Date of Award

Fall 12-11-2023

Degree Type


Degree Name

PhD Counseling Psychology


Professional Psychology and Family Therapy


Minsun Lee, PhD

Committee Member

Margaret Brady-Amoon, PhD

Committee Member

Pamela Foley, PhD

Committee Member

Noelany Pelc, PhD


relational empowerment, psychological empowerment, community-led public safety, community organizing, community violence


The nation-wide uprisings for racial justice in the Summer of 2020 brought into mainstream awareness the calls to shift resources away from police departments and channel funds to mental health, education, and other social services. However, in the wake of recent post-pandemic surges in community violence, police budgets increased, while public opinion for grassroots, radical initiatives like “defund the police” that many activists, organizers, and abolitionists pushed into public consciousness has faltered. Studies have shown that the implementation of community-led public safety programs significantly reduce incidents of street violence in U.S. cities. Thus, research that informs community-driven violence intervention and prevention is vital to curbing this public health crisis. The current qualitative study builds on the existing literature on relational empowerment, community organizing, and community-led public safety to explore the following: (a) How do community-led public safety outreach workers, violence interventionists, and crisis responders experience relational empowerment in the context of community organizing? (b) How do they utilize relationships to enact community-level change? And (c) What are their perceptions of the barriers to relational empowerment and effective community-led violence prevention? Thematic analysis revealed unique pathways via all components of relational empowerment. Norms Built on Respect and Collective Over the Individual were identified as important themes within bridging social divides, as participants effectively utilized these principles when navigating internal disputes. The capacity to Navigate Power Structures and Channel Social Ties were themes within collaborative competence that were vital for strengthening community trust, building interorganizational partnerships, and adapting in interpersonal exchanges with those in positions of power to meet organizational goals. Facilitating others’ empowerment consisted of leadership Balancing Worker Autonomy & Guidance. Passing on legacy was identified as a relational skill consisting of Transmitting Self-Efficacy & Commitment in the form of leadership modeling, but also a competency among membership who carry legacy as they Learn, Internalize, & Apply cultural norms, values, principles, knowledge, and skills. This further demarcates earlier conceptual overlap between Passing on Legacy and Facilitating Others’ Empowerment (Christens, 2012). Participants described leadership modeling as important for increasing self-efficacy (i.e., emotional empowerment). Organization as Family, a theme within mobilizing networks was shown to increase worker motivation and engagement (i.e., behavioral empowerment). Furthermore, a reciprocal relationship was revealed between cognitive and emotional empowerment, and civic engagement. Important relational competencies not included within the construct of relational empowerment were also identified, which involved resident outreach and engagement. Lastly, relational processes tied to resident needs assessment and intervention, as well as violence intervention and mediation were also delineated. This study contributes to existing research on the practice of community-led public safety and the theoretical development of relational empowerment as a construct. A penal abolitionist framework is used to understand structural issues contributing to barriers to relational empowerment.