Human Services: Contemporary Issues and Trends 
Howard S. Harris and David C. Maloney, eds.
Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996, pp. 319-326

Part 6: SPECIAL FOCUS FEATURE: Empowerment: Toward a New Definition of Self-Help, by Audrey Cohen

"The purpose of human service is to empower people."

What are human services®?1 Stated most simply, they are the complex interactions that address and respond to human concerns. When successful, they make positive and lasting differences in peoples' lives, and they help improve the world. Now, in the final years of the twentieth century, a major portion of our work force is engaged in these very activities, and the phenomenon extends even to those areas not normally considered as human services. In manufacturing companies, for example, there are key human service components--i.e., customer service and human resource management--which may spell the difference between these companies' success and their failure.

The importance of human service cannot be overstated. While we can agree on the overall nature of human services, the question is whether there is an overarching purpose which gives continuity to this broad and varied field? I believe there is. Empowerment is the purpose of human service. Not only must human service professionals themselves be empowered, but in addition, their goal is to help others to become empowered; to increase their ability to manage their lives more effectively and realize their potential as creative, responsible, and productive members of society.

This is not a small charge, but it is essential and is achievable. Empowerment is both the result of effective human service and the force that makes such results possible. It should be an integral part of human development and education, and the basis upon which professional effectiveness is assessed.

Unfortunately, educational institutions rarely address empowerment as their central concern. In addition, the rapidly changing nature of our economy transformed the types of knowledge and skills that people require in order to be empowered and to empower others. Most educational institutions are still based on a paradigm of learning developed for industrial societies, whereas today we live in a technologically sophisticated and service-centered post-industrial age.

In 1964, I founded an educational institution whose specific purpose was to develop a method of teaching and learning that was based on principles of empowerment and that prepared people for professional work in the new economy. During the more than thirty years of the institution's existence, it has expanded into both graduate and undergraduate education. Metropolitan College of New York's unique educational approach its Purpose-Centered System of Education®2--also is being applied in public elementary and secondary schools throughout the country, and has become a model for educational approaches for the twenty-first century. For three decades, the College has tested its ability to promote and achieve empowerment in the world outside the classroom. My hope is that in reaching out to you, the future generation of professionals preparing for careers in human service, I will help you achieve your own empowerment and that of the citizens you serve.3

Empowerment is reciprocal. You become empowered as you assist in the empowerment of others. To achieve this reciprocity, education and implementation must occur simultaneously. Theory and practice must prevail throughout the preparation for professional practice.


How does one achieve this necessary synthesis of theory and practice? At our institution, we addressed this question by first defining what constituted an effective human service professional. Our goal was to use this definition to determine the outcomes on which to base professional education. It took four years of extensive research to identify the principal characteristics of effective service. That research focused on exemplary professionals throughout the country and determined, through the use of the "critical incident" and other social science methodology, the tasks and results, the knowledge and actions, which made them outstanding. We discovered that there were eight critical, complex areas of effective performance that creative professionals mastered. These professionals, whether they were corporation presidents, managers, social workers, educators, lawyers, physicians, etc., continually and effectively addressed the identified areas of performance. These were also the key areas of empowering human service work that, qualitatively and quantitatively made a positive difference in people's lives.4

At the College, we called these areas of performance Purposes®. Our first major educational breakthrough came when I decided to develop a curriculum focused around the Purposes, so that each semester students training to become human service professionals develop competency in one of the eight generic areas of performance. The eight Purposes which empowering and creative service professionals master are: self-assessment and preparation for practice; developing professional relationships; working in groups; teaching and communication; counseling; working as a community liaison; supervising; and managing change. Figure 21.1 illustrates these Purposes.

The College's curriculum moves human service professionals toward full self-empowerment by training them to address each of the eight Purposes we have identified. Equally important, students learn that their goal as human service professionals' includes consciously working to teach citizens to deal effectively with these Purposes themselves--to become less and less dependent. In other words, citizens would become empowered. As part of the human service process, our professional helps empower others. Our professional helps them recognize obstacles and call on resources, both internal and external, to overcome these barriers. Human service performance, under the College's paradigm, is successful on both societal and personal levels.

FIGURE 21.1 The Eight Performance Areas

Dimensions of Knowledge and Action

While defining the Purposes of human service education was the first step in implementing the concept of empowerment in the new curriculum, we also learned that our exemplary professionals worked holistically. This "holism" was clearly another critical factor in their success. Each time they addressed one of the Purposes in question, they considered a number of parameters, or Dimensions, of their performance which they knew contributed to their success. Five essential Dimensions, key aspects of effective performance, were embedded in their empowering human service work. These Dimensions were concerned with selecting and achieving appropriate goals, acting ethically and resolving value conflicts, understanding oneself and others, understanding the systems within which people function, and developing the specific skills needed to achieve goals. These Dimensions, which remain constant whatever the situation, are shown in Figure 21.2.

FIGURE 21.2 The Essential Dimensions® of Empowering Human Service

This led to the second breakthrough in our human service paradigm: the decision to use these Dimensions as the organizers of the knowledge for each of the Purposes. They became the names of the classes students attended throughout their eight undergraduate semesters of study.

The first Dimension pertains to establishing appropriate goals and developing strategies for achieving them. Each term students are required to set a service goal in relation to the semester's Purpose, work to achieve it, and apply both learning and practice in the context of this planned effort. They also are expected to teach those with whom they work the same purposive and self-directing skills. The second Dimension calls on the student to demonstrate a clear and consistent understanding of his/her values and those of others. It presupposes a belief in the unique value of each person and the capacity of each person for growth, increasing self-direction and creative and responsible participation in the world around them. The third Dimension involves a commitment to understanding oneself and others through both study and experience, and is based on the understanding that everything we do is affected by our perception of ourselves and others. The fourth Dimension relates to understanding the role of systems in our daily life. As human service professionals, we are often incapacitated by lack of knowledge not only of the organizational systems that are closest to us--the particular office for which we work, for example. We also are often incapacitated by our lack of knowledge about how this system relates to other offices, the total organization, and outside systems. A vital ingredient in becoming an effective human service professional is the acquisition of a thorough understanding of relevant systems, and the ability to use them as resources. The final Dimension of performance relates to the acquisition of the written technical and interpersonal skills that are an essential part of professional behavior.

These Dimensions of effective performance become the lenses through which our students see the world of learning. They provide the framework by which we can teach and assess empowering practice.

At Metropolitan College of New York, our students extrapolate from the theory drawn from the humanities, the social sciences, the sciences, and professional studies, and this theory is covered in the Dimension classes. Students learn how to work with people and organizations directly in order to identify their special needs. They master skills which include not only those involved in analysis and communications, but also less tangible ones such as effective interviewing and effective listening. They learn how to help others articulate their feelings, their strengths, their needs, and their goals. They learn how to encourage them to make realistic plans. Our students evaluate citizens' needs in relation to the resources that are available and the help the service provider can properly give in the situation. They learn that citizens are likely to have multiple needs which must be balanced and which may require quite different kinds of special help. Our professionals in training learn to look for other sources to provide the help that they cannot provide themselves. They learn to do all this with the goal of empowering those they are helping, empowering these citizens to meet the needs they themselves have defined and make their own choices as to the best methods of achieving their goals.

FIGURE 21.3 Intersection of Dimensions® and Purposes

A Purpose-Centered System of Education®

The intersection of the eight performance areas and the Dimensions in Figure 21.3 illustrate the general framework for human service practice. Wherever you are working, i.e., in a hospital, day care center, a school, mental retardation facility, etc., this framework facilitates integrated, rather than fragmented, service. It underscores, once again, a basic tenet of empowering human service practice: human service professionals must perceive their work as a totality, not only meeting the needs of the citizen, but also fostering a learning process which helps the same citizen to become empowered.

Constructive Action®

Assessment at Metropolitan College of New York concentrates on students' abilities to effectively empower others. It cannot be concerned with minutiae. Our methodology for assessing the achievement of each semester's Purpose, and ultimately assessing empowerment, requires that a student take Constructive Action®. A Constructive Action is a major service, designed and carried out in an organization during the semester, and related to that semester's Purpose. The Constructive Action demonstrates how a student uses knowledge (what he/she is learning inside the classroom) as a basis for effective human services outside the classroom. It documents the knowledge used and the process followed during the period of the Constructive Action. A successful Constructive Action improves the lives of citizens. It is conceived with the help of the citizens it serves. It can be carried out almost anywhere--in nursing homes, hospitals, schools, halfway houses, public and private agencies, and in the organizations that define the for-profit sector as well. Above all, it is a complex process of empowerment. It is a living case study.

Over the years, thousands of Constructive Actions have been carried out by students at our institution. They have ranged from reclaiming abandoned land and transforming it into a small neighborhood park in an area where no such resource had been available, to subtly incorporating necessary literacy training into parent education components in a Head Start program (many of those parents have earned general equivalency diplomas and are now pursuing higher education), to designing a training program for sub stance abuse counselors which was subsequently mandated for state-wide use, to building bridges for young people at risk as they move from elementary to junior high school. In the latter instance, this meant that the human service practitioner in training, our student (who worked with these youngsters in elementary school), reached out to design support services with the prospective junior high school. Thus, the necessary special support and counseling was continued as the youngsters moved to the larger, far more impersonal arena of junior high school. In carrying out these and thousands of other Constructive Actions, students must address issues of values and ethics, relationships, skills and systems, and above all they must demonstrate they can integrate them from all of the Dimensions and use it to pursue their Purpose.

The Constructive Action begins with a proposal that addresses the goals and needs of a citizen or group of citizens. Upon approval, a plan of action is developed. This is done by our student (the human service professional in training), together with the citizen or citizens in question, a faculty member, and the student's supervisor in the organization in which the Constructive Action is to be performed.

The Constructive Action identifies academic success with professional accountability. This reflects the principle that classroom learning should be applicable to one's life, and it can only be considered successful if it helps both the student and the citizen to become empowered.

Empowerment from the Citizen's Viewpoint

In the process of carrying out the Constructive Action, both the human service professionals-in-training and the citizen whose needs are being addressed learn to ask the right questions. If the citizen is not directly involved in the Constructive Action process, then the Purpose of the human service activity is illusory at best. Its achievement is difficult to assess.

While a chapter does not present sufficient space to outline all the appropriate questions which a citizen should be able to answer, a sampling helps provide insight into their depth and appropriateness. Like learning and assessment under the empowerment model, questions are framed around the Dimensions of learning and action.

Purpose®. When addressing the Purpose and assessment of the empowering Constructive Action, a citizen might be asked: Were you clear about your reason for seeking service? Did the professional listen carefully and help you to have a clearer idea about your problems? Do you feel that the questions asked by the professional were helpful, and could you answer them? Did you take part in planning what you ought to do to help solve your problem? Did you feel that the plan which was developed included your ideas of what you hoped would happen to you? As a result of the professional's services, did the things that were supposed to happen to you in the plan actually happen? In answering these, and other questions, considerable detail is expected from the citizen.

Values and Ethics. In assessing whether the professional was effective in the area of Values, some questions include: Did the professional draw conclusions about you and your problems that you felt were not true? Did the professional respect your feelings and opinions? Did the professional see your problem in a different way than you see your problem? Did you question the professional's judgement of what is most important or did you just accept them? Here, as in all areas of questioning, yes or no answers are not acceptable. The citizen is expected to provide a rationale for his/her actions.

Self and Others. In determining whether the citizen has made progress in self-understanding as well as in understanding others, appropriate questions might include: Did the professional try to cooperate with you? Did you learn anything from the professional about yourself that would help you to solve your problems? Did the professional really help you to solve your problem?

System. In looking at whether the citizen has expanded his/her ability to identify and work the systems that provide service delivery, appropriate questions might include: Did the professional provide you with information about organizations that could help you? Were you able to meet your goals through accessing these organizations? Do you have a better understanding of the different organizations that can support you in your goals, and their relation to each other?

Skills. The citizen is expected to have learned additional skills from empowering human service practice. That citizen might well be asked: Can you now be specific about how you can handle your own problems better? Did you acquire any of the following skills: to investigate resources for yourself; to plan ways and carry them out for dealing with this and similar problems? Can you write a record of what is happening to you each day, and indicate how any of the events you describe might be part of your problem?

Assessment: The Empowerment Chart. In 1978, we developed the first Empowerment Chart, a further tool to guide the student practitioner and the Purpose instructor through both the empowerment process and its assessment.6 Two basic principles underlie the Chart's content: (1) providers of service can and should demonstrate the effectiveness of their services; and (2) recipients of services are empowered to the extent that they are involved in the planning and assessing of the services they receive.

The Empowerment Chart is designed for use by the citizen and practitioner as an integral part of the helping relationship. It is an instrument for planning and assessing service. Within the context of the citizen's needs, it helps the students see to what extent they receive. He/she is being effective in meeting three sets of goals simultaneously: the student's goals with regard to the citizen; the organizational/supervisor goals with regard to the same citizen; and, equally important, and too often overlooked, the citizen's goals with regard to the need he/she has defined.

Because these goals can be quite different, the Chart becomes a most effective educational tool. It will show the student to what extent he/she has been effective in meeting these three sets of goals. It will show whether the student has been able to bring the three points of view closer together. It will show whether there is true accomplishment.

It is not possible, within the confines of one chapter, to detail all the elements of the Empowerment Chart. However, let me begin the process with you by illustrating step one of the Empowerment Chart, setting the long term Purpose (Goal).

Our citizen is an abusing parent. Abusing parents represent a category of citizen far from empowerment. They are beset by such frustrations and difficulties that continued direct care and help are essential. Our citizen hurts his wife and his children. He hurts them physically and psychologically. He says he wants to change. If this is to occur, a broad range of services and skills are necessary. To actively involve this parent in the decision making processes, to encourage him to take responsibilities in trying to change his life, to teach him how to do this, while respecting him as an individual, are challenges enough. However, our student must also simultaneously deal with the professional at the organization providing service who may have a very specific service approach which is not necessarily harmonious with empowering human service practice. Finally, our student has to confront his/her own perceptions about the citizen. Because of this totality, the Empowerment Chart helps define on an individual by individual, step by step basis, a new way to deliver human services. Figure 21.4 illustrates the start of this process.

Our student is immediately aware of the three points of view he/she must strive to bring closer together. Other portions of the chart are derived from the long term Purpose or goal. Throughout the empowering service process, the primary issue is what is it that the citizen wants to accomplish. The citizen's goals may change during the service period, and such a change is often a positive one. At its best, it will indicate a growing capacity to deal with reality. Because the Citizen Empowerment Chart is intended to evaluate progress and service effectiveness over a period of time, it facilitates a concentration on outcomes rather than processes.7

Metropolitan College of New York has now spent over thirty years delineating empowerment and making it a reality for both citizens and human service professionals. In that period, so much has happened. It has been gratifying to see a change from the time we truly were small voices in a large wilderness, to the present, when the concepts of "empowerment" and "human services" are in common usage. What remains critical, however, is making these terms a reality. Here is where I believe the work of Metropolitan College of New York has not only made a critical contribution, but continues to represent the vanguard in designing a new paradigm for the preparation of effective professionals and assessing empowering human services.


as stated by:

CITIZEN(S): Stop hurting children and live better with others

AGENCY/SUPERVISOR: Develop self-esteem and improve relations with children

PRACTITIONER: Develop self-esteem and improve relations with children

After you have completed your needs analysis, write down the problem or issue you feel you should address in your Constructive Action. Then write down the problem or issue as your Purpose Instructor sees it. You may or may not agree.

FIGURE 21.4 The Empowerment Chart, Section 1


1Metropolitan College of New York holds a trademark (L967) on the word combination "human services:" That term was registered as part of its original name "The College for Human Services." However, the approved and official registration certificate from the U.S. Patent Office specifically exempts the words "The College" from trademark protection, leaving "human services" as the protected entity. This is an interesting note when one considers how generic the term "human services" has become.

2Metropolitan College of New York currently has a patent pending on its Purpose-Centered System of Education. In addition, the college has trademarks on a number of key concepts describing its system of education, including the following terms and descriptive phrases that appear in this text: Purpose-Centered System of Education, Constructive Action, Dimension, and Purpose.

3From 1964-1970, the College was the vanguard of what became the national paraprofessional movement. In our initial efforts to address what constituted effective human service, I worked with people throughout New York City to design new, above entry level positions that could meet the need for improved human services and also address the lack of job opportunities, particularly for the poor. Based on my research and our work with community organizations, we defined about a dozen new job categories including Educational Assistant, Legal Services Assistant, Case Manager, Social Work Assistant and Counseling Assistant. The College then designed the first rudimentary model of the empowering human service curriculum. It then educated and trained low income community members to fill these new positions, integrated the positions into the New York City and State personnel structure, and generated widespread support for the new roles. The need for these positions was demonstrated, and we helped disseminate them for hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country. In 1970, the College moved on to its total redesign of professional education.

4The plan for development of a professional education required the involvement of those who were identified as excellent examples of the kind of professional the program was intended to prepare. For the purpose of gathering and analyzing this material, the College hired a research firm to interview sixty outstanding professionals in the area of human service. When the data produced a number of areas of performance that seemed generic to the work of outstanding professionals, a team of planners from the College, working with a group of consultants which included researchers, content specialists, curriculum experts, faculty, and agency officials, began to take the elements that emerged from the research--the skills, knowledge and values of the outstanding professionals--and tried to separate and make sense of them. The new ideas which emerged could not provide us with a new paradigm for educating a new human service professional, if we used the traditional model of higher education.

5In June, 1974, the Conference to Found a New Profession, sponsored by Metropolitan College of New York (formerly The College for Human Services), New York City, marked the establishment of the Human Service Profession and the definition of a new professional role. A broad spectrum of national decision makers voiced their support for the profession and its practitioner: the human service professional.

6Productivity in the human services was described in detail in a monograph I wrote in 1978. The Citizen As The Integrating Agent' Productivity in the Human Services was published by Project Share, a national clearinghouse for improving the management of human services under the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and was distributed through the U.S. Government Printing Office. The Empowerment Chart was shown in that monograph, and a step by step description of the process was included.

7A full example illustrating the usefulness of the Empowerment Chart is found in the monograph previously referred to: The Citizen as the Integrating Agent: Productivity in the Human Services, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978.