Like a lion they crouch and lie down, like a lioness–who dares ROUSE Them?
- Numbers 24:9, The New International Version
Although I was a successful student, I wasn’t great at everything. I remember the feeling of frustration and helplessness which threatened to overwhelm me as I struggled with my math homework. Once, during class, my frustration exploded as I burst into tears, rushing from the class after yelling at my teacher, only to return red-faced and ashamed a few minutes later. I remember sitting terrified in German class, watching the clock and praying that the teacher wouldn’t call on me, counting the seconds until I could escape without having to speak in front of the class – ironic, considering much of my time is now spent as an itinerant public speaker! These experiences epitomize everything I believe education should not be: disenfranchising, enfeebling, paralyzing. Education should be about empowerment – rousing we lions and lionesses into consciousness of our own capability and strength.
Empowerment is essential to organizing, too. Unless we feel powerful – unless we feel we can make a difference - we will not be roused to act, for it only makes sense to take action if we have some realistic hope that our actions will have an effect. That means that we, as organizers, need to constantly remind people of their own power, confronting them with stories of their past achievements and the outcome of past struggles.
This is a particular challenge at times when your people are demoralized and afraid: when courage ebbs and the world darkens, that is when you must empower people most. But it can also be a challenge to empower people with every advantage – as Marianne Williamson reminds us, we are often afraid of our own power, of our own capacity to make change:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
- ‘Our Greatest Fear’, Marianne Williamson
Even people in the best positions to act will not, not because fear failure but because they fear success. Change is frightening – even if it is change we would like to make. So leaders must frequently empower people, giving them the sense that yes they have the power to act and yes they should overcome their fear and use that power. But how do you do that?
Recall Past Accomplishments
Almost any group you work with will have achieved something collectively in the past, and those achievements can become the fuel to generate a sense of power in the present. When we are reminded that we made a difference before, we will be more likely to believe that we can make a difference again.
Watch how Elijah Miles empowers incoming teachers on the Teach for America program in Baltimore with this impassioned speech (watch from 6:30 for the section most relevant to empowerment):
When Elijah says “I believe with all my heart that you [teachers] have the power to do it”, his words are given weight and plausibility by his own experience of how teachers have transformed him. The past success other teachers is used to empower an entirely different group of teachers. By connecting his teachers with the soon-to-be teachers in front of him (“a couple of teachers – like you…”), Elijah empowers the Teach for America participants through his “living proof” of their potential power. This reminds us that even the achievements of others – if they are meaningfully connected with our own skills or circumstances – can encourage us to feel powerful.
Offer a Choice
When the struggle seems tough, and the odds uneven, remind your people they have a choice to work with you. People have a tendency to discount their own agency, and to reconstruct past victories as the necessary outcome of fate rather than the contingent result of effort. We also tend to see the path we’re on as the only path, and forget that we are, all the time, making choices – we always have options, and therefore we always have power.
Shakespeare has King Henry V offer his forces a choice before the battle of Agincourt. Facing his exhausted army, wracked with illness and hugely outnumbered by the French forces massed against them, King Henry offers his people a choice, and therefore rebuilds some of their sense of agency:
O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
- Shakespeare’s Henry V
While the choice is something of a false one – the British did not have anywhere to go if they chose not to fight, their retreat being blocked by the French army – the symbolic gesture is powerful. It at least reminds the soldiers that they have a choice to fight or not, and in that choice lies a certain amount of power.
Empowering those you lead is a critical task of any leader – if people don’t feel powerful they will be disinclined to act. You can help people feel powerful by recalling their past accomplishments – or the accomplishments of others like them, as Elijah Miles did – and by reminding people of their agency by making it clear they have a choice.
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