The Power of Recognition to Heal Oppression

Oppression is a massive and pressing issue and recognition is simply one effective tool that can be used to counteract it.

Themes: Cultivate Connection

By Local Economy Fellow Toby Barazzuol. Originally published on Toby’s company blog, Happiness Delivered.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to explore the evening streets of Denver with BALLE Fellows Malik Yakini and Andrea Dean, both respected champions of food justice and equality in their respective places of Detroit and the big island of Hawaii. As we wandered together and talked, we came upon some wayfinding signs that told us we were in a neighborhood that had at one time been a thriving black community. I was surprised to read however, that this community had been intentionally marginalized and dispersed by development and gentrification decades ago. Malik pointed out that this same scenario had played out in dozens of cities across the USA, and in many cases, the people in these communities are still being oppressed by outdated laws, racism, social pressures, lack of opportunities, and countless other challenges.


Naturally, this got me thinking about the power of recognition and how it might be applied to strengthen oppressed people. Could oppressed communities somehow harness the power of recognition and use it to empower themselves and fight oppression? I believe the answer is yes, recognition can indeed dilute oppression and minimize its effects for the following reasons:

Recognition Empowers: there’s no question that being recognized, appreciated and celebrated is empowering on an individual level. Recognition bestows confidence on people and gives them a boost of positive energy and reinforcement because it makes them feel appreciated. This confidence encourages people to aspire for greater things and also creates opportunities for them to do so because other people start to view them in a new light. Indeed, recognition is one of the most powerful tools available to any community to empower emerging leaders and cultivate champions.

Recognition is Transformational: recognition can be transformation because it not only changes how others perceive you, it changes how you perceive yourself.  People who have been recognized and celebrated are often inspired and motivated because their role in their community has been clarified, and they have been given a vote of confidence to step into that role. For example, if someone is recognized as an outstanding caregiver, they will likely aspire to become an even better caregiver, in part because they feel that is what is expected of them by their community, and in part because that is what they expect for themselves.

Recognition Inspires: recognition inspires people because it is intentional positive energy. Recognition, appreciation, encouragement, praise…these are all simply business words for love. Everyone wants to feel appreciated for their efforts, and when we feel well appreciated we feel a sense of reciprocity and want to give our best efforts in return.  Similarly, witnessing others being recognized can be a great source of inspiration: it motivates people to try to accomplish the same, or even more, because it’s clearly something that is valued and appreciated by that community.

Recognition Strengthens Communities: this happens in a number of ways. Most obviously, recognition strengthens relationships, which are the building blocks of any community. In fact, when an organization chooses to recognize something, it is in fact helping to create a community by identifying people that share similar values. For example, if organization A starts to recognize leaders in urban agriculture, it will essentially start to create a community out of all of those who share an interest in or value urban agriculture. People begin to realize that there are others that share their same values, creating this social fabric is ultimately the foundation of any community.

Recognition Attracts Resources: recognition and recognition awards can be a great way of attracting new and additional resources to a community. Stories of recognition are often good news stories, which means they can get picked up by the media and help raise the profile of an organization or cause. In some cases, people may be inspired by the awardees and may want to contribute time or money to support them. Similarly, some people that learn of the awards may be inspired to support the organization itself when they realise they share similar values and interests.

Recognition Communicates Values: people often underestimate the power of this. When a community or organization chooses to recognize and celebrate certain qualities, or people or achievements, it is also communicating its values. To get a glimpse into the values of an organization, look at the things they choose to recognize and celebrate. When organizations choose to recognize things that reinforce their values and beliefs, the results can be tremendously powerful.

Oppression is a massive and pressing issue and recognition is simply one effective tool that can be used to counteract it, unfortunately however, it is a tool that is often misunderstood and underused. Hopefully these points provide some insight into how recognition can be used by organizations and communities to fight oppression. From empowering individuals and emerging leaders, to communicating values, to attracting new energy and resources, recognition is a tool that any community can use to power itself up, become more resilient, and dilute the effects of oppression.

How does your community empower itself? If you’re looking for ways to cultivate leaders and accelerate social change in your community, we can help!