Portrait of a Change Agent as a Young Man

That's me in the back row on the left. The guy with the cool sun glasses. This photo was taken when I was thirteen, the last time that all of my Mom's children and grandchildren were together, not counting my ten children that would not make an appearance for another twenty years.

Even at this awkward age, my passion was how to be a change agent to make the world a better place. It started a couple of years earlier with formative experiences in elementary school when I came face to face with the power and rage of teachers. In high school my values were hardened through coming face too face with unapologetic sexism. Finally in college, exposure to fundamental truths about human behavior opened me to the principles of change in action.

Elementary School Physical Education

A critical point in my life occurred in June 1979. I was eleven years old and in fifth grade. It was the day of the annual elementary school field day. When I was young, I was slender and not the most coordinated. I was not fast, and I was not strong. It was the days before video games, cable television, and VCRs. I grew up on a Christmas Tree farm, and I spent quite a bit of time outside playing in the fields and trees, and though I had a couple of years of baseball and soccer, I was not athletic.

That year, the school announced that all students must sign up for three events at field day. Maybe that had always been the rule, but I heard it for the first time that year as a commandment. While I understood it was nice for the athletic kids to have one day a year to win ribbons and demonstrate their physical mastery, I did not see the point in my being humiliated doing things I did not enjoy. I decided to start a quiet protest but simply not signing up for anything. I did not make any statements and only told a few classmates. 

There were two fifth grade classes in our school, and the two rooms were divided by a retractable wall. After lunch, we were in our classroom waiting to be excused to go back to the events outside. The other teacher (who was male while my teacher was female) opened the wall and announced to both classes that one student had disobeyed the rules and not signed up for any events. As a consequence, this student (me) would have to participate in the three remaining events that day, including the relay, and needed volunteers to round out the team. I am by nature shy, especially when I was that age. It was a traumatic experience to be singled out in this way in front of sixty plus other people. It was bullying behavior on the part of the teacher, designed to humiliate me and punish me for non-conformity. I was bullied enough by classmates. I did not need teachers piling on. 

As I started to write about this memory, I remembered another event from the previous school year. The Alpha Male in my class was named Joe and his number two was Steve. By the way, the school was named after Joe's family who had lived in the area for generations. Joe would go onto play football in college at the University of Toledo. Steve passed away at a young age from cancer. If I ever need to take on an assumed identity, I will become Steve because we were born the same year and grew up in the same city. But back that Friday in the fourth grade in gym class, we were playing four square. 

Four square is a came played on concrete with a ball and a square divided into four parts. Each player hits the ball with their hands into another player's square. The player misses returning the ball, they are out. The person in square one serves the ball, so had an advantage. When a person is out, people in higher numbered squares advance to lower numbers, and a new person enters the game in square four. Joe and Steve figured out that as long as they were in square one and two, they could control the game. If one of them was out, they would still control square one and target others until one was back in square two.

As someone who has a high sense of justice, I decried the unfairness of this alliance. So my response was to go on a strike. I simply sat on the curb and refused to play. I did not stop others from playing, but I did not want to be part of an unfair and corrupt system. As we lined up after class, the gym teacher (male), in front of the class said to my teacher that I was getting an F the day for poor sportsmanship. Again, a male teacher bullying me because I passively refused to play by unfair rules.

As I think about these two events from two score and then some years ago, I realize that out of these events I developed my appreciation for people who are different than the mainstream. I grew up in a conservative, un-diverse community, though my older brothers were hippies and active members of the counter culture in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than break me, these teachers hardened my values that everyone has a right to be an individual. I also see how these men taught me to despise male power and hierarchy. For helping me become the feminist I am today, I thank them. 

As a side note, while I was never physically very active or good at sports, foursquare was my recess jam in elementary school. My best friend and I owned our own playground balls so that we could play four square everyday. It was not the sport I had an issue with. It was people who used their power to stop making it fun and all about their superiority. As my older brother taught me to say when I was a toddler, "fight the power!"


SIMSOC is a simulation game developed by William Gamson when he was on the sociology faculty at the University of Michigan. I participated in a run of this exercise in the summer of 1985 when I was 17. I had no idea that just few years later I would be majoring in sociology at Michigan (Gamson had moved on by then so we never met), and that I earn a graduate certificate in gaming simulation studies.

SIMSOC had an outsized impact on my young life. First, in the first round of the game, I was arrested (in the game). SIMSOC is designed to have four rooms with each room a separate district of the simulated society. What you are not told is that resources are unevenly distributed. One room is upper class and has more resources and influence in the game. One room is lower class and has virtually no resources. The other two rooms were middle class with some resources in each. The upper class room perceived me as a threat based on my understanding of the rules, so they created a private security force and arrested me. Hardened by my grade school experiences and being the youngest of ten siblings in a dysfunctional, blended family, this did not phase me. 

The first big revelation came when one of the other boys in my room told me that we were not successful because "we had too many girls on our team." I was gob struck. This was not a contest to grow facial hair. Why would it matter that we had a gender ratio that tended towards female? In that moment, I understood sexism and by extension racism. Some people thought that gender mattered in contexts where it did not matter at all. I had not been raised to think that way. My mom had been a single parent from when I was one to six. She was caregiver and provider both. Even though my step-father was sexist, my attitudes were formed before he entered the picture. If anything, he deepened my own views towards equality and individual worth.

That first day of the exercise did not go well in the lower class room. Many starved. The second revelation came that night. One of my roommates and I were talking about it, and I realized and said, "we created this shit." He wrote it down on a piece of notebook paper that I still have. The implication to me was that if our decisions and actions created the current conditions, our decisions and actions could improve conditions for the future. This is what psychologists call "locus of control." We are not victims of external circumstance. We are architects of our own design. Later I would learn that if nothing else, we always have the power to choose how we respond. 

Social Psychology

Two years later I was a first year student at the University of Michigan. I stayed in Ann Arbor for the summer, and I was taking an Introduction to Psychology course. When we got to the unit on social psychology, it literally changed my life. First we learned about Asch's experiments in conformity. Then we learned about Milgram's study of authority. Finally, there was the Zimbardo Prison Study, which has been largely debunked now. The latter two were both pretty unethical by modern standards, but the results were revelatory. 

The conclusion was clear. People's behavior was influenced by other people. This means that it is possible to change the world...or at least the human part of it. Civilization was not doomed to disaster. It was possible to learn and to get better.

This one part of the course directed the rest of my academic and professional career. Eventually I majored in sociology before earning a PhD in sociotechnological planning, with an interest on how to use technology to influence decision making and activity. My professional work as a change agent has been influenced by this foundation in social psychology and interpersonal influence.

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