Agency and Positive Change

Over the last few weeks and months, the news has been filled with disturbing global conflicts. There have also been various human level conflicts - Eric Garner or Michael Brown versus the police or the various issues over diversity in technology and the treatment of women and minorities, both professionally and in society. No matter your personal politics, the human tragedy of these events touched a chord and sparked many conversations in the media, around dinner tables and among friends.  As I think about the conversations I’ve had or seen play out on social media there has been a consistent underlying thread throughout – the concept of agency.

Agency, in simple terms, deals with choices. Your capacity to make choices and decisions to determine your future and shape the world around you. People’s happiness, health and well being are closely tied to their agency whether they are in the “first world”; countries or developing nations. Of course, no choice occurs in a vacuum and there are complex cultural and global forces that shape everyone’s lives. People primarily view and interpret the world through their experiences and rarely think from the perspective of others unless they are forced to do so. When they do, it is often an uncomfortable experience. However, when engaging in complex issues, thinking about other’s perspectives through the lens of agency can be a useful exercise in developing a more nuanced and complete picture of the world around you.

As an activist or social entrepreneur, you are attempting to be an advocate for positive change. That may involve convincing people to think a certain way, make a specific choice or simply provide them with the tools to improve their personal agency. In order to be effective, you need to think about all the stakeholders, their actions and goals, their perspectives and be solution oriented. How can you use the concept of agency when examining a situation? <

Let’s look at two situations:

Ferguson, MO. A young African American kid gets shot and a town and nation is in turmoil. Outside of the specific events, it is a useful example of how agency plays a role.  A Pew research poll showed stark divides in how this event and the aftermath were viewed. Why such a large difference? Those who said race was getting too much attention, the police response was appropriate and that they have confidence in the investigation are primarily viewing race/police response as a non issue because it does not affect their agency. That is, they don’t see their choices as being constrained by race and see the police as beneficial to their agency; they allow them to live their lives unharassed by people/crime that would negatively affect their choices.  On the other hand, those that said race was the issue, police response went too far and they don’t have confidence in the investigation view the response to their race as limiting their agency. That is they see them as actively working to limit their choices.

No matter the facts, if both sides want to move forward and build a positive relations they must both work to understand why each group feels that way and work towards solutions that increase the agency of both parties. Police must feel secure that their lives won’t be threatened and community members must be secure that the police are not actively harassing them. This starts with communication and the seeking to understand how each party acts and thinks by examining their agency within the system.<

Diversity in Technology. There have recently been a number of articles and discussions around diversity in the technology field. This has a number of divisions, including, social-economic (San Francisco vs Google buses) and gender (allegations of women in tech being subjected to harassment). In the case of San Francisco, long time residents of rent controlled apartments are being displaced by high earning tech workers. The response of both sides is easier to see through agency, as both sides see their choices being unfairly constrained. Until both sides can agree on solutions that increase everyone’s agency (such as building more housing to relieve price pressures) there will be conflict.  Turning to gender in technology, many women are coming forward and bringing to light situations where they were uncomfortable or actively harassed. However, the response of the male dominated firm leadership has often been to dismiss or ignore the claims. These discrepancies will not get resolved until both sides recognize the differences in agency. Where the women see their agency limited, the men on the other side do not see anything limiting within the environment that they have built. If the goal is a positive working environment for everyone, both sides must work carefully to not minimize other’s views and work toward solutions that increase choices for everyone with infringing on others.<

As DSO engages clients, professionals and students in solving non profit problems, being more effective, and being agents for change we try to think about the choices of each stakeholder both before and after our solutions will be implemented. By limiting value judgements that distance you from those you are attempting to help and considering the agency of each party, you can better relate to those you are trying to help and work towards win/win solutions that improve everyone’s life.

Further Reading:


Agency (Overview) [Wikipedia]

Toward A Psychology of Human Agency [Albert Bandura via Stanford]


Black Middle Class Failed Michael Brown Long Before a White Policeman Shot Him [Reniqua Allen via Quartz]

Ferguson and Police Militarization: You’re Doing It Wrong [Johnathan Adler via Washington Post]

Diversity in Technology

This 100 Year Old Idea Could End San Francisco’s Class War [Noah Smith via Quartz]

Five Ways to Fight Sexism in Your Startup [Vivek Wadwha via Quartz]

Tech Companies Stop Hiring Women to be the Office Mom [Lauren Bacon via Quartz]

Non Profits

A Third Way to Think About Aid (Patient Capital) [Jacqueline Novogratz via TED]

Design Thinking for Social Innovation [IDEO via Stanford]

Contributed by Anthony Buchanan

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