Maybe it was that time you found yourself standing up for a stranger. Maybe it was that moment when you depended only on yourself to find your feet after a fall. Or maybe it was that one compliment from the teacher who planted the seed. The one talk from Mom or Dad that changed everything. Or maybe it was that really great book you just couldn’t put down. Sometimes it is the unexpected that becomes the best catalyst for empowerment. The Secret Garden is a novel that evokes warmth in me just by hearing the title. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s tale feels like a long distance friend whose conversations are few and far between but full of depth and a history of understanding. That is why this novel leads my list of books that empower. There is something to be said about the first friend who simply understands your heart without explanation. They allow you to think Yes, I am not alone. That is exactly how I feel. It empowers. Empowering moments can be infrequent and sometimes scarce, but there is no doubt that we all have the capacity to empower but don’t always use it.
Hundreds of books and articles have been written arguing about who needs empowering and how to go about doing it. Often empowerment can seem like a dirty word. It invokes a negative connotation for those who “need” empowering. Who decides who needs what? Is this an argument over the imbalance between entitlement and oppression? Why does that “need” to be empowered seem so deeply intertwined with the female gender or race? The inception of this term came in 1976 from an educator name Barbara Bryant Solomon. A New York Times article entitled “How ‘Empowerment’ Became Something for Women to Buy” explains that Solomon coined the term because “it was meant as an ethos for social workers in marginalized communities, to discourage paternalism and encourage their clients to solve problems in their own ways.” Maybe it is simple as that.
Strip away the conflicts that exist within race and gender for a moment. Reframe the concept of empowerment to be a simple standard by which we live where we encourage one another. In 2011, Forbes published an article that listed “6 Ways to Empower Others To Succeed”. Although this article is tailored to the workplace, it can be applied in other facets of human connection, as well.
Forbes’ first suggestion is to “Share information”. Access to information is at our fingertips, but Forbes believes sharing information is a necessary attribute between employers and employees because it “builds trust” and “allow(s) them to make the best possible decisions in critical situations.” I see this in many aspects of my life. As a mother I am learning I have to take a step back and trust that my children will make good decisions. I also have to give them space to fail. In teaching the same is true. My students will learn nothing if we do not build a classroom environment that elicits trust. As a writer, I am learning to trust my readers more. I am working to move away from spoon-feeding details. Ultimately I want them to feel empowered to build their own meaning from the story. One of the first times that I experienced this as a reader was while enjoying Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. I treasured his balance between fact and fiction, where he trusted me to ride the blur between those two worlds.
Forbes then suggests that employers “be clear with [their] vision, goals/objectives, and roles.” This is the epicenter in relationships both personal and professional. It took what felt like a lifetime for me to truly understand that concept. I now understand that being clear in my expectations with family members and friends makes for less confrontation and heartache in the end. As contrived as this may seem, it wasn’t until I re-read Great Expectations as an adult that I began to formulate any conception of this. Dickens presents a world where characters react only to their misconceptions instead of to actuality. Sometimes we need to read about those mishaps in others in order to avoid them ourselves.
The third piece of advice dictated by Forbes is one that cannot be repeated enough. “Teach that it’s o.k. to make mistakes.” This is easier said than done in a world where the mistakes of humans are dissected, observed, manipulated, crucified, washed, rinsed, and repeated EVERYWHERE. How do we teach children that failure is often the best way to learn? Often it is almost impossible to reconcile with failure. How can we market failure as a strategy for learning, as opposed to a desolate turn of events? It is rare that children do not emerge from the American education system without reading books with this underlying theme. One of the most common being Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
However, this concept is not resonating with our youth—or adults, for that matter. This is where I make a plea to you. Let’s break this cycle so that our brightest future need not be built on a platform of perceived perfection. This leads to Forbes’ fourth piece of advice. “Create an environment that celebrates both successes and failures.”
“Support a learning environment” lands at number five. I guess that is where I am in this moment. I continue to write to learn. I teach to learn both through new curriculum and from my students. Motherhood has taught me so much about viewing the world through new lenses. I can only hope that my children will continue being learners long after the closing of that last textbook. With technological access to one another, it is possible to have information at our disposal so that we can be students of life for years without paying a dime. Use it, share it, immerse yourself in it. Empowering one another can come through conversations about what we read and learn independently. Podcasts are the greatest source of information available that is most conducive to my lifestyle. I would recommend the podcast Radiolab because I find myself enraptured by their stories, research and commentary. My friends empower me by sharing articles with me and viewpoints that may differ from my own. This creates discourse that is crucial to a learning lifestyle.
Lastly, Forbes believes that empowerment comes from letting “teams become the hierarchy”. The face of education is in a drastic transition as instruction is no longer about disseminating information as much as it is about facilitating learning. Students can access information on their own in a way that generations prior never could. Teachers no longer need to lecture so students acquire information. As instructors, we must use all of the skills I just enumerated here to cultivate lifelong learners who find value in relationships. Life is a team sport, no matter what you do. From an early age, even the most super of heroes finds superior success when working with others. The Justice League, the Avengers, the X-Men, or even the Fantastic Four. At the most basic level, the concept of the strength in numbers has been an undertone in so many stories. Yet some only see membership on a team as a loss of individuality. Empower them to see both.
Whether you choose to incite empowerment in others or look more deeply into the impetus of yours, be part of that cycle. Recommend empowering books to one another. John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany allowed me to redefine preconceived notions about faith and social justice, while conversations about it cemented my strongest bond. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation.