emPOWERment: Taking action on what’s important to us

Dedicated to Patsy.

“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves” – Thomas Edison.

I have a friend and colleague who is absolutely incredible. In her job, she works tirelessly to improve the lives of the poor. To bring light to the issues they face and inspire people to take action.

But she doesn’t stop there. She fundraises to build houses for orphaned children. She promotes and supports the good work of others. She rescues street animals.

She is always open to doing something, providing some contribution, to help others and do her bit to make the world better, even if it is just for one person or one animal.

Just over a year ago, I moved back to New Zealand after living and working in Mozambique, one of the ten poorest countries in the world. I came back to hear people complaining about the way things were and not doing anything about it. I was furious. I couldn’t understand why people who had the capacity – educated, with access to information and political influence – to change things for the better, wouldn’t.

The world is full of issues that need fixing. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, not knowing what to do or what to focus on, but I’ve been wondering about why more people aren’t taking action. Why is it that people don’t recycle, don’t vote, don’t donate (as well as the other thousands of other actions possible?)

Turns out, it all comes down to P O W E R; or at least, perceptions of it.

I came across two concepts, real powerlessness and surplus powerlessness, by Michael Lerner (1986), an American political activist, the editor of Tikkun, a progressive Jewish interfaith magazine, and the rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, California.

Lerner said real powerlessness is where you have a lack of financial resources and are oppressed by systems and people. This applies to ethnic minority groups, indigenous peoples, and the poor. They have little political or systemic control and a lack of access to money.

On the other hand, surplus powerlessness is a belief that change is not possible. This belief is so powerful that it drives apathy and is the reason why people don’t fight or take action. It seems pretty clear to me that this applies to the majority of Westerners, living a pretty good life, in a democracy, and yet, not taking action to make things better for others or themselves.

Elisheva Sadan mapped the history of empowerment thought, noting that it came, in part, out of a recognition of the failure of social programmes in poor communities in the U.S. There were programmes serving communities, but they were leaving them powerless, not recognising the local knowledge and experience. In his own theory, Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator and philosopher, also argued that no matter how uneducated or poor someone is, they always have invaluable knowledge that should be respected and called upon.

But how does this apply to those who suffer from surplus powerlessness – especially those who have money, are in middle and upper class, and white? They have all of the power, yet take little action. This has been particularly clear on the Black Lives Matter issue, where white people are able to force change – change systems, policies, police behaviour, gun laws – and yet haven’t.

Is the problem not that people feel powerless, but instead because they simply don’t care?

A 2015 Pew Research survey found that globally, 54% of people are very concerned about climate change, with 41% of Americans reporting that they believe the issue is already harming people now. The Centre for Preventative Action surveyed 500 experts asking what they were most worried about for 2016 and they came up with a comprehensive list covering environmental, financial and social issues.

Personal experience tells me that it isn’t that we don’t care. Humans are communal beings, with natural feelings of compassion and empathy, as well as an in-built capacity for relationship building and acknowledging that the good for the community is good for the individual.

So back to the feeling of being powerless. How do we change that?

Sadan believes that being empowered is the result of not only how we are raised, but also our ability to make decisions as well as the interaction between us as an individual and our environment. Theorists have identified different stages in the process of empowerment, where having a specific (perhaps traumatic) experience can kick off a process of engaging with our sense of power and community. Having a mentor or someone to walk alongside us can also play an important role.

After obsessing over people’s inaction, I was sharing my frustrations on Skype with a close friend who works in healthcare. We decided that there are three key rules to tell us whether someone is going to take action or not:

They need to be connected personally to the issue in some way
They need to feel that they have some power over the issue
There needs to be an opportunity to act

Educating people about the issues isn’t enough. We need to walk alongside them to show them their power. We need to ask what they care about. We need to provide tools and explanations of how they work. And most importantly, we need to tap into people’s own knowledge and potential. What do they know about what’s happening? What do they think might work? What can they do about it? Keeping it practical and relevant – no one needs to know everything about an issue. They just need to know how to use their own understanding and knowledge and put it into action.

My friend Patsy’s practical and kind actions don’t suddenly make all of the wrongs in the world right. But she does make a difference.

We can always do more. It requires us to care, and to do something. Every little bit counts. Alessandra Pigni says you cannot be the change alone. But we are not alone. There are thousands, probably millions, of other people each doing their little bit to make the world a better place.

There is always something more we can do to bring more peace and joy into the world, whether to our family, our neighbours, our workmates, our community, our state, our country or our world.

Here’s a few ideas:

Plant a tree
Send a lovingly email or card to a friend, family member or colleague
Ask people how they are (and really listen for the answer)
Say please and thank you
Donate your unused (and decent quality) clothes to a charity that collects them
Volunteer for an organisation
Mentor someone (a student, a colleague, a friend)
Buy local products and produce
Buy fair trade products
Make a donation to a reputable charity
Donate food to the food bank (or to the animal shelters)
Use less plastic

What small action can you take today?
Photography: Visual Hunt
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