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Empowerment theory for the professional school counselor: a manifesto for what really matters.

Borrowing from the legacy of feminist and multicultural theories, various counseling fields have applied portions of empowerment theory to their work with oppressed clients. This article examines the main concepts associated with empowerment theory and provides important implications for professional school counselors.


The daily routine in America's schools for the children of marginalized communities--in particular, poor children of all ethnic backgrounds; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) young people; and those with disabilities--involves negotiating the hardships that are a product of a legacy of discrimination. Once these children enter the classroom they often are faced with a curriculum that can be irrelevant to their realities, ability grouping, and a system of tracking that often excludes them from courses needed to pursue higher education (Potts, 2003; Smith, 2000).

In understanding the nature of marginalization for students from these groups, it is important to comprehend the social, cultural, and systemic barriers they face. This article addresses the nature of oppression for students from marginalized communities and their experiences in the American school system. In addition, the article explores the concept of empowerment theory and its relationship to school counseling in addressing the barriers that students from marginalized communities often face.


The existence of oppressed communities in the United States is a reality that cannot be denied (Hanna, Walley, & Guindon, 2000). Oppressed communities were created and are maintained by racism, classism, homophobia, and ableism--discrimination based on ability status (Prilleltensky, 2003). Such communities generally are plagued by violence; drug abuse; lack of political representation; lack of access to resources, in extreme cases the most basic of these, such as health care and food; high unemployment rates; and denial of legal rights enjoyed by other Americans, such as tax benefits afforded to heterosexual married couples (Ports, 2003; Prilleltensky).

The stress of living through oppression has very real negative psychological effects on the members of marginalized communities (Carr, 2003; Zimmerman, 1995). For example, many of the mental ailments that communities of color face are a direct result of living through oppression (Carr; Duran & Duran, 1995; Hanna et al., 2000; Potts, 2003). One such issue is diminished self-esteem (Carr; Prilleltensky, 2003; Zimmerman). Individuals from communities of color often suffer from low self-esteem brought on by negative societal messages (Hanna et al.).


The nature of oppression can be seen in the structure and process of American schools. Inequality of funding represents the largest stratification in the American educational system. The children of the economically advantaged attend better-funded schools, while children in poor communities receive substantially less funding for education (Potts, 2003; Rothstein, 2004; Smith, 2000). Less funding represents diminished access to the most qualified teachers, fewer teachers overall, fewer professional school counselors, and diminished art, music, and special programs. These limited resources hurt the quality and depth of education received by students of lower socioeconomic status (Rothstein).

Within any particular school, children of marginalized communities are likely to be overrepresented in special education, remedial education, lower ability groups, and vocational tracks (Potts, 2003; Rothstein, 2004). Students in these tracks are less likely to receive instruction that will promote critical thinking (Potts) and are less likely to receive college preparation (Avis, 1982). The consequence of this educational experience could potentially impede educational advancement. Additionally, lack of college preparation makes it more difficult for marginalized students to attain the educational capital necessary to reach the upper rungs of socioeconomic status.

Unfortunately for the youth of marginalized communities, their educational experience also includes an indoctrination into oppression (Howard, 1999; Potts, 2003; Smith, 2000). For example, the experiences of communities of color are generally not accurately portrayed in American curricula. Instances of racism and injustice are silenced and the contributions of communities of color to American society are ignored (Loewen, 1995; Martinez, 1995; Potts; Smith). Furthermore, students of color do not hear of the greatness of their cultures (Potts). American students collectively do not learn how centuries of racism and classism have contributed to the existence of privileged classes and oppressed classes. Within this context, students from marginalized communities are taught from an ethnocentric, monocultural perspective that may cause them to question their ability and the worth of their culture (Howard; Loewen; Potts).


While most theorists have described empowerment in similar terms (McWhirter, 1991), the exact definition of empowerment remains vague (Perkins & Zimmerman, 1995; Peterson, Hamme, & Speer, 2002; Zimmerman, 1995; Zimmerman & Warschausky, 1998). In discussing empowerment some theorists place the emphasis on the perception of power (Perkins & Zimmerman; Zimmerman; Zimmerman & Warschausky). While this may be useful as an initial step, the ultimate goal of empowerment is the sociopolitical liberation of marginalized communities--marginalized communities having an increased stake in governing their communities (Carr, 2003). For the purposes of this article, the definition given by Gutierrez (1995), "the process of increasing personal, interpersonal, or political power so that individuals, families, and communities can take action to improve their situations" (p. 229), is used for the basis of discussion.

Roots of Empowerment Theory

Feminist theorists and multicultural thinkers were the first to discuss issues of empowerment within the field of counseling (Lee, 1991; Lyddon, 1998). Feminists began by critiquing the counseling profession, especially those aspects that perpetuated the oppression of women (Marecek, 2001). Moreover, feminist theorists advocated for social justice and empowerment in counseling (Lyddon). Multicultural counseling has examined the experience of oppression in communities of color and has been at the forefront of advocacy for clients (Lee).

The roots of empowerment theory, however, come from the educational theory of Paulo Freire. Freire was a Brazilian educator who dedicated his life and his teaching to the struggle of aiding oppressed and marginalized communities to achieve liberation (Demmitt & Oldenski, 1999). He emphasized the humanity of the oppressed and their needs as learners (Freire, 1970). Demmitt and Oldenski have described Freire's pedagogy as empowering "the oppressed by entering into the experience of oppression and assisting the oppressed in transforming oppressors through reflection and action" (p. 234). Freire's theory has transformed the way educators viewed the poor and marginalized.

In building on the work of Freire, it is evident that empowerment can take place at three levels: the personal (Zimmerman, 1995), the community or organizational (Peterson et al., 2002), and the sociopolitical (Moreau, 1990). The focus of this article is the personal level of empowerment. At this level, the individual is empowered in order to be most effective in his or her community action; a disempowered person may not fully understand societal injustice and may unknowingly cause harm through his or her activities on behalf of a marginalized community (Sue & Sue, 2003). The empowered person's activities within the community, in turn, will lead to a collective empowerment, where the community advocates for social and political change (Carr, 2003).

Personal Empowerment: A Process

The process of personal empowerment functions similarly to the process of ethnic identity development, with the goals being comparable to those proposed by Helms (1995): to rid oneself of internalized racism and achieve a healthy identity. A major distinction in personal empowerment is the concept of praxis--action-guided theory (Freire, 1970). Personal empowerment is approached as praxis: not a theoretical construct, but action toward the liberation of oppressed communities. Personal empowerment entails developing several important constructs. These include critical consciousness, positive identity, and taking social action (Carr, 2003, Gutierrez, 1995).

Critical consciousness. Critical consciousness for a member of a marginalized community is defined as awareness of oppression in society and the sociopolitical implications that follow from being oppressed (Gutierrez, 1995). The oppressed individual rejects the negative propaganda disseminated by the dominant society to diminish the perception of inequality in society (Hanna et al., 2000).

Thus, perception is important to the development of critical consciousness. It is hypothesized that oppressed people who have not developed critical consciousness have limited perception, enough to survive in an oppressive system, but insufficient to realize the systemic barriers that entrap them (Gutierrez, 1995; Hanna et al., 2000). Ultimately it is the ability to accurately perceive the world that leads to critical consciousness. Hanna et al. referred to this advanced form of perception as perspicacity, "which can be described as the ability to see beyond appearances, to 'see through' situations, or 'read between the lines'" (p. 434). The development of perspicacity aids one in developing critical consciousness and in rejecting negative messages (Hanna et al.).

Positive identity. Carr (2003) stated that oppressed groups must "discover" their identity. As is the case with the LGBT community, the existence of some oppressed communities is closeted--their very existence is denied (Hansen, 1999). The oppressed person engages in the process of "humanization" (Freire, 1970). Oppressed communities come to appreciate their existence, not in reference to the dominant culture, but for its own merit (Duran & Duran, 1995). Oppressed people seek to develop an empowering identity that gives validity to their existence and inspires work to improve their sociopolitical circumstances.

Social action. The most important component of personal empowerment is social action (Carr, 2003). Social action entails that oppressed individuals will work to liberate themselves and their community (Carr; Gutierrez, 1995; Hanna et al., 2000; Potts, 2003; Zimmerman & Warschausky, 1998). If the individual is to ever be fully liberated from the psychological and sociopolitical effects of oppression, he or she needs to gain greater social and political power to effect change (Gutierrez). It is crucial that the oppressed individual be encouraged to participate in community groups, social advocacy groups, and political rallies.


In order to address the achievement gap in the American educational system, professional school counselors require a theoretical approach to practice that is more empowering for students of marginalized communities (Cox & Lee, in press; Lee, 2001). If the empowerment of oppressed students is to take place, professional school counselors must heed the call of the Education Trust (2003) and the American School Counselor Association (2005) and look to redefine the current paradigm of school counseling. A major component in redefining this paradigm is the mandate of social justice (Cox & Lee; Education Trust).

The professional school counselor is in an ideal position to advocate for social justice (Education Trust, 2003). Empowerment theory can serve as a theoretical guide for the practice of social justice in school counseling. In adhering to empowerment theory, professional school counselors might become active in the process of liberating the students of marginalized communities by promoting personal empowerment of students, promoting community empowerment, and engaging in activism on behalf of their students. By making empowerment theory explicit in their work, professional school counselors can be an active force in promoting academic success for all students.

Empowerment Values for Professional School Counselors

Empowerment theory conceptualizes the counseling relationship as a partnership formed to achieve the empowerment of the client (McWhirter, 1991; Zimmerman & Warschausky, 1998). Empowerment can be fostered in counseling through a mutual relationship in which dialogue is valued, prescriptions are avoided, and deficits are rejected (McWhirter). Dialogue between the professional school counselor and students from oppressed groups allows the students to fully experience the pains associated with oppression. It is beneficial if students are allowed to realize empowerment on their terms, else they will become dependent on the counselor for guidance--which runs contrary to the empowerment process.

By using empowerment theory, a professional school counselor can avoid deficit models of counseling (McWhirter, 1991; Zimmerman & Warschausky, 1998). As stated by Zimmerman and Warschausky, "an empowerment approach considers wellness versus illness, and competence versus deficiency" (p. 5). It follows that a professional school counselor is not justified in believing that the student is incapable of taking proactive action, as an oppressed student may be very intelligent and resourceful.

An empowering professional school counselor encourages the oppressed student to participate in school-based activity groups or clubs--particularly ethnic student groups and student government associations that already exist within the school. Whether this is as a social outlet or a form of political action, participation in groups such as these can have many positive effects for the student's development of identity (Carr, 2003; Hanna et al., 2000; Zimmerman & Warschausky, 1998). Group participation--particularly in ethnic student groups--provides a forum for oppressed people to share their life experiences with those who are likely to have similar backgrounds.

Facilitating Personal Empowerment

Professional school counselors can actively facilitate the empowerment of their students. This implies fostering their critical consciousness, facilitating the development of positive identity, and encouraging social action on the part of students.

Fostering critical consciousness. To facilitate the development of critical consciousness in students of marginalized communities, it is helpful that they come to understand their current sociopolitical context. Further, students can be aided in understanding how their sociopolitical situation is a product of their membership in a marginalized community. Students of marginalized communities can be helped to see how living in such areas influences their daily lives, their political representation, and their opportunities for advancement in American society. This process can be aided through a progressive curriculum that does not ascribe to ethnocentric, monocultural mandates (Potts, 2003). Thus, issues of social inequities need to be brought to the forefront of the curriculum.

To assure that the experiences of marginalized communities are accurately portrayed through curricula, professional school counselors can work with administrators and department heads to develop standards for curricula that embrace non-Western perspectives and values. School counselors might begin by introducing administrators and faculty to texts such as We Can't Teach What We Don't Know and Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (Howard, 1999; Loewen, 1995). School counselors also might advocate for the creation of ethnic studies courses--courses that examine the art, culture, and history of ethnic groups. Moreover, these standards might encourage incorporating issues of racism, sexism, homophohia, and classism into all subjects, but particularly history and social studies. The professional school counselor can work in collaboration with department heads of history and social studies departments to propose lesson plans for various courses that include an exploration of issues related to gender, race, and sexual orientation in America.

Additionally, professional school counselors can foster the development of critical consciousness by creating consciousness-raising groups for students of marginalized communities. The consciousness-raising group engages in dialogue surrounding various issues of oppression (Gutierrez, 1995). These topics might include a discussion of overrepresentation of students of color in special education, lack of representation of LGBT concerns in politics, or gender inequalities in American society. A consciousness-raising group of this type has been successfully used by Gutierrez in raising critical consciousness among Latino students. While such group practice is limited, Gutierrez's work provides a preliminary indication of the merits of such consciousness-raising groups with students.

Developing positive identity. Ethnic studies courses, non-Western history courses, ethnic celebrations, and guest lectures from empowered community members are all possible interventions that a professional school counselor can use to aid a student in developing positive identity (Potts, 2003). The development of positive identity can come from teaching students more accurately about their history and culture (Potts). The professional school counselor advocating for the creation of ethnic studies and non-Western history courses can accomplish this goal. Such courses might expose students to historical figures and role models that might not be presented in standard American history courses. The school counselor also might be active in planning ethnic celebrations that expose students to traditions and values that are not commonly portrayed in American society at large. These celebrations can aid students in developing a sense of pride in their cultural heritage. Professional school counselors also might invite empowered community members to present at school assemblies. The empowered community member serves as a role model to students on how to achieve greater control over one's sociopolitical reality.

Encouraging social action. Once students have begun to attain critical consciousness and positive identity, they can be encouraged to participate in community groups, social advocacy groups, and political rallies. A good testing ground within the school is participation in student groups, in particular, ethnic student groups. This can help students in developing self-efficacy with regard to community organizing. Further, students can be encouraged to participate in student government, faculty/student advisory communities, and parent-teacher associations. Such experiences can give students a better understanding of the benefits of taking control of one's sociopolitical condition. These experiences also may serve to inspire students to be more active in the community at large. Finally, professional school counselors can encourage empowered students to participate in community organizations and in political rallies. Such activities will allow these students to begin to take control of their sociopolitical reality and aid them in working toward the liberation of their community.

Facilitating Community Empowerment

In addition to a focus on personal empowerment, a collaborative partnership is needed between professional school counselors and marginalized communities to facilitate the empowerment of students (Demmitt & Oldenski, 1999; Potts, 2003). Many students are too young to be taken seriously by school administrators and district officials. Thus, it is important that the professional school counselor be active in facilitating the empowerment of parents and community members (Potts). Therefore, while facilitating the empowerment of their students, school counselors might promote the empowerment of the parents of students and the community at large.

The steps of empowerment previously discussed are equally applicable to students and the community at large, and in many cases are even more relevant to adults. Thus the professional school counselor can be active in empowerment programming for parents and the community. The professional school counselor might organize consciousness-raising groups specifically for parents to aid them in understanding their current sociopolitical context and the implications that follow from being a member of an oppressed community. Further, parents can be aided in developing positive identity.

The professional school counselor also must be willing to go beyond the boundaries of the school to encourage active participation of parents and community members in the schools (Musheno & Talbert, 2002). Above all else, parents of marginalized children can come to understand how engaging in the process of empowerment will come to benefit their children's sociopolitical status.

The Professional School Counselor and Social Action

Scholars have recognized the needs of oppressed communities and sounded the call for social advocacy when working with disadvantaged and oppressed communities and clients (Hansen, 1999; Lee & Hipolito-Delgado, in press; McWhirter, 1991; Potts, 2003). These authors call for social advocacy at a personal, community, and systemic level on the behalf of marginalized communities. The Education Trust (2003) has extended this call to professional school counselors and their work done directly with marginalized communities in the schools. Thus professional school counselors must be active in advocacy for increasing access and quality of social and educational services for students from marginalized communities (Education Trust; Potts).


Oppression is a reality faced by students of marginalized communities. It causes negative psychological and sociopolitical effects. These negative effects permeate the school system and serve as barriers to the advancement of marginalized communities. The school counseling profession in partnership with oppressed students and communities can play a pivotal role in facilitating the empowerment of such groups. Through the adoption of empowerment theory as a guide for social advocacy, professional school counselors can be active in facilitating the empowerment of their students.


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Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado and Courtland C. Lee are with the University of Maryland at College Park. E-mail:
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Author:Lee, Courtland C.
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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