Thinking out loud: the role of individual agency in system change

During an icebreaker last year, each of us was asked to bring in a photo or object that represented why we work in the social impact field. I brought in  a picture of water ripples because I believe in the ripple effect of empowering individuals. Another person talked about seeds, and I was reminded of that day recently when we were speaking with an NGO whose tagline is:

If you are given a fruit, you can enjoy it only once;
If you are given a seed, you can benefit from it your whole life.

This NGO’s staff are inspired by the women they work with when they see that their personal empowerment becomes seeds for change in their families and in their communities. I’ve always been drawn to strength-based work that focuses on capacity building and fueling change in individuals as the seeds for larger social impact. That’s why I believe in education as a way to tackle the root causes of many of our social issues. That’s why I quit design to pursue teaching in ’09. As a teacher, I wanted to spark the individual agency within our next generation of changemakers. Or rather, I don’t believe our world has any chance of solving some of our current problems if our next generation doesn’t have the critical thinking skills, passion, and agency to make great strides forward.

I’m lucky to be able to continue working on social impact projects across different sectors. Each project brings new perspectives and evolves my point of view on social change. Through recent introductions and rabbit-holing, I found this “Ideas Unbound” interview with Ruth Shapiro that has some great quotes. For instance, this is a good encapsulation of the difference between scale and systemic change:

“There is a difference between scale and systemic change. Scale, you’re delivering x number more of water tablets or mosquito nets, and you’re scaling your endeavor that way. Systemic change is going to the root of the problem. In most parts of the world, you can’t create systemic change without partnering with government, and that piece has [until recently] been left out of the conversation. But you have to really work with government. You have to work with school districts or you have to work with ministries of health. You have to get at systemic change, which is much more powerful than just scaling. Scaling is good; systemic change is better.

“The other point I wanted to make is I make a point at the end of the book that I think this field has significantly been influenced by Silicon Valley…a lot of the money for the field is coming from this area. And these are people who’ve made a lot of money because they’ve scaled something like Facebook or eBay or a computer like Hewlett & Packard. I quote a social entrepreneur in the book, Eric Weaver, who has the largest micro finance organizations in California for social change. He says, ‘One of the problems is people are looking for the killer app for social change, and it doesn’t work that way. Yes, you can have a killer app that’s a great game. but you can’t have a killer app around infant mortality. There’s no one right answer. It’s a complex issue with a complex set of solutions and numerous players and organizations and agencies involved. So to think you’re going to find this one panacea or killer app is I think naïve. There’s still this tendency to think what is it, what is it, this one idea is going to change everything.”

(There is no killer app; there’s only silver buckshot.)(And incidentally, system change is why I left traditional teaching to come back to the world of design in 2010.)

Even though Ruth Shapiro’s book, The Real Problem Solvers: Social Entrepreneurs in America, and this podcast are a few years old now, the changes she mentions around media and personal empowerment are still young and still need incubation in so many parts of the world.

“When I graduated college, I went into the Peace Corps and went to the Philippines, which is a predominantly Catholic country. Here was this New Yorker…all of 22 years old…I thought I knew all the answers. And I ran up into this attitude — they call it their bahala na — which means this is as God wills it, there’s really nothing I can do about these circumstances. And I found it so frustrating. I see an extraordinary sea change in that — that personal empowerment, that notion that in fact I have some control over my own destiny. I think it’s because…it’s phones, it’s internet. People are starting to say: I don’t have to live with this situation, this status quo any longer. I can make a change. To Bill [Drayton]’s point, to Ashoka’s point of ‘everyone’s a change maker.’ That’s happening. They may not all become social entrepreneurs, but this notion of personal empowerment is a huge sea change.”

 We were in the field doing some research interviews this past week, and one of the frustrating things was that a lot of the women we talked to have accepted their current circumstances as the way things are. That have no sense of agency right now.

And in some ways, I get it — the system is so big, and you are just one individual. It would be folly to try to fight the system right now. That would take a ton of courage, resources you don’t have, and an enthusiastic inexplicable compulsion to being a rebel and a troublemaker…because rebel is also often synonymous with outcast and loner.

There’s also an interesting cultural tension at play. I wonder about the role of individual agency in societies that value collective duty. In the podcast, they talk about how American it is to tackle social issues or our own personal problems vs. relying on government or someone else to take care of it.

“In the US, people are always creating organizations. Someone who suffers through a certain tragedy will create an organization so others don’t have to suffer the same kind of tragedy. It’s a very American thing…I think that technology is fundamentally changing the way people are feeling empowerment in society. And when you feel empowered, that’s how you create change. Americans, we’ve never relied on government…That sense of personal empowerment, that’s changing throughout the world and how people are thinking about their mobility and their personal circumstances.”

The question of collective collaboration in the social impact field is a question many are asking right now—to reduce redundancy, to amplify impact, to tackle system problems with system solutions. I wonder about the negative unintentional consequences of American culture’s hyper-focus on the individual, on “bettering one’s situation”, on elevating the individual entrepreneur over the bridgemakers trying to work within the system. (I’m not saying it’s wrong; I’m just asking if there might be more than one way.)*

The women we talked to this week have all been able to persevere with grace in the face of emotionally difficult situations. Part of their survival arsenal in doing this is to accept the facts of their life as they are and to deal with their current circumstances as best they can. They still dream, but they are also grounded in reality. Acceptance of what is, is also a key part in the practice of Buddhism and meditation.** Whining and resisting and fighting are not productive. Focusing on the negatives just makes you feel helpless.

Actually, the goal of any capacity-building work is to counter that helplessness, to seed that empowerment, to spark in someone that sense of individual agency. But there are limits to individual agency. Individual dreams cannot be activated within an ecosystem that lacks opportunities—or within an ecosystem that actively discourages individual mobility. Maybe we are setting individuals up for failure if we encourage their agency in a vaccuum, before a ‘tipping point’ has occurred, or before we’ve simultaneously and collectively bolstered the ecosystems that make individual agency truly effective. I’m starting to think that it’s irresponsible to help black kids dream without also simultaneously addressing the current realities of race in the United States.***

Yes, it’s true: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

But, what if he also needs a boat to get to the fish? Or what if he lives in a landlocked country with no access to fish? Or what if the sea where he is supposed to be fishing is polluted and overfished and undernourished? Or maybe most importantly of all: what if he never wanted that fish in the first place?

I’m coming to see that I’ve been using capacity-building/personal empowerment/individual agency as MY own silver bullet for tackling social change. And obviously, of course, there is no silver bullet. There’s so much more nuance. There’s so much more complexity. It’s a ‘both-and’ situation of empowering individuals AND working on (breaking/remaking/creating anew) the systems we live within.

Yet I’ll still place most of my bets on this idea of personal empowerment. It’s where my hope lies. While my perspective is evolving and growing more complex, my personal contribution to this field of social impact will likely always anchor in sparking individual seeds for change.

Because of Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s most astounding fact of all:****

FOOTNOTES:

*Related and thought-provoking: The power of design education and design in general in helping people realize that “everything is made up” and therefore have the agency to change things. Juxtaposed and dancing alongside: “Why I’m not a maker” and why makers are not the only ones changing things.

**There’s a lot more nuance to this idea of “accepting your current reality”–obviously, there are also boundaries and psychological health and the difference between repression vs. acceptance, the difference between acceptance and giving up, to dig into…but they feel tangential to the main point of this blogpost.

***Another perspective on the Humans of New York fundraiser; how to be a good ally; and Deliberate Discourse Dinners as just one way to start engaging with race in a safe space.

****H/T Christina V. Pentz, aerospace engineer.