Recognizing knowledge leads towards empowerment

This text shares experiences based on the peer group activities developed during the Catch Up with Work project. Which aspects of the peer group meetings could be empowering or have empowered the participants? What does empowerment mean and how has it been visible in our actions?

During the Catch Up with Work project, Silta-Valmennus Association developed and arranged five peer groups for migrants. Migrants participated in these small groups simultaneously while they were rehabilitating or studying at Silta's workshop environments. Workshops are small working communities where the participants get familiar with Finnish working life rules on a very practical level.

Katri Mäkinen presenting empowering methods to the EME project group

The participants had no knowledge of each other beforehand. That is why we focused on grouping and trust building in the beginning. Working in the groups was formulated to be very co-operative. Things were done and contemplated together and the participants had tutors who also participated in everything.

Each group meeting had a theme that was decided together at the first group meeting. This way we could enable the exact things that these participants wanted to learn and work on to develop their working life skills. There was enough time to handle themes without tight restrictions or schedule. Each participant was listened to and everyone's effort in the group actions was taken into account.

The groups discussed Finnish working life and cultural conventions. Working life was very remote to some participants but they could still take part in the conversations due to experiences they had received from the workshops.

If the participants did not have any education or working history from Finland they felt that their knowledge was very inadequate or even insignificant. Through different functional and activity-based practices the participants were guided to recognize and verbalize their own knowledge and skills.

A simple task to acknowledge skills is to draw your own hand on a piece of paper. On each finger you write something you are good at or know how to do. To verbalize the knowledge we used different kinds of picture cards. Some of the cards also had statements for example of Finnish working life. These were mirrored against the experiences received from the workshops by sharing examples of the day to day work. Especially the participants who were further in their career paths shared their thoughts with the less experienced participants.

Participants' own history was displayed by drawing up a tree. The roots represented where you came from and the apples in the branches displayed the qualities everyone saw in themselves. These same qualities were linked to the Finnish working life. If you take care of your home and six children do the organisation skills developed through these tasks bear fruit also in the working life? Later, this tree could be used as an aid when writing a CV or job application.

When there was a common trust within the group, even the exciting things could be worked on safely together. The participants for example practiced being a job applicant and were in a fictional job interview with the tutor playing the part of the employer.

In experiencing empowerment it's crucial how the participants see their own strengths increasing. For example, the practices dealing with the recognition of knowledge gave many participants reinforcing experiences:

“This information really took my matters further.”

“This discussion gave me strength.”

“Now I know what I will do next.”

This is when we are in the core of empowerment, I would say.

The role of the tutors was planned to support an open dialogue among the group. Traditional teaching from the podium was not favoured and the topics were discussed together as equals. For example, in one group meeting two participants had an entrepreneurial background. They gave an information-based presentation to the rest of the group and the tutors were listening in the audience. Raising up the participants own expertise helps to proceed in the process of empowerment.

Silta's peer groups had a total of 32 participants. When the groups moved forward it became clear that not everyone's goal was to get a job. For example, topics related to working life made the housewives group together in their own silent bubble. When the discussion came to the position of women and combining work and family in Finland, they bloomed – this topic was a part of their world. The tutors need to be very sensitive with different worlds colliding. If the group won't accept information about working life the participants need to be motivated to discuss the topic first.

The equality was a contributing force within the groups. Also, that had to be built, it did not happen just based on the migrant background. For example, a Finnish tutor felt strong equality with migrant women when considering how the children will manage in day-care. Varied backgrounds and different career plans were not a hindrance in the group activity - more like vice versa! Different experiences and supportive atmosphere walked hand in hand. Empowerment materialized as a group phenomenon through enriching interaction.

Katri Mäkinen, Head of Coaching
Silta-Valmennus Association