Reflections on power and change agentry

Writing as power (Anne Frank House, Amsterdam)

Writing as power and change agentry (Anne Frank House, Amsterdam)

This week I’m devoting a couple of posts to collecting reflections on power, change agentry, intellectual activism, and the like. Especially if you, too, are thinking “big picture” right now, I hope you will find these pieces interesting and insightful.

10 ways to make a difference (2015) — “Let’s say you’ve got a cause you care deeply about, and you want to move it forward. It may be an initiative at work, a political issue, a community concern, or something else that matters. You may be at the beginning, in the middle, or tantalizingly close to success. I deliberately gave this post a somewhat breezy title, but you’ll see my intent is to be more ‘big picture’ as opposed to ‘checklist’ or ‘plug-and-play.’ What follows are hardly the first or last words about making a difference, but perhaps you’ll find them useful. In no particular order . . . .”

“I am powerless” (Probably not, but let’s talk about it) (2014) — “Over the past couple of months, I’ve taken note of essays and blog posts where individuals have shared a sense of powerlessness to change things for the better. . . . They come from good people who care about making the world a better place, yet who have reached a place of deep exasperation, frustration, or hopelessness. . . . I want to think about this out loud for a few minutes.”

Dialogues about dignity, Part III: Claiming and using power to do good (2013) — “I submit that those of us who have witnessed excesses of power may be wary or downright fearful of it, and with good reason. All too often, power is exercised by those who use it to hurt others. Consequently, many of us have come to associate power with abuse. . . . (S)uch ambivalence can cause us to cede our own power to make positive change. . . . But I think we need to face down the beast. We need to build our individual and collective power, exercise it effectively and judiciously, and keep it in check when we are tempted to use it excessively.”

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013) — “I’m at the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where I’m presenting a couple of short papers and attending various panels and presentations. . . . On Monday, I presented on the topic of intellectual activism, the term I use to represent the ongoing process of using scholarship and research to inform law reform, social change, and public education efforts on compelling issues of the day. . . . Those who are privileged with the protections of tenure and academic freedom should embrace a social responsibility to be researching, understanding, and speaking out on matters of importance.”

Insiders, outsiders, and change agents (2013) — “It’s an ongoing, never settled debate: To create positive social change, is it better to work from within the established system, or to challenge the status quo from the outside? I think about this often, and here are a few quick thoughts, with a gentle warning that I will engage in some abstract, academic-type reflection . . . .”

“I am powerless….” (Probably not, but let’s talk about it)

Over the past couple of months, I’ve taken note of essays and blog posts where individuals have shared a sense of powerlessness to change things for the better. The saddest of these are proclamations: “I am powerless to (fill in the blank)….” They come from good people who care about making the world a better place, yet who have reached a place of deep exasperation, frustration, or hopelessness. Some are venting, others are mourning. Some, having gotten it off their chest, will jump back into the fray, while others seem poised to move on or withdraw.

I want to think about this out loud for a few minutes.

I haven’t gone back to find and link to those various writings, as it’s not about questioning or highlighting individuals or their causes. Rather, it’s about recognizing that trying to change things for the better — however one defines “better” — can be hard, challenging work, especially when forces against that change have a lot of power (economic, political, personal, what have you) and exercise it freely. And we happen to live in an age where extreme concentrations of power are ever more common.

In my work on workplace bullying, I see this all the time: Aggressors at work who treat others abusively, and often get away with it. Executives and senior administrators who stoke climates of hostility. HR officers who safeguard abusers and toss targets under the bus. Powerful business interests that want to keep workplace bullying legal.

Nevertheless, I also have been a witness to, and at times a participant in, positive change. A form of mistreatment that didn’t have a widely-recognized label a decade ago (at least in the U.S.) has entered the mainstream of discussions about employee relations. Articles and coverage about workplace bullying appear regularly in the print, electronic, and social media. Some organizations take bullying behaviors seriously and cover them in employee policies. Unions are negotiating about bullying and abusive supervision at the bargaining table. Legislatures are deliberating on and slowly starting to enact workplace bullying legislation.

My experiences are hardly unique. People are exercising their power all the time to change things for the better. Oftentimes they are cast in the role of underdog, yet they are moving the world forward within their spheres of influence regardless.

But what if you are feeling exhausted, hopeless, and maybe a little beaten up?

First, let’s acknowledge that steps to reconsider, regroup, recover, renegotiate, reassess, and reenergize are wholly permitted.

If the work you’re doing to make a difference is overtaxing your body and soul, then you need not be a martyr. Maybe you’re at the point where you’ve done what you can do, and it’s time to pull away.

Or maybe an angle you haven’t considered or fully explored can serve as a breakthrough — or at least as a more rewarding pathway. Perhaps you’re close to that breakthrough with the approach you’re using, but you don’t fully comprehend it.

If you want to cogitate on the stay vs. go question, check out Seth Godin’s short, thoughtful, quirky book, The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (2007). Here’s a snippet:

Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.

The decision may look simple, but we know it’s a lot more complex than that.

Finally, we must keep strive our egos and expectations in check, which is no small task when we’re emotionally invested in something. Especially when our popular culture demands immediate satisfaction and embraces short term “deliverables,” we are primed to expect and celebrate quick results. But deeper change can take time. Even dramatic tipping points are often preceded by a long run up.

The old social activist adage, be the change you want to see in the world, applies now more than ever. In addition, a vital lesson I’ve learned as an educator is that we must also be willing to work for change that we may never personally see. (My friends who are parents may understand this implicitly.)

When we put these two pieces together, we have a lot more power than if we did not.

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