I have been thinking lately (as in the last several months) about the word “empower.” From a Google Search:
|synonyms:||authorize, entitle, permit, allow, license, sanction, warrant, commission,delegate, qualify, enable, equip
“the act empowered police to arrest dissenters”
make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.“movements to empower the poor”
synonyms: emancipate, unshackle, set free, liberate“movements to empower the poor”
Look at the second example: “movements to empower the poor.”
You see, I struggle with this word but most of all, I struggle with how this word has been used by my organization. Or how this word is used by the arts community. Yesterday, I read a thoughtful piece by Margy Waller about the word, “help.” Margy asserts that our intentions to “help” a community can come from a place of privilege. We want to help, to make better, to clean up, to unshackle…to make more like “us.”
Empower. I have tried to remove this word from my lexicon. I still see it pop up in descriptions of our services (note to self: talk to the staff about this). Empower automatically denotes a tension in status. The one who empowers has the power to share–the one who is empowered is powerless, or at least he/she lacks enough power to accomplish a specific goal.
We (C4) don’t empower artists. We provide tools. We facilitate. We provide services.
Just a detour: I have been speaking with an adviser (for lack of a better term) who has reminded me on a few occasions that elected officials need us (voters, citizens, etc.) more than we need them. However, it is often that power dynamic that keeps us from civic engagement or from rightfully petitioning our government and its civil servants. We have the power. Do you know who else has power, ideas, thoughts, solutions, experience, knowledge and history: the very communities we believe we empower. Our audience is mainly artists. They have power. You have power. I don’t give you that. I can listen. I can share ideas. Together we can combine our assets. Together we can affect change.
As an artist, the power over your career is your own. And understanding the weight that the power you wield carries is important to your success. Understanding that often the entities you work with also need you more than you need them is important. We don’t always accept that the power dynamic works in our favor, but often it does.
I don’t have a solution that all of a sudden restructures centuries of colonial language. For my part, I will try to examine my perspective and challenge myself to be more thoughtful about not just language but intention. After all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.