Saturday 26 March 2016

Agency and the power of co-creation

Last year, when Rita, one of the teens who takes part in our AoC project spoke to a news reporter on a riverside in Observatory, and explained that she'd learned that "Change starts with you." I was grateful that she got to share her views with a wider community.  It didn't matter what she had chosen to say, but that she got the chance to share what she believed.  And she was taken seriously when she made that choice.

From the perspective that social norms are created through conversations or constantly repeated rituals, every new voice or conversation holds the possibility of adding a clearer picture of what it means to be a human being in this world.  Speaking, sharing and feeling helps us get in touch with our own views or beliefs, and those of 'other' people,  so that we can get a more complete picture of what it means to be a person in the world.  And a greater range of values or beliefs help to give insight.  This perspective shares we are shaped by the social system around us, but every action we take will help to maintain (or add a new voice) into that system.  

This doesn't mean subscribing to the very individualist world view that each person is responsible for his or her circumstances, that poor people are lazy, or that people are to blame for social conditions.  Quite the opposite.  Recognising the social world around us, the conversations or beliefs which maintain it, and the limits or restrictions it may place upon people means acknowledging social injustice.  It also means recognising those actions or beliefs which maintain the system, and using our own internal sense of justice or morality in order to respond.  We may not be able to change those embodied characteristics which create social divides.  But we can change the way we perceive people (or ourselves), the limits we place upon them, and the language we use to explain the world.

This ability to respond, to work towards a more just system, is known as agency.
I have had my own experiences of viewing the incredible dignity and generosity people have brought to life after experiencing social difficulties.  As a person who worked in a police station and listened to survivors of (often violent) crime, I saw women express their desires to walk others home through dark pathways, so that other women would not experience assault.  Over and over again, people spoke about their own, and others, right to dignity and the need for a full and respected humanity, no matter how dignity was threatened or affronted from every side.  

This has been the reason that grassroots work has always moved me so deeply.  Working without hierarchy, where the voices of the people who share with you are considered equal, means that people get to explore their own beliefs and experience their own agency.  Before exploring diversity studies, I'd wanted to become a clinical psychologist.  But the questions belonging to critical theory, those questions which focused on identity and the struggles people are born into were the ones which interested me most.  Critical theory, and the views of liberation psychology helped me to recognise how important those questions were.  And they also helped me to explore the importance of ensuring that each person has a voice.

After I graduated, I wanted to carry on working in a way which would respect (and learn from) those voices.  A letter to a left leaning NGO titled "We are poor, but we are not stupid."  as discussed by Richard Ptihouse, explained the importance of talking to people, rather than at, about or for them.  Richard Pithouse, in his discussion on shack dwellers, spatial social injustices and effective liberation group Abahlali, explains that very often NGO's:

'when they do engage with some of the actual people organising the actual protests they usually do so, like the state, via workshops in which they presume to tell people what they should be struggling for and how they should be doing it.'
He shares that:
The assumption that the capacity for thought is a function of class is adhered to rigorously and so the elite discourse rolls on relentlessly and blindly as academic or NGO 'experts' are called upon to explain the 'mysterious' politics of the poor.

And that:

'It is clear that citizenship is widely understood to refer to the material benefits of full social inclusion in the material and spatial senses as well the right to be taken seriously when thinking and speaking through community organisations.'
(This work can be found here)

My own experiences with listening and exploring new voices has enabled me to use my own agency to explore, listen, write and contribute to a different society.  But I enjoy this most when I work in collaboration with others.  Henry Giroux (30 June 2015) explained that by forming groups who speak, share and explore together what it means to live in a world where environmental crisis exists, and linking this crisis to conditions such as racism or poverty, asking critical questions and searching for ways of making normality strange, we are able to create new pockets of democracy within an unequal world.

Giroux, H. (2015, June 30). Henry A. Giroux | Orwell, Huxley and the Scourge of the Surveillance State. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from http://www.truth- state
"we are poor, not stupid."  Learning from Autonomous Grassroots Social Movements in South Africa.  (

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