An empowering field placement for social work students at Montreal City Mission
By Sarah Beardmore, Paula Kline and Lynn McAlpine
(published in Canadian Social Work Journal Dec 04)
Empowerment as a philosophy is the cornerstone of modern social work intervention but the practice of empowerment has yet to be fully applied to social work education, contributing to discord in the internal structure of the profession. Social workers who attempt to “empower” clients without realizing this journey themselves risk perpetuating oppressive power relations and subjugating the knowledge of clients in favor of dominant paradigms. By making empowerment theory explicit for social work education, Montreal City Mission (MCM) has developed a field practicum model in which social work students are encouraged to analyze power structures critically, practice high levels of participation and decision making, and self-direct their learning. Policies, guidelines, methodologies and tools are all implemented within a collegial working structure in order to ensure that the practicum experience prepares students to live out empowerment theory in praxis.
“Empowerment” as referred to in this article contains two definitions which capture its meaning as both a psychological and structural condition, both subjective experience and objective reality. It is first and foremost the phenomenological development of a certain state of mind (e.g. feeling powerful, competent, worthy of esteem and respect). Secondly, empowerment is the modification of social conditions in order to reallocate power (e.g. modifying the society’s opportunity structures) (Dallaire & Chamberland, 1996, in Kline, 1996, p 29). On an individual level, people are encouraged to understand the ways in which structural oppression impacts their lives and therefore develop the capacity to reclaim their own sense of agency within that system. On a societal level, empowerment implies an examination, critique and engagement with larger systemic processes affecting oppressed populations.
A growing body of literature informed by feminism, anti-oppressive social theories, and pedagogical approaches such as that of Paulo Freire, have led to considerable development of the concept of empowerment as a key to personal and social transformation (Freire, 1972). Since the 1970s, empowerment has become a widely endorsed approach to social work practice as the discipline has moved away from medical approaches to client treatment and towards social justice models of intervention (Kondrat, 1995). Radical social work practice, ecological models, systems approaches, feminist practice and structural social work theories have all shared similar normative, epistemological and ontological positions which today are incorporated into social work under the rubric of anti-oppressive theory (Campbell and Tester, 2003). Several authors have contributed immeasurably to the body of social work literature which seeks to enlighten transformational approaches to structural inequality through practices, raising awareness about both internal and external oppression (Carniol, 2000; Moreau, 1989, 1994; Campbell, 2003; Mullaly, 1997; and Ife, 1997). The premise put forward in the literature is that a progressive and critical social work practice which has oppression as its focus is needed to challenge structures of domination in welfare capitalism (Mullaly, 1997). By exploring relationships of domination and one’s personal contribution to those relationships, anti-oppressive theory has become critical to social work practice in Canada. Empowerment is now considered to be the goal of social work intervention, as outlined in the Accreditation Guidelines of the Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work, where power (in the form of knowledge, skills, participatory decision-making) is meant to be fostered among those who have traditionally been oppressed (CASSW, 2003; Kondrat, 1995).
However, empowerment can be a problematic term because it is imbued with assumptions about the nature of power and strategies which cultivate power. The difficulty of empowerment strategies can be inferred from the epistemologies which inform their practice. In particular, the modern perspective which commodifies power, and thus knowledge, as something to be possessed, given, or received, tends to eschew the goal of empowerment. Within this framework there exists a dichotomy of haves and have-nots; power becomes something possessed by social workers and given to powerless populations (Leonard, 1994; Mullaly, 1997). This paradox risks perpetuating the inequality, oppression, and supposed helplessness of service users thus negating the actualization of empowerment. This is especially dangerous because the term empowerment is often self-legitimated by its alliance with libratory intent and can therefore conceal power relations which are exploitative (Pease, 2002). Conceptualizing power in this way becomes relevant given social workers’ dual roles as agents of social control and as providers of help; creating a problematic contradiction with which social workers must contend. (Campbell and Tester, 2003; Carniol, 2000).
The language of social work itself presents this dilemma to empowerment practice, where largely service-driven vocabulary pits the providers, who possess privileged knowledge, against the receivers, who lack that expertise and to whom it is transmitted. Because the social work discourse itself reinforces the traditional view of professionalism, our discussion of empowerment is necessarily presented with linguistic obstacles which tend to reinforce oppressive epistemologies (Ife, 1997). Although the outcome of this paradox is a lack of congruence between our discussion of empowerment and empowerment as an ideal, this factor also demonstrates the challenges of empowerment in practice. In order to make these power dynamics more transparent, recognizing the linguistic limits to empowerment practice is required of this process. It is this struggle which we are engaged in as authors (albeit one without a current solution), and it necessarily begins with a critical discernment of the language and an awareness of the power of semantics to give meaning to systems.
It is imperative that social workers, who mediate between social service systems and service users, become aware of language as one strand in the entire fabric of social stratification (Brashears, 1995; Mullaly, 1997). More specifically, this involves an examination of the privilege that accompanies membership in a dominant group, whether this privilege stems from race, gender, sexual orientation or even profession. Investigation of the role of privilege is necessary because, when assumed by a dominant group and coupled with prejudicial thinking, it leads to the oppression of minorities. Because social workers in general are privileged by their professional expertise, the power which this allows them to exercise must be scrutinized so that it does not contribute to oppressive systems. Inquiry into issues of privilege, power and prejudice can guard against the systemic oppression which helps to maintain the status of dominant groups (Parker, 2003).
On a systemic level, however, this oppression is largely institutionalized. The social work field is dominated by institutions which are highly bureaucratized and whose services are provided in a managerial context (Carniol, 2000). “The bureaucracy is the modern version of authoritarianism… transforming service delivery systems in ways that have profoundly adverse effects on those who provide service, or those who receive it, and on the nature of the service itself” (Lerner, in Solomon, 1976, p 14). Within such a system, empowerment in practice may become a subtle form of control where social workers define the needs and develop the solutions for clients without a critical analysis of the power dynamics. Because one’s subjectivity is shaped by the dominant discourse and those who are deemed to have a monopoly on “truth” define the processes of self-regulation, governance continues to be meted out from above while maintaining an illusion of self-determination. Professional knowledge claims of social work can therefore become a form of oppression where, in practice, local knowledge is subjugated despite the good intentions of the worker (Pease, 2002).
Within the service delivery system, social workers themselves are not immune to the power dynamics of the profession and they may also experience oppression within a highly structured, predominantly hierarchical system (Pinderhughes, 1983; Carniol, 2000). A sense of vulnerability within the macro-structure can become a motivation for social workers to keep clients in a dependent state, where “the experience of either superiority or inferiority on any one continuum of oppression can induce people to seek or maintain positions of superiority on other continuums of oppression” (Pinderhughes, 1983; Wineman, 1984 in Moreau, 1990: 63). Social workers, however, are operating at the front lines of the social inequity which leads to individual suffering; therefore to encourage the status quo is to endanger the integrity of the social work profession.
On the other hand, to reclaim one’s locus of control and use it to invite dialogue about the status quo is to empower the self within a dynamic framework of social relations in order to effect positive social change. This necessarily involves an element of risk-taking, where “what can be gained or lost by an action” is unknown and therefore ambiguous (Murphy, 1999, p 25). Growth and social change are impossible without attendant risk and ambiguity, and yet this is exactly what discourages people (both social workers and service users) to actualize their visions. An ironic limitation to empowerment practice is that “the greater the potential benefit of an action, inevitably the greater will be the risk,” thus discouraging individuals to act when it would most serve them to do so (Murphy, 1999, p 25).
Social workers are in a better position to encourage service users to exercise power only if they themselves are empowered; and this imperative has begun to receive attention from social work scholars and educators. Individual agency may be eclipsed by officially defined knowledge whether one is a service user or service provider, and in both cases empowerment is only possible if the production and producers of knowledge are continually questioned. “As much as oppressed people have to reveal to themselves the power of the oppressor and the way in which it operates, so too educators and students have to be able to read and announce to themselves the power of the education system, the college, and even the teacher” (Inglis, 1997, p 7). Social work education must therefore incorporate empowerment-oriented skills into its curriculum in order to prepare students for the practice of empowerment.
The challenge lies in building a bridge between theory (conceptual frameworks that are expressed as espoused theories) and practice (concrete explicit strategies that represent theories-in-use). This link would allow social work students to become aware of inter-personal and systemic processes affecting power relations in their day-to-day lives and therefore enact theories-in-use that are consistent with their espoused theories. Emancipatory empowerment requires an ongoing, dialogical process of critical discernment on the part of all those involved in the fluid, ever-changing processes of power relations (Mullaly, 1997; Ife, 1997). The elucidation sought is not an absolute, nor is it static; but rather it is knowledge that is provisional, subject to continual critique and which has at its base a libratory incentive to change oppressive social structures (Kondrat, 1995). It is therefore imperative that social workers be provided with the resources, skills, and freedom to learn how to raise questions, analyze power structures, and exercise self-determination in their own search for illumination.
The field placement is a crucial stage in social work education as it is designed to establish occupational standards of conduct and model accepted behaviour for the profession. Therefore, the social work practicum experience provides an excellent opportunity for empowerment to be applied on a functional level, as students begin to practice critical skills in the field setting (Brashears, 1995; Knight, 2001). Several learning tools have been identified in the adult education literature which positively impact students’ sense of empowerment and which can be explored further for social work education. Nurturing a high involvement in the educational process through self-direction, critical analysis, and mutual evaluation has a positive impact on the individual, but “this is not their terminal objective: the qualifications, knowledge, skills and personal development are for a purpose beyond the benefit and enhancement of the individual involved” (Inglis, 1997). By implementing an educational model which nourishes emancipatory empowerment, the practice of social work may be transformed, thus transforming social life.
Montreal City Mission
These theoretical considerations provide a context for our discussion on the evolution of the empowerment model at Montreal City Mission (MCM) and on the development of an empowering practicum for social work students. Montreal City Mission is a non-profit social justice ministry of the United Church of Canada that endeavors to provide vital services to populations who are at an economic and social disadvantage. The population of service users includes refugees and the homeless, as well as low-income individuals and families in downtown Montreal who individually lack resources to improve the quality of their lives. Through several program areas, MCM, in partnership with community and ecumenical groups, students, and volunteers, develops long-term solutions to problems of poverty and exclusion. These program areas include refugee work, a summer day camp for low-income and special needs children, social housing initiatives for the homeless, community economic development, and social advocacy, as well as student education.
Founded in 1910 and adopted as a ministry of the United Church of Canada in 1957, MCM has undergone a rapid transformation in the last thirty years. MCM’s organizational structure has evolved to incorporate social justice values brought to the fore in the sixties and seventies by individuals, social advocacy groups, and social movements. By adopting a collegial management model, MCM has been able to transform its internal structure so that it is compatible with empowerment-based initiatives.
With only three full-time staff, student interns (six to ten a year) have been an essential human resource at MCM since the 1980s and over the years staff has worked to develop procedural standards to ensure their integration in the organization. Those standards have in turn allowed MCM to define and plan the student field placement, developing it into a separate program area. Students from various disciplines are quickly incorporated into the staff team through on-site orientation, and are encouraged to contribute and participate to the best of their ability. Since the 1990s, the field practicum for social work students has become a boon to the development of MCM’s program areas, in large part because students are expected to contribute actively to programs, policies, and guidelines. The field practicum has incorporated both field instruction procedures as well as self-directed learning guidelines which encourage a strengths-based approach to social work practice, and simultaneously requires critical thinking about power dynamics.
An empowering social work practicum
Traditional methods of field instruction have called on typically hierarchical disciplines such as pedagogy and administration to inform supervisory functions, perpetuating a one up-one down dichotomy between field instructor and student. In order to transcend this hierarchy of power, Brashears has suggested that the social work discipline itself should be the conceptual frame of reference for field instruction: “The purpose of social work is to promote or restore a mutually-beneficial interaction between individuals” (“The Working Statement on the Purpose of Social Work,” 1981, in Brashears, 1995). The field instructors should thus embody the purpose of social work (and be empowered themselves) in order to model appropriate behaviour that can then be applied to service users, creating a consistent internal paradigm. The field instructor is someone who has a long experience of her/his milieu and is already engaged in a process of self reflection. She/he embodies a living tradition which is rich in knowledge, practice and wisdom. As such, the field instructor sets the tone for the learning process that will take place during the field placement. The student, as well, brings expertise to the field placement from the areas of work, academia and personal life experiences. With the field-instructor’s guidance, the student is enabled to draw on and further develop these skills through inter-action with the field site, fellow students and colleagues, and populations served by the organization.
Although the intent is that power differentials do not define the field instructor-student dyad at Montreal City Mission, differentials of experience, responsibility and knowledge inform the relationship. In this way, the field instructor guides but does not control the learning of the practicum student, and the student has the freedom to make choices about priority learning areas and methods. Deane Taylor, a social work student at MCM captured this relationship: “[The field instructor] has allowed me to learn at my own pace, while encouraging me to reflect and act on my personal and professional goals.” Field instruction thus fits into the collegial structure, where the field instructor and student are collaborators in a process of continuous learning. Mutuality defines the relationship as well as the tools of interaction, and from the preliminary interview to the last evaluation the goal of the MCM field instructors is to participate in a dialogical and reciprocal exploration of the field setting with the student. In the field education setting, practicing mutuality is defined as creating a learning context in which students can use their knowledge and cultivate their creativity by making practical contributions to the organization, as well as develop their professional authority by holding the field instructor accountable to his/her responsibilities as placement advisor.
The first step preceding a successful field practicum at MCM is a placement interview in which student and potential field instructor analyze the rightness of fit. It is an exploratory meeting on both sides, during which the student is introduced to the agency, and the field instructor describes MCM’s philosophy and raises issues that will be central to the placement experience (Kilpatrick, et al., 1984). The policies are shared with the student, and the rights and responsibilities of the Code of Ethics, Collegiality Policy, Anti-Oppressive Practice Policy, MCM Guidelines for Social Work Field instruction, and the MCM Evaluation of the Field Placement Instructor are explained clearly. The Guidelines for Social Work Field instruction asks students to explore how they feel about the field instructor-student relationship in terms of power dynamics. Students are also encouraged to reflect on their own ability to work as part of a collegial staff team, to fine-tune communication skills, to engage in mutual evaluations and to respect the inclusiveness fostered at MCM. In turn, students express their personal, professional and skill-based learning goals and are asked how those learning goals relate to the objectives of MCM. The requirement to reflect on personal development goals often comes as a surprise to students who are usually focused on the technical skills they wish to acquire. This unexpected request, however, marks the beginning of a field placement experience grounded in both professional and personal reflection which has a significant impact on practice.
Students also have an opportunity to bring up any apprehensions or questions about the organization, policies, or the United Church of Canada. During one interview, a prospective practicum student expressed her discomfort with the United Church’s liberal stand on homosexuality. The field instructor discussed with her the requirement at MCM both to respect the Anti-Oppressive Practice Policy, and also to engage in an examination of problematic issues related to the field placement which are a source of anxiety or distress for the student. “The discipline of working with mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny,” (Senge, 1990, p 9). Reflecting on one’s mental models (“deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting”) opens up the possibility of changing patterns of thinking (Senge, 1990, p 174). The prospective practicum student in question went on to complete a successful eight-month field placement at MCM, during which time she was given support to deal with the issues and challenges that stemmed from her ideology and explore them further. On the other hand, after the placement interview some students have chosen not to do their practicum at MCM, judging the agency as an incorrect fit for their learning goals. Whether a right fit is discovered between student and agency/field instructor or not, the field placement interview is an essential first step in allowing each to decide on the best course of action for mutual benefit.
Evaluation is another crucial aspect of the field instructor-student relationship. At MCM, evaluation is considered a process of feedback where both field instructor and student are engaged in a relationship of mutual accountability. It is an integral part of the learning experience during the field placement that equips students to take responsibility for professional development (moving from a passive to an active role), address difficult and conflictive issues with figures of authority (positive confrontation), reflect on a deeper level about the individual learning roles within the learning process and fine-tune general communication skills. The student is thereby called to become an active participant in the learning process while the field instructor is equally required to remain open to new learning opportunities presented in the field instruction sessions.
In addition, mutual evaluations help to create a climate of trust in which the field instructor is no longer seen as an omniscient being to be emulated, obeyed or feared, but rather a mentor with experience and knowledge to share and an individual who is also on a path of continuing professional development. The belief at MCM is that above and beyond weekly field instruction sessions, mutual student evaluations and field instructor evaluations are important for keeping communication and feedback lines open. Ongoing dialogue is promoted by such procedures and therefore it is necessary that the evaluations be mutual and process-oriented. “The process of mutual evaluation, as well as the other forms of evaluation and reflection required of my field placement, opened a channel for critical analysis at all levels. As a student, I was not only encouraged but required to think critically about my field instruction, as well as the norms and practices at MCM. In this space for open critical reflection, I have had the possibility to challenge and change myself, my field instructor and the organization itself” (Jenny Jeanes, social work field student 2003-04).
In many settings, however, students and field instructors do not see each other frequently enough nor are the structures in place to create an open relationship involving continuous feedback. Although unilateral student evaluations are a standard requirement of practicum field instructors by academic institutions, practicum field instructor evaluations are rare, or else they are anonymous checklists completed by the student only at the end of a field placement. Most universities only require that the practicum field instructor evaluate the student at the mid-point and at the end of the placement.
At MCM, the first mutual evaluation is mid-practicum, where student and field instructor meet to review the field placement experience. In keeping with university requirements, the student evaluation is a form filled out by the practicum field instructor in which learning goals, methods, issues and challenges are analyzed up to that point in the placement. This allows the student to alter his or her course of action, and/or goals if necessary, before the field placement is too far advanced for field instructor feedback to influence the outcome of the placement. In addition to the student evaluation, at MCM there is a verbal evaluation of the field instructor by the student. This creates a space where the student is encouraged to give feedback on what is working well, what areas need development, and to bring up any issues that he or she may have with the field instructor. Evaluation allows the field instructor to become aware of the student’s perspective, and provides an opportunity for the field instructor to engage in continuous learning, seeking new ways to improve on field methods. During the evaluations, the field instructor also models positive confrontation which often resolves any germinating conflicts before they become problematic.
The second evaluation is at the end of the practicum and MCM policy requires that student and field instructor evaluate both themselves and each other. This calls for student and field instructor to reflect upon his or her own role and experience in the field placement, as well as on their perception of the other. Once the evaluations have been filled out, the field instructor and student then review them, compare perspectives and discuss reasons for disparity or agreement. The face-to-face discussion lets both parties explore their ideas about the learning experience, identify areas for improvement and examine successful approaches. This process allows the field instructor’s knowledge as well as the student’s knowledge to inform the analysis of the practicum, synthesizing perspectives and allowing each to be heard. The evaluation also encourages a critical analysis of the educational experience, where there is a dialogue which requires reflection and honesty. If the student’s written evaluation of the field instructor is too positive and there are no explanatory comments, the student is encouraged to think more critically about the field placement.
The potential for self-directed learning is immense and can be extremely effective in generating knowledge that is relevant for the student. Self-direction has always been an important concept in the study and practice of adult education; in fact some describe it as a basic human competence to continue to learn on one’s own. While individuals often need support in their learning, particularly when novices, adults do possess the natural ability to learn on their own and many will seek to satisfy this hunger choosing (when they have the motivation and the opportunity) the degree of control they desire over what and how to learn (Garrison, 1997).
The prerequisite and simultaneously the outcome of successful self-directed learning is critical self-awareness; the more you know yourself, the better you can identify appropriate learning needs, goals, and methods. Starting with the placement interview, students at MCM are encouraged to engage in self reflection regarding their fit at the agency: in the organizational structure, in collaboration with the field instructor, and in the larger context of a diverse and inclusive milieu. Throughout the placement they are expected to reflect on their experience and are required to use positive confrontation to raise any problematic issues or to question the accepted orthodoxy. MCM endeavors to provide the tools to allow a full exploration of the self in a non-judgmental environment so that continuous improvements can be made upon learning initiatives. The high involvement of the students is thus necessary for the field placement to be successful at MCM, as it is the students themselves who must take responsibility for their own critical awareness. Kadushin reiterates this point in his book on field instruction practice when he says that “We learn best if we are actively involved in the learning process” (Kadushin, 1984, p 192). Decision-making on the part of the student is not unguided, however, and tools to clarify the purpose of the practicum are provided by the field instructor in the form of a learning contract and timeline.
The learning contract at MCM allows students to design a curriculum that centers on their own personal and professional goals and learning objectives. Since they are required by MCM to come to the placement interview with their practicum goals in mind, the students have time to reflect on and establish what they hope to accomplish through the field placement, both in terms of personal development and skill development. With the guidance of the field instructor, these learning objectives are put into a work plan the first week of the practicum; i.e. they are coupled with a timeline so that there is a temporal framework for the student’s goals. In addition, the learning contract includes the tasks and methods of evaluating each learning goal so that the students know not only by when, but also how they will accomplish and demonstrate the learning objectives. Within this well-defined format, the student is free to determine the content of the learning contract.
Most social work students write regular process logs during their practicum, in which they reflect on and process challenges that arise during their daily work. At MCM, that log is also used as a resource to identify areas which require further investigation. Whereas the formal learning goals as outlined in the learning contract are the main objectives of the field placement, students are also encouraged to contribute to the development of guidelines and policies if a need is identified in field instruction sessions. When an issue has emerged and a student detects it as problematic or relevant, he or she is invited by the field instructor to conduct appropriate independent research. This is above and beyond what is required of the student during the practicum but remains an option for students who have the time, energy and desire to engage on such a learning path. To this end MCM has developed a learning methodology to support this independent research.
The learning methodology involves a series of steps which facilitate an independent inquiry into the subject of concern once the goals have been clearly defined. 1) Students commence an initial gathering of information from community/church networks, the library or the Internet to get a sense of the scope and relevance of the issue. 2) Students then collect local perspectives on the issue, for instance, develop a questionnaire or carry out interviews at MCM or elsewhere to solicit the input of colleagues regarding their own experiences with the issue at hand. Colleagues may also be able to help identify information gaps and tools required for continued personal and professional growth in this area. This methodology integrates theory and practice by allowing experience in the field to inform the research, which in turn informs and possibly reformulates the experience in the field.
3) Once the requisite information has been collected, students then develop a workshop in which they teach others (usually co-workers) about the issue and discuss the results in a group setting. The students must achieve a firm grasp of the material in order to educate their peers, and they must also reflect on different styles of learning to be able to facilitate an effective workshop. This forum for learning also allows workshop participants to identify lacunae in knowledge and experience and affords them an opportunity to interact with their colleagues on what is usually an issue of common concern (e.g. professional boundaries, secondary post-traumatic shock syndrome or anti-discriminatory practice).
4) At this point the student and field instructor decide on what is the best format for making the results of this process available to a wider audience of future colleagues, students, and community members. Oftentimes, the information is written up as a set of guidelines that is eventually adopted by the Montreal City Mission Board, thus becoming official MCM policy (e.g. Interpersonal Dynamics, Anti-Oppressive Practice Policy). This learning methodology not only supports the education of other students and serves as a resource to workers who may confront similar issues, but it also empowers the social work student to reflect, learn, teach and therefore influence (Farquharson, 1978). This methodology has been utilized to create helpful resources for dealing with inter-personal boundary issues, coping with post-traumatic shock syndrome, creating better access for visually impaired employees, and enlarging the scope of anti-oppressive practice.
A dialogue about oppressive structures was initiated by MCM staff and Board more than two decades ago, and in exposing the issue to scrutiny an organizational transformation was instigated which would prove to be never-ending. What emerged at that time was a vision, and since then, different plans have been initiated to bring reality closer to that ideal. As empowerment theory was applied to MCM service users, staff and students, a method of continuous inquiry emerged to fuel change on a personal, structural, and organizational level. This method of inquiry has been articulated by guidelines, policies and tools which safeguard the goal of inclusive dialogue at MCM, providing the momentum for cycles of reflection, action, and feedback to impact the organization positively. This dialectic occurs between staff members and social work students, whose understandings of theory and practice constantly inform one another. Indeed, in researching this article, the analysis of empowerment theory has inspired more thought on potential procedures at MCM which can enhance empowerment practice in the future: MCM is currently developing a questionnaire for the annual student orientation session on the identification of personal and professional sources of power and powerlessness, as well as the creation of strategies which address feelings of disempowerment. Inevitably, this is not the last exercise in empowerment practice, and experimentation will continue at MCM to improve further upon empowering procedures.
Montreal City Mission has fortunately been encouraged by the policies of the United Church of Canada which seek to create an inclusive community based on right relationship, as well as by the imaginations of individual staff, students and board members. Organizational systems which are supportive of emancipatory empowerment are far rarer, however, than those which seek conformity in order to protect the status quo. The first challenge, therefore, is engaging actors in a movement which involves considerable risk as it seeks major change on individual and systemic levels. Once engaged in this movement, the second challenge is overcoming the opposition that will be encountered within these systems. Unfortunately, these barriers cannot be overcome with a simple formula offered here – rather, we can only suggest elements of empowerment which could be encouraged by others who embrace this vision.
Although change is often resisted, it is unavoidable and therefore should be guided by a consciousness which seeks democracy of the intellect rather than a retreat into traditional power structures. An atmosphere of open communication is required to allow the dialogue to be unlocked to marginalized voices, where they may seek authentic expression. That communication should have as its aim the revelation of forces which oppress the authentic self, as well as the exploration of mechanisms which allow the authentic self to be creatively engaged in social life (Murphy, 1999). Beyond that, the MCM staff team is aware that empowerment is truly a work in progress, and entails a constant questioning of the micro structures which are the building blocks of systemic processes. This implies, however, that there is no right answer and that the steps taken to practice empowerment are always provisional, subject to critique, and constantly in need of revision (Ife, 1997). Inevitably, this is the irony of providing a model of empowerment for social work students; there is no ‘absolute’ empowerment and whatever may be presented here is equally provisional, fallible, and incomplete. It is therefore imperative that others in a broad spectrum of disciplines and fields continue to question, revise, experiment and take risks with empowerment practice.
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