Empowering Women - The Case for Empowerment

The empowerment series addresses the challenging topics within the Fair Trade or “Do Good” space. This weeks post is about the word Empowerment which some are now saying is a derogatory or even racist or power dynamic word when used in the “Do Good” space.

This mission that we are doing with our women in Kenya is about empowerment. Our mission is based on the scripture in Matthew 25:40 which says “And the King will answer them, “I assure you; Whatever you did for the least of these brothers or sister of Mine, you did for Me”

I went to Kenya on what some people may describe as a Voluntour. I went with a Christian group to support the mission in Kenya (help the suffering and displaced people in Kenya) that this group has been doing for over 20 years. I met the women in the Kipsongo slum and saw the beautiful hand crafted goods they made and was awakened in the middle of the night with a God inspired idea to buy some beads and sell them with my book when I speak.

In 2 years time significant progress has been made in getting a market for their hand crafted goods (COVID has slowed that down). I believe it is God’s mission for me to work with the women in Kenya to make a sustainable difference and empower them to become successful entrepreneurs. There are some who are trying to compel or shame people into changing the words they use to describe their work in Fair Trade. See last weeks blog post about compelled speech in fair trade.

Empowerment is one of those words that is targeted as inappropriate to use because some people have decided it implies a racist white savior power dynamic over the people we are serving and suggests they didn't have power before I showed up or were not empowered before. I vehemently disagree with this ideology.

To look at any issue, you must define what the terminology means and verify the facts about that idea, issue or terminology. The definition of the word empowerment means the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights.

Carla Harris is a Vice Chairman, Managing Director and Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley. She has been part of the finance world on Wall Street for over 30 years and in 2013 was appointed by President Barack Obama to chair the National Women’s Business Council.

She said “When you empower other people you magnify and amplify your impact.“

That means anyone who empowers someone else is helping them become empowered too. If empowerment is a good thing for someone like Carla Harris, it’s certainly just as good for the women in Kenya and anyone else working with women (or men) in Fair Trade.

Too many terms are being tied to this white savior complex ideology (see part 1 of the series about what that means). Just because I’m a white person from a more privileged background going to work with a group of less privileged people in a slum in what is considered a “whatever” country (see last weeks post - apparently we can’t use third world, developing or global south now) is racist at its roots because somehow saying I’m empowering, helping, partnering or saving is derogatory according to this ideology. These ideas dissect things that have no business being dissected and generalize concepts that are not based in facts but instead based in someone’s thought up perception.  Granted there are issues and problems with people doing things wrong in Fair Trade or "Poverty Industy", but I think for the most part people's intentions are good. You can read about that in the blog post on the Poverty Industry and watch the Poverty Inc documentary.   

Many of the people pushing this ideology are either academics that have never been to a country working directly with artisans, someone who visited maybe once and decided what they saw needed to be radically overhauled or someone who is on a social justice soapbox and not a boots on the ground person who has ever worked with Fair Trade artisans. Who are they to decide to change how we approach our work and where we can serve? There are some who have suggested someone like me should have just stayed home instead of going to get involved working with the women in Kenya or any other country for that matter. They tout the idea that who am I to think I can make a difference or that I have the know how to make anything work?

I wrote a book called Think Like A Negotiator and in that book I tell people to be a good negotiator you need to Own Your Power.  Carla Harris described it like this "When people are starting to question whether or not you can and you start to doubt whether or not you can, red flag, you have just given away your power." No one is going to tell me I can't empower other people.  If we stop empowering, people stop succeeding.  It takes someone more experienced than me to empower me to be better and it's my duty to reach to others and pass it on.  That's the true meaning of empowerment and it's not a derogatory thing. 

I don’t believe I get to choose where I’m called to serve. I believe God called me to serve the women in Kenya, (and military veterans and women here in the US) and I simply said yes. I’ve said this before, I could have chosen to serve somewhere a lot closer than Kenya which takes 24 hours or more just to get there. I believe my mission there is a calling from God and so do the women I work with. Their faith is strong and I have learned so much from them about faith in God. So in essence, they have also empowered me. 

Part of our slogan for Baskets and Beads is “Empowering Women” I’ve been speaking and teaching on women’s empowerment since I became a speaker in 2006. I am a victor over domestic violence, military sexual assault and harassment. In addition to that I survived 2 alcoholic parents, was a high school dropout and my mother died of alcoholism when I was 12. To say I had no power is an understatement and the fact that I rose up out of that through being empowered by other people is not a bad thing. I had many mentors and leaders who have helped me build my confidence and empowered me to be a better version of who I am.

Did any of these people saying we need to stop using these terms actually ask the people that are being served if they are being exploited or if being empowered is looked upon as bad? My ladies in Kenya are happy to be empowered because they didn’t have the opportunity to become stronger or more confident or the ability to control their lives and claim their rights. They are discriminated against in their area because they are from the Turkana tribe and they are looked down upon, denied work, opportunity or the ability to get ahead because of the tribe they are from. Listen to our Kenya Team Director Leila and I discuss this on a recent Swahili Sunday broadcast.


As Leila said,  The ladies we are working with are now looked up to in their community as leaders in the community.  Five women couldn't sit in a room together before because they didn't trust each other and were all against each other working in competition and conflict with each other.  Now over 30 women work in cooperation with the lift as they climb philosophy.  We are changing generations, not just the women themselves, but their children too through empowerment. So we should stop this just because someone has decided it's wrong?  I think not.   

We need to be very careful that we don’t create an industry of shaming people for the help they are providing. While there are plenty of bad organizations out there and I’ve highlighted some in this series in past posts, most of the Fair Trade organizations and people I’ve met in Fair Trade are doing this out of a calling and genuine desire to help. 

When people push this idea that we have to be reprogrammed because we are supposedly doing it all wrong, I have to ask, have they been to a country working with a group and seen first hand how positive empowerment is within a slum when you are partnering with them and teaching them skills that will help them have the ability to save their children from a lifetime of no education and no skills, abilities or opportunities?

It seems we should spend more time on serving the people instead of picking apart the people doing the service because they aren’t using what one group has decided is the wrong terminology, pictures or processes. 

Our focus should be on transformation not terminology, cooperation not condemnation and empowerment instead of erasing all the good work that is being done to help people all over the world. If we lift as we climb, all can and will be successful. There’s enough room at the top for everyone. There’s no use in shaming someone to knock them off the rung. Blowing out someone else’s candle isn’t going to make yours burn brighter.

At Baskets and Beads we are Empowering Women and Saving Children by Building Self Sustaining Families through Entrepreneurship, One Woman at a Time.

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