This is Part I of a three-part series on community empowerment as a route to greater health equity. We argue that community ‘empowerment’ approaches in the health field are increasingly restricted to an inward gaze on community psycho-social capacities and proximal neighbourhood conditions, neglecting the outward gaze on political and social transformation for greater equity embedded in foundational statements on health promotion. We suggest there are three imperatives if these approaches are to contribute to increased equity. First, to understand pathways from empowerment to health equity and drivers of the depoliticisation of contemporary empowerment practices. Second, to return to the original concept of empowerment processes that support communities of place/interest to develop capabilities needed to exercise collective control over decisions and actions in the pursuit of social justice. Third, to understand, and engage with, power dynamics in community settings. Based on our longitudinal evaluation of a major English community empowerment initiative and research on neighbourhood resilience, we propose two complementary frameworks to support these shifts. The Emancipatory Power Framework presents collective control capabilities as forms of positive power. The Limiting Power Framework elaborates negative forms of power that restrict the development and exercise of a community’s capabilities for collective control. Parts II and III of this series present empirical findings on the operationalization of these frameworks. Part II focuses on qualitative markers of shifts in emancipatory power in BL communities and Part III explores how power dynamics unfolded in these neighbourhoods.

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