did the oppression originate? How does this oppression manifest in the present?
- Understand the group’s strengths and resilience. How have the people adapted and coped with the oppression? What has allowed the community to survive and succeed in the face of the stress and abuse they’ve encountered?
- Recognize the diversity within the group. How do elements such as race, class, gender and sexual orientation complicate and change the impact of oppression on different members of the group? In what ways can these factors affect the way oppression plays out?
Public Policy Reform and Empowerment
While developing autonomy and self-determination can play a crucial role in overcoming obstacles to one’s empowerment, this type of work alone cannot overcome widespread social injustice. People must take a critical look at the systems of oppression and find strategies that lead to change. Challenging societal norms allows individuals and communities to discuss the economic models and other structures in society that affect equity and then consider alternatives.
Social workers can engage groups and communities in discussions about issues that affect them locally and globally and encourage them to take action. For example, to address the disproportionate impact of climate change on oppressed communities, social workers can establish programs that provide access to fresh and healthy food, or work with nonprofits that combat environmental hazards such as pollution.
Public policy reform is often a necessary part of fixing systemic problems that keep people marginalized and perpetuate power imbalances. Making changes to laws, policies and systems may be the only way to reduce or eliminate some barriers to equality.
Empowerment theory social work can create opportunities for advocacy that address social, economic and political inequalities. It can also help build awareness of the stressors placed on oppressed groups. Such awareness can spur on the examination of the national, state and local policies that disempower people, and inspire collective action against those policies.
Empower Communities by Earning a Master of Social Work
Learning strategies to overcome social injustice and empower the most vulnerable members in society requires a commitment to justice and advocacy. Virginia Commonwealth University offers an advanced degree program in social work devoted to challenging systemic inequalities and training practitioners models such as empowerment theory social work. The curriculum promotes equity, human rights and ethical practice while preparing social workers to respond to the needs of diverse communities.
Explore how Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work cultivates the expertise social workers need to empower individuals and communities.
Adolescent Research Review, “Empowerment and Critical Consciousness: A Conceptual Cross-Fertilization”
Empowerment of Children and Families Project, “Empowering Social Work: Research and Practice”
European Journal of Social Science Education and Research, “Power, Empowerment and Social Participation – the Building of a Conceptual Model”
IntechOpen, “Empowerment Potential of Social Work Techniques Among Practitioners in Israel and the USA”
The New Social Worker, “Empowering Clients Means Empowering Ourselves First”
Phi Delta Kappan, “Critical Consciousness: A Key to Student Achievement”
The Professional Counselor, “Therapy as a Framework for Addressing Cultural Trauma in African American Children and Adolescents: A Proposal”
Rebus Community, “Introduction to Community Psychology: Empowerment”
Social Work, “Working with Women of Color: An Empowerment Perspective”