In 1968, the Brazilian academic Paulo Freire coined the word “conscientization,” empowerment’s precursor, as the process by which an oppressed person perceives the structural conditions of his oppression and is subsequently able to take action against his oppressors.
Eight years later, the educator Barbara Bryant Solomon, writing about American black communities, gave this notion a new name, “empowerment.” It was meant as an ethos for social workers in marginalized communities, to discourage paternalism and encourage their clients to solve problems in their own ways. Then in 1981, Julian Rappaport, a psychologist, broadened the concept into a political theory of power that viewed personal competency as fundamentally limitless; it placed faith in the individual and laid at her feet a corresponding amount of responsibility too.
Sneakily, empowerment had turned into a theory that applied to the needy while describing a process more realistically applicable to the rich. The word was built on a misaligned foundation; no amount of awareness can change the fact that it’s the already-powerful who tend to experience empowerment at any meaningful rate. Today “empowerment” invokes power while signifying the lack of it. It functions like an explorer staking a claim on new territory with a white flag.
Jia Tolentino on the history of empowerment.