Empowerment: Learning to Take Action in School Settings

“You can change your beliefs so they empower your dreams and desires. Create a strong belief in yourself and what you want.”
Marcia Wieder

Melissa Pearrow and Stanley Pollack (2009) in their article entitled “Youth Empowerment in Oppressive Systems: Opportunities for School Consultants” is a discussion on the role school consultants can play in empowering youth particularly in urban settings to make a difference in their school and community.

Pearrow and Pollack stress that empowerment is critical for addressing issues of social injustice and give youth the tools to better be able to combat oppression within their community.

Positive outcomes from school supported programs for youth such as Teen Empowerment have been shown to give students stronger group bonding, improved mental health and school performance improvement.

What makes implementing empowerment programs particularly difficult for school consultants is being able to overcome old concepts in schools that tend to have hierarchical structure and contextual norms all ready in place (Yowell & Gordon, 1996).

Pearrow and Pollock (2009) discuss the use of Participatory Action Research and by applying PAR techniques, show how students gain empowerment and in so doing are able to learn to take action rather than waiting for social change (example: politicians) which have historically been unfulfilled promises for the school and community.

Empowerment can be expressed as a “dialogue rather than a narrative, or one way, flow of information. It is also marked by the emergence of consciousness and critical intervention in reality.” (p.46).

Pearrow and Pollock suggest that school consultants can play a critical role with their experience, skills and insight of the inner workings and politics of a school system to raise empowerment awareness not only through to the students, but also the faculty, staff and parents of the students which in turn greatly affects the whole of the community.

Critical Analysis

Pearrow and Pollock (2009) begin the article by expressing the influence schools have on young people’s lives.

Schools should provide a consistent and structured environment for youth and are a unique platform for preparing them for critical thinking, problem solving, and taking action to improve their community.

Pearrow and Pollock borrow from Paulo Freire’s (1970) legendary book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” to describe the “banking” concept of education used in many of today’s schools as:

“A cycle of oppression ensues from the narrative of teacher to student wherein the teacher who assumes the role of paternalistic figures, “deposits” information into the passive student’s receptacles. The opportunity for dialogue is short-circuited, and with that, the chance for a true development is short-circuited, and with that, the chance for a true development of understanding and a socially just environment is eliminated. (p. 46).”

The lack of teaching critical thinking and problem solving skills limits the students in the “banking” concept of learning scheme the ability to learn what power is and how best to use it to one’s advantage. “Understanding power is the foundation for generating strategies to address powerlessness on individual, family, and social systems levels
(p. 46).

Empowerment has been defined as “a belief in power of people to be both masters of their own fate and involved in the life of their communities” (Rappaport, 1987, p. 142).

Pearrow and Pollock (2009) believe that empowerment of students is a critical role of the school consultant. Consultants are frequently brought into a school system to address possible missing services, working within all levels of the school administration and by definition have the ability to play the role of the facilitator.

Not only can school consultants act as mouth pieces for the need of empowerment in a school system, they have the unique position of being able to bend a ear of the powers at be which allows them to be “facilitators of systemic change to enable empowerment ideal to flourish” (p. 48).

Once empowerment is recognized as needed (administration, staff and school board) the school consultation can provide members of the school community with knowledge and skills to think critically about the issues in their system and to develop strategies to act on and change problems.

Nastasi (2005) notes that empowerment can go beyond just the students and school consultants and can turn into ways to “promote both empowerment of families as they advocate for their children’s education and responsiveness of school personnel to family advocacy and participation” (p.114).

Teen Empowerment

Pearrow and Pollock (2009) discuss a particular empowerment program called Teen Empowerment (TE). The program is used in many schools in urban settings to guide youth to critically examine the social issues in the schools and community and to eventually take action to improve their lives related to those issues.

The basic premise and heart of the program is that everyone is heard and group members have been schooled to develop relationships that listen.

Students are recruited from the student body and through a referral and interview process, students demonstrate their leadership skills and ability to articulate their thoughts on problems related to their school and community.

After being selected students go through a rigorous training regiment to be regarded as youth organizers. School consultants and assistants take the students through a seven step process of training:
• relationship building and project purpose;
• prioritizing issues;
• considering action steps;
• choosing the initial action step and creating a tentative timeline;
• begin the TE 10 step planning process;
• orientation to feed ack skills
• feedback/consulting session.

After initial training, the youth organizers meet once a week to implement a Behavior Contract System which consists of:
• introduction (review of day’s agenda)
• warm-up question (highlight of group’s work that needs to be addressed;
• springboard exercise (highlight of a social concern in school or community discussed
• work section (planning out logistics of to carry out chosen strategy)
• summation.

The TE program offers challenging opportunities for young people to work for positive social change. It is as Pearrow and Pollock (2009) describe a “process that promotes social justice with a call to activism with strategies to support social change at the sociopolitical and institutional levels (p. 54).


All of the steps listed above in developing a TE program may sound intensive, overly optimistic and way beyond the role of the school consultant depending on how one views the scope of the role of a consultant.

School consultants have historically stayed away from advocacy. But it may be important that they not push their own agenda but instead, as Pearrow and Pollack (2009) state, empower through the use of their experience and knowledge (as guides) towards the ones who need to be empowered to take the initiative and accountability in their school and community (bull by the horns so to speak) and correct injustices.

Conde-Frazir (2006) supports the idea of scholars pursing knowledge while being “educated by struggling people” (p. 322).

Knowledge is not some generic marker (a degree or passing grade) of intelligence but rather the implementation of information gained for the betterment of not just the self but the community as well.

School consultants can be avenues of directing action-oriented steps not to just help the individual (students) but rather as Cosgrove and McHugh (2000) share “so that research be designed and carried out so that social systems and not just individuals are problematized and asked to change” (p. 832).

Participatory Action Research

Pearrow and Pollock (2009) discuss the power of the individual and group by style of research called Participatory Action Research that emphasizes direct shareholder involvement in those being helped and seeks to minimize the degradation of the effort into pressing of communities into some external agenda.

Psychologists are being called to examine the larger socio cultural context that underlie individual problems and use interventions that facilitate social action and empowerment with participatory strategies. (p. 55)

The authors suggest potential drawbacks of PAR; one must know the local power structure and the issues at hand and should be reserved for situations where the external agent (school consultant) is aware of the potential damage for themselves and more importantly to the disempowered in the community (in other words, pay backs are hell).

Rennie and Sing (1996) share that PAR works best when “the external agency has a clear status and relationship with the community and can secure resources for long-term commitment” (pp. 13-14).

Lastly, Pearrow and Pollock (2009) discuss the need for school consultants to play critical roles in constructing multi systemic change to create schools that operate in a socially just manner.

To empower youth to take charge and create actions for social change takes more than flowery stated statements but rather strong core values and ideals that give the youth the ability to continually be able to deal with hierarchical structure in the school environment, which they may forever be finding (racism, sexism etc…) during their educational process.

It is critical for the school consultant to assist school personnel as they become receptive to the changes for youth empowerment and “in altering the banking concept of education, wherein students are passive, compliant vessels, this effort in social justice breaks the patterns of oppression to create full participation in the education process” (p. 56).

In the end, school consultants can only do so much. It is really up to the community and students to implement the changes formulated. Consultants must not forget that though they bring unique abilities, skills and life experiences to the table they are “much more likely to accomplish goals when they treat community citizens as participants and masters of their own fate rather than “patients” or even “clients” (p. 47).

The latter is important for all of us to remember in any endeavor of counseling. It is only when the individual changes his/her heart and mind that real change will happen. For that, we as clinicians can only suggest not possess.



Conde-Frazier, E. (2006). Participatory action research: Practical theology for social
justice. Religious Education, 101, 321–329.

Cosgrove, L., & McHugh, M. (2000). Speaking for ourselves: Feminist methods and
community psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 28, 815–

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.
Nastasi, B. K. (2005). School consultants as change agents in achieving equity for families in public schools. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 16, 113–125.

Pearrow, Melissa M. and Pollack, Stanley. (2009). Youth empowerment in oppressive systems: Opportunities for school consultants, Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 19(1), 45-60.

Rappaport, J. (1987). Terms of empowerment/exemplars of prevention: Towards a theory for community psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 15, 121–148.

Rennie, J. K., & Singh, N. C. (1996). Participatory research for sustainable livelihoods: A guidebook for field projects. Winnipeg, Canada: IISD.

Yowell, C. M., & Gordon, E. W. (1996). Youth empowerment and human service institutions. Journal of Negro Education, 65, 19–29.

Empowerment: Learning to Take Action in School Settings