Volume 48 Number 3 
Summer 2015

Community Action

Edited by Bradley Olson

A Power “To”, “From”, “Over”, and “Within”: Are Sense of Community and Empowerment Really Paradoxical?

Written by Cari Stevenson, National Louis University (

Evelyn was 28 years old raising three young children when she enrolled in classes at the local community college. Like many female community college students she found balancing school work with the responsibilities at home difficult and the lack of support from her family added to her burden. Family members discouraged her from college because she was a mother. To her family, pursuing education when she should be home with her children was to her family, considered selfish. Although her situation was not unique, Evelyn felt quite alone. At one point, she nearly gave up. However, a year into her program, her college experience was transformed when she gained support from three female classmates and found inspiration in a female professor. As she witnessed other women succeeding, she felt less encumbered by gender roles and gained confidence in her own ability. As Evelyn recounts, “Being surrounded by other women helped me feel I could be successful as a woman.” Evelyn flourished in her second year excelling in all her courses, holding leadership positions in four extracurricular clubs, tutoring other students, and even presenting research at a faculty training seminar as well as a professional conference.

Both sense of community and empowerment are phenomena that have dominated research within Community Psychology. Rappaport (1987) describes empowerment as a feeling that one is in control of her own life; and McMillian and Chavis (1986) describe Sarason’s (1974) sense of community as a feeling that one belongs to a group and is valued by its members. Riger (1993) suggests in several ways that these two constructs are oftentimes, at least, in tension, or if using Rappaport’s term, paradoxical in nature. However, what Evelyn’s story illustrates, empowerment and sense of community may be interdependent. This, of course, depends on more clear definitions of what we mean by either empowerment or sense of community.

Despite the many important efforts to measure these constructs, both are complex with the meaning dependent upon the context and the individuals, population and settings studied. In Evelyn’s case, a sense of community was developed through connections with other women through which she felt valued by other members she identified with and thus finding value in herself.  Once she found strength among these connections, she began to appreciate her own potential which, in turn, empowered her to persist in her academic pursuits and, eventually, to lead and inspire other women. At the very least, empowerment and sense of community may sometimes, as Evelyn’s example shows, be interdependent, with both necessary to bring about real change. 

Although the U.S Department of Education (2012) indicates women outnumber men in college graduation rates, some studies suggests women lag behind men in completion rates at community colleges (Bailey, Calcagno, Jenkins, Leinbach, & Kienzl, 2006; Carbonaro, Ellison, & Covay, 2011). Work/family responsibilities and time constraints, particularly for single-mothers, present exceptional challenges. Both Rappaport and Riger believe empowerment must be a multi-level concept. The concept of disempowerment is often thought to involve an imbalance of political control or intentional subversive social influence; however, ordinary, converging, and cumulative external forces can diminish one’s sense of personal control. Although women are certainly not underrepresented in terms of numbers within higher education, the conditions - the societal, family and school-based obstacles or inconsistencies they face - may become disempowering.

Riger (1993) differentiates between various types of power: power from (suggesting the power to thwart oppressive forces), power over (suggesting the power over resources), and power to (suggesting the power to act more freely). Riger further explains that many interventions enhance one’s sense of empowerment by focusing on power to but fail to address power over or power from. This model may also fall short of addressing a fourth power: power within.  In the case of connectedness within learning communities, communion with other women can build a sense of efficacy (power within) insulating a woman (any person) from some debilitating effects of external forces (power from) and enhance her command of course material and knowledge (power over); this in turn, empowers the woman to gain a sense of control over her own life and provide support to others (power to). More specifically, Evelyn, through a communion with other women, found confidence in herself and the determination to succeed (power within). Ultimately it was this power, that emanating from within, that allowed her to resist the debilitating stressors from her family’s discouragement (power from), master her coursework (power over), and provide support to other students by tutoring and influencing others through leadership roles in student organizations (power to). 

Within an individualistic culture, independence and control are valued above connectedness and interdependence. Riger asserts that community psychology’s emphasis on empowerment maintains this culture and underscores the concept of control over connectedness. However, it could be argued that, for many, particularly those who have been disempowered, connectedness is necessary for any sense of control. Further, instrumental (“doing”) behavior or agency—often associated with male relationships--, and communal (“feeling”) behavior—often associated with female relationships--, may function in tandem, rather than the dichotomy often assumed. When women feel connected, they become empowered to do. Within a communion with others, they can gain a greater control over their own lives.

The concepts of empowerment and sense of community both consider the individual’s perspective, but require an appreciation of settings to fully understand the constructs deeper and more complex meanings. Developing interventions may seem more straightforward in settings of political or organizational injustice, but seem quite evasive when the adverse factors are less tangible. Despite significant progress in the women’s movement, socialized gender roles remain entrenched in our culture. Women have gained considerable presence in the workforce, yet they too often remain as primary caregivers, raising the pressure for them to thrive in multiple realms. The coercive force present in such situations are not that of a perceptible oppressor, but rather more invisible and structural constraints derived from social roles and expectations. The injustice resides in the surrounding environment, peaking out in the form of micro-aggressions and unfortunately portions of the oppressive expectations become internalized in the women themselves. This exceptional pressure can lead many women to doubt their self-efficacy, feel isolated, lose their sense of control—in effect, become disempowered. Together, when they gather with each other as a unified force, women can find strength and inspiration in one another, recognize their own power within, and thus become empowered to achieve mastery over the course of their own lives. As in Evelyn’s case, the external stressors do not necessarily change, but the solidarity within the community provides a rejuvenating power to persist by first generating the power within. Evelyn did not need a hand out, or even a hand up, she just needed a hand.



Bailey, T., Calcagno, J. C., Jenkins, D., Leinbach, T., & Kienzl, G. (2006). Is student right-to-know all you should know?: An analysis of community college graduation  rates. Research in Higher Education47(5), 491-519. 

Carbonaro, W., Ellison, B. J., & Covay, E. (2011). Gender inequalities in the college pipeline. Social Science Research40(1), 120-135. 

McMillan, D. & Chavis, D. (1986). Sense of community: a definition and theory. Journal of  Community Psychology, 14(1), 6-23.

Rappaport, J. (1987). Terms of empowerment/exemplars of prevention:  toward a theory for community psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 15(2), 121-142.

Riger, S. (1993). What’s wrong with empowerment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 21(3), 279-292.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). The Condition of Education 2014. Retrieved from

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