Building an Antiracist Community
He is only 4 months old, yet even at this early age he has already discovered a lesson that can guide him through his life. First, his head sways one way and then another. Pretty soon his body is joining in the movement. A few days earlier, he had discovered he could move by himself from his tummy to his back. Now he wanted to do it again. The first try was not a success. Nor the second, but he kept going and on the third try he was lying face up. This is the privilege of being a grandfather, having the time to observe and ponder the realization of a 4-month-old that he has agency, the ability to choose and act.
Harnessing our agency is a lesson we need to relearn and reclaim throughout our lives. Many of us come to believe, and are often encouraged to believe that we have no such agency. It is our lot to accept things as they are. We feel powerless to address or make a difference with concerns and issues that impact our lives, our communities and nation. From gun violence to climate change, from police reform to racial inequities, from potholes to fair housing, the message many folks absorb is there is nothing you can do to make things better. This orientation feeds cynicism about our common life, disengagement and ultimately powerlessness.
You have no agency; you have no capacity to act is a message of oppression. It serves the interest of those with power, authority and access to resources they would deny to others. No one knows this more than those who from birth are systematically told you will be acted upon, but you must not act. In her book, State of Emergency, civil rights activist Tamika Mallory identifies the rules Black women are taught to follow: “1. Do not raise your voice when faced with any challenge…3. Never ask for help… 4. Don’t talk back…6. Don’t protest unjust abuse….” She goes on to innumerate numerous ways in which African American women are told ‘you have no agency; you have no capacity to act.’
For Tamika, and for all of us who on any level and in any context have absorbed this disempowering message, the antidote, the means of resistance, is to reclaim the power we knew as infants. Persist. Do not give up. Believe in your own capacity to act and make a difference. Trust your own ability to roll over.
In a recent interview on Minnesota Public Radio a young Indigenous college student was one of several Indigenous youth being interviewed about his college experience and education experience in general as an Indigenous youth. He shared how a white teacher sought to silence him when he corrected her about what she was describing as the experience of native people. He refused to be silent, because he had been taught by his Indigenous community that his voice was to be valued. He had agency. He had the capacity to speak up and speak out.
Having agency, the capacity to act is never something that exists in a vacuum. It needs support from the community, and it needs to be guided by values that deeply inform the type of people we seek to be and the world we hope to build. There are plenty of selfish and cruel acts that have agency. Community and values matter when it comes to the choices we make. But, it all begins with awareness we have the capacity to choose.
Austrian psychiatrist, Victor Frankl spent three years experiencing the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. In his highly influential memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl says this about our capacity to choose: “The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There are enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed….Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to chose one’s own way.” My grandson chose to roll over. He discovered his agency, his capacity to act. I hope it is a lesson that stays with him throughout his life.
Tim Johnson is a retired pastor for the United Church of Christ.