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When marginalised social groups gain empowerment and the ability to be seen and heard to achieve positive social, political and economic changes, there is extensive agreement that they will arrive at a successful outcome (Cornwall & Brock, 2005). Participation and empowerment, when exploited for the greater good and done so efficiently, are a means to an end; they are harmonizing and symbiotic processes of each other.
Power is held and lost or gained by people and institutions, referred to as an agency. It can also be a way in which societies and cultures function, therefore it influences the structure of social norms, how a society and its actors behave, and what they believe in (Hayward, 2000). Empowerment involves the shifting of political, economic and social structures, the norms and behaviours of a society that have previously been disenfranchised to enable them to become a powerful force.
When empowerment occurs, the disenfranchised gain access to formal power, those that hold legitimate authority, and can influence and re-define social, political and economic outcomes. However, some arguments on empowerment to end poverty suggest that an increase in power for the marginalized means a decrease in power for others, and that this is what will cause resistance for change. If one social group gains, another loses. For this reason, some theorists state that it is essential that political and economic policy identify opportunities for change for the disenfranchised without a decrease in opportunity for other social groups, shifting policy from a “zero sum approach” to a “positive sum game” (Narayan-Parker, Pritchett & Kapoor, 2009, P. 272).
The Lawrence Strike of 1912 in the United States of America was led by the union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Also known as the “Bread and Roses” strike, so named from a speech delivered by the socialist union organizer Rose Schneiderman where she said, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too” (Ross, 2013, P. 121). The line was taken from a poem of the same name and has been set to music several times. The strikers were mainly immigrant female workers. Prior to the strike there was very little organized labour, working conditions and wages were poor and the workforce consisted largely of women. Through recognizing the need for leadership, the IWW had united the afflicted social group of immigrant workers, they had gained a voice that was received with an outpouring of support across America. The sheer volume of support instigated an investigation ordered by President Taft into the conditions of industrial workers across the country, and negotiations between government officials and the mill owners saw the strike come to an end.
For those who want to become empowered, it is necessary to reconfigure the relationship and structure of power through understanding the boundaries that have confined them and kept them in poverty, as with the case study of the Bread and Roses strike. Through opening narratives between actors’ possibilities are opened. This is made possible through changing the relationships of power (Eyben, Naila Kabeer & Cornwall, 2008).
To have processes of empowerment and the ability to utilise that power it is necessary to look at the structures and the formal powers of a society, such as the institutions that hold legal authority and those that are subordinate to that authority, a shift in power between the two needs to occur to create a balance between them for the benefit of all concerned. The processes of change needed to gain empowerment for the disenfranchised must be multi-faceted and include modifications in economic, political and social policy to reduce poverty and marginalization.
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