Disciplining “Girl Talk”: The paradox of empowerment in a feminist mentorship program


By bhadmin February 2, 2021

Although empowerment is frequently invoked in social work discourse, it is nevertheless a complicated and contested practice method. A critical minority of social work theorists and practitioners point to the paradox of empowerment practice that reifies power differences and infringes upon client self-determination (Gruber & Trickett, 1987; Hartman, 1992; Pease, 2002; Simon, 1990). Despite the acuity of this critique, it has neither fully penetrated the discourse of social work practice nor been employed in close analyses of empowerment interventions. In order to address this gap, we conducted an ethnographic study of a feminist empowerment program for young adolescent girls. Our findings suggest that despite some evidence of success, there were also noteworthy instances in which program staff subverted the goal of empowering participants’ voices and instead disciplined girls’ talk along particular discursive lines. This study explores these practices and discourses and based on this illustration, calls for incorporation of critical reflection into empowerment-based social work practice.

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