Empowerment & Individualism

Hold my Drink Podcast Blog, Episode 37

The intrapersonal. The interactional. The behavioral. These are the three components to the theory of empowerment. As we wrangle with how to incorporate diversity into our classrooms, workplaces and everyday lives, most anti-racism and DEI training skips a foundational step. The first step, the intrapersonal, of preparing our own hearts and minds to transcend our differences and work in community with each other. Somewhat ironically, this step to community starts with the individual. An intrapersonal deep dive that promotes self-awareness, mindfulness and understanding of how we interpret our world and the narratives we craft.

Only then can we really advance to the second stage – the interactional. Self-awareness allows us to develop social awareness and build relationships, which leads us to the third stage, the behavioral. The behavioral is the interactional applied to a goal.

When we start with the interactional, we’re there less to communicate and more to defend our egos. We missed the step that would bring us into conversation with an open-mind and a sense of self.

Until recently, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has been a paradigm that introduces us to these steps. Group identity and a focus on the interactional has hijacked the SEL framework, becoming a gateway for critical social justice objectives, especially in K-12 education.

In our goal to address historic wrongs, we have segregated ourselves into groups based namely on immutable characteristics. Empowerment doesn’t dismiss disparities or discrimination; it just centers human dignity and human agency as the cornerstone for moving us towards the principles of equality.

What has emerged is a blanket distrust of classical liberal values, including individuality, freedom of speech and equality. As Erec explains in this week’s podcast, these fundamental values have become synonymous with the status quo and institutional racism. If we are told that there is nothing to be done to change the status quo outside of complete systemic overhaul and destruction, and you’re convinced you can’t win, what do you care about reason and rationality?

And when we lose ourselves in group identities, we are prevented from seeing ourselves in each other, further buttressing a growing mistrust. As Jason tells us, under these new psychological paradigms we are being asked to think of ourselves and each other in the most unpleasant ways with the expectation that it will yield a better version of ourselves.

The theory of empowerment allows for explanations of systemic issues, while also acknowledging personal responsibility. Ah, a truth in between, non? The checks and balances between the intrapersonal, interactional, and behavioral engenders a collaborative individuality not a hyper individuality, for a more productive way to address complex issues with context, defying the false binaries of good and evil, oppressor and oppressed, and black and white.


In the Hold my Drink — navigating culture with a chaser of civility, and Counterweight podcast, Episode 37, we speak with Erec Smith and Jason Littlefield. Both Erec and Jason are working to introduce empowerment and compassionate humanism back into education. The theory of empowerment, which takes a tiered approach to social and emotional learning starting with the individual, has recently been subsumed in anti-racist pedagogy that focuses on group identity at its foundation. This focus on the group segregates us making it harder to see ourselves in each other. It has also led to a mistrust of liberal values such as individualism, freedom of speech and deliberative democracy, promoting the destruction of current systems to usher in a new framework for social interaction and governance. All discussed with a chaser of civility, of course, and a virgin vodka with lime (aka water), bourbon, Gatorade & coffee.

Join us as we explore the truths of a chaotic and beautiful world, together. All views, all drinks are welcome.

Find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or watch the conversation unfold on YouTube, and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.


What Erec and Jason are Reading

Afropessimism, Frank B. Wilderson III

Afro-pessimism and the (Un)Logic of Anti-Blackness, Historical Materialism, Annie Olaloku-Teriba

Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson

What Jen is Reading

Critical race theory opponents to be targeted, ‘researched’ by NEA teachers’ union, Yahoo!, Sam Dorman

Towards Practical Empowerment, Quillette, Erec Smith

We Disagree on a Lot of Things. Except the Danger of Anti-Critical Race Theory Laws, New York Times, Kmele Foster, David French, Jason Stanley, and Thomas Chatterton Williams


Erec Smith is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania. Although he has eclectic scholarly interests, Smith’s primary focuses on the rhetorics of anti-racist activism, theory, and pedagogy. He is a co-founder of “Free Black Thought,” a website dedicated to highlighting viewpoint diversity within the black intelligentsia. Smith is a member and moderator for Heterodox Academy and sits on the Board of Advisors for both the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism and Counterweight, an organization that advocates for liberal concepts of social justice. In his latest book, A Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, Smith addresses the detriments of anti-racist rhetoric and writing pedagogy based on identity and prefigurative politics and suggests that a more empowering form anti-racism be considered. You can find him on Twitter @Rhetors_of_York & @FreeBlckThought.

Jason Littlefield is an educator passionate about the health and well-being of individuals and the preservation/restoration of human liberalism. He is the executive director of EmpowerED Pathways (501c3) and designer of the Compassionate Humanism framework for life, leadership, and learning. He served as a public educator for twenty-one years in roles of teacher/coach, campus administrator, and district-wide as a Social and Emotional Learning Specialist. Jason has also served students, families, and other educators in Taiwan, China, and Benin, Africa. In 2017, he co-founded EmpowerED Pathways with the intention of starting a movement to leverage the K-12 experience and cultivate the emotional intelligence and well-being of educators, youth, and community members. He is currently focused on advancing the vision of, establishing an empowered society of individuals at peace within themselves and with others by providing a humanity-centered alternative to the destructive ideology permeating the zeitgeist. As Executive Director, he draws upon his StrengthsFinder strengths (relator, futuristic, strategic, and restorative, and self-assurance) to intentionally lead from the heart and build a hopeful tomorrow. You can find him on Twitter @JasonTheeHuman & @empowerED_TX