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Indigenous Learning, Opinion, Teaching

Is Empowerment a Dirty Word?

Empowered to learn versus supported in learning

In response to an aside from a presenter during the FNESC’s annual conference, when the presenter said something about the word “empowerment” being insulting and that well-intentioned programs built around empowering others actually insinuate that the “other” inherently lacks capacity. A dangerous and destructive assumption. This was a new perspective for me and I found myself wrestling it for the rest of the day. This post is based on the notes I wrote while sitting in the conference, wrestling.

Do I need to be empowered? Here I am in a place of discomfort and wanting – feeling like the education system just isn’t fitting quite right. Do I need someone to empower me so I can find my way through this discomfort? No.

Rather, I need the space, freedom and safety to find my own way. I have the power within me; I do not need to be gifted this strength. What I need is a community to learn with me, so we can ask questions and travel together. I need the space to make mistakes and the time to learn from them. I need the generosity of spirit from myself and others to be gracious and forgiving about my mistakes and missteps.

It isn’t empowerment I need. It is opening. I don’t even need an invitation. I need a place… some space in which to explore, play, fail. 

I used to say, “just give teachers space and time and amazing things will happen.” I will revise that now to frame teachers as learners: give learners space and time and amazing things will happen. Give us space and time to explore, question, play and fail and we will fail forward. We will fail our way right into a new place. A place of new understanding and knowledge… the kind of knowledge we can build from and share.

Places like the Networks of Inquiry and Innovation have created openings, places and spaces, for us learners to feel agitated and learn together. The Networks have opened spaces for me to have conversations with mentors like this. Masters programs like this do the same thing – connecting learners to mentors and supporting the learner in his or her journey while sharing the learning of others.

I don’t feel empowered on my learning journey – I feel supported.

Now back to my original question… Do I need to be empowered? No. The idea that we need to empower learners of any kind, Aboriginal or not, places the learners in a passive position, divesting them of agency. Leaders do not need to empower anyone; leaders need to open places and spaces and support the magic that emerges as soon as they do.