I once applied for a job in Cambodia. It was at an after care shelter for women and children who had been rescued from brothels and trafficked for sex. I had been to the shelter, I spent a day with the girls, and I loved this organization deeply. I didn't even get an interview, simply an email stating they are only hiring Cambodian nationals. This was an American-based organization, I had done my internship at the U.S. office, and I was completely devastated. I wanted to help them, I wanted to be part of their healing.
I once met a young man who was completely defeated. He grew up in and out of the Foster Care system. Although he was well taken care of by his last set of foster parents, he was constantly reminded of what horrible life circumstances had been dealt to him. His foster parents got him a private tutor. She basically did all of his work for him, there was just no way a high school kid could catch up all the years of school he had missed. His foster parents spoke about him, for him, reminding people he is very fragile, not to ask questions about where he comes from. His coach gave him a starting spot on the basketball team, not even considering his lack of ever playing the game. At age 18, when he was no longer young enough to be in the system, he had no idea how to apply for a job or apartment, couldn't make the local community college basketball team, and had never spoken enough about his experiences to find healing.
Empowering a person, a community, is not always easy. Even with the purest of intentions, we can quickly become obsessed with taking care, meeting needs, providing for, that we forget that these are capable human beings. Empowering them means, quite literally, to give power to. It may not always be what you want, but that's the point. We must take ourselves out of the picture. In a culture so infiltrated with self care and looking out for number one, even our efforts to improve the lives of others takes a turn for the selfish. So, when you are volunteering with a vulnerable community, helping out a struggling organization, or simply doing a friend a favor, ask yourself, what will best give power back to them? What will create sustainability and independence? What will help break the cycle that is crippling them?
Empowerment is not changing people, it is helping people make change for themselves.