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Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership
A postcritical existential phenomenological study about experiences of empowerment and liberation in social justice leadership
Jessica R. Dreistadt, Student
Empowerment and liberation are complex social phenomena with multiple meanings. This preliminary study explores those meanings within the context of progressive social change organization leadership through postcritical existential phenomenology. The results challenged my assumptions about the topic but also expanded the depth of my understanding.
Method and Definition of Terms
Phenomenology overall has been criticized for failing to thoroughly examining social and political influences on individual experience, being ahistorical, focusing on immediate experiences, marginalizing people by homogenizing experience, and supporting the existing system (Cheng, 1995; Dahlberg, 2006; Stoller, 2010). Existential phenomenology acknowledges that individual experience is understood within the context of participants’ background; thus, the influence of social and political factors on meaning making and the limitation of freedom is recognized (Lopez & Willis, 2004). I chose to add a postcritical (Hytten, 2004) element to explicitly expose and explore the political and social structures and power dynamics inherent to the topic. There is great common ground between phenomenology and critical theory: self-determination; seeking the truth about people and society; pursuit of liberation; increased awareness of social structures and influence; lack of submission to predetermined social categories; and the influence of the past and material conditions of society (Gorman, 1976). Forrester (1983) claims that critical theory is structural phenomenology because it connects individual action and meaning with the historical context and macrostructure. Because empowerment and liberation are the definitive goals of both existentialism and critical theory, such a marriage seems natural in the study of this topic (Lawler, 2005; Rexhepi & Torres, 2011). While there are multiple interpretations of the terms empowerment and liberation, there is a clear differentiation between personal empowerment and structural change. Most studies of empowerment focus on psychological, rather than structural, dimensions and few studies link the two (Biron & Bamberger, 2010). Social change requires both psychological and political empowerment (Raelin, 2008).
1. What is the meaning of empowerment and liberation? How do volunteers and staff of progressive social change organizations describe experiences of empowerment and liberation? How do experiences of empowerment and liberation influence the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of volunteers and staff of progressive social change organizations? 2. How does involvement in progressive social change organizations influence experiences of empowerment and liberation? How do the organizational, environmental, social, and political contexts of progressive social change organizations influence experiences of empowerment and liberation? How do leadership practices and relationships influence experiences of empowerment and liberation? 3. How do experiences of empowerment and liberation influence involvement in progressive social change organizations? How do experiences of empowerment and liberation influence emergent leadership among staff and volunteers of progressive social change organizations? How do individuals who have experienced empowerment and liberation through involvement in progressive social change organizations describe the influence of these on their own leadership?
The participant was a self-employed former corporate employee with a lengthy and diverse history of activism and leadership within labor unions, religious institutions, community-based organizations, local government, and political groups. We explored his most significant experiences in progressive social change organizations, the meanings he ascribed to those experiences, his leadership during those times, and his understanding and experiences of empowerment and liberation. His desire to participate in social change organizations resulted from the sense of solidarity he experienced while in the military and his Jewish faith. He feels that his faith broadened what he experienced as the “military socialist ideal” to include all people and gave him a vision for a “besser velt” (Yiddish for better world). The participant identified two experiences in social change organizations that have been the most meaningful for him: negotiating a labor contract while president of a labor union, which resulted in the elimination of an unjust pay scale; and assisting with the renovation and revitalization of a community arts organization. He felt personally invested in both organizations and had a lengthy history with each. Through these peak experiences, he has developed meaningful relationships with others in his community, which he feels is the most rewarding aspect of being involved with social change organizations. He has also expanded his leadership skills; he learned to carefully pick battles, focus on issues of significance and minimize the attention given to minor issues, effectively negotiate, balance the needs of the organization with those of employees, set the tone, envision and experience success despite tremendous obstacles, balance dreaming and wishing for a different future with pragmatic action, engage the support and commitment of others in a cause, help others realize the value of their input, synthesize the ideas of a diverse group, and develop constructive relationships with leaders of other organizations. We discussed his understanding of empowerment and liberation and his personal experiences of those phenomena. He described empowerment as one of the components that must be in place in order for people to experience self-actualization. He does not remember a time that he did not feel empowered. “I have always viewed the entire world as open to me.” Yet, he notes that he felt most empowered when he was the member of a labor union. “Being a union member makes a person feel like they are part of the family of man…we take care of each other…despite feeling very self-confident about my own ability to manage my way through the world, I can still see the power that unions provided me and others.” His most significant experience of liberation was resigning from this corporation during a merger after a 25-year career. He started a business and now has more time to devote to community service, political action, and family. During this discussion, the participant interchangeably used the words empowerment and liberation with an emphasis on the former; the meanings he ascribes to these constructs overlap. This confirms my research findings that there are multiple meanings for each and that there is a greater emphasis and understanding of empowerment in the leadership literature.
This study was conducted for a Qualitative Research Methods course. The purpose was to both explore a topic of interest and to develop my understanding of the method selected and the research process. In this preliminary study, one interview was conducted with a person to whom I had access. This poster reflects a summarization of two papers written during the course of one semester (available upon request).
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