Earlier this week, I wrote a post in anticipation of getting lunch with two of my close peers/mentors at Seattle Youth Garden Works. We enjoyed big bowls of spicy pho, and caught up about the development of the summer program. I was asked to come in as a guest chef for one of their days of meal prep, which, with a crew of 40, is not unlike Eat for Equity! I have not met the new crew yet, but there are 8 youth that have continued from last year’s year-long program, all of whom are a complete delight every time I reconnect with them.
While brief, our lunch reiterated to me the importance of asking questions about the meaning and use of ‘empowerment’. I began our conversation by alluding to much of the cross-disciplinary reading I’ve been doing that situates empowerment from a supervisor-employee position, a position whose goal is to increase worker productivity. Both of my friends laughed, acknowledging how counter intuitive that felt to real empowerment. So what was real empowerment, then, to them? Robert, the farm manager, has a background in psychology. He framed ‘empowerment’ in regards to a few ideas (ideas which I was starting to see recur in the literature I’ve been reading).
1) self-efficacy. to Robert, self-efficacy means the perception of being in control or having power. He referred to a study in which folks were given tasks to do, and a very annoying noise was playing. One group was told there was a button that they could press at any point that would end the noise (a button which, in actuality, did nothing). The other group was not given a button. The group with the button demonstrated much more happiness, productivity and satisfaction — and never even pressed the button. The mere belief that they could change the situation, though, increased their self-efficacy.
2) self-regulation. This is a concept I’ve heard Robert talk about before, and as best I can understand it, self-regulation is about delaying gratification, being able to break goals into small, achievable pieces, and then regulating oneself to achieve goals those goals. This is a skill that can be taught. One of Robert’s greatest goals it to help the youth identify goals, (and, relating to self-efficacy, to have them believe they have the power to actually do/change certain things in their lives), and then teach them how to break large goals down into smaller pieces. And, finally, to develop the tools to manage one’s life so that those pieces fall into place. The classic example he gives is to be able to set an alarm, wake up with enough time to get where you need to be, to take initiative and call if you’re going to be late, to get directions, to be prepared, etc…
3) That ‘empowerment’ is an amalgamation of these two ideas — you can’t really get to self-regulation without self-efficacy. He ties this into an idea of ‘possible selves’, meaning, being able to look to the future and see many possible ideas and paths for oneself.
Kristen, my fellow Eat for Equity organizer and the program coordinator at SYGW, followed up with some thoughtful questions here, prodding and asking for clarification. In fact, in another life, I think Kristen could be a really amazing feminist ethnographic scholar. She is emotive and poses inviting, open-ended questions. I am continually inspired by her.
I followed up to both of them, asking if they thought that multiple people at the organization would agree with those ideas. “Of empowerment?” they asked. “Yes,” I said. “Definitely not…Especially if you asked the youth.”
Bingo! While I was not fishing, this is exactly a question I have been floating around.
“Oh yes? Do you think they’d be into that?” I asked.
“Yeah! What if you, like, did a video project? You could ask them all what they think it meant? That’d be neat.”
Bingo again! This is totally the type of project I was envisioning, especially for my Public Scholarship capstone project: filming and collaborating with the youth. Asking them about a possible narrative they would want. Doing some editing. Asking them about possible audiences for the video.
At the end of lunch: “I mean, I love this idea. I’m going to mull it over. But… I want to make sure they youth would be into it. I don’t want to force this idea on them.”
“Oh. They’ll love it. They have always been excited about these types of projects, especially if they get to speak on camera. They’ll love it.”
[I am skeptical on this last point, and would want to develop this project more closely with the youth I already know, rather than assume they'd be into it. But, encouraging that both staff were the ones that suggested the idea I already had brewing! How neat.]
So, I can look forward to getting to know the youth crew as a guest chef and volunteer, continuing to read and contextualize ‘empowerment’ across many disciplines and activities, and, eventually, developing a possible video project. Great things.