The cauldron is community

Where do you go to learn to be a social change agent or social activist? Universities and colleges might seem like a logical choice. Post-secondary institutions are the repositories of scientific knowledge from a wide range of disciplines. They train professionals and leaders in a variety of fields. They are where the brightest minds of each generation gather to focus their efforts on learning. But such institutions have serious limitations if your motivation is to contribute to social change.

If you are going to be an effective change agent, you have to know more than facts or theories. You have to learn how to do more than conduct a rigorous research project or construct a rational argument. You need to learn to negotiate challenging external territory: the boundaries of class, race, age, gender, geography, ideology, and culture. You also need to learn how to navigate difficult internal terrain: e.g., emotions like fear, aversion, confusion, anger, and despair. You need to understand how social change and other kinds of change happen (e.g., personal, cultural, and institutional change). You need to learn how to read social situations and how to notice what happens when you and others try out different behaviours.

These skills cannot be learned by reading or listening to lectures in classrooms. These skills can only be learned through experience. They cannot be learned in social settings where everyone is pretty much the same. These skills have to be learned in specific contexts where diverse kinds of people are trying to solve social problems, where people are struggling with ambiguities and conflict. They can only really be learned when actions have serious consequences and despite this, mistakes are allowed, and even celebrated.

courtyard medThis kind of learning cannot happen in universities and colleges. Some of the groundwork can be done. For example, the history and geography of a place can be studied. Discourses on social issues and social change can be discussed. But post-secondary institutions are too far removed from troubled communities. In addition, the make-up of the population of teachers is not diverse enough. Even if faculty and staff complements have a gender balance and include different racial, ethnic and age groups, it is very unlikely they will include people with diverse class backgrounds.

Post-secondary institutions are also too focused on individual achievement and getting the right answer. In these environments, it is hard for students to orient themselves to the well-being of the group or to risk making a mistake. Further, teachers in these institutions who have spent most or all of their careers in academia tend not to have the requisite life experience to guide students through the storms of this kind of learning. Change agents-in-training need to have role models and mentors who have been on the front-lines of social change.

Fortunately, the conditions for this kind of learning can be found in troubled communities—places where things are not going well, where both the need for change and potential for change exist. This is the primary reason why universities and colleges should be engaging with communities. These institutions should be providing students with opportunities to learn the skills of social activism, which they can only do in collaboration with communities.

Building relationships across social distance

The domain of social change is social. Any change process is bound up in people’s relationships with each other. In many cases, social phenomena become problematic because different people experience them and view them differently. There is no consensus about what the problem really is (or even whether it is a problem) and there is conflict about how to respond to it. People who want to solve social problems need to be able to build relationships with people who share a common concern for the problem but hold diverse perspectives about it.

The question of how to navigate the tension between having enough homogeneity in a social group for it to hold together and function as a group and enough diversity to keep the group vibrant and adaptable is one of the creative tensions at the heart of human and social evolution.

Athletics program

Unfortunately, creative tension is not a state that most people in Western consumer culture are aiming to achieve. People seem to be preoccupied with comfort, stability, and safety. In addition, in the culture I live in, people tend not to be trained explicitly in how to create and sustain social relationships. Mostly, we learn to “play well with others” through osmosis. We are socialized by exposure to and participation in social contexts governed by taken-for-granted cultural norms and roles. The challenge we face in newly multicultural, complex societies like Canada is that different people are playing by different rules and most of the rules are implicit. People understand or misunderstand each other without knowing exactly how this happens.

Our tendencies to avoid creative tensions and neglect the dynamics of social relations makes it difficult to effect social change. Those who want to try to be change agents need to learn the skills of being comfortable with tension and being curious about social dynamics.

The best way to learn how to be comfortable with discomfort, uncertainty, and risk is simply to let it happen. One needs to become familiar with the state, to get used to it, to see that being uncomfortable is not, in itself, fatal. It helps to be around others who know how to remain calm in a storm.

It also helps to have something concrete to focus on, some shared goal the group can work on. Sometimes, when there is a lot of discord, even deciding on what goal to pursue can be challenging. Starting small is a good idea. It is also a good idea to ground decision-making and action in the idea that everyone in the group is needed, that everyone has something to learn, and that service to a greater purpose is more important than individuals getting what they want.

This is where it is important to be more curious about how people think, how they learn, what motivates them, and what they care about. It is important to notice how people relate to each other in different situations. We need to be developing social intelligence. This is related to emotional intelligence but it is a particular set of skills. We can no longer assume that ordinary socialization in a particular family, school or religious institution will prepare people to cross the kind of social distances most will encounter in an increasingly connected and diverse social world.

Developing social intelligence

In my view, social change agents require a set of skills and abilities that includes the following:

  • Showing respect for the knowledge and skills of people from diverse backgrounds living in unfamiliar circumstances
  • Listening carefully, including listening between the lines
  • Reflecting critically, including questioning oneself as well as all kinds of received wisdom
  • Building trust by being trustworthy
  • Engaging with risk, ambiguity, uncertainty, vulnerability, and change. “Engagement” entails not just tolerating these uncomfortable places but investigating them with an open mind and heart.
  • Being alert to hubris
  • Having a nose for falsehood
  • Being sensitive to the appearance of dominating power, whether one is trying to dominate others or is being dominated
  • Being sensitive to the appearance of generative power, knowing when creative sparks are flying, AND knowing how to fan the flames to keep them alive
  • Giving and receiving clear, honest, and helpful feedback
  • Exercising a sense of humour.

This set of skills is akin to the list my team and I defined as the skills of a global citizen. But the list above is more specific. It includes skills and abilities that I had to draw on in my role as Director of the Learning Exchange. These skills and abilities are also what my team and I tried to cultivate in each other and in the students and Downtown Eastside residents we worked with.

These skills fit into a category of intellectual virtue that Aristotle referred to as phronesis or practical wisdom. This kind of knowledge is distinct from both analytical, scientific knowledge (episteme) and technical knowledge (techne). (For more on phronesis, see my blog post: Educating Global Citizens through Community Engagement.) Phronesis “involves judgments and decisions made in the manner of a virtuoso social and political actor” (Flyvbjerg 2001, p. 2). Being a virtuoso means moving up the ladder in the Dreyfus model of leaning (for a description of this model see the paragraphs under the heading “How I made decisions” in Making Decisions).

In order to become a master of these skills, change agents need to practice taking risks in real situations involving real people and real consequences (Dreyfus 2009). Being a masterful change agent or social activist means knowing how social and organizational structures and dynamics operate (knowing the rules of the game), being able to apply the rules skillfully in particular contexts, and being able to go beyond the rules when you are “in the zone” the way highly skilled athletes or musicians sometimes are. In addition, mastery in this domain requires a willingness to engage in the play of power. It is not enough to care about the welfare of individuals. Systems need to be engaged with, including systems of domination and oppression.

TLN trainingThis takes courage. And it takes a certain kind of relaxed attention. In other articles on this website I have used the metaphor of walking a tightrope or surfing a wave to indicate what the experience of being an aspiring change agent feels like. It feels like you are barely keeping your balance in a dangerous place. You need to read the currents within your own mind-body system as well as the environmental conditions surrounding you. You need to respond to changes in both internal and external environments which can be both big and small and which can arise and disappear with amazing rapidity. You need a finely-tuned awareness of how conditions are changing coupled with a very sensitive internal compass that sustains your moral centre of gravity in the way your inner ear keeps your body upright.

Developing moral intelligence

In the Buddhist tradition, this kind of attention is called mindfulness. Over the past several years, mindfulness training has become something of a fad. It is being taught to people with physical and mental disorders that are resistant to medical interventions (e.g., anxiety, depression and chronic pain). It is taught as a way to reduce stress and enhance athletic performance. It is being taught to children in elementary schools as an essential life skill.

In some cases, mindfulness is separated from its roots in the teachings of the Buddha. The focus is on being fully alert to the present moment. But simply being alert is not enough. As Joseph Goldstein, one of the first teachers of Buddhist meditation in North America, points out, dogs are very good at living in the present moment. Genuine mindfulness requires discernment as well as alertness. It requires the ability to not take what is happening personally. Mindfulness is a non-judgemental awareness that is an antidote to emotional reactivity arising from a failure to notice and investigate your automatic reactions to different experiences. But being open to one’s experience without judging it does not mean there is never any need to try to effect change. Trying to be mindful is not an excuse to abdicate your responsibility to respond skillfully to experience, for example in situations where harm is being done. This is where discernment comes into the picture.

For social change agents being alert and accepting what is happening in each moment is clearly not enough. Because, by definition, you aspire to change what you see happening. You are making judgments about some aspect(s) of some social situation or system being harmful. You are already practicing discernment. Being mindful in such a context means being attentive to all the layers and complexities in the context: Who is suffering or benefiting? Who has what kinds of power? What motives and intentions are driving people (including me)? What might happen if certain interventions are implemented?

Being a social change agent is an inherently moral project. You are consciously or otherwise making judgments about what is “right” or “wrong.” Trying to be a mindful social change agent demands a deepening of your powers of discernment. Your actions might be small (e.g., criticizing a peer who makes a sexist or racist comment, thereby changing the course of a discussion) or large (e.g., being a leader of a protest movement that changes government policy). Once you become aware of all the forces at work in social change contexts, the ethical or moral complexities can be overwhelming. Who decides what is right? What kinds and degrees of change might make sense? Who should be involved in making decisions about when, where, and how to proceed? How will the change process be monitored and evaluated? And the most difficult question in my view: How can the willpower of the people involved be balanced with whatever “natural” forces are at work?

I do not believe that the moral conundrums that social change projects entail can be resolved in the abstract. They must be wrestled with in particular contexts. Only in specific contexts can you get enough data to inform decision-making. Only in particular places, working with actual people, where all your senses and all your faculties are engaged can you have a complete experience of the change process. You have to be immersed in the cauldron of a particular community where you and everyone else is in the same soup and the heat is turned up.

Community-University Engagement on the margins

I believe that post-secondary institutions and community organizations working together can create environments where this kind of learning can take place. I believe it because I have seen it. (For more of my thoughts on community-university engagement and how it can work, see the blog posts I wrote on this subject for University Affairs.)

But I am not convinced that community-university engagement will become a mainstream practice. Universities have a lot invested in the idea that they are the source and arbiter of legitimate knowledge. It is threatening to acknowledge that science has limits and that for example, indigenous ways of knowing have legitimacy. Faculties and schools who train professionals are preparing students to fit into existing professional roles and norms. They rarely aim to teach students how to bring about change in systems or institutions. In addition, most universities and colleges shy away from considerations of values or morality. Further, they do not see themselves as being in the business of teaching skills. That is the domain of vocational training schools. Engaging with community organizations in order to prepare students to become social change agents is not something that most universities will make a priority.

Fortunately, universities are structured in such a way that individual instructors and researchers have a great deal of freedom to pursue activities they deem important whether their home institution considers it a priority or not. There are a significant number of faculty and staff members throughout academia who are willing to engage with communities in the interests of bringing about social change. In some institutions, particular faculties, schools, or departments orient themselves to social change. This is significant. So is the fact that so many students hunger to discover how their studies connect with real-world issues.

Unlike others, I do not despair that community engagement seems to still be a marginal activity in many universities. This may actually be its rightful place. This may be where it can have the most influence and where it can be protected from forces that might compromise its integrity (e.g., the drive to institutionalization).

My experiences at UBC make me think that getting to the conservation phase of the adaptive cycle—getting to a place where a social innovation has matured, has become resilient and adaptive—does not necessarily require it to exist on a grand scale. It has become conventional wisdom to say to innovators who have experienced some success and are on the cusp of having their innovation adopted by others that they need to, “Go big or go home.” The tacit message is that going home is for sissies. Unrestrained growth is what leads to the pot of gold. But it is clear to anyone paying attention to the climate change issue that unrestrained growth can lead to serious unintended consequences. In my view, going home, to communities in particular places, where social and moral intelligences can be cultivated, needs to become the preferred option.

For more on these topics, see the other articles in Learning to be a change agent.

For more on social marginalization and social justice, go to the Reflections section.


Dreyfus, Hubert L. (2009) On the Internet: Thinking in Action (second edition) London and New York: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group

Flyvbjerg, Bent (2001) Making Social Science Matter Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press