Achieving Empowerment

How can communities and artists work together to achieve empowerment? Reflecting on Take A Part’s Social Making: Socially Engaged Practice Now & Next, read a series of ‘take home’ points for artists & organisations working in socially engaged practice.

Social Making: Achieving Empowerment

If I was to sum up the overarching sentiment of Take A Part’s Social Making event, it would be a complex set of concerns around empowerment. This shifts the conversation from projects that involve some form of light or basic social engagement or participation towards projects that are co-created, co-commissioned and co-owned by a range of stakeholders – including organisations, the communities created around an arts project, and artists or other specialists involved in the project at different stages.

Photo Credit: Social Making

Using patients’ rights activist Judi Chamberlin’s co-developed working definition of empowerment (1997) as a starting point, I would like to present an edited version here to help highlight the complex and multidimensional nature of empowerment. As Chamberlin notes, empowerment is best discussed and described ‘a process rather than an event’ and that individuals don’t need to display every quality on this list to be considered as ’empowered’.

  • Having decision-making power.
  • Having access to information and resources.
  • Having a range of options from which to make choices (not just yes/no, either/or).
  • Assertiveness. Being able to clearly state one’s wishes and to stand up for oneself.
  • Effecting change in one’s life and one’s community.
  • A feeling that the individual can make a difference. Being hopeful.
  • Not feeling alone; feeling part of a group.
  • Changing others’ perceptions of one’s competency and capacity to act.
  • Increasing one’s positive self-image and overcoming stigma.
  • Growth and change that is never ending and self-initiated.
  • Learning skills (e.g. communication) that the individual defines as important.
  • Learning about and expressing anger and dissatisfaction in productive ways. Recognising the limits of this activity.
  • Learning to think critically. Unlearning the conditioning of one’s context. Seeing things differently; e.g.:
    • Learning to redefine who we are (speaking in our own voice).
    • Learning to redefine what we can do.
    • Learning to redefine our relationships to institutionalised power.

These qualities demonstrate that empowerment is built on a series of feelings and experiential senses that are precursors to action. For people who find themselves in marginalised positions, these qualities represent vital achievements in the process of obtaining basic opportunities. These qualities can be achieved by people or communities in self-directed ways, or through the involvement of non-marginalised others who share their existing access to these opportunities – eg an experienced project manager sharing the knowledge, expertise and professional or social contacts needed to organise an event, fundraise or build strategic partnerships.

Questions around how to articulate strategies that don’t entrench social exclusion are vital to the discussion of genuine empowerment, and were raised by a number of speakers. At times, non-marginalised groups can be unaware of the disempowering effects of the language used and approaches developed in the pursuit of empowerment. For example, if empowerment is viewed or defined as ‘the giving over of power’ to a group or community, this carries with it an assumption that this power did not already reside within the community. However, Kelechi Nnoham expressed a useful reminder that social capital must be harnessed – its use, transfer and application does not happen on its own or ‘naturally’.

Photo Credit: Social Making

Speakers offered a range of potential approaches:

Re-phrasing our thinking around the word ‘community’

Artists and organisations who are working in embedded ways (within a particular geographical area) need to realise that the community they are working in / with is not simply ‘a community’ or ‘the community’ but instead a complex community of communities. This could also be related to Situations’ New Rules Of Public Art Rule #4: DON’T MAKE IT FOR A COMMUNITY. CREATE A COMMUNITY. Take care not to create or generate group names that assume a ‘them’ mentality, or assume that a certain identified group has a homogenous nature. Embrace collegiality (see “Methods For Mammals”) and get to know people who want to be involved in the project as individuals.


Re-phrasing knowledge transfer as knowledge mobilisation

Those in non-marginalised positions can support and attempt to accelerate the process of empowerment through increasing availability and accessibility of information and resources; the development of (and increased access to) bespoke community training or other events that relate to the realisation of the empowerment qualities listed above; and support the production of ‘toolkits’ around skills that marginalised individuals or groups identify as important. Researchers could address their part in the availability of research and its dissemination – published reports / journal articles may be available to all but less accessible to those who need them / would benefit from them most. Artists can work to develop creative methods for knowledge mobilisation and encourage moments of self-actualisation for individuals.


Artists as observers or those framing moments and activities that are already occurring

Darren O’Donnell (Mammalian Diving Reflex) discussed the role of artists as observers or those framing moments and activities that were already occurring – not censoring activity, but instead re-framing it for another audience. This was also echoed in Assemble’s approach to working in Croydon (in terms of events) & Liverpool (in terms of raw materials). The point was raised that re-development projects often fail to value what residents value in an area. Artists could work in ways that draw out, make visible and celebrate these qualities – being resourceful with the ‘material’ they find, offering an outside eye on the possibilities of a place, working with what is there already.


Self-realisation occurs through taking part in projects and ‘doing’ it

Michael Bridgewater (Efford community organiser) stated “We discovered who we were, what we needed and what we were capable of”. Socially engaged projects can contribute towards providing a sense of purpose, and setting up sustainable community activity – steps need to be taken throughout the project to avoid ‘learned helplessness’ and ensure genuine succession, skills development and sharing / transfer of social capital.


Branding (or re-branding) as a form of ownership

Rory Shand (Manchester Met) and Sam Jones (Homebaked) both referenced the potential for projects and communities to involve themselves in generating the branding messages around an area. This strategy touches on a high number of the qualities of empowerment listed above – including around positive self-image, changing the perception of others, feeling part of a group, having decision-making power and redefining our relationships to institutionalised power. These messages also have the potential to seep out of arts projects and infiltrate a wider public consciousness.

For examples see:








LOW PROFILE (2011) Would You Like This Badge? –


Drawing on specialist methodologies from outside the arts

Throughout the event, speakers referenced a range of specialist methodologies that had been employed as part of projects they had designed, whether these were methods from social science applied to arts evaluation (Situations), nudge strategies from neuromarketing for ‘unblocking behaviours’ (Effervescent), a background in social and cultural planning (Mammalian Diving Reflex) or using a background in architecture / design (Assemble) to think about ways of repurposing space, or understanding the potential to reclaim spaces through use or domestication. Take A Part’s own projects often feature this type of cross-disciplinary approach – working with artists like Anne Marie Culhane (permaculture and ecology) or Sophie Hope (trade union movement strategies and labour politics). Socially engaged arts projects could also double up as sites for individual and community learning from a broad range of specialist methodologies applied in new and creative ways.


Developing economies that everyone can benefit from

Again, in relation to redevelopment and urban planning, it was clear from many of the case studies presented that this important aspect is often overlooked. The most striking example of this was Homebaked’s story of how economic decisions in Anfield had left a neighbourhood stuck in regeneration limbo, after two generations of residents were actively disadvantaged by the prioritisation of local political and economic agendas. At present, the benefits to developers are often prioritised over (and at the expense of) those who become disenfranchised in areas under development. In parallel to this, the enterprises involved in new developments often leach profits out of the area (or in the case of a number of UK supermarkets and retailers, offshore). To counter this, urban planners, communities, artists and organisations can work creatively to find ways to support socially engaged practice, by generating projects that provide in their own right, and presenting and maintaining a good (commercial) offer to sustain creative community activity (as discussed by speakers from Assemble, Homebaked and venue hosts Radiant / Effervescent). This move towards social enterprise is echoed by a growing number of organisations in Plymouth (which was named a Social Enterprise City in 2013) that operate on this model.


Action Points:

How does this project talk about its participants?

How can we instil collegiality through the way we talk and write about the project?

How does this project leverage social capital and mobilise knowledge?

How does it generate / redistribute social, bonding, bridging and linking capital?

How does this project encourage and develop the skills for self-sufficiency?

How can we involve ourselves in generating the branding messages that space the perception of our ‘place’?

What do we want to celebrate? What do we want to re-name and why?

How can we resist censoring and instead re-frame interesting qualities for new audiences?

What specialist methodologies from outside of the arts can we employ creatively here?

How can we eliminate the future need to ‘ask for permission’ or ‘ask for money’?


This post is part of a series reflecting on Social Making – a conference organised by Take A Part in Plymouth, April 2016. I attended the event as a PAC Home / VASW bursary recipient and this writing is also published in the official conference publication Social Making Socially Engaged Practice Now and Next [available online].

Rachel Dobbs is one half of LOW PROFILE, an artist and educator based in Plymouth, UK. Rachel works on community projects, has a long-term interest in creative approaches to community development and runs workshops, teaching & training sessions for a range of formal & informal groups including students, arts practitioners and communities – contact me for more details.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.