Stop "empowering" underrepresented communities

Organizations need to stop using buzz phrases like “we empower” while deploying a deficit-based framework to their community engagement. This is also known as the “savior-complex”. A couple of months back, I had to sit through a presentation where a bunch of rich folks attempted to mentor first generation college students saying they “had no role models in their lives, and needed successful people to show them the way through their mentorship program.” As a first generation immigrant, a person of color, and the first in my family to have gone to college and graduate school, listening to this was painful to say the least. I thought of my parents as role models, and devaluing their worth just because they did not go to college is incredibly dehumanizing.

To put it bluntly, it is harmful to prescribe false narratives around the lives of underrepresented people. When you deploy a deficit-based community engagement strategy, you’re perpetuating negative societal stereotypes instead of deconstructing them; while adding value to your own societal status. Your privilege is part of the problem. The world already devalues people of color and first generation college students; we don’t need another pity party taking advantage of our oppression to acquire gold stars on your resume to land your next job. 

I am not saying that we shouldn’t attempt to provide first generation college students with access to information, but how you go about doing this is critical in shaping ones self-worth. Use an asset-based framework instead, build upon strengths and know that they have the ability to empower themselves without your “saving”. Most importantly, acknowledge the fact that you do not understand their lived experiences.

As the first in my family to have navigated college, I had to function as a self-starter because information was never readily available to me. I created spaces for myself, and eventually launched my own organization. My life involved a multitude of trial and error attempts before eventually getting something right, and I motivated myself by consistently looking for silver-linings in my failures. You might think that I’m probably doing a really bad job at selling myself right now, but if we applied an asset-based framework this isn’t a bad thing. Organizations look for problem-solvers and self-starters. Because information was never handed to us throughout our lives, we’ve had to problem-solve on a day-to-day basis to navigate a system that wasn’t set up for us to succeed. Organizations also look for people who can juggle multiple projects under high pressure; well, many first generation college students have juggled multiple jobs while studying to make ends meet. We’re intrinsically motivated despite failures, and we possess a drive that makes us great leaders. So why aren't we in more leadership positions?

It's time we re-evaluate community engagement strategies and our hiring practices. Is your organization also working on deconstructing structural and institutional inequities, or are you actually perpetuating oppression?

Andrea Lim