Chapter 5: Empowerment

A. Introduction

Faced with the harsh realities of the world, there is a danger that participants in a START group can come away feeling more knowledgeable, but frustrated, inadequate, hopeless, and less powerful than when they began. It is critical that attention be put to building participants’ sense of their own power.

B. The Problem

Our society provides little support, encouragement, or training for us to serve as active, empowered citizens. We are not taught the skills required to understand social problems — much less to investigate and analyze these problems, research ways to resolve them, formulate possible solutions, or cooperate and struggle with others to choose and implement a good solution. We are not told we have the right to challenge the status quo, to make important decisions, or to control our society. Instead, we are encouraged to “fit in” and “go with the flow” down the path chosen by authorities. We are encouraged to be powerless. Also, the enormity of the changes needed at a broad societal level, and the complexity of interrelated problems, makes it difficult for any single person to feel able to unravel and understand them, much less feel powerful enough to bring about significant change.

Our power over our own lives and our sense of our own worth are diminished in other ways by the political and economic system. A profit-oriented and expansive market economy encourages the creation of artificial needs for goods that distort our values and obstruct our ability to recognize and meet real human needs. Advertising drums home the message that we are not good enough as we are. Our sense of isolation and alienation is fostered by the atmosphere of competition and divisiveness in which no one can be trusted, one person can gain success or privilege only at the expense of another, and a feeling of self-worth is acquired only by having somebody else to look down on.

C. The Reality

Although these many reasons to feel isolated and powerless are compelling, the reality is that we are not powerless. The power of nearly any system comes ultimately from people’s willingness to put up with it — to recognize its authority, obey its laws, respect its expertise, and subordinate their own opinions, preferences, and priorities to what they are told are the needs of the larger group. This willingness to relinquish power can be developed and maintained in many ways — by threat of force, by an absence of visible alternatives, by the myth that participation in decision-making presently exists, and by the idea that only the experts can know what to do.

All of these ways of maintaining unfair power, wealth, and privilege are undermined when people begin to discover that they can take charge of their lives — that they can love and be loved for who they are, that they know what they really need, and that they are smart and capable of understanding, making good decisions, taking responsibility, and following through with action. Since our system is not good at meeting real human needs, any loving and rational person naturally strives to bring about positive change and, when empowered, will work to do so. Hence, reclaiming our own power and our own humanity, whenever and wherever we can, and helping others to do the same, is basic to any other change work that we do.

Whether it is in changing our lifestyle, helping a meeting to function democratically, starting a farmers’ market, or organizing a campaign against a big-box store — all are important to make a next step possible. Any step, no matter how small, that helps us develop a mindset to act on situations instead of just reacting to them, significantly increases our ability to participate in and organize efforts to bring about change on a larger scale. Through that sense of empowerment we can begin to relearn and — if necessary — invent the tools for developing the self-reliance and the support that are needed in the struggle to transform society.

D. START Empowering

The most fundamental way of taking power is to integrate what we learn into our own life experience and understand how we fit into the big picture. START includes these ten empowering elements — consider how to consciously use them to counter feelings of powerlessness.

1. Controlling Our Learning Process

START enables and encourages participants to take charge of their learning process — altering it to address their own needs and desires — and offers specific information and tools to do this.

2. Educating Ourselves

The START course offers information about social problems and effective solutions to those problems, and a structure that allows participants to feel more knowledgeable and expert in tackling them.

3. Understanding Power

The START course provides information about the nature of power in society and how the power of nearly any system comes ultimately from people’s willingness to put up with it.

4. Building Community

START offers information on how to build a cooperative community and gives participants many opportunities to learn and practice the necessary skills with the other members of their START group, providing an immediate demonstration of essential components of a better society.

5. Personal Transformation

START offers specific information about how individuals can alter their own lifestyles as one step toward transforming society.

6. Taking Action

Working with their START group, participants can learn and practice the skills necessary to bring about societal change and feel the strength and support that comes from doing it together.

7. Focusing on Positive Directions

START offers information about identifying and implementing effective solutions and provides numerous examples of successful efforts to bring about positive change.

8. Celebrating Success

Understanding the obstacles that stand in the way of taking action against societal evils, START also encourages participants to fully appreciate their efforts — their good thinking, their hard work, and even their smallest successes — and build on that experience to do even better.

9. Choosing Issues that Touch Us

START assumes that the most lasting change comes in areas where we have not only a sound intellectual analysis but also where the change really makes a difference to us. START encourages participants to focus on a local issue that affects them directly or one whose nature somehow touches their hearts.

10. Maintaining Realistic Expectations and Pace

The START course encourages participants to live well and work at a pace sustainable over the long haul, since building a better society takes strength and time.

E. Tools

A variety of exercises for fostering empowerment are described in Section 2.H.

Next Chapter: 6. How to Organize a START Group