Empowerment in Social Work Practice: A Sourcebook   by   L.M. Gutierrez, R.J. Parsons, & E.O. Cox


(Brooks/Cole, Pacific Grove, CA, 1998….all quotes below are from this book and the author of the quotes are the author/editors of the book or will be stated if different)


The concept of empowerment “has not only meaning, but also a particular relevance in these times of growing inequality, diminishing resources, and increased intergroup conflict….We view empowerment as a means to achieve needed social change, personally and politically, in ways that meet human needs” (p. xix).


“Empowerment has been a consistent theme within the social work profession for over a century” (p. 3).


“Empowerment practice strives to develop within individuals, families, groups, or communities the ability to gain power” (p. 4).


The empowerment process is one in which you: (a) change attitudes, values, and beliefs; (b) validate this through collective experience, (c) develop critical thinking about the problem, and (d) develop a plan of action (p. 5).


“In its most positive sense, power is (1) the ability to influence the course of one’s life, (2) an expression of self-worth, (3) the capacity to work with others to control aspects of public life, and (4) access to the mechanisms of public decision making.  When used negatively, though, it can also block opportunities for stigmatized groups, exclude others and their concerns from decision making, and be a way to control others” (p. 8).


“In empowerment practice, power occurs on three levels: personal (feeling and perceptions regarding the ability to influence and resolve one’s own issues); interpersonal (experiences with others that facilitate problem resolution); and environmental (societal institutions that can facilitate or thwart self-help efforts).  As such, practice strategies must focus on wall levels to facilitate empowerment in clients” (p. 8).


“The relationship established between worker and client is key to the success of any intervention.  Empowerment-based practice requires one to redefine the helping process as one of ‘shared power’ and ‘power with,’ and as ‘participant driven,’ with the professional becoming a ‘facilitator’ or resource rather than a director.  Roles and responsibilities become mutual and shared.  In this practice, clients and workers act as partners.  Rather than owners of problems, clients are seen as resources” (p. 9).


“Acceptance of oneself is necessary, not only for the worker, but also for the client, as disempowered people often blame themselves for their own pain and stress.  Though workers should consider the strengths and weaknesses of both client and environment, assessment must move toward personal and multidimensional environmental strengths” (pp. 11-12).


“The primary social work roles assumed in empowerment practice are teacher/trainer, resource consultant, and sensitizer (awareness raiser)” (p. 13).




Empowerment of Women


“Three general conditions that all women largely share and that together produce and enforce the subordination and relative powerlessness of women: (1) profound alienation from the self, (2) the double-bind situation of women, (3) institutional and structural sexism” (L. GlenMaye, p. 31).


Alienation: “This alienation stems from three modes of psychological oppression: stereotyping, cultural domination, and sexual objectification” (L. GlenMaye, p. 32).






Double-bind: “For example, women on public assistance who find jobs are criticized for leaving their children, while mothers who stay home are labeled lazy and self-indulgent…If a woman behaves as a healthy adult, she will be criticized for being unwomanly; conversely, if she behaves as an ideal feminine woman, she will be considered childlike or worse, even mentally incompetent…One important aspect of the double bind for women is the way in which they are forced to choose between their own needs and the needs of others.  Being autonomous, self-determining, and self-actualizing is of course the mark of being fully human.  Because of their role as nurturers, women are forever finding themselves in situations where self-determination seems to conflict with the demands of motherhood or any intimate relationship.  To put herself above others is, for women, an act that puts her selfhood at risk” (L. GlenMaye, pp. 33-4).


“The assumption of personal responsibility for self and social change must involve, for women a conscious choice to be their own protectors” (L. GlenMaye, p. 40).



Empowering People with Disabilities



“Social workers, especially those in health and rehabilitation settings, must operate in what has become a politically and socially charged environment.  To empower clients with disabilities, social workers now must help people make the transition from medical and rehabilitation settings, where they have little ability to determine the course of their treatment, to community settings, where their self-determination can and should be maximized…Medical and rehabilitation institutions tend to view the problem of disability as the inability of a person to perform certain activities of daily living (ADLs).  This perspective locates the problem within the person, as his or her inabilities;  therefore, the individual must change…This requires people with disabilities to (1) view the rehabilitation professional as an expert, (2) view their own states as undesirable, and (3) work toward a prognosis and recovery that has been defined for them.  On the other hand, organizations that operate within the independent-living disability movement emphasize empowerment through ever-increasing self-determination on the part of disabled people, rather than through reliance on technical experts…Such organizations, often called independent living centers, emphasize social rather than medical needs…Intervention to change the functioning of the individual, therefore, is not necessarily a social worker’s first step.  For instance, a client may first need to find services that allow her or him to exercise the rights to live and work in the main community…To give a simple example, the problem of how to get up the steps (problem within the individual) changes to how to get a ramp installed (problem outside the individual) ” (R. Renz-Beaulaurier, pp. 77-80).




Empowerment in Mental Health Programs: Listening to the Voices


“Issues of power and powerlessness lie embedded in the nature of mental illness and the history of psychiatry---decades of research and theory have focused on treatments for various mental and emotional disorders.  Traditionally, care has followed a disease model envisioned through the relationship between doctor and patient.  This model presents the mental disability as a disease; the doctor or mental health practitioner as the expert who will cure, or at least lessen, the symptoms of the disease; and the client as a passive, often powerless participant….The disease model includes the practice of labeling , or diagnosing.  Through assessment and diagnosis, the professional defines the nature of the consumer, and what the consumer needs…Because subsequent behaviors and experiences are often interpreted via the label rather than the person, labels can prevent care-givers from knowing him or her” (S. S. Manning, p. 90).







As Manning points out, what often happens to the hospitalized mentally ill is that they develop iatrogenic effects from treatment.  This means that they develop compliance and adaptive behavior that is expected of them and then the mental health professionals “interpret the symptoms of learned helplessness---apathy, submissiveness, anger, depression, and withdrawal---as the typical negative signs of the mental disorder rather than a normal reaction to the disempowering situation” (S. S. Manning, p. 91).


“Empowerment practice with people who have a severe and persistent mental disability is based on a fundamental redefinition of three elements related to practice: attitude, relationship, and role.




1.        Think of and interact with the person, not the label/diagnosis.

2.        Respect the person’s right to self-determination.

3.        Be responsible to the ‘whole person,’ taking quality of life and environmental factors into account.

4.        Focus on a strengths perspective rather than a deficit model for assessment and practice.

5.        Respect the diversity of skills and knowledge that consumers bring to the relationship.  Let go of being the ‘expert.’

6.        Trust consumers’ internal motivation to learn and direct their lives.

7.        Respect consumers’ ability and right to contribute---to you, to other consumers, to the agency, and to the community.

8.        Recognize the individuality of people, respecting each person’s unique qualities, values, and needs.




1.        Practice according to a partnership model.  Develop ‘power with and among’ rather than ‘power over’ in relationships with consumers.

2.        Allow time for a process of relationship building and growth.  See the relationship as ongoing, not time limited.

3.        De-emphasize the professional role.  Be genuine, spontaneous, and real.

4.        Work for active participation from consumer and practitioner.

5.        Share leadership; value the leadership the consumer brings to the relationship.




1.        Develop a client-driven model of care focused on the goals and values held by the consumer.

2.        Emphasize building connections through roles, involvement, and community to replace lost culture, history, and identity.

3.        Develop opportunities for meaningful activities that help to build skills, knowledge, and reflexive thinking.

4.        Enhance consumers’ ability to transform their environment rather than adapt to it.

5.        Engage consumers in taking risks, making decisions, and learning from them.

6.        Emphasize information, education, and skill-building that increase self-efficacy.

7.        Involve consumers and family members in decision-making roles in the relationship and within the organization” (S. S. Manning, pp. 105-6).


Although the above lists were constructed by Manning for work with the mentally ill, the ideas are relevant for most areas of social work practice.


The above summary does not touch on all the areas of this book.  Other areas in the book that you might want to explore are empowerment chapters on practice with lesbians and gays, poor communities of color, homeless people and families, and youth.