This is Shari Graydon's answer to What Are You Skating Towards?
The Intersection of Voice and Agency
As a young child, Sharon Carstairs was sexually abused by a family friend who effectively silenced her by insisting that no one would believe her if she spoke about his violations.
But in the essay that she contributed to a book I edited earlier this year, Senator Carstairs describes how, in the face of her abuser’s developing interest in her younger sister, she found her voice. The act of speaking up to protect another was a pivotal moment of agency that awakened her to the capacity she had to make change.
I’ve been skating towards the intersection of voice and agency for a long time now. As a columnist and occasional media commentator, I’ve had lots of opportunities to stand up and be heard, to comment on what I think is – or should be – going on in the world.
The news media’s amplification of my words has occasionally given me a deeply satisfying sense of agency… When business executives reconsidered a destructive marketing campaign… When a hospital changed its policy on infant formula… When members of a marginalized group wrote heartfelt notes of appreciation for seeing their reality reflected in the news…
People afforded the opportunity to frame issues and highlight concerns through print, broadcast and online media wield more influence than those who don’t. Their views often inform government decisions about how public money should be spent, and their profile helps to shape public perceptions about who is qualified to lead.
As a result, those without voice not only experience less agency, but are widely perceived to be less important, exacerbating their invisibility and powerlessness. No wonder – as Samara’s recent research suggests – they’re disinclined to vote.
This is a deepening problem with profound implications for Canada’s future. Despite our country’s reputation for equality, women’s voices are outnumbered by a factor of 4 to 1 in Canadian news media, and those of visible and sexual minority groups, Aboriginal people, and people living with physical and mental disabilities, are even harder to find.
This robs our public discourse of the ideas and analysis of some of our best and brightest minds. As a growing body of research makes clear, organizations able to access and integrate the talents and perspectives of diverse workers are more resilient and competitive. The problem-solving capacity of any group is significantly enhanced if members interpret the challenges faced from different perspectives.
The economic and social impacts of genuine equality – of ensuring that every citizen feels empowered to speak and act – benefit not just the individual but the whole, in ways that we can’t remotely predict or fully measure. When Sharon Carstairs found her voice, and exercised her agency, the difference she made went far beyond protecting her younger sister: it set her on a lifetime path of advocacy and public service. Imagine what might flow from a universal experience of the capacity to speak up and make change?
Shari Graydon is the catalyst of Informed Opinions, a project seeking to bridge the gender gap in public discourse, and the editor of I Feel Great About My Hands – and other unexpected joys of aging.
Note: I am releasing individual essays from the collection, What are you skating towards in 2012? Upcoming contributions are by Donna Thomson, Mark Kingwell, Marcel Lauzière, Cairine MacDonald and Peter Block. You can access the accumulated essays here.