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Agency & the Power from the 'Floor'

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

SE graduated a year ago from college, and she worked at Blue Shoe during college and this past year. She recently left to go to law school. She is passionate about things in her areas of interest, and she is unabashedly earnest in presenting her point of view, even around things that are within others’ areas of expertise, not hers. She often wears her disdain for your point of view on her face long before she can no longer contain her rebuttal. I believe she will learn to temper this behavior when she realizes that it doesn’t always work in her favor. She is always thoughtful, smart and committed.

She hails from the south and attended the University of Georgia. Although she is not a Trump supporter, I have discovered that when she and I discuss politics, she certainly shares some of the political beliefs of her Southern family members. I encourage her to back up her politics with facts, and I try to do the same. She has changed my opinion about many a thing, and I believe I have changed hers as well.

She called me last night from her new town in New England, where she will start classes next week. She needed to vent.

It turns out, her law school class, as part of orientation, attended some state legal function or another, and one of the legislators asked those who hailed from the North to raise their hands. The majority of those in the room did so. Then he asked the same of those who came from the South, and a few hands went up. According to her, he replied to the latter group with, “Well, that’s good; we don’t want you here anyway.”

She was shocked. She turned to her Asian American roommate, whom she likes a lot, and said, “I can’t believe he said that — wow!” to which her roommate replied, “Well, I guess it’s true.”

My significant other noted that perhaps he was making a joke. I told him that even if that were true, it wasn’t a funny one.

She was looking for something. I think she wondered if she belonged there, which I’m sure is true for most of the students at this point. I took a deep breath and said the following to her:

“Look, I believe there is a reason things happen. There is a reason you are in the North. We know that one of your works in progress is learning to channel your passion without anger and use that amazing brain of yours to change hearts and minds with your authentic, well-versed arguments. Maybe this experience will give you the opportunity to dig right in.

“You are not without agency.”

(God, I love the word agency. I love that it encompasses using one’s persuasive powers to influence others and/or bring about change. Put it on your must-use list. It will make you feel powerful.)

I continued: “Thanks to the film ‘Legally Blonde,’ starring Reese Witherspoon, we know that the ‘law is reason free from passion.’ This was your moment. You could have raised your hand and said, ‘I would like to understand the intention behind your comment about your not wanting those of us from the South to be here. I am an American citizen who is committed to the law and reason. I chose this school to expand my point of view and learn from others with perspectives that are different from mine, and hopefully, to have them want to learn from me. I take offense to your remark, and I’d like to know for what purpose you made it.’

“If you’d delivered that statement with calm certainty, you would have revealed your persona to your fellow classmates in a way you would want them to remember. The legislator may have acknowledged his remark’s destructive effect, and perhaps your comment would have caused him to do better next time around.

“There is still time. You can write a letter to the local paper and say the same thing. But you must be sure that you quote him verbatim because we sometimes hear what we want to hear, especially when our feelings are hurt.”

She has her work cut out for her. She tends to carry a chip on her shoulder when she has been crossed, and I know that law school is nothing without the fellowship and support of one’s classmates.

But there is more.

Leadership is the name of the game in all things these days. In my opinion, some of the most profitable opportunities to lead come from attending the presentations of others and leading from your own point of view during their event. Ah, but you must take care to avoid overwhelming the speaker or the audience, as well as changing the direction of the presentation. You must be succinct when commenting, and whenever possible, begin with a leading question, which I believe is an underutilized tool. Doing anything else makes you a spoiler, and we know that is not a good plan.

In summary, I wish I believed that there exists an easy way to parlay an insult into a slam dunk. It doesn’t always work, but silence is never the answer; it only leads to calling an elder later in the day, hoping he or she can rewrite history.


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