cultivating agency

Harry Boyte, founder of the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg University

Our enemies have more to teach us about ourselves than we often care to admit. Much that’s true about my enemy, is also true about myself. So in a way, seeking to understand where they come from, is seeking to understand ourselves in a deeper manner.

If only this message would seep into our political mind…

It goes without saying that the current political climate operates (or doesn’t operate at all) on the basis of polarization.

Harry Boyte, from the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg University seeks a new politics: a politics of civic repair, not polarization. It’s a politics which offers a different narrative than us vs. them.

Respect the possibilities, even in your enemies.”
— H.B. discussing Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of public love, agape

Harry is incredibly well-read, and to understate things, knows his material. He’s been at the forefront of developing the Public Work Philosophy approach to civic engagement.

Democracy” can be a perplexing term, but as it pertains to the work Harry does, much of its definition relates to the idea that it’s a journey, not a destination; a process, not an arrival point.

We often think of democracy as elections, the process by which we as individuals collectively speak in regards to choosing our official leaders. But it’s much more. It’s people organizing themselves, peoples’ power in the public realm. It’s not simply choosing our leaders who will then fix our problems, but it’s us, the people, fixing our problems.

I asked Harry whether he thought democracy was an inherent good. Democracy, he says, is conducive to human flourishing because it equips people with the sense that they’re helping to build the world, not simply consume it.

Creation is a staple of human existence.

Harry is an educator at heart. And on this note, he cites Jane Addams, the founder of the House Settlement Movement. She conceived of education as the freeing of the innate power in people for a larger public contribution.

At the core of education is agency. Empowerment.

 He says that empowerment is a molecular process- that kids can learn to feel empowered. This process begins with a shift away from a victim mentality.

Boyte_Harry_education Augsburg.jpg

Transforming victimhood into agency allows us to live out our convictions.

Growing up in the South, Harry witnessed his parents live a life of conviction. They spoke out against segregation, in a time and place where it was not popular to do so and in an environment where the possibility of re-writing segregationist rules appeared highly improbable. His parents’ convictions lent them a belief in the possibility of change, even in the most unhopeful of times.

This type of outlook creates space for agency, individually and collectively.

After our conversation, I was consumed with a thought Harry had impressed upon me: if you want to affect change in a community, understand its values more so than what needs to be fixed. Understanding its values will highlight what needs to change. It’s a more proactive approach and shifts our attention and efforts away from demolishing and toward constructing.

- - What are the values of my community? How do they compare with my values as an individual? In what instances am I harboring a mindset of demolition? A mindset of construction? - -

Boyte_Harry_hands of democracy and service.jpg

These are the politics Harry exudes. “Us-vs.-them” politics easily gains sway because it’s relatively simple. This type of politics finds a target to demonize, establishes it as the enemy, and defines issues as good vs. evil. The only type of activism allowed to flourish in this environment is one in which troops are mobilized against the enemy. Destroying the enemy is the goal.

But what about this is constructive? What part of this allows for the cultivation of hope, confidence, and mutual accountability?

We need an active freedom. Not simply freedom from shackles, but a freedom to create and construct on the basis of equality of respect (not of outcome).

For Harry, this positively charged freedom is ultimately an acknowledgement and internalization of the sacredness of creation. It highlights the beauty of human agency and offers a bastion of active hope, which seeks to mend, sustain and propel the relationships that comprise our daily lives and constitute the communities in which those lives are proclaimed.

We have much to learn from each other. A certain beauty can be found in our disagreements and misunderstandings. With an agency-oriented mindset, these are the places we can recognize our humanness.

Check out the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg University.