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The Politics of Respectability and Student Empowerment

March 27th, 2013 · No Comments

Question: What actually are “respectful” or “acceptable” ways that students can express their individuality as well their sense of group identification?

Such a question is grounded in the notion of “the politics of respectability” which has been often used by several highly respected scholars that I follow. I am interested in this phrase partially because of my doctoral research with critical theory and social power. However, my life’s work with student empowerment gives a more personal meaning to the phrase.

Question rephrased… who controls the right to determine what is respectable? And, what is the process (cultural or political) by which such determination is made?

My student empowerment framework requires power to be shared with learners which ultimately, by way of the 2nd principle (Dye, 2012), activates their “voice, choice, and dominion” (p. 57). While there is a growing appreciation for student power, such appreciation remains philosophical as the application of such power is stilted when adults come face to face with students’ “Innate Power” (the 2nd principle)… students engaging in their natural drive to use voice, choice, and dominion.

When the ideals of student empowerment come into conflict with adults who try to restrict this power to their level of personal comfort (especially when students sometimes act in a way that causes them discomfort), it often falls under the umbrella of politics… or, the politics of respectability. Adults then begin to use their authority to define what is respectable (or not) and restrict the humanity of the children in which they seek to empower.

Here is a thought… in a democratic (not autocratic) space, the power to define respectable behavior is shared with those who will be judged by such a standard. In the case of student empowerment, defining and applying a standard of respectability cannot be done in the absence of student power. Students must use their voice, choice and dominion to partake in the political process of defining what is acceptable behavior.

There are a total of 7 power sharing strategies within my empowerment framework. However, please know that to really engage in student empowerment, adults cannot take on this mission in an al a carte fashion. To do so frankly limits their humanity and is NOT empowering!

For more information about student empowerment, 7 principles of empowerment/innate power, and the politics of respectability, please click on the appropriate words as they have embedded links.

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Dye, A. (2012). Empowerment starts here: Seven Principles for Empowering Urban Youth. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group.

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