The potential power of ‘many small coffee shops’ – a reflection on personal agency

A long time ago now, I lived in a small town in Canada’s North, where a bitter strike was underway at a local mine. It happened, coincidentally, that plans for expanding a local hotel, which housed a coffee shop where a great many people came to have coffee in the morning, were underway. Phase 1 was to tear down the coffee shop.

As a consequence, people had to find new places to have coffee in the morning. Other places were smaller, and so it happened that many of the people engaged in the strike – on one side or the other – found new places to have morning coffee. And so some places became associated with various sides in the strike.

Economic problems put the hotel expansion on hold, and so there never was a replacement for the big coffee shop where most people had gathered.

Looking back now, it seems that one consequence was that the conversations in the various coffee shops became limited and self-reinforcing. Where people would have, in the big coffee shop, heard other points of view, they began to hear only the views that they agreed with.

All of this became clear, of course, only in retrospect. The strike became more violent, and one miner set off an explosion that killed a group of men who had been working as replacement workers. The town was shocked to its core.

I have been thinking about this in light of the Brexit vote. I began thinking about how, in earlier times, people gathered at local pubs and coffee shops in England and chewed the proverbial fat. It provided a place for people to let off steam, complain, blame factors beyond their control. But rarely did people have a chance to let their complaints change the larger society in which they lived.

Fragmenting as it expands

Social media has changed that utterly. In a sense, when social media first began to influence us, it was a lot like the one big coffee shop in that small town. Now social media has fragmented as it expanded, offering a selection of ‘coffee shops’ that we can go to, so that people can gather virtually in a place with others who think the same way as they do.

And social media has offered a way for a variety of actors to influence the discussions everyone else is having. I try to use social media to share stories of locally-led achievement (and there are many such stories to share), but I know that there are a lot of other motivations at work.

There are ‘made up’ stories – ranging from satire to deliberate distortion – so that it can seem extremely difficult to know what is actually fact and what is fiction. And often it doesn’t seem to matter, as people seize on the stories that support what they believe and agree with.

In effect, we are all in a variety of small coffee shops, exchanging our stories – and grievances – which are magnified upwards through that same social media, which is proving to be easy enough for people to manipulate.

When the conversation focuses on grievances, on what people perceive as an individual loss of agency, the conversations end up reinforcing that sense of loss of ability to influence the larger conversation. And when the focus is on ‘globalization’, just as in an earlier time when the conversation would have been about ‘industrialization’, we lose the stories of how individual people are acting – from the local level upwards – to change the pictures they don’t like.

The narrative of ‘lack of agency; or lack of ability to create change around us is a pernicious one. When we feel as if our lives are out of our control, we try hard to find ground to stand on. Often that ground is about the things we can’t control, ignoring the fact that others around us are finding ways to act on those problems in small ways that start from the ground up.

The power of locally-led change

We focus on the nation state response to climate change, or refugee arrivals, or the economy, as if the state has an ability to control the bigger forces at play. We ignore the ways in which individuals, and smaller units of governance like our cities, are responding effectively to these issues. In doing so, we empower politicians, or would be politicians, who suggest there are easy solutions to complex problems – the idea that from the top of the system, they can institute the change that we want, even as we recognize – at least to ourselves – that this kind of control is no longer possible in a globalizing world.

In many ways, I suspect, the debate is not so much about ‘globalization’ as it is about how our process of governance is changing, in ways that are just as hard to see clearly as it was for that small city to see what would happen when there was no longer a place people could gather to hear what others in the community were thinking and saying.

I believe a new form of governance is emerging – one that some scholars call ‘nodal’ governance, because it reflects the idea that governance is a collective process in which ‘governmentness; is only one factor – not one that is privileged above all others. It is a process that largely grows from local initiative and agency.

There are many stories, if we care to look for them, about how this new kind of ‘bottom-up’ and ‘locally-led’ governance is emerging to offer an alternative to ‘big governance’, which seems hopelessly gridlocked. If you are feeling a ‘lack of agency’, I encourage you to look for – and then share widely – these stories about how people are creating change for themselves, from the bottom up. In this way, we can harness the power of many ‘small coffee shops’ to help create a different narrative of agency in that ‘one big coffee shop’ that is our world.

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