December 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA1

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Examining "Empowerment": A How-To Guide for the Youth Development Professional

This article describes the role of the youth development professional in incorporating an "empowerment" process into program planning. For purposes of this article, "empower" is defined as "promoting the self actualization or influence" (Webster, 1998). The empowerment process is described through the use of community examples and a step by step "How-To" section. While the examples in the article focus on youth, it is important to note that the empowerment process is useful for adult volunteers as well.

Angela J. Huebner
Teen Coordinator: USDA/Army School-Age & Teen Project
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Falls Church, Virginia
Internet address:

Views of Empowerment

The job of youth development professionals is to provide opportunities for young people to develop the competencies they need to become successful contributing members of their communities (Pittman & Wright, 1991). Empowerment can be one of the most effective strategies for providing young people with opportunities to develop competence. Over the past decade "empowerment" has become the buzzword in business, evaluation and youth development. Because of its wide use, the word "empowerment" has many different meanings to people.

According to Webster (1998), empower means "(1) to give official authority or legal power to; (2) enable; (3) to promote the self actualization or influence." The strategy proscribed by the first definition can be quite effective provided that the party being empowered (that is, the "empoweree") already has the competencies needed to achieve the desired outcome. The strategy does not work well when it is plugged into a framework of youth development in which empowerment itself is being used as a strategy for developing competencies in youth. For youth development, the third definition more more suitable.

Too often youth workers assume that "empowering" is a synonym for relinquishing all guidance, control, and responsibility for a project to the young people with whom they work. Typically, this approach is met with failure on the part of the youth, frustration on the part of the youth development professional, and more evidence that the notion of "empowerment" is a concept that looks good on paper but does not work in the real world of youth work.

"Empowering teens" refers to a PROCESS through which adults begin to share responsibility and power with young people. It is the same idea as teaching young people the rules of the game. Youth development professionals are helping young people develop non-academic competencies that will help them to participate in the game of life. Because it is a process, empowerment is something that is achieved over time, not overnight.

Empowering teens is important because empowerment leads to competence and competence is linked to self-esteem (Harter, 1993). Additionally, teens with increased competence can become a great resource for 4-H because they will assume increasing responsibility within the day to day activities and in running the overall program. In a study conducted by DiBenedetto (1992), teens identified nine factors influencing their feelings of empowerment:

  1. Non-authoritarian adult leadership.
  2. Being able to experience and exercise power.
  3. Receiving education and training.
  4. Participating in critical analysis of issues.
  5. Experiencing an environment of safety, closeness and appreciation.
  6. Being able to honestly express opinions and emotions.
  7. Accepting diversity.
  8. Developing a voice.
  9. Being able to take action.

The Process of Empowerment

How can teens in your 4-H programs be empowered? According to Blanchard, Carlos, & Randolph (1996), there are three major keys:

  1. Share information.

    Sharing information with young people about all the aspects of the program, from budgets to organizational policies, is the first step to fostering empowerment. Such sharing ensures that teens clearly understand the parameters within which the program has to operate. It also conveys a message of trust. Withholding information sends the message that adults do not think teens can understand or that they will not act responsibly with the information they receive. Sharing information encourages teens to act like "owners" or shareholders of the program.

    If sharing information is difficult, the youth worker may want to examine his or her assumptions about teens. Are teens viewed as being able to make useful contributions? Do adults always know what is best for teens? Several authors have developed useful self-assessment surveys (e.g., Carter & Betts, 1996; Lofquist, 1989)

    Community highlight: A director comments that "Through a panel discussion with teens about their Teen Center one director discovered that teens were not attending dances because they thought the entrance fee was too high. With the intent to educate the teens on why the admission price was set at $4.00, the director showed them his budget for dances. He patiently went through each category of expenses with the teens and asked them what they would do differently.

    The teens noticed that a large part of the budget was being spent on food. They pointed out that only about 10% of the teens eat the food that 100% of them were paying for. They suggested spending less on food so the admission price would be lower. The director commented that their solution was one he would never have considered! Admission prices went down and participation went up." --Youth Center Director

  2. Create autonomy through boundaries.

    Community highlight: A youth center director expressed dissatifaction with the process. "In the spirit of empowering teens, I told the teens they were responsible for setting up the teen fashion review. I left everything up to them. I thought they would really get into it and take it over. It turns out that absolutely nothing got done! I was furious. Empowerment doesn't work."

    This example illustrates the importance of the second step to empowerment. Many people assume that empowering means giving teens carte blanche to set up the event/program however they want. Actually, it means just the opposite. Creating autonomy through boundaries means teaching teens the rules or boundaries within which they can operate (such as budgets, policies). Each event, activity, or program must operate within certain parameters, be they financial or policy requirements. The youth professional must outline those outer limits to the teens. Blanchard, Carlos, and Randolph (1996) suggest thinking of the limits as the banks of a river. The banks are what give the river its direction and momentum. Without the banks there would be no movement. The riverbed itself may be several miles wide, but the banks still exist.

    Empowerment also means teaching young people specific "plays" within the game. People have to learn new ways of thinking and working. It does not come automatically. Let's take the fashion review as an example. In setting up a fashion review, teens need to know all the steps involved, that is the "plays" of the game. These could include finding a location, how much can be spent on rent, negotiating and signing a contract, charging admission, selling tickets, contracting for lighting, getting stores to donate clothes, getting teens to model, selecting music, insurance/liability issues, snacks, and so forth. Often teens do not follow through because they don't know what to do.

  3. Examine the role of the youth development professional.

    When the actual steps in the empowerment process are reviewed, the role of a youth development professional begins to sound much like that of a facilitator, a very different role for many people. Adults frequently get caught up in making every decision for young people and feeling responsible for making sure every event turns out "picture perfect."

    The youth development professional's role is to help young people develop competencies and feel empowered. Remember that empowerment, like development, is a process. In most cases, this means that the youth development professional is more concerned with the process of how the event or program was planned and executed and with what the teens learned, than on how perfect it was. Regardless of how it turns out, it is still belongs to the teens.

Adopting an Empowerment Approach

Incorporating empowerment into program planning includes the following steps:

  1. Meeting with interested teens.

    Get some indication of how many young people are interested in the project or program. If few teens show up, it indicate that the topic is not one of interest to them. If this is the case, it is unlikely the project would provide opportunities for competency development. If teens are excited about the project, proceed.

  2. Showing teens the budget and policies within which they have to work.

    Just as there are laws in our community, there are rules within which organizations must operate. These are the "rules of the game." For organizations, these rules are typically embodied in policies, mission statements, and budgetary constraints. It is critical that young people understand the rules because they dictate the outer limits of what can be accomplished. Too often, adults make the mistake of asking young people what they want to do without first delineating the outer boundaries of what can be done. Rather than limiting creativity, such an approach limits the frustration young people feel when their ideas are met with an immediate "we can't do that" response from adults.

  3. Facilitating a brainstorming session about all the issues that need to be considered to make the event a reality.

    This step involves delineating the "plays" in the game. Ask the teens to list all the things that have to be done before the program or project can happen. Give them an opportunity to list all their ideas first, then bring up issues or tasks they might not have thought about. Keep in mind that the goal of this process is to teach teens how to play a game they've never played before. They need to learn the process of what goes into making an event happen. Instead of telling them what they need to do, ask questions. For example, if the teens want to take a day field trip but haven't considered transportation, the facilitator could say, "How are we going to get there?" Remember not to assume that the teens should know what should be included and how to do it.

  4. Facilitating a task outlining session and prioritization of tasks in a timeline.

    Revisit the list generated in the previous step. Conduct another "mini" brainstorming session around how to complete each task. For example, if one of the tasks listed was "transportation," the "how-to" brainstorming session is used to generate specific ideas about how to get transportation (for example, calling bus companies for estimates, seeing if parents would donate vehicle and drivers, how they should describe why they need what they need, finding out how much it costs). The idea is to delineate all the steps involved in completing that task. When this phase is completed, it is important to put all those tasks on a timeline, working backwards from the targeted completion date.

  5. Figuring out who wants to take responsibility for each task.

    Once tasks have been outlined and the timeline is in place, ask participants to volunteer to take responsibility for specific steps. This is the step in which teens become "hands-on" involved in the process. This becomes their responsibility to the team.

  6. Setting up several interim meetings to check on progress prior to the actual event.

    Steps six and seven are the most critical in the process. It is imperative that the youth development professional provides support and guidance for the young people as they attempt to fulfill their tasks. Many times young people are afraid or embarrassed to admit in front of their peers that they do not know how to do something. The youth development professional needs to check in with each young person to see how they are doing. Give them some lead time--don't wait until the day their task is "due."

  7. Being available to offer guidance and support.

    The youth development professional is the coach who needs to be available to support the young people. Ask them what they are going to say to the bus company. Role play with them so they can practice their communication skills. Figure out how they are going to get to the building to check out its acoustics. Remember, do not do the job for them, but support them in their doing for themselves.

  8. Revisiting the process upon completion.

    Once the program or project is completed, get back together with the group to celebrate success and to examine what the group learned as well as what they would change for the next time around. As part of a true experiential learning process, it is important to help teens recognize the skills they gained during the process and how those skills can be applied to other situations.


Stay focused on empowerment as a process. There may be some programs and events that really are required to be "perfect." Youth development professionals may be surprised, however, to find that when the supervisor, county board, parents, and community members are educated about the empowerment process, they'll be incredibly supportive. They'll begin to see the youth development professional's role as that as of a youth developer rather than as an event coordinator. More importantly, young people are provided opportunities to develop the competencies they need to become successful adults.


Blanchard, K., Carlos, J., & Randolph, A. (1996). Empowerment takes more than a minute. San Francisco: Berrett- Koehler.

Carter, R., & Betts, S. (1996). Youth and adults as partners: A professional youth development training kit. Tucson: The University of Arizona.

DiBenedetto, A. (1992). Youth groups: A model for empowerment. Networking Bulletin, 2(3), 19-24.

Lofquist, B. (Fall, 1989). The spectrum of attitudes: Building a theory of youth development. New Designs for Youth Development, 5(3), 3-6.

Harter, S. (1993). Causes and consequences of low self- esteem in children and adolescents. In R. Baumeister (Ed.) The Puzzle of Low Self-Regard (pp. 87-116). New York: Plenum Press.

Pittman, K. & Fleming, W. E. (September 1991). A new vision promoting youth development, Testimony, Washington, D.C., House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families. Washington: Center for Youth Development and Policy Research.