Agents of change
Wright, N. (2022), 'Agents of Change', Clore Social Leadership, 28 January.
‘The opportunity to make effective personal choices is highly unequal.’ (Robert A. Dahl - After the Revolution)
I worked with a woman from Myanmar and asked her what she dreamed of. She looked at me blankly, then responded that she was unable to conceive of a different reality to the one that she had lived until now. She felt crushed by the mental and practical constraints of living as an ethnic minority in a country dominated by a military dictatorship. The impact of unequal and unjust social-political power is not a fixed determinant of personal agency – but the stark psychological and tangible inequalities of choice and opportunity it engenders are significant.
You, like me, may have made new years’ resolutions at the start of this year. For many people, soon after having made a decision, the resolve will dissolve and be lost in the mists of time. Yet central to this idea of resolution is the notion of personal choice and, with it, the principle that, all things being equal, I can succeed in achieving what I choose. I create a list of aspirations at the start of each year then put actions in place to fulfil them. It focuses on people and things that are important to me and, therefore, taps into my values, motivation and determination.
In a nutshell, the notion of choice-action lays at the heart of the personal agency phenomenon. Shaun Gallagher describes it as, ‘the sense that I am the one who is causing or generating an action’. ‘I can choose’ is a profound existential, psychological and political statement and stance. It means I can break out beyond the apparent default of my circumstances. It implies that we hold the potential to be catalysts of real change in the world, within ourselves as well as in broader relationships and situations – and this brings opportunity and responsibility.
The Myanmar encounter related above illustrates, however, how sense and scope of agency can be affected by structural factors that transcend the individual, e.g. social status; wealth; education; gender; ethnicity; culture. Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische observed that a person’s lived experience limits what alternatives or future scenarios he or she is able to imagine. In a similar vein, Paulo Freire proposed that critical consciousness (‘conscientisation’) is a necessary condition for people-groups to exercise freer choices and agency for change.
Other factors can include personal confidence, competence and capacity. If a person operates psychologically and relationally from a secure base with trust and support, he or she is more likely to choose to take a positive risk. If, conversely, someone is and-or feels alone and has experienced or anticipates unfair discrimination, negative evaluation or other painful consequences, to choose-act can be and feel hazardous – especially if the stakes are high. The exercise of true agency can demand energy, courage and resilience. A person may not feel ready, willing or able to take that step.
So, some ways forward. If a client is unaware of or avoiding personal agency, William Glasser suggests stimulating his or her sense of reality, responsibility and relationship in order to enable more life-giving choices. If stuck in a pattern of apathy or passivity, John Blakey and Ian Day propose offering high challenge with high support. If we risk inadvertently colluding with or disempowering a client, Reg and Madge Batten advise focusing attention on what the person can do for him- or herself and, only after that, what we could do by agreement with them, or on their behalf.
Viktor Frankl, victim of Nazi persecution concluded that, fundamentally: ‘The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond.’ In our personal, social and political lives, we can see how a person’s choices, actions and influence are affected by a diverse range of factors. These include the privileges a person may hold (or not) and the opportunities he or she has benefited from by birth, background or context. The choice is real. Jesus – help me choose this year to exercise agency for the life and liberation of others. We can be hope.