What We Value: Equity, Efficacy, and Self-Protection

By Chaebong Nam

What do we mean by “successful” civic-political agency? Equitable, efficacious, and self-protective civic-political agency is its core. So, what it would look like in practice? The short answer is political friendship (Allen, 2004).


Political friendship is a virtue, originally suggested by Aristotle. Specifically, it is positioned at a midway point between domination and acquiescence in one’s interaction with others. Equity is the core of political friendship; it is formed through sharing ordinary habits like proving oneself trustworthy to each other, sharing vulnerabilities, and generating reciprocity. Through the development of these habits, individuals can broaden their understanding of self-interest, recognizing that some equitable notions of self-interest are preferable to rivalrous variants. Political friendship is an essential capacity for coordinating divergent self-interests among individuals who are strangers to one another. Further, although political friendship is not as emotionally charged as the type of friendship we experience with family or close friends, it still can offer contexts for people to release and acknowledge the grievances and frustrations caused by political injustices, and then to work together to redress them.

Why do we highlight equity? The health of the social fabric depends on maintaining social bonds, even across lines of difference. Equity puts the focus on extending one’s own interests to encapsulate those of others; it makes the health of the community a priority of its own. The purpose of an emphasis on equity is to teach civic agents to put rivalrous forms of self-interest aside. Those rivalrous forms of self-interest, that tend to emphasize liberty at the expense of equality, destroy social bonds (Allen 2014). Now is the time for civic educators themselves to reclaim the importance of teaching equitable relations in social and political life.

How has this equity conception been converted into youth-friendly terminology in the YPP Reflection-before-Action Frame? One begins the reflection process by figuring out one’s own passion is. Mapping out what matters to oneself and why is the first step toward participation. This approach echoes the rallying cry of the activists of the 1970s: the personal is the political. This idea is reflected in Question #1 of the Frame: Why does it matter to me?

But pivoting from I to We is a crucial moment in equity. By the time we reach Question #3 in the reflection process, civic agents are making that pivot. They ask, “How can I make it about more than myself?” Reflecting on this question teaches young people the need to see beyond their own self-interest and prepares them for the collaborative work with others that later steps in the frame encourage. Seeking equitable relationships via compromise and negotiation across different expectations and demands contributes to progress down the road. As the process of participation unfolds, the ambit of We continues to expand. As more individuals join the group and support the cause, young civic agents acquire more participatory capacity and legitimize their sense of agency. Question #6 (How can we get wisdom from crowds?) pertains to these positive dimensions of a widening circle of participation.

Unfortunately, more participation does not necessarily guarantee better participation (Farina et al., 2014). Even as our ability to engage equitably increases the scope of our agency, it may also expose us to trolling, hijacking, privacy breaches, and polarization. Protecting our psychological integrity, in the face of threats such as these, becomes a real issue. The digital environment often operates like an irreversible ratchet; once things are put out there, revoking them is all but impossible. Question #7 (How do we handle the downside of crowds?) comes into play here. Questions 6 and 7 thus pertain not only to equity but also to self-protection, and we will revisit them under this heading shortly. For the time being, we should pause, however, to notice how the four “equity” questions in the Reflection-before-Action Frame have built on one another.

1. Why does it matter to me? (equity)
3. How do I make it about more than myself? (equity)
6. How do we get wisdom from crowds? (equity & self-protection)
7. How do we handle the downside of crowds? (equity & self-protection)


How can civic actors achieve their goals efficaciously? Raising one’s voice is key. As we have seen in #BlackLivesMatter or #Ferguson, new social movements no longer require a single charismatic figure, like Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Instead, thanks to affordable technology, civic actors and groups can leverage amplified communicative capacity to achieve their goals. Question 8 (Does raising our voices count as civic and political action?) pertains to this concern. The answer is that sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t, and one needs to begin by seeing the distinction between those two cases.

Here, the distinction between the two kinds of voices proposed by Allen (2015) is worth our attention. Allen distinguishes between voices as expression and voice as influence. Both terms refer to the media practices that serve civic expression, for example, creating and circulating memes, videos, music, images, posters, and more. But when our expressions are limited to circulation within a community of meaning, of shared identity, or of shared culture or role, they are mainly expressive. Such expression plays a critical role in identity formation, community building, collective learning through the circulation of beliefs and opinions, and the construction of intersubjective relations. In contrast, voice as influence consists of those modes of expression that directly impact the work of decision-makers, whether they are to be found in political institutions, corporations and NGOs, or social movements. The result of voice as influence is structural change (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Discourse-flow dynamics of public spheres (Allen, 2015)


Although the distinction between the two kinds of voices is not always as clear-cut, it is imperative in a digital landscape that civic actors comprehend these two different types of voice and choose the right one for their purposes, doing so sooner rather than later. Understanding the developmental transitions from one level of participation to another is also key to efficacy. Questions 4 (Where do we start?) and 5 (How can we make it easy and engaging for others to join in?) specifically respond to this concern.

As widely witnessed, much of digital activism begins with light clicks––e.g., likes on Facebook, retweets, other clicks for sharing. This type of light engagement can be criticized slacktivism, failing to direct people to deeper social engagement (Mozorov, 2009). Still, does this light activism really mean nothing? It does matter. Not all light activism leads to successful change, but skipping this step means there is no next step. Rather than seeing light engagement as a failure of commitment, we might see it as the first step along a developmental trajectory. Jennifer Earl has shown that this is so for many activist organizations. Moreover, aggregating light engagement at a mass scale can have its own impact. #BlackLives and #Ferguson, which are two of the most used hashtags in Twitter history on race and criminal justice (Pew Research, 2016), could not have been as impactful, had it not been for society-wide clicks.

Even so, there are increasing challenges that civic actors need to tackle in a developmental transition either from light to committed engagement or from light to impactful engagement. When many voices rise up in a movement, they can drown each other out; they may make it harder to secure audience attention for specific changes or policies. To avoid falling into this trap, it is important to ask question 9: How do we get from voice to change? This requires a civic agents to reflect on how they would connect the voices they have mobilized to actual levers of decision-making. This involves calling on institutional power holders like established organizations or influential individuals who can support their interests. But it can be hard to reach people in power. What’s more, engaging with power players in a way that benefits their cause and also empowers youth can be difficult. For youth, the solution often involves connecting with allies who can provide mentorship while also brokering actions on their behalf. This involves asking Question #10: How can we find allies?

We turn our attention to last two questions because they are necessary steps for any civic actor seeking to move from expressive to influential voice. Unfortunately, this focus on efficacy, and institutional understanding, is often overlooked in civic education curricula that focus on participatory media production. Expressive voice can, however, time, help set the agenda for decision-making bodies, but efficient pursuit of change requires self-consciously connecting expression to modes of influence. The ballot box and institutions of politics continue to be important. No matter how loud the world of expression gets, structural change still happen through political institutions. These deserve fresh attention in efforts reshape civic education for a digital age. The questions in the YPP Reflection-before-Action Frame that mainly involve efficacy are these:

4. Where do we start? (efficacy)
5. How can we make it easy and engaging for others to join in? (efficacy)
8. Does raising our voices count as civic and political action? (efficacy)
9. How do we get from voice to change? (efficacy)
10. How can we find allies? (efficacy)


Self-protection? Some may raise their eyebrows at this third value. At a glance, its weight may seem less connected to democracy than the other two values, but self-protection comes into ascendance as a new value in a digital landscape. Let us revisit virality briefly for see why it is important. Going viral is a signature phenomenon almost exclusively possible in the digital environment. It can leave a huge impact both nationally and globally, as long as it runs in a good direction. For example, think about the images of two Syrian boys of different fates in the same tragedy: one (Alan Kurdi) drowned on a Turkish Beach in 2015 and the other (Omran Daqneesh) was bloodily wounded yet survived. These two images immediately triggered international grief over the continuing anguish from the Syrian civil war. Alan’s image in particular effected policy changes in some countries like Canada, where the first wave of Syrian refugees was welcomed by the Prime Minister at the airport.

Still, the problem is that this viral power can have negative consequences. Once things go viral, nearly nothing can stop them, which can result in experiences of trolling, hacking, threats, and so on. Overwhelming attention, especially if negative, can easily compromise human bandwidth (see the Kony2012 case in Shresthova (2016)). If the context involves an oppressive authority who has banned freedom of speech, the risks get even higher (for example, see the Global Voices case).

Actually, censorship, privacy, and trolling are not new political phenomena. But the new media landscape makes them considerably more significant challenges than they were in previous generations. Events have a new rapidity. Once one puts shares expressions digitally, taking them back afterwards is nearly impossible—they often breed new meanings and lives, which the original creators would have never anticipated. Viral phenomena can be appropriated or repurposed with memes, images, and text. The hashtag activism #IfTheyGunnedMeDown became a good example of itself (see the NY Times article, “Shooting Spurs Hashtag Effort on Stereotypes,” August 12, 2014). This campaign fostered a powerful critique of media bias in the coverage of young black people who are shot and killed by police. Black Twitter users began posting two side-by-side photos of themselves, asking which one would the media publish “if they gunned me down?” It did not take long for the meme to morph, as other Twitter users appropriated the hashtag to post trivializing images (e.g., of their pets), or photo pairings to mock the campaign’s intent. Although those detractors were largely drowned out months later, this campaign pertains to the concerns of the digital afterlife (Soep, 2012).

Young people can be particularly vulnerable to this changing media environment because they have not yet fully developed cognitive and affective capacity to cope with such irreversibility, which is why the self-protection element appear early in the YPP Reflection before Action Frame. Thus, the second question is, “How much should I share?” Self-protection is also prominent in Question 6 (How do we get wisdom from crowds?) and Question 7 (How do we handle the downside of crowds?). These two questions address the double-edged nature of crowds.

Equity, Efficacy, and Self-Protection Together

How can we see relationships across the three values? Constructing a virtuous circle out of these values is critical. Each value upholds the other to secure the psychological integrity undergirds successful civic-political agency. One way to read varying dynamics is that equity is a foundational value, while the other two––efficacy and self-protection––are operational values that support achieving ever greater equitability. Yet it is also the case that civic actors can’t pursue equity if they haven’t achieved the basic contexts necessary for their own survival. The metaphor is the advice given on airplanes that one must put the oxygen mask on oneself before helping others. Self-care actually turns out to be a necessary foundation for the ability to be equitable. These basic dynamics can vary from case to case. Looking into how civic actors weigh each value and decide their strategies will be interesting topics for further research, as well as for educational practices.