Empowerment in practice | James Ballantyne [ANVIL vol 34 issue 2]

Portrait photo of author
James Ballantyne is youth work development adviser for Frontier Youth Trust. He lives in Hartlepool with his family, and has been involved in youth work, principally detached youth work, for 15 years. He writes on youth work and mission at his blog, Learning from the Streets and can be contacted there.

Empowerment is one of the most contested concepts in youth work practice.

Yet the empowering of humanity is a critical aspect of the Gospels’ dramatic story. As Danny Brierley describes, all those who met Jesus came away “feeling more beautiful and valued than before”. [1] A critical aspect of the fourth act of the Gospels’ dramatic narrative is the empowerment of the church to participate in the acts of God, as the space became vacant after Jesus’ ascension: a participative task for the church that continues then and now.

Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith articulate that empowerment may seem laudable, but may actually be patronising and anti-liberating, creating dependency, and regard young people as those to be acted upon. [2] Empowerment has been used to emphasise programmes of change that are undemocratic and used for political ends, [3] merely empowering young people to conform. However, Kieffer’s definition of empowerment is a process, which generates “participatory competence”, [4] which links it to developing self-confidence.

Consequently empowerment is about cultivating a greater collection of resources within the social and political environment, in order that a young person might make decisions and take action. [5] Empowerment can be characterised by the opening up of a space to enable ongoing participatory education with young people. Our hope is to tip the balance of power towards young people in aspects of decision-making, developing ideas, [6] and enabling young people towards actions that enable them to take control, [7] all of which enable them to develop confidence through being participative contributors and critical reflectors of the environment around them. This includes being empowered to make positive decisions about experiences of faith.

Three case studies are described below; each are practices from within the Frontier Youth Trust community and they illustrate the challenges and benefits of realising an empowering and participative approach. The first reveals how a culture within practice was empowering from the start; the second describes the changing to a culture of empowerment; and the third describes a practice that overtly explores faith while retaining an empowering environment.

Empowerment from scratch

In a village in north-east England, the workers began a piece of detached youth work after receiving training by FYT to prepare them for engaging with young people on the streets. As they met with young people and used participatory and empowering questions, these culminated in the negotiating of an open after-school club. The young people, having negotiated the club at the beginning, continue to make decisions on aspects of the programme, craft activities, food and trips. The young people decided and developed their own ideas about raising money for the church building, and continue to make positive contributions to the style, content and activities of the group.

This example shows how young people have been empowered to take some control and ownership of provision aimed at them and where it affects their local environment. They have become competent in ongoing participation as they are viewed as contributors, having their opinions validated through negotiated collaborative action. Through creating a culture of empowerment from the outset, a risk was taken by the leaders to improvise the direction of how the young people may develop the activity, causing a need to be flexible and responsive, a challenge at times that shifted the balance of power to young people. Other challenges occurred when new young people arrived into this group as they had to be inducted into an empowering culture that expected ongoing participation. Nevertheless, creating an empowering culture from the outset and developing from this starting point might be easier than trying to shift a culture within a youth club environment to this.

Empowering for innovation

“Starting out as an Art Therapy group, our Tuesday Club was well attended by young people who took part in the activities that were provided for them. On the face of it, it was successful and we were able to justify the arts-orientated funding. But as coordinator, I was uneasy about the limited opportunities for developing young people’s participation and empowerment, as well as thinking that they had skills, creativity and innovation that we or others might be missing out on when young people are just recipients of our provision. However, I was also aware of the challenge that this change in culture would mean for the group, for the current volunteers and the young people to adjust to. Over a period a year we gradually increased the non-activity space to include conversations about choices, options and listening to the young people. We found that young people were initially frustrated as they said ‘there’s nothing going on’, and at times they would request the arts materials, but this was okay as it was their choice, and we persevered and communicated with them. They now realise that they can make contributions to affect the session, and we can respond through the open spaces to develop what might be appropriate and requested. Since we made this change we have seen how young people have taken up the challenge to show creativity and innovation, some of which was evident from the nature of the art group previously, but is now incorporated into other activities such a cooking, drama and vocational studies that they have completed at college. The shift also paved the way for young people to organise a variety of fundraising activities and local community projects, many of which were of their own direction and insistence. As a youth project we have been surprised but also pleased about the unpredicted off-shoots of changing the culture within this evening youth club.”

Steve, Sidewalk Youth Project, Scarborough

This example expresses the challenges of changing to an increased empowering and participative culture within an already established group that already has regular patterns and actions. It also reveals how, if the young people have developed social capital and trust the workers, this change made gradually and with consultation can bring about opportunities for conversation, creativity and community contributions in the young people.

Making faith empowering

The faith communication aspect can present a youth group practice with a challenge, especially if its other activities are undertaken with high levels of participation from the young people. In another north-east-based practice, a group worker realised that its epilogue-style “God talk” was at odds in the context with the changed participative approach, yet an aspect of faith experience needed to remain. One solution the worker trialled was to give young people opportunities to opt in to faith activities. Each evening the young people would opt in to crafts, games or activities, and they would also have the opportunity to opt into a faith-orientated activity. These have included a prayer station, thought-provoking picture cards and themes on a table, all of which invoke curiosity and create a space where young people can make a positive participative choice. The workers realised that having three young people in the group participating in faith activities out of choice was significantly preferable to 12 hearing a talk they are forced to (and often opting out through destructive distracting behaviour). From this basis, a number of significant meaningful conversations have been had around faith, leading to confirmations and baptisms in the church. Again, these were not planned or strategic outcomes of making this change, but giving space for young people to participate in faith rather than merely be recipient has been hugely beneficial in a number of ways.

There is much to learn from each of these examples, and what the implications are for developing increased empowering and participative approaches. Understandably, even in youth groups, culture shifts take time, requiring the education of volunteers and young people alike. They involve taking risks to value young people, to open up the empty space and trust that young people might rise to the possibility of responsibility. Each example shows how, through providing a healthy space through positive relationships, young people can rise to the challenge presented to them, take risks and made contributions, and take control of themselves and the environment around them. In creating empowering youth practices, these case studies model something about what church is all about in the overall drama of God’s redemption, the agency that humanity is afforded and how that empowering participatory competence can be an ongoing task of faith.

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[1] Danny Brierley, Joined Up: An Introduction to Youth Work and Ministry (Youthwork: The Resources) (Carlisle: Authentic Lifestyle, 2003), 103.
[2] Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith, Informal Education: Conversation, Democracy and Learning (Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press, 2005), 21.
[3] Paul Bunyan and Jon Ord, “The Neo Liberal Context of Youth Work Management,” in Critical Issues in Youth Work Management, ed. Jon Ord (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).
[4] C. H. Kieffer, “Citizen Empowerment; A Developmental Perspective,” Prevention in Human Services 3, no. 2–3 (1984): 9–36.
[5] Dod Forrest, “The Cultivation of Gifts in All Kinds of Directions: Thinking About Purpose,” in Youth Work Practice, 2nd ed., ed. Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 54–69.
[6] Annette Coburn and David Wallace, Youth Work in Communities and Schools (Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2011), 15.
[7] Kerry Young, The Art of Youth Work, 2nd ed. (Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing, 2006).

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