Choose Your Words Carefully

I’ve long considered the words empower, empowering and empowerment to be positive, hopeful words, but I’ve recently come to understand that these words connote something very different for others. In the past, these words spoke to me of the positive results that can come from someone discovering, developing and employing their own power. They also suggested to me that certain experiences and interactions with others can be the impetus for such positive self-discovery and growth.

I recently came to understand, however, that these words can imply that the ability to recognize and employ one’s own power is somehow reliant on that power being bestowed by another person. This interpretation gives me pause and makes me want to find alternative language relative to our Resilient Families strategy. It runs counter to my belief that absolutely everyone has strengths and assets upon which to build, and we achieve the greatest good when we support others in recognizing their own strengths.
A strengths-based approach helps parents and families identify their strengths and build upon them to make their families stronger and to achieve their goals. Working in true partnership with families is what is effective toward these ends, as opposed to in a relationship characterized by a power differential that
I now understand to be implicit in the empowerment terminology.

So what to do now with this learning, this new insight into the vocabulary we employ to communicate our strategic intent for Resilient Families? I’m not sure yet, but I am sure that it’s important to pay attention to the subtle and evolving meanings beneath words we can take for granted. Perhaps that evolution of meaning is a benchmark to underscore where and how our understanding and strategic intent around complex issues become more sophisticated and supportive of more effective approaches .

Christie Manning

Senior Program Officer for Resilient Families

University Settlement

Strengthening Families



CHN Housing Partners

Resident Success
and Housing Stability