Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

To Empower or Enable

Written by: on September 9, 2021

I found Steele’s Shame to be a thoughtful critical analysis of America, our political systems, and the forces at play that are competing for power and control. His explanation of the new liberalisms ‘poetic truth’ and its impact on society and specifically minority populations describe the ongoing barriers that have allowed disenfranchised people groups to remain within that identity and in inferior positions. Steel talks of how the polarization of the political parties has led America to its current position of liberalism being equitable with a utopian version of freedom and unity while conservatism is advocating for the oppressive evils of the past. Published six years ago now, the application of his words has never been timelier as with the immediately preceding and current administrations. The continued polarity and negative characterizations on both sides of the aisle have only emphasized the truth that Steele speaks of when we can see how little of The Good is being realized throughout America today.

Specifically in relation to my previous and current vocational experience, I have witnessed how even with possibilities presented, “the deprivations of segregation [have left many] without the necessary social capital and knowhow to exploit those possibilities” (103). In my current work with undergraduate students, the curriculum my institution has set for their introductory welcome course is centered on the community cultural wealth model. Lessons and assignments are based on the various capitals and assist students in understanding which ones they already possess and how to grow the ones they may have little of. Their final assignment is then to identify which capitals and practical action steps can be taken in relation to a current societal issue. The patterns I have seen emerge from my time assessing this assignment for thousands of students has been reinforced by Steele’s articulation of how systemic and circular well-intended (or not) governmental programs to aid specific populations have created a long-term reliance on a government that will never be able to fulfill its promise.

My NPO is focusing on developing equitable education opportunities for students to ensure that regardless of the landscape of their childhood, culture, or economies, there is obtainable opportunity to engage in international and cross-cultural programming. I can clearly see Steele’s repetitive theme of liberalism contributing to an eternal victimization of blacks and minorities playing out in the lives of my students and those on other minority-serving institutions. Especially working for a Christian university, I am constantly wrestling with the ethical implications and consequences of encouraging massive debt as a means to secure a degree, knowing that for many, the debt will becoming more debilitating than the lack of degree. As I reflect on Steele’s work, I cannot help but question if Americans have become so persuaded by poetic truth or dissociated from politics altogether that we are even able to recognize truth, critically think and discuss hard topics, or move forward in a strategic manner that will alleviate the reliance of government intervention – a role it was not designed to hold. Has moral activism empowered or sidelined the church? Are the support systems and programs that have been put into place reinforcing or diminishing the dignity of the created being it is serving?

One of my staple books in training students for experiential academic experiences is Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity. He spends significant time on the ‘Oath of Compassionate Service’ that lists six practical applications, all focusing on equipping and empowering others to do what they are able to do for themselves. As the final statement reads, may I too recommit to agreeing that, “Above all, to the best of my ability, I will do no harm.”

About the Author

Kayli Hillebrand

Associate Dean of International and Experiential Education

4 responses to “To Empower or Enable”

  1. Kayli, Thank you for your thoughtful integration of Steele’s work with your context of higher education. I’m looking forward to conversations with you about higher education!

    I find myself zooming out further from Steele’s primary value of freedom above all else. The American mythology is so attached to the ideal of a hands-off approach that our systems are build to attempt only the bare minimum of empowerment. So, it’s easy to find examples of failed social systems because they mostly treat symptoms such as poverty without addressing the underlying economic structure of capitalism, which is the generator of vast inequity.

    I think we’re far from a way forward currently. We seem to be caught in an oscillating rhythm of performative politics, where the highest value is to look like a conservative or democrat rather than pursuing their highest ideals. As you say, there is a deep inability to recognize truth and think critically.

  2. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Kayli I appreciate your integration of Steele’s argument as you understand your NPO. Beautiful! To your question, I believe many people struggle with truth whether poetic or literal. Your question reminds us of our reading last year of Wrongology. Human beings deeply struggle with letting go of what they believe is right even when they are presented with information that says otherwise. Proverbs 18:1-2 The Voice (VOICE)
    18 Whoever pulls away from others to focus solely on his own desires disregards any sense of sound judgment. 2 A fool never delights in true knowledge
    but only wants to express what’s on his mind.
    God knew humans would dig heels in just to claim they are right…even when they are wrong.
    The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking illuminates how challenging it is for us to “do no harm”.

  3. mm Eric Basye says:


    I imagine this book was a great read in light of your NPO, which sounds fascinating. Undoubtedly we are in a time of polarity. I often wonder, is it more polarized than in the past or is it that we simply have more access to information? There was much I appreciated about Steele’s book, especially the part you commented on in failing to see the good in America. It is so easy to focus on the negative as opposed to the great things that have taken place.

    Perkins is a hero of mine. He has lived by that motto his entire life despite great challenges and circumstances, especially as an African American from the deep South. I pray that we (the Church) learn from this saint as we continue to step into the the messy dialogue of race to see all people as having intrinsic value and worth

  4. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Kayli, I appreciate that you have chosen to focus a large part of your post on ‘poetic truth’. I found Steele’s insight on this particularly enlightening, as well. Your questions bring to the forefront many of the struggles that the church, and Christian higher education need to look at more closely. I have found that often our “good nature” desire to be helpful ends up having the same result as assisting the caterpillar escape its cocoon. Only to cause the creature to be handicapped be our well meaning acts. May we learn to listen better, clarify, and empower more.

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