I’ve dubbed the months of February, March and April as the “empowerment quarter.” Each of these successive months come with a particular and heightened focus on certain people and issues: February (Black History); March (Women’s History); April (Financial Literacy).

As a Black woman who works in financial services as a financial behaviorist, these three months are challenging for me. Because of this word: empowerment.

I’ve shared this quote before, and now seems like a good time to do it again:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – R. Buckminster Fuller

What drives me crazy with a lot of the consumer-driven messaging during this time of year is how so much of it is couched as someone else empowering (and saving) you. This makes me go bonkers!

The February 23 episode on the podcast, Reveal, “The red line: Racial disparities in lending,” only served to amplify my sentiment around what I call the “empowerment quarter.” This episode focused on a Black woman, whom despite doing all the “right” things financially, was continuously denied a home mortgage. For me, this was, yet again, an example of how until certain policies are changed, empowerment efforts by some is simply a matter of “feel good” lip service.

And it speaks directly to issues I’ve raised before. Like…

First, what is implied by the definition of empower, which is “to give (someone) the authority or power to do something.” Here’s the problem: if what is given can also be taken away, how exactly are you empowering someone.

Second, Black people and women are not financially helpless*. According to Catalyst (and others), the buying power of Black people is currently about $1.2 trillion; for women in the U.S., it’s approximately $5 trillion.

Not by any stretch am I equating buying power with building and/or of having wealth. But clearly, with a combined $6.2 trillion passing through hands, handling money isn’t the issue.

Yet, most of the stories and news coverage during the “empowerment quarter” seem to be long on personal behavior and short of public policy.

So, the way I see it is this: Until the empowerment “talks” – and the supporting policies – are just as focused on the systemic blocks to wealth accumulation as they are on shaping personal buying power, then we, as a culture, aren’t really having the conversations we should be when it comes to the intersectionality of power, permission, creativity, trust and economic freedom .

Why the Intersectionality Matters

The 21st Century is increasingly being shaped by three growing economic segments:

The Sheconomy; what’s this? It refers to the growing global economic power of women based on their increasing spending capacity – estimated by some to be $20 trillion dollars by next year! For perspective, that’s twice the size of China’s and India’s GDP…combined. It’s why women are now viewed as an “emerging market.” It’s why marketers of all types are channeling significant marketing dollars and developing initiatives directed toward women.

The New Economy; what’s this? Others may define it differently. To me, this represents a rise in entrepreneurship that is amplified by technology – especially service-based businesses with a triple-bottom line. (You even see it with some large businesses that take on the nimbleness of a small, emerging company.)

Driving much of this growth is a shift in the employer/employee relationship, and the employee turnover that is a result thereof. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median employee tenure is currently 4.3 years for men and 4.0 years for women.

Whether by default or by choice, job changes are prompting many to start a full-time business or side-hustle.

Black (Women) Entrepreneurship. Bringing together the realities of the Sheconomy and New Economy is the 2018 State of Women-Owned Business Report, which was commissioned by American Express. According to the report, the number of women-owned businesses between 2007 and 2018 grew 58%; during this same time period, the number of firms owned by black women grew 164%!

The Sheconomy and New Economy separately, but definitely together, asks us individually and collectively to create a new model of being/doing/having. One that redefines and re-envisions what it means to “empower.” Including how to tackle this – on a policy level – on several fronts. And, with intention.

Beginning with this: the only person who can empower you is…YOU!

Yeah, I know…it sounds good and trite, right? But it isn’t really when you contemplate this notion through the Sheconomy/New Economy combo, and unpack how each influence the intersectionality points I mentioned previously:

Power – Fundamentally this boils down to the ability to do something; to make something happen; to choose. The more control you have over your financial condition and circumstances, the more power you have to say “yes” and “no” according to what you want and don’t want.

Permission – There is a strong correlation between power and permission. When you feel powerful, you tend to also feel free to dream big. You give yourself permission to want and expect what currently may feel impossible to experience and achieve.

Creativity – It’s hard to tap into your creativity – aka your ability to dream, to notice patterns and to contemplate what is possible – if you don’t feel powerful and if you don’t give yourself permission (or the space) for your creativity to reveal itself.

Trust – When you feel powerful; when you give yourself permission; when you know you’re fully engaged with your creativity, you have a tendency to trust yourself more.

You trust your decision-making process and skills. You trust your choices, even when the consequences aren’t what you wanted or expected. You trust that your dreams and goals won’t lead you astray. You trust that you will be discerning enough to trust the right people to help you along on your journey.

Notice how intertwined power, permission, creativity and trust are?! And guess what? They all represent the ingredients required to achieve and experience economic freedom.

Speaking of…

I may not love the phrase “to empower” because of the usual implications that assume a person or group of people need to be saved, and that the person giving the power has the only answer. I find this both offensive and far too simplistic.

But when I get off my high-horse, I do love that one of the intentions of “to empower” – whether at home or in the office – is to foster economic freedom.

Therefore, I’m getting out my horn again and making my annual clarion call to ask this:

How about we shift from thinking of empowerment as a one-time thing that happens. And instead recognize it as something that is practiced daily. In my opinion, this is both how and where you seed economic freedom

And in the process, how about we emphasize the importance and need to provide access to services, tools and new skills so that everyone can practice agency over every aspect of his/her life as often as he/she likes.

With so much gratitude, I (and many like me) welcome every door that is opened, every opportunity that is given, and every chance that is taken on our behalf. We welcome help because we know we can’t do it alone, or on our effort alone.

So here’s to helping each other tap into and expand our individual and collective economic freedom…all year! Not just during February, March and April -:)

p.s. *I am quite aware of and sensitive to the fact that some people live in oppressive situations and don’t have the ability to practice much, if any, agency over their lives. Yet, I still hold to the idea that self-determination is inherent — that that isn’t something someone else can give. What someone else can do, though, is provide access, resources and tools to help someone feel empowered. #myopinion

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