We Need to Talk About (Dis)empowerment

As a grant writer, I ask for photos, quotes, stories, and statistics. As a former non-profit program person, I talked about goals, making a difference, supporters and strategy. As a parent and a person, raising kids from a low-income bracket, and living in an economically vulnerable community, I write letters and ask questions of a different nature.

Come with me to my son’s dentist appointment a couple years ago. A large clinic is conveniently down the street, in the strip mall with the main chain grocery store in our neighborhood, with big signs reading “We Accept Medi-Cal” and sale signs like a retailer. The waiting room was full, decently clean, with a bathroom conveniently accessed and a movie playing on a small TV in the corner. We waited a while for his appointment. We were there to have a cavity filled, following his initial cleaning a few weeks earlier.

When they called his name, we calmly walked back together to some chair where I was handed several forms to initial. I read them thoroughly because I am privileged to know English pretty well. I waited for someone to return to us so I could ask some questions, also being privileged enough to challenge authority and be seen as non-threatening. Why was there only metal-colored filling? What does this mean, about sedation? I’m expecting to be in the room or observe; where is this procedure happening? What do you mean when you say restraints? (My son meanwhile was bored, unenthused to be at the dentist, but unworried about dental work–a strange and wonderful trait given all his mouth has required since.)

I was grudgingly shown to the room where they would be filling a cavity; I was slowing down the machine. There were no windows. Glass door covered with fabric. A straight-jacket contraption lined the chair, and a mouth piece and head vice were out. I asked when they used those. I was told with authority that it was their policy to use them at all times, no parents are allowed in the space whatsoever, all parents are fine with this, and do not worry. I showed them how calm and compliant my child was (increasingly in contrast to me), saying those things were unnecessary and panic-inducing. They said this was common practice and the only way to proceed.

Instead of leaving him in the room, I asserted myself once again, this time to go back together to the seats where I was to take a few minutes and finish the paperwork. I looked up some pediatric dentistry best practices on my phone. I checked my gut. I texted a few people. We left the office. I wrote some letters.

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Okay, one time I did let my kids be all wrapped up but no head vices.

Fast forward to our visit to the public library today. I was handed a decently attractive but somewhat confusing flyer for projectart classes–sounded intriguing. Free art classes, after school, not too late, in small age groups–I thought of my kid, the one with cavities. I went to the website to look up more information. I found studies about why art is important for children, the art education gap correlating with the growing wealth gap, correlating with school performance, which all clearly explains why our local library is one of the projectart locations. I found donor and partnership information. I found how to apply to a projectart residency and how to be a volunteer. I did not find the answers to my questions. What does 30 weeks of classes include? Will students keep their projects? Will they be photographed? How are staff and volunteers vetted? May parents observe or participate? What will students learn and do?

These are reasonable questions–questions that are answered when you pay full price for something in a different neighborhood. Galileo Camp is a program that combines arts and science, which cavity kid participated in a few years ago on scholarship; it’s very expensive in my and my bank account’s opinion. But I knew how it worked. I knew how the leaders got there; I could read about them online. In essence, I could function as a parent and a beneficiary (participant?). So far, projectart is expecting me to be satisfied by being a recipient only. I made a phone call.

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Just waiting for my mom to calm down.

Often, well-intentioned empowerment programs and projects in my community do not allow for many questions. (I doubt the dental clinic is very much into empowerment, however.)

I would guess that the words “education” and “empowerment” are in the grant proposals for projectart, and many other non-profit programs for which we are eligible. The problem is that, unless the program intentionally reduces the power gap in its own systems and practices, they reinforce systemic disempowerment in their effort to “do good.” It is not enough to say in a leadership meeting that parents don’t care, that they’re too busy. It is not enough to say in a mission statement that the program stands for empowerment. Participants are stakeholders; low-income community members have assets and deserve agency.

It is rare for the programs designed for empowerment to actually affirm the existing power of the beneficiary. I see this over and over in the services and programs that surround us.

The dental office, in light of its obligation to ethical and equitable treatment of patients, and the art program, on initial review, are just two examples of a hypocrisy I regularly observe. In non-profits, I don’t think that it’s often malicious; businesses like the dental clinic have often, however, been found to be quite conniving. Good intentions don’t excuse non-profits however. They, as well as churches, play important roles in introducing vulnerable communities to others; hopefully this builds relationship and equity, but too often it’s a pathway for predators of all kinds. In order to participate in something that people with low-income, young age, or other exploitable-positions value and need, do they have to sign away their rights? Their choices? Their questions? What assurance do we, the participants, have of safety? Of quality? What influence do we have in changes and improvements? What control do we maintain over our own privacy?

In a recent meeting, as our church family envisions the future in a changing climate, with a growing congregation, it was asked “What is empowerment really?” Many people in the room are far more equipped to answer that question and I’m looking forward to learning more. From my limited experience in central LA, and as I review times in my life when I have felt empowered, I have some hints. I suspect it is the slow and intentional progress towards equity, risk or loss for some and liberty for others. It should be pretty inefficient. It’s mutual training, it’s agency, and it’s reflection.

From the non-profit side, the sooner we condition ourselves to identify with the people whom we serve and examine whatever small effort we are involved with from their shoes, the greater the integrity of our work. From the way I shape a conversation with someone who needs something I have to the method with which I communicate announcements to the forms and information I dispense to who is on my team. It’s not enough to care or provide. Sometimes I imagine being in Malibu–is this the approach, the quality, the communication, the professionalism and the regard I would give to clientele there? In short, is it good enough for Malibu? With our personal giving, we evaluate organizations based on different things after living here for a while; we look for that integrity of shared agency and respect for all persons, as well as transparency. I think we are in good company when I consider the way our peers give too. Millennials man, ruining everything.

As both a non-profit staffer and a client of non-profit efforts, it’s been an interesting and incarnational journey to get to understand these dynamics better. My sympathies, my sensibilities, and my soul have been affected and broken by the “us-them” mindset. I am acutely sensitive to the disempowerment that many low-cost, Christian and non-profit causes sustain. It’s jarring and offensive on the receiving side, and grieving and motivating on the implementation side. But I am still early in this journey.

I wonder if any of you have thought about these things? What things have you done to advocate, empower or disempower? What ways have you found to help close perceived or real gaps? What else can you share on this topic?

Thanks for reflecting with me. I’m encouraged by a growing value for mutuality and equity. To us!

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