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Empowering Settings and Voices for Social Change$

Mark S. Aber, Kenneth I. Maton, Edward Seidman, and James G. Kelly

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780195380576

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195380576.001.0001

Empowering Community Settings: Theory, Research, and Action

(p.38) 3 Empowering Community Settings: Theory, Research, and Action
Empowering Settings and Voices for Social Change

Kenneth I. Maton

Anne E. Brodsky

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides a a modest attempt to build on Julian Rappaport's vision of a community psychology in which empowerment is the guiding motif to life. Drawing upon research on three different kinds of empowering settings, it delineates, in more detail, the setting-specific: mediators through which organizational characteristics empower setting members and the pathways through which community betterment and positive social change occur—member-radiating influence and external organizational activities.

Keywords:   Julian Rappaport, empowerment, community improvement, social change, community psychology

Empowerment has been conceptualized and defined in many different ways, depending in part on the population of interest, the area of focus, and the level of analysis (Rappaport, 1981; Zimmerman, 2000). For the current analysis, empowerment is viewed as a group-based, group-member driven, developmental process through which marginalized or oppressed individuals and groups gain greater control over their lives, enhanced access to valued resources, and reduced societal marginalization (Maton, 2008). Psychological, social, and civic empowerment are the three specific areas of focus examined. Psychological empowerment refers to group members gaining a greater sense of mastery or control over their daily personal lives. The primary emphasis is on individual change. Social empowerment can be viewed as gaining access to valued social roles, including high status roles, which group members have historically been denied (e.g., professional roles, leadership positions). Change in both the individual and the status of the group are encompassed. Civic empowerment can be defined as acquisition of basic human rights by severely oppressed groups (e.g., women in repressive third-world countries, poor people in every society). Primary emphases include individual change, the group’s status in society, and larger social and cultural change. In each case, for marginalized or oppressed groups, the process of empowerment can be expected to take place over a substantial period of time, in community settings that are salient in group member’s lives.

(p.39) Previous research has suggested some of the organizational characteristics of empowering community settings. For example, based on a review of the literature of empowering settings in multiple community sectors, Maton (2008) delineated six organizational factors that characterize empowering settings: group-based belief system, core activities, relational environment, opportunity role structure, leadership, and setting maintenance and change. The belief systems of empowering settings inspire change among members, are strengths-based, and focus members beyond themselves. Core activities are engaging, involve active learning, and are of high quality. The relational environment provides extensive support, caring relationships, and a sense of community. The opportunity role structure is highly accessible to members and pervasive (i.e., meaningful roles are available throughout the setting) and involves both development of skills and opportunities for member voice and influence. The leadership in empowering settings is inspirational, talented, shared, committed, and empowered. Finally, setting maintenance and change features are learning-focused and characterized by both bridging mechanisms and external linkages.

Other studies have suggested additional organizational characteristics that may be important, including participation incentives, participatory decision making, and co-empowerment across subgroups (Bond & Keys, 1993; Gruber & Trickett, 1987; Prestby, Wandersman, Florin, Rich, & Chavis, 1990; Speer & Hughey, 1995). There has also been some focus on the ways that empowering community settings influence the external community and society (e.g., Maton, 2008; Janzen, Nelson, Hausfather, & Ochocka, 2007; Zimmerman, 2000; Peterson & Zimmerman, 2004). Maton (2008), for example, emphasized three pathways: increased numbers of empowered citizens, empowered member radiating influence (i.e., empowered members influencing the community through their personal activities in their neighborhood, workplace, and policy arena), and external organizational activities (e.g., public education, community services, policy advocacy)

In the current chapter, we draw upon research on three different kinds of empowering settings to delineate, in more detail, the setting-specific: (1) mediators through which organizational characteristics empower setting members and (2) pathways through which community betterment and positive social change occur—member-radiating influence and external organizational activities. Figure 3–1 depicts the primary model that has emerged from the research, and the bolded lowercase letters indicate the subset of areas of focus in the current chapter. The arrow marked by “a” in the figure refers to the mediating processes through which community settings empower their members. In turn, the arrow marked by “b” in the figure refers to the indirect influence of settings on the community and society through empowered member radiating influence. Finally, “c” refers to the (p.40)

Empowering Community Settings: Theory, Research, and Action

Figure 3.1 Empowering Community Settings: Model of Influence

direct influence of settings on the community and society through their external organizational activities.

The mediating processes and external pathways of influence proposed are illustrated from research involving three, diverse empowering community settings. One is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a self-help organization that focuses on individual psychological empowerment. The second is the Meyerhoff Scholars Program (MSP), a multifaceted support program that enhances the psychological and social empowerment of African-American college students with interests in the sciences. The third is The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a humanitarian and political organization that works toward psychological, social, and civic empowerment for Afghan girls and women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Research to date suggests a number of commonalities across the three settings in terms of mediating processes and pathways of external influence, along with some distinct areas of difference.

The Three Settings and Evidence of Member Empowerment

The three settings that constitute the focus of the current chapter will first be briefly described, along with evidence related to their empowering influence on members. In the case of AA, a recent book by Keith Humphreys (Humphreys, 2004) constitutes the source of much of the information; his book includes extant quantitative and qualitative research on AA. The available information on the MSP is primarily based on extensive qualitative (p.41) and quantitative research conducted over the past 20 years by the first author and colleagues (e.g., Maton & Hrabowski, 2004; Maton, Sto. Domingo, Stolle-McAllister, Zimmerman, & Hrabowski, 2009). In the case of RAWA, the available information is based on extensive qualitative research conducted over the past 10 years by the second author (e.g., Brodsky, 2003).

Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a worldwide, 12-step, self-help group for alcoholics. AA views alcoholism as a disease with moral, physical, and spiritual components. In the view of AA, one is an alcoholic, and there is no such thing as a cured, ex-alcoholic. AA offers its members “fellowship,” meaning a supportive network of recovering alcoholics, and a “program,” meaning a method of ceasing alcohol consumption, improving moral character, and fostering spiritual growth. The essence of AA’s program of change are the 12 steps, which include admitting an inability to control drinking, surrendering to a Higher Power, conducting a moral inventory of oneself, and helping other alcoholics (12-stepping). All 12-step meetings include a ritual at the beginning and the end and telling one’s story. Based on its most recent triennial survey, AA estimates that there were more than 100,000 extant groups in 2002, with 2.2 million members worldwide, including 1.16 million in the United States (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2007; Humphreys, 2004).

Evaluation research to date has provided evidence of a positive impact on problem drinking and related indicators (e.g., depression, job performance) for AA members versus comparison samples. Humphreys (2004) provides a recent summary of experimental and quasi-experimental studies, including meta-analysis studies, of AA. He concludes that the “average effect of AA as a stand-alone intervention … is of meaningful size” (p. 119). In addition, he notes that although some of the studies have methodological flaws, the better designed evaluations provide evidence of AA effectiveness that are equal to or stronger than the studies with weaker designs. There is evidence, then, that AA members are psychologically empowered in terms of gaining control over their drinking and their daily lives.

The Meyerhoff Scholars Program

The MSP is a multicomponent educational support program primarily focused on talented African-American college students interested in research careers in the sciences. The program is located at a predominantly European-American university at which, prior to the program’s inception, African-American (p.42) students in the sciences had not fared well. Primary program components include a summer bridge program prior to freshman year, comprehensive financial scholarships, study groups, peer community, program-specific academic advisors, strong campus administration involvement and support, and parent involvement. From its inception in 1988 to 1995, the program only accepted African-American students; in 1996, admissions was opened to all students committed to the advancement of underrepresented minority students in the sciences. The program has become a national model of a race-focused program enabling minority students to succeed in the sciences at a predominantly European-American campus and go on to PhD programs in the sciences (Building Engineering and Science Talent, 2004). Now in its 21st year, the program has a total current enrollment of 252 students—about three-fifths are African-American.

Prior to the advent of MSP, academically talented African-American students entering UMBC with a science focus rarely succeeded in science nor proceeded to graduate or medical school or careers in science or engineering. In contrast, more than 75% of entering African-American MSP students have entered graduate programs in the sciences, or medical school; furthermore, the students are almost five times more likely to enter into science PhD (or MD/PhD) programs than equally talented African-American students who were accepted into the program but declined the offer and attended other universities instead (Maton, Sto. Domingo, Stolle-McAllister, Zimmerman, & Hrabowski, 2009). Another indicator of the program’s success is that UMBC is now one of the top three predominantly European-American universities in the nation in terms of producing African-American students who go on to receive science and engineering doctorates (the other two are University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Duke University) (National Science Foundation 2008). Thus, the program demonstrates strong evidence of psychological empowerment leading to individual successes and social role empowerment for African-Americans, a group with very low rates of science PhD receipt (1.8% in 2006; Hoffer, Hess, Welch, & Williams, 2007).

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan

RAWA is an Afghan women’s humanitarian and political organization founded in 1977 by a 20-year-old college student named Meena1. Meena, along with a small group of educated, urban women, formed RAWA to (p.43) advocate for women’s basic rights in a country where the familial, tribal, and societal traditions circumvented these rights, keeping 90% of women illiterate and often treating them as chattel and second class citizens. RAWA is an underground organization active in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and provides humanitarian assistance in the forms of literacy classes for women, schools for girls and boys, hospital and mobile medical teams, income-generating projects for women, and aid distributions. They are also a political organization, maintaining a political voice through their website, political magazine, international speaking tours, political protests, and conferences, all of which have advocated for women’s basic rights, peace, and human rights, as well as for a secular, democratic Afghanistan. Through all of their activities, they have concentrated on bringing education, as well as a message of empowerment and resistance, to women and men and have been able to recruit an estimated 2000 female members and an estimated equal number of male supporters—both of whom carry out the work of the organization.

RAWA’s ability to survive and thrive as an organization during the past 30 years of nearly constant war and oppression of women is a case in point for their ability to empower their members to participate in this difficult endeavor. Over the years, their impact has been felt by the women and children they have served, the empowerment of the women and men who volunteer with them to provide services and advocacy, and the message of women’s rights and a secular-democratic Afghanistan that they have continued to voice both in Afghanistan and internationally. Thus they can be seen as an empowering community that impacts all three domains of empowerment.

Next we turn to the interesting question of how these three different organizations empower their members with regard to each setting’s content focus; demographics in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and country; and different types of empowerment. We focus on both what these settings have in common as well as the ways in which they are unique.

Mediators of Member Empowerment

Table 3–1 depicts the mediators of member empowerment delineated by Maton (2008), here separated into cognitive/affective, relational, and instrumental categories. In addition, the table summarizes the unique content focus through which the mediators lead to empowerment within each setting. Given space limitations, we can only briefly depict the mediators in each category, illustrating with several quotes their unique manifestation and content focus in each of the three settings. The quotes vary in the extent to which they describe the mediator or illustrate how the mediator impacts member change.


Table 3.1 Mediators and Content Focus of Member Empowerment

Alcoholics Anonymous

Meyerhoff Scholars Program

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan












Content Focus

Transformation of view of self, alcoholism

Development of identity as an outstanding science student

Consciousness-raising related to women’s rights



Skills development

Skills development

Skills development

Meaningful roles

Meaningful roles

Meaningful roles




Content focus

Abstinence coping skills

Strategic academic skills

Literacy, service, income generation, & social action skills






Mutual support

Mutual support

Mutual support




Content focus




Cognitive/Affective Mediators: Awareness, Motivation, and Self-Efficacy

Fundamental alterations in awareness, motivation, and self-efficacy mediate member empowerment within each of the three settings. Consistent with their very differing goals and contexts, however, each of the three settings can be seen as having a distinct content focus through which these mediators result in member empowerment. These are transformation in the view of (p.45) self and one’s alcoholism in the case of AA, identity development as a future scientist in MSP, and consciousness-raising related to basic women’s rights in RAWA.

Alcoholics Anonymous. AA appears to empower members psychologically through a fundamental change in member’s view of self and alcoholism. Specifically, members come to view alcoholism as a disease, accept the need to rely on a “higher power,” develop self-efficacy related to drinking cessation, and to varying degrees experience emotional healing and spiritual transformation, as illustrated in the following excerpts from an AA member:

“For weeks I sat in the back of the rooms, silent when others shared their experience, strength and hope. I listened to their stories … I learned that alcoholism isn’t a sin, it’s a disease. That lifted the guilt I had felt. I learned that I didn’t have to stop drinking forever, but just not to pick up that first drink one day, one hour at a time. I could manage that.”

(Alcoholics Anonymous, 2007b, p. 344)

“Above all, I healed spiritually. The steps took me on that path. I had admitted that I was powerless over alcohol, that my life had become unmanageable … Then, nurtured by the program, [my] inner spirit grew, deepened, until it filled the emptiness I had so long felt inside. Step to step I moved to a spiritual awakening. Step by step I cleared up the past and got on with the present.”

(Alcoholics Anonymous, 2007b, p. 346)

Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Central to the cognitive/affective process of empowerment in MSP is development of an identity as a science student and future scientist capable of outstanding academic performance. Students incorporate key program values, including achievement at the highest levels in difficult science majors, commitment to redress the shortage of African-American science PhDs, seeking help from a variety of sources to achieve As, drawing on peer support and peer study, and giving back to the community. Students are inspired and challenged to meet the high academic expectations that surround them:

“I want to set a good example for [my two younger siblings] and also an example for Blacks in general, so that they can see that somebody can make it. There aren’t a lot of [black] PhDs, which is what I want to [become].”

(MSP student; unpublished data)


“They [the Meyerhoff Program] had high expectations for me … I internalized those expectations … The most important thing it gave me … confidence that I could succeed in school but also that I could be one of the best.”

(MSP student; unpublished data)

“That feeling of family when everybody came together in the (program-wide) meetings … I learned that all of these people are doing so well. Those things were an inspiration to me. I think that made me do so well my freshmen year, and made me continue on to doing well.”

(MSP student; unpublished data)

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Raising of consciousness, through an educational approach that shares much with Freire’s (1972) emancipatory education, is a primary psychological mechanism through which RAWA empowers its members. The manifestations of consciousness raising are illustrated in the following quotes—the first from a RAWA leader, and the next three from RAWA members:

“We always thought deeper than just giving women education. We thought the purpose was giving women a consciousness—political, social, cultural—giving them that consciousness meant a revolution. We obviously had to start with basic education, but couldn’t stop there.”

(Brodsky, 2003, p. 106)

“I learned to read and write but also attended other activities and functions and became a RAWA member. All these years I finally learned who I am as a woman. We … can help our country and our people.”

(RAWA member; Brodsky, 2003, p. 136)

“The most important thing was recognizing our rights as women and when we live in a family with men we should also have our rights as human beings and woman. In some families the value of women for men is like their shoes, but we also know that women are human beings and have their rights and should live equally…”

(RAWA member; Brodsky, 2003, p. 124)


“…at RAWA everyone has the consciousness that no one is living here for personal life; all are together for one goal. What RAWA teaches women and all people is to put others first.”

(RAWA member; Brodsky, 2003, p. 263)

Instrumental Mediators: Skills Development, Meaningful Roles, and Engagement

Skills development, meaningful roles, and engagement have been identified as critical instrumental mediators in empowering community settings (Maton, 2008). Consistent with their differing goals and contexts, the content focus of these mediators varied greatly across the three settings of focus. In the case of AA, instrumental mediators focus on active coping to maintain abstinence, in MSP the focus is on strategic academic skills linked to academic success in science; and in the case of RAWA, the focus is on literacy, income-generation, service to others, and social action skills.

Alcoholics Anonymous. Research studies suggest that development of active coping skills and the opportunity to participate in meaningful, helping roles and engagement over time are important mediators of AA effectiveness (Humphreys, 2004).

“In working the Twelve Steps, my life and my old way of thinking have changed. I have no control over some of the things that happen in my life, but with the help of God I can now choose how I will respond. Today I choose to be happy, and when I’m not, I have the tools of the program to put me on back.”

(AA member; Alcoholics Anonymous, 2007d, p. 381)

“Commitment and service were part of recovery. I was told that to keep it we have to give it away. At first I made the coffee and later volunteered at the intergroup office answering telephones on the evening shift. I went on 12th-step calls, spoke at meetings, [and] served as group officer. Ever so gradually I began to open. Just a crack at first, with my hand on the door ready to slam it shut in a moment of fear. But my fears subsided too. I found that I could be there, open to all kinds of people from this solid base that we shared. Then I began to go back out into the world, carrying that strength with me.”

(AA member; Alcoholics Anonymous, 2007b, p. 345)

(p.48) Meyerhoff Scholars Program. MSP helps students learn strategic academic and research skills to achieve both short-term (college) and longer-term (graduate school) success in science fields. These skills include getting to know professors and the best students in the class, seeking help, participation in study groups, getting tutoring to help achieve As, tutoring others, and summer research experiences in labs of eminent scientists around the country. Furthermore, the program provides multiple opportunities for engagement and meaningful helping roles. These include opportunities for community service with inner city children and representing the program to the external world.

“I think that the things the Meyerhoff Program stresses, like working in groups and getting to know your professors and sitting in front of class—those things help you in graduate school.

(MSP student, unpublished data)

The research experiences have been very valuable. I worked with Dr. Jones … first … he set a basis for everything that I was going to be using later on. Then Dr. Farkson—I presented at three difference conferences on the research that I did with him about myoglobin. Then I worked with Dr. Howard … in neuroscience … [Most valuable has been] the thinking process, how you go about trying to solve a problem, and all the different techniques you can use to get around problems…”

(MSP student, unpublished data)

When you go out in public, you’re not only representing yourself, but you are representing the program. So you carry yourself with a little more pride, and a little more dignity.”

(MSP student; Maton & Hrabowski, 2000, p. 644)

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. The development of basic skills, civic engagement, and the provision of meaningful social roles are important mediators of empowerment in a society experiencing ongoing decades of war and social upheaval, in which all noncombatants—particularly women—found their social roles degraded. Skills acquired include not only literacy and numeracy but also additional abilities learned through practical experiences that serve the needs of the organization as well as individuals. Thus, older adolescents have been students as well as teachers, women in literacy classes quickly have come to make up the ranks of contributing organizational members, and participants in income-generating projects simultaneously learned a skill and an interpretation of the political (p.49) situation in which they were not alone. All of these have led women to active involvement as political and social change agents:

“RAWA … discovers the abilities and potential of members in different fields. For example, one might be working in publication, the website, literacy classes, or in other fields. RAWA tries to improve and promote those skills that they already have the natural gift or talent for.”

(RAWA member; Brodsky, 2003, pp. 113–114)

“When I first came to stay in the [refugee] camp I was impressed by the interactions between women in camp because of RAWA. Before this I had a lot of time to think about how terrible the situation was for me and for my country. I had no children, no work, and all this thinking made me depressed. The things I could get involved with in the camp, literacy courses, other involvements made me feel better.”

(Brodsky, 2003, p. 141)

Relational Mediators: Caring, Mutual Support, and Belonging

In the relational domain, common to all settings is the importance of caring, mutual support, and belonging. Consistent with their differing goals and contexts, the content focus of these mediators varied greatly. Specifically, caring, mutual support, and belonging are recovery-focused in the case of AA, achievement-focused in MSP, and emancipation-focused in RAWA.

Alcoholics Anonymous. Research suggests that recovery-focused social support constitutes one of the key mediators of AA effectiveness (Humphreys, 2004). This support occurs in the context of caring relationships with other alcoholics and is aided by a sense of belonging to a community of recovering alcoholics. The following quotes illustrate several aspects of these mediating influences.

Over the course of my sobriety I have experienced many opportunities to grow. I have had struggles and achievements. Through it all I have not had to take a drink, nor have I ever been alone. Willingness and action have seen me through it all, with the guidance of a loving Higher Power and the fellowship of the program. When I am in doubt, I have faith that things will turn out as they should. When I’m afraid, I reach out to the hands of another alcoholic to steady me.”

(AA member; Alcoholics Anonymous, 2007c, p. 309)


“AA is my home now, and it is everywhere. I go to meetings when I travel here or in foreign countries and the people are family I can know because of what we share … In my 28th year of sobriety, I am amazed to look back and … see how far I’ve come out of the abyss.”

(AA member; Alcoholics Anonymous, 2007b, p. 346).

Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Along with high levels of expectation and challenge, MSP provides a relational environment characterized by high levels of mutual support, caring, and belonging related to achievement in science. Various aspects of these relational resources are revealed in the following interview excerpts:

“Number one in my book is the support. Having other smart, talented African Americans around you at all times is an asset.”

(MSP student; Maton & Hrabowski, 2000, p. 644)

It would have taken me a while to become social with people. But in my first year of college [after summer bridge program], I knew about thirty people [MSP peers], so it was easy. I had friends. I didn’t feel like an outcast.”

(MSP student; Maton & Hrabowski, 2000, p. 644)

“Peers played a big role in my academic success … I’m always studying with them. So (for) anything I don’t understand, they’re the ones who help me understand the concept.”

(MSP student, unpublished data)

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. The emancipation-focused caring, mutual support, and belonging that RAWA provides for members represent a key component of its ability to empower Afghan women. Support includes material support (e.g., free communal housing in exchange for work, aid distributions for destitute refugees, income-generating projects) as well as emotional support. Caring and belonging are an integral part of membership given the repressive society in which RAWA operates.

“I’ve always been impressed with the behavior and kindness of other members toward me—they’ve constantly asked about me and helped me with my sickness as well as taking care of my children.”

(RAWA member; Brodsky, 2003, p. 247)


“First of all women generally in Afghanistan have very close relationships with each other, mainly probably related to the kind of pain we are all suffering…. But at RAWA, from the very first days, we made creating this feeling of community very much conscious.”

(RAWA member; Brodsky, 2003, p. 257)

“Mainly it is our political standpoints and goals that keep members together. We all struggle for the same cause. Unity, friendship, sisterhood, love, and camaraderie occur on top of political unity.”

(RAWA member; Brodsky, 2003, p. 256)

Nature and Levels of External Impact

There is little extant research in community psychology on the impact of empowering community settings on the surrounding community and society. In theory, empowering community settings have the potential for influencing beliefs, norms, practices, and policies at multiple levels of analysis ranging from the family, workplace, and neighborhood to the larger community and society, including population-level indicators related to the marginalized or oppressed population. The specific nature of the external impact varies tremendously across the three settings studied, consistent with their focus and context. Table 3–2 depicts possible external impacts at various levels of analysis for AA, MSP, and RAWA.

In the case of AA, one indicator of external impact is its ongoing growth, along with diffusion of the 12-step model over the years to other self-help organizations and professional treatment agencies (Kurtz, 1997a). Most notable among the latter are the “Minnesota Model” treatment programs, which, although distinct from AA, have facilitated its growth in societies such as Denmark, Iceland, Israel, and Sweden. AA has now spread from the United States to more than 50 other societies (Humphreys, 2004). In terms of population impact, evidence suggests that a reduction in liver cirrhosis has been associated with the continuing rise in AA membership (and alcoholism treatment programs) (Smart & Mann, 1993).

One important area of impact for MSP is the institutional culture and reputation of the university in which it is embedded. The culture has become much more accepting of the potential of minority students to succeed in science (and indeed in all fields). The university’s reputation has increased nationwide, in part because of the fact that MSP has attracted attention as a national model for enhancing the success of underrepresented (p.52)

Table 3.2 Empowering Community Settings: External Impact

Alcoholics Anonymous

Meyerhoff Scholars Program

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan


Spouse, children

Younger siblings

Nuclear & extended family



Supporters & aid recipients


Human services


Local community services

Alternate settings

Black parents

Local community norms


Diffusion of model

Social policy

Persian intellectual community

Social Norms


International community



(alcoholism; liver cirrhosis; health care costs)



(% black scientists)


(% empowered women)

minority students in the sciences (e.g., Building Engineering and Science Talent, 2004). In terms of population influence, the increasing numbers of MSP graduates receiving their doctorates and entering the workforce conceivably, over time, will result in a substantive increase in the (now extremely small) number of African-American scientists, with potentially important implications for the settings in which they work.

In the case of RAWA, their name recognition and prestige in the international community, ability to meet in international contexts with high-ranking government officials, and attendance—both overtly and covertly at many of the meetings and conferences related to the formation of the new Afghan state—all point to their external impact. Less easily documented, but hypothesized by Brodsky, is that through taking relatively extreme standpoints on Afghan secular democracy, against warlords and fundamentalist jehadis, and for women’s rights and role in society, RAWA has made room for more moderate political women’s voices, which, by comparison, come to appear more acceptable in this traditional society. Thus the existence of (p.53) radical agitation with international support makes space for other women who consciously set themselves apart from RAWA while advocating for similarly directed progress for women and the country.

Pathways of Influence Leading to External Impact

Two pathways of external influence appear important in the case of empowering community settings, leading to the specific impacts noted above. These are empowered member-radiating impact and external organizational activities. Each pathway is described below, with differences across settings manifest in both content and level of analysis. We also consider, at the end of this section, the important role social science can play in contributing to the external impact of empowering community settings.

Empowered-Member Radiating Influence

One pathway of external influence is empowered-member radiating impact. This refers to the extent to which empowered members, as individuals and citizens, influence the settings, communities, and larger society in which they reside. Modeling, interpersonal influence, and policy advocacy are three means through which radiating external impact can be achieved. The nature and level of such influence is directly related to the content focus of the empowering community setting, as illustrated below.

Alcoholics Anonymous. AA members have the potential to influence their families, coworkers, fellow alcoholics, and, through obtaining positions of policy relevance, human services policies related to alcoholism. The two quotes below illustrate the potential for influence on family and on other alcoholics.

“Growing up in AA, I have been blessed with children who have never seen their mother drunk. I have a husband who loves me simply because I am, and I have gained the respect of my family.

(AA member; Alcoholics Anonymous 2007c, p. 318)

“My favorite AA story is about this woman who went on a 12th-step call. She picks up this drunk, you know, and she gets a cab to take him to a treatment center. So she’s there in the back of the cab 12th-stepping this guy and telling him about AA. She drops him off at the detoxification center and then never sees him again. But about a week later she’s waiting for a meeting to start (p.54) and the cab driver walks in and says, ‘Lady, I heard every word you said.’”

(AA member; Humphreys, 2000, p. 503)

Two specific examples illustrate the radiating influence of certain AA members on national level policy. First, many members of the influential National Council on Alcoholism, including its founder Marty Mann, have been AA members (cf. Humphreys, 2004). Second, influential AA member Democratic Senator Harold Hughes was the force behind the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention Act of 1970 that established the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). In each case, mobilization of resources to treat and prevent alcoholism can be attributed, at least in some part, to the radiating influence of empowered AA members.

Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Two primary domains of influence of empowered MSP scholars are the university in which the program is embedded and potential policymakers and funders. The three quotes below reflect the influence on the university from the perspective of faculty members.

“In the past (prior to the Meyerhoff Program), a student in your class who was Black was likely not to do well. The Meyerhoff program changed that almost immediately. As soon as Meyerhoff students started earning As … becoming very insistent on going into research programs and being successful, all of a sudden you couldn’t make that assumption. Looking for success rather than failure [in your black students]. That’s a big change. That’s a big institutional change. That happened in my department and it happened throughout the institution.”

(Maton & Hrabowski, 2000, p. 647)

“In the research lab … they [Meyerhoffs] are role models for [other minority students.]”

(Maton & Hrabowski, 2000, p. 647)

“The minority students who don’t get into the program still want to come to our campus because they want to be around that type of person. They just want to be surrounded by minorities that care about education and are driven and trying to be the best people they can be.”

(Maton & Hrabowski, 2000, p. 647)

Evidence also exists for Meyerhoff student influence beyond the local setting, as influential role models for younger siblings, as ambassadors for the (p.55) program effectively influencing foundations and national policy group representatives, and on their graduate student peers and faculty. Time will tell if they exert a substantive influence, as they enter into roles in the workforce, including those in education and science policy.

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. RAWA influences the families of members, supporters, and aid recipients, local communities in which they operate, and the Persian intellectual and the wider international community who view their political writings and website and interact with their foreign affairs committee members. Nuclear and extended family members are the first to be affected by an individual’s association with RAWA:

“My affiliation with RAWA changed the mentality of my family. In the beginning my brother and sister wondered if I was mad to live in a refugee camp with an uncomfortable life. But they visited and saw the freedom, education, and what I had learned. They changed and now my brother distributes Payam-e Zan (RAWA’s political magazine) and is very supportive. My sister reads it even though her husband was initially very restrictive and critical …. But after several visits he … changed.”

(RAWA member; Brodsky, 2003, p. 146)

This advocacy can extend to neighbors:

“I always try to help others in our neighborhood. For example, the daughter of our neighbor was in the name of her cousins from childhood [i.e., their marriage was prearranged], but she wasn’t happy … she [came] close to having killed herself. After that we talked to her uncle and family members … And we talked and talked and talked and finally they were convinced and the girl became free of that pressure [to marry the boy].”

(RAWA member; Brodsky, 2003, p. 125)

Women and men who observe RAWA women leading activities that women are not thought generally capable of are also impacted by their contact with RAWA:

“I first learned about RAWA through friends. I told them that they were being deceived, and couldn’t trust it, women couldn’t possibly be doing the things they said. They invited me to attend a demonstration and there I saw other members. It was then that I thought that my place should be with RAWA.”

(RAWA member, Brodsky, 2003, p. 110)

(p.56) At the policy level, the potential for influence of empowered RAWA members exists through involvements in varied policy relevant groups, including government councils and agencies in Afghanistan. Policy influence also occurs through RAWA members’ open and direct advocacy with foreign governmental officials, including the United Nations, with direct impact on the post-Taliban government. Much of the work in Afghanistan, however, has necessarily been performed over the years in secretive ways because of the dangers perceived by RAWA members were their affiliations to become known.

External Organizational Activities

A second pathway is the influence of the external organizational activities that the empowering setting performs. Activities include recruitment, public education, dissemination/diffusion of information and programming, community actions (e.g., social action), community services, resource mobilization, and policy advocacy (Janzen, Nelson, Hausfather, & Ochocka, 2007; Maton, 2008; Peterson & Zimmerman, 2004). Some activities are focused at the microsystem and community levels and others at the societal level. The three settings studied varied in the content focus of their external activities and, as illustrated in Table 3–3, to some extent in the types of activities and the level of focus of external influence.

Alcoholics Anonymous. The primary external activities of AA are member recruitment/outreach, public and professional education, and dissemination. The 12th step of the AA program involves reaching out to other alcoholics. AA also has an active information dissemination program, including hard copies and online copies of the AA Blue Book and a speaker’s series. As an integral part of its program, AA reaches out to alcoholics through the participation of members in “12th-stepping.”

The long-term, sustained growth of AA in the United States and around the world likely results in part from its own information dissemination and outreach activities and in part from positive portrayals in the media. Evaluation research indicating positive outcomes may also contribute to its external influence, in part as it legitimizes AA as a viable resource in the face of ongoing professional discrediting of AA’s 12-step approach, including its lack of professional involvement (Humphreys, 2004). In terms of policy, as indicated in Table 3–3, AA does not participate as an organization in explicit national resource mobilization, political and policy advocacy, or challenge of cultural norms. Thus, in this domain, empowered AA members and available research serve as the “voice” of AA rather than the organization per se.

Table 3.3 External Organizational Activities and Levels of Influence

Alcoholics Anonymous

Meyerhoff Scholars Program

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan


Member recruitment




Public education








Seeking external funding



Community services


Community actions



National Resource Mobilization


Political and policy advocacy


Challenge cultural norms


(p.57) Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Major external organizational activities include student recruitment, public education, dissemination of information about the program, and seeking of external funding (for student scholarships, staff support, and support for long-term evaluation). Each of the above activities is uniquely facilitated by the fact that the African-American program founder is also president of the predominantly European-American university in which MSP is situated.

Student recruitment is facilitated by dissemination of information to leading high schools in Maryland, as well by its increasing state and national reputation. Procurement of funding from foundations and the federal government has been aided by the positive results from the ongoing program evaluation, started in 1990 as a result of the initiative of the program founder. Public and professional education is greatly facilitated by two published (p.58) books describing the strengths-based parenting practices that led to the MSP student’s pre-college success, along with the outcome and process outcomes resulting from the program’s evaluation (Hrabowski, Maton, & Greif, 1998; Hrabowski, Maton, Greene, & Greif, 2002). More than 32,000 copies have been sold, and first-author Dr. Hrabowski, MSP program creator and university president, has had the opportunity to discuss and sell (signed copies of) the book to large audiences of educators (national and statewide meetings of superintendents and teachers) and African-American parents (PTA; concerned parent groups).

The program itself does not take part in national resource mobilization, political and policy advocacy, or challenge of cultural norms. It does have an indirect influence in some of these areas, however, as Dr. Hrabowski serves, or has served, on many influential national committees and boards that mobilize and earmark funding and develop policy related to the success of minorities in the sciences. In these roles, he acts as an advocate for his program, as well as the larger social problem on which the program focuses. These include influential committees and boards within the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), National Academy of Sciences (NAS), National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. RAWA’s external organizational activities, as a social change-focused setting, explicitly includes a focus on both the community and societal levels. Specific activities include educational and humanitarian service provision, advocacy in the local community, member recruitment, dissemination of information, national resource mobilization, political and policy advocacy, and challenging cultural norms. Educational and humanitarian services are provided by RAWA members; thus, empowered RAWA members are important for effective external activities. Local advocacy is done by addressing problems in people’s lives in the local community, as illustrated in the following example:

A man was beating up his wife and his mother-in-law … RAWA members went to talk to him several times as did the camp council (of men)…. Other men who were beating their wives heard that RAWA goes to other houses and about the council warning … it changes their behavior directly. Men also see how much changing their behavior helps relationships in the family and affects the kids, and this convinces them to change their mentality.

(RAWA member; Brodsky, 2003, p. 130)

RAWA has sought to impact public policy at the local, national, and international levels. Under Jehadi and Taliban, their public policy work took the form of impacting the running of local refugee camps headed by (p.59) sympathetic resistance leaders, or through attempting to convince local religious councils that girls should be allowed and encouraged to attend their school. At the international level, RAWA works with contacts in the European Union Parliament, certain sympathetic local towns and villages in Europe who made it policy to support RAWA programs monetarily and through advocacy, through war crime tribunal judges in Europe, and through lobbying the United States and the United Nations. Currently, at the national level, RAWA has been successful in seeing several former and current members of the organization as well as various supporters take an active part in advocating policy for the new Afghanistan. This comes through RAWA’s connections to international policy shapers, as well as their placement as trusted, giving members of their local communities who have been thus recommended or voted onto national level groups, even if not under the name of RAWA per se.

Social Science Influence

Social science has a potentially important role to play contributing to the external influence of empowering community settings through enhancing legitimacy and helping to mobilize resources. As noted above, in the case of AA and MSP, evaluation research by social scientists has helped to establish the viability and legitimacy of each of the programs. In the case of AA, as noted earlier, this is important given the tendency of professional guilds to discredit the 12-step approach, in part because of the lack of professional involvement. In the case of the MSP, social science evaluation evidence indicating positive results has directly contributed to the program being proclaimed a national model; few other programs that have focused on the advancement of minorities in the sciences have any systematic evidential support.

Social science research also contributes to changing public and professional attitudes and stereotypes concerning empowering settings and their members. In the case of the two books about the MSP students and their families, the publications help alter perceptions so that the public and educators view minority students as academic stars, raise expectations of the students’ potential, and recast African-American families as similar to European-American families in their hopes, dreams, and practices related to educating their children. In the case of RAWA, research documents organizational activities and processes, allows the public to gain a more realistic appraisal of the daily life experienced by Afghan women and their resistance in the face of long-standing repression, and more generally provides an analysis of RAWA as a model of resilience of possible utility to other movements and organizations.

(p.60) Finally, social scientists can also more directly support the external activities of empowering community settings. In the case of RAWA, the second author played an active role, along with other U.S. supporters, in facilitating media-based, public educational and resource mobilization activities of RAWA representatives in the United States. Specifically, from 2000 through 2003, Brodsky worked with other supporters to facilitate meetings between RAWA representatives and U.S. governmental officials and private agencies with an interest in the issues facing Afghan women, arrange press interviews and coverage of events, plan and organize fundraisers, and further educate and interest U.S. audiences through public speaking to raise awareness of issues for Afghan women and organizations that could be supported on their behalf, such as RAWA. The writing of a book, With All Our Strength, which documents the organization and the history of Afghan women’s community resilience, also serves to benefit Afghan women by reaching a wider audience and providing money-generating possibilities through book sales.

Implications and Future Directions

This chapter is a modest attempt to build on Rappaport’s (1977, 1981, 1987) vision of a community psychology in which empowerment is the guiding motif to life. Clearly, much work remains to be done in conceptualizing and defining the construct of empowering community settings and identifying the key organizational characteristics, mediating processes, and pathways of external influence on the community and larger society.

The strength of the current research—its inductive, multiple-case study methodology—also represents the source of its weaknesses. First, only three settings were included, selected in part based on available research. The generalizability of findings to other settings is not known. Second, the absence of comparison, nonempowering settings precludes any definitive demonstration that the processes and pathways delineated are unique to empowering settings.

One important line of future scholarship is determining the extent to which the proposed mediating processes and pathways of external influence are present in other types of empowering settings. A review of extant research in settings such as youth development programs, religious settings, and social action programs has helped to delineate some commonalities in mediating factors and activities related to external influence (Maton, 2008). Future empirical research that directly examines mediating processes and external pathways of influence will be critical in answering questions of commonality versus specificity across types of settings.

(p.61) Another important area of research is to examine the arrows in Figure 3–1 that were not focused on in the current research. One important focus is the linkage between empowering organizational characteristics and effective organizational activities (arrow in top-right hand portion of the figure). For example, to what extent do the organizational characteristics that lead to member empowerment also lead to effective organizational activities, and to what extent are other factors involved? A second important focus is the reciprocal linkage between member empowerment and effective organizational activities (arrows in middle-left and middle-right portions of the figure). For example, does the extent to which empowered members are central to the conduct of effective organizational activities differ by type of setting? A third important question is whether there are other mechanisms through which organizational characteristics lead to external impact in addition to the empowerment of members and effective external organizational activities.

Relatedly, further research is needed to clarify and refine the key concepts examined. For example, the extent to which each of the proposed mediators is distinct and separate from each other is unclear (e.g., caring relationships versus provision of support). Similarly, the two pathways of external influence—empowered member-radiating influence and external organizational activities—will not always be distinct. For example, it may not always be clear when members (or leaders) of empowering settings are acting as individuals on their own (empowered member-radiating influence) and when they are acting on behalf of their setting (external organizational activities). Research is needed to examine the nature and import of these, and related, pathways of influence.

Advances in understanding empowering community settings will depend in part on advances in our definition and conceptualization of empowerment more generally. For example, it may reasonably be argued that the too-common practice in our field of defining and examining empowerment solely as an individual level process or outcome diverts attention from social group-level, setting-level, and community-level empowerment. Although each has a role to play in social change, the latter likely holds maximal potential to truly make a difference in the lives of disempowered lower income populations, for whom transformative social change—not individual change—appears most critical in contemporary society (Maton, 2000). Thus, future work in this area will especially benefit from a focus on empowerment that involves changing social norms, practices, and policies affecting the lives of our most oppressed citizens.

Varied types of research methods will be called for in future work. Of special importance is the use of narrative methods to give voice to those silenced by society and to understand the setting and dominant cultural narratives necessary to bring about change and transformation. To date, (p.62) narrative methods research remains relatively scarce in social science research on community-based settings. In the current context, narrative methods have provided critical insights into both distinct and common pathways and processes of influence in each setting. Also important is mixed-method models and, in the case of external pathways of influence, historical and sociological methods that may very well require interdisciplinary collaborations across levels of analysis.

The current chapter has focused on the potential of social science to enhance the impact of extant empowering settings. Equally important is theory development, research, and action that help to transform currently unempowering or disempowering settings into empowering ones (Maton, 2008). Consistent with Julian Rappaport’s vision and contributions to the field, such work will require multilevel conceptualizations of empowerment, ecological theory development, narrative methods, interdisciplinary collaboration, and collaborative partnerships with citizens, community groups, and policymakers. Such work is most likely to bear fruit if it is grounded in the fundamental aspects of Julian’s contributions to our field: taking the empowerment ideal seriously, amplifying the voices of those who are oppressed and silenced, taking context seriously, and raising important questions about individual and social change. Indeed, being true to oneself and to the larger questions that one is passionate about—these are some of the most enduring, and important, aspects of Julian’s gifts to our field.

Author’s Note

Special thanks to Keith Humphreys for his contributions to the overall manuscript, and his expertise concerning Alcoholics Anonymous in particular. Revised version of paper presented at Festschrift for Julian Rappaport, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, June 9, 2005.


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(1) As is common among many Afghans, Meena used only one name.