Empowerment is the KEY

By Dr Bibiana Chan

I had forgotten when I first heard about the word ‘empowerment’. In my study of social work and counselling, I leant early on the importance of ‘Help clients to help themselves’! In my own master thesis entitled ‘Cultural Issues of Clinical Depression and the implications for Multicultural Mental Health Services’, I wrote in the concluding chapter – ‘Psychiatrists should share their power with the patients and invite them to be part of the ‘treating team’. I was awarded a high distinction for my thesis, that was 2002, exactly two decades ago.

In the most recent Creative Workshop (facilitated) by Young People for Young People, I was a co-facilitator ‘minding’ one of the three Origami Stations. Gina was a first-time facilitator sharing her passion in folding Origami cranes, lucky stars and gift bags. We had quite a few mentoring sessions (both in-person and online).   Jacque, the Co-Chair of the CFS Youth Subcommittee, with over 2 decades of Origami experience (since she was 3-year-old) was the 3rd co-facilitator. In my station, I showed a young participant how to fold a jumping frog.  She found it a bit challenging. She asked me to help her fold a particular step. I replied to say, ‘I can help you to try again yourself!’ It actually took more time to help her help herself than for me to just do it for her!  She did eventually ‘got it’ and she repeated the same step three more times. Each time it was easier than the previous time. I helped her fold a total of two ‘jumping frogs’.  I told her ‘Practice makes perfect!’ 

The principle of ‘empowering young people to help themselves’ also applies to problem solving. Another participant couldn’t go on to fold the next step of an Origami Rose. She asked me for help. I took a look and made a few ‘reverse-folds’ back to the point where a wrong fold was made. I also did the reverse-fold of my ‘demo’ one. Then I ‘folded’ along with the participant step-by-step. I could see the ‘light-bulb’ movement on her face! “Got it!” Once again, I could have just done it for her, why bother wasting time to reverse-fold twice. The simple answer was- help the participant help herself!

I assume most managers on community development or enhancement projects would have read some ‘textbook cases’ (similar to the ones I shared above) of ‘empowerment’. Perhaps due to constraint of resources, budget and lack of infrastructure support, they have to cut corners. That was definitely the case of my colleague at a Federal Project addressing the needs for mental health services for people from CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) background. The ideal scenario would be – employing a bottom-up approach by handing the ‘power’ to the consumers at a forum to voice their concern and discuss how they would make changes for the better. The reality was my colleague took the instructions from his immediate supervisor to let the big boss ‘lecture’ the forum participants on what the Government put on the table. Quite a few of my colleagues quit the project, I also left to return to UNSW and continued my mental health research. That was 15 years ago. This Federal project was defunded the following year. I couldn’t help thinking this was a textbook case of community development ended prematurely.

Fast forward to 20th April 2022, the Community Flower Studio (CFS) became an official member of the Australia Charities and Not-for-Profit Council. I am forever grateful to the Committee and the Consultants to support CFS to reach this milestone. I hope CFS will continue to empower young people who cross our path.  

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