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Title The Change Agent in Conflict
Author Jason Wood
Key Concepts Oppression, Anti-oppressive Practice, Sociology, Psychology, Political Science, Conflict, Empowerment




This essay examines a key quotation by Julius Nyerere which states that in order to gain mastery and control over our lives, we need change and stability.

I have written this essay within the context of youth and community work, specifically relating to anti-oppressive practice.

The essay concludes with key recommendations for the realist approach to work that can enhance self-control and mastery over destiny, whilst working with a structure that holds certain constraints over us.

The Change Agent in Conflict

 “We are determined to maintain our mastery over our own destiny – to defend our national freedom. We are determined to change the condition of our lives. It is to meet these two needs that we must have both change and stability. These two must be inter-related for neither is possible without the other.”

(Julius Nyerere)

How do we gain mastery over our destiny? In youth and community work, empowerment is a much-discussed process that encourages young people to take control of their destiny. Empowerment can be seen as:

“the end result of participative practices where each participant gains control and/or influence over issues of concern to them”

(Barry 1996:3 in Young 1999a)

Fundamentally, youth workers are concerned with ‘supporting young people to understand and act on the personal, social and political issues which affect their lives, the lives of others and the communities of which they are a part’ (NYB 1990:16).

Although empowerment is a term so alive and adaptable, that everybody from capitalist multi-nationals through to local charities adopts it as their ethos, one would argue that our version of empowerment is different from the next; that we are creating a nation of critical thinkers who will challenge the establishment. Another way of looking at it could be that we are part of a process in socialising young people to take roles in a functionalist state:

“Intellectual education has the objective of communicating to a child a certain number of defined talents.”

(Durkheim 1972:206)

However, I am confident that many practitioners would lay claim to this definition of their role in empowering young people:

 “Empowerment is not enabling people to adjust to their situation, rather it is a process of identifying steps that need to be taken to remove obstacles to progress…”

(Thompson 1998:211)

The conflict above is just a touch on what will become more apparent. Further explanation of this can be presented in this model:

(A model that shows the elements of power sharing between worker and young person - Jason Wood)

This represents the true extent to which empowerment can provoke major change. I am able to develop power-sharing relationships with young people by steadily reducing my involvement, in turn provoking autonomy in the young person. This can only go so far as the structure commands (depicted by a red line at the end of the young person’s journey). 

Marx would have us believe that revolt is the only path to true harmonic relationships in society. In contrast, humanistic psychology commands better interpersonal relationships between humans prior to any revolution becoming a realistic concept (Rowan 1976). So where, as youth and community workers, can we place ourselves? If we critically analyse society and the role we play within it – empowerment holds little, and somewhat hollow, meaning. The rhetoric is good for structural agreement, but the practice is confined. The constraints and conflicts within our professional values of encouraging the testing of norms and morals (Young 1999b), increasing participation, striving for equality (NYA 1998), fostering democracy (Jeffs & Smith 1999), versus our obligations to the state in terms of responding to national and local agendas (Young 1999b) and teaching young people to fit with common sense thinking and prevailing norms (McCullough & Tett 1999) are clearly apparent. We would seem to be supportive of functionalist interpretation in that education is merely the “influence of adults on those who are not yet ready for social life” (Durkheim 1972:203). The model demonstrates the realities of the constraints placed upon us, and how much (or little) empowerment (through informal education) can have considerable impact. I shall return to this, and the concept of realism later on in this paper. 

My principle focus for working with young people is to encourage this process and foster a sense of unconditional self-worth and worth of others, in line with humanistic principles. This is equality in the true sense of the word, and is enabling young people to gain mastery as part of changing the conditions of their lives. Maslow particularly places an emphasis on self-actualisation or realization in order to exact social change (for the good of society):

“If we were to accept, as a major educational goal, the awakening and fulfilment of the B-values, which is simply another aspect of self-actualisation, we would have (people) actively changing the society in which they lived…”

(Maslow 1973 in Rowan 1976:171)

If some critical analysis of this Humanistic interpretation is required, than we only need to turn to Marx. If the former perspective openly acknowledges that institutions can only be changed with better social relationships and that class war and revolution are ineffective (Rowan 1976), then the latter calls for an economic change to evoke better relationships (Giddens 1989). His class emphasis suggests that without a system of societal hierarchies, the conflict between oppressed and the oppressors would diminish. So, as much as I may brand myself both Marxist and Humanist, there are clear conflicts within the interpretations of changing society and this again, would relate to youth and community work, returning specifically to the levels of empowerment we can undertake.

I wish to relate this discussion to something that we can explore in professional practice or real terms! For this purpose, I shall discuss gender as an inequality. I am mindful that there are no hierarchies of anti-oppressive practice and that the issues of ‘race’, class, sexuality, disability and age bear equal importance, but as I have discussed in previous essays, whilst each oppressed group is distinct, the issues can be transposed from one area to another. Gender, in this case, simply provides a tool for analysis.

Away from the obvious biological sex differences of man and woman, gender refers particularly to the roles and social rules of each. Evolutionary psychology points to the reproductive responsibilities of men and women as the key personality, attitude and behavioural differences between the sexes (Myers 1996). This would have links with the functionalist theories – i.e., females have a function; the behaviour and attitudes are reflective of such function, and therefore the role they will play in society is preset.

Critics argue against this notion, agreeing that biology determines sex at birth, but citing cultural influence as an equal determination. Specifically, theorists point out that menstruation has been cited as a main focus “for comparisons between male and female physiology (and as an) explanation for social status and role differences” (Muldoon & Reilly 1998).  Menstruation is therefore seen as an inferior, biological cause for the gender difference. Muldoon & Reilly argue that it is important to recognise that both males and females experience cyclical hormonal fluctuations and present that the biological definition comes in line with male sex-role stereotypes, used in such a way to confirm that female cyclical biology is only worthy in determining physiological flaw.

History has shown us that biological arguments were once used to bar education for girls, determine mental health factors in women (Porter 1987) and are still used in capitalist ideology to determine family emphasis. Herein lies our responsibilities as change agents, and I wish to utilise some feminist thought a little more. The reality of gender relations shows us that the under-representation of women in high-status (sic) roles can provoke some understanding of difference between genders (Gough 1998). The absence of power among women leads to a maintenance of norms constructed by men.  If we take government roles (our very employers) as an example, we can note women only account of 18% of senior civil servants (GSS 1988:Fig 20). This is a common paradox; girls exceed boys in educational achievement, yet take lower status roles (Pilcher 1999).

Liberal feminism holds the ethos that men and women are equal, thus they deserve equal rights as individuals, unhindered by gender (Percy 1998). This perspective would seem to tie in with the Humanistic approach, that of the oppressor maintaining responsibility for overcoming oppression. If Thompson argues that there are three elements to oppression, that of the personal, cultural and structural (Thompson 1997), then this would place emphasis solely on the individuals neglecting to examine structural forces. Similarly, Marxist feminism looks to capitalism to define gender roles – perhaps placing too much emphasis on class, therefore on the economics of gender.

As a change agent, I must find some balance within these perspectives in future practice to promote mastery, control and bring about change. I must also understand the limitations of my role. Thompson suggests the polo effect within his discussions of the PCS model (Thompson 1998). This deals principally with challenging oppression at a cultural and structural level. I find this ideology inappropriate to us as singular practitioners. In we refer back to my model, we can see that the limitations beset upon us are going to prevent active cultural and structural challenge. However, there is an important role for us within these constraints.

One key aspect of being a change agent is the teaching of critical thinking, such as questioning what is good, what is bad, right and wrong (Young 1999a) and the like. It is within this context that our responsibilities can rest within the structural constraints and the humanistic psychological ideology. Indeed, critical thinking is made more possible when in the company of others (Brookfield 1987). In fostering this, we are directing young people along a path of self-discovery, and hopefully creating opportunities for them to understand the structural and cultural elements that prohibit their full potential. Whilst this holds little Marxist revolutionary theory, it certainly pertains to the humanistic one with acknowledgement of the functionalist society within which we operate. The importance of emphasizing on the individual must be recognised in terms of the conflicts that we face. There is much we can do in challenging gender equalities, for example.

Girl’s work is taking precedence within many youth work settings around the world. I wish to draw upon my own examples of this form of practice in order to support my argument. During my time as a part time youth worker, much attention in the county was given to girl’s work, in order to challenge the constraints placed upon them in largely male-dominated environment. Indeed, this type of single-gender work is beneficial on the basis that: 

“A positive, coherent programme…which might challenge gender stereotypes is extremely difficult to achieve in the conditions under which most youth workers operate.”

(Spence 1990:77)

When Spence discusses ‘conditions’, she specifically relates to open-door policies creating a masculine-dominant arena. This is true of most youth clubs, in that by examining any social setting, we can see that male norms take precedence and bring a sense of control to the environment. So, whilst the county responded to this with single-gender work with women, some other workers and I took a different line.

The piloting of the “men’s den” came at a time when young men were dissatisfied with single-gender work for young women, so the marketing of the group was not difficult. We set the group purpose as simply being a space for men to discuss issues that were important to them in their own environment. This gave us, as male workers, the opportunity to act as role models with certain ideals of equality for men and women. Within the space of twelve weeks, we looked at areas of masculinity and debated them as a group, using various games and activities with this specific focus. So this was principally focused at young men, in a men-only setting, but with the aim of redressing oppression against women.

It is this type of work within the everyday settings that allows us to provoke change. It may seem only a speck on the scheme of things, but this concept of small wonders must be paramount in the practitioner’s mind. I provide a diagram to emphasize this:


(From Thompson 1998:170 Fig 5.4)

This model is used to represent the levels of input that one finds in anti-oppressive practice. From the defeatist “nothing will change, I’ve got no influence…” to the unrealistic “tomorrow I can stop racism in three community centres with this brilliant plan.” We must operate within a realist context. This means that we will have to maintain our responsibilities to the structure that employs us, in order to challenge the oppression that it exacts; ergo we need both change and stability. The concentration of work on the individual will enable us to undertake effective work, without attempting ill-fated radical change or resigning to apathy. After all, if we understand that we are in a functional society, we must also acknowledge “we cannot deviate from the prevailing type of education without encountering strong resistance” (Durkheim 1972:205). In summing up this argument and the purposes of our intervention for change, I use this quotation:

“Given the social relations of power and dominance within which I am obliged to live in a capitalist and patriarchal society, it can be helpful to be realistic about what kinds of personal and collective changes are possible”

(Seidler 1994:155)

I feel it also worthwhile to point to another concept of change and stability that has relevance. When we explore Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we are able to find that Safety is high in priority (Gross 1996). In challenging oppression, as I have presented as the focus of this argument, we are in effect tackling the psychological aspect of the unknown. Tied up with this need is also the desire for familiarity and security. By working with young people for change, we can actually evoke further psychological security (or stability) in the individual.

Finally, I wish to give some attention to the reference in the quotation that seeks to “defend national freedom”. It would seem that following the discussion in this paper, I present another conflict within society. In a positive sense, this provokes a sense of unity and cultural celebration among the many different people who make up a population. In a negative and disturbing sense, it oppresses groups of people who fit outside of the “norms”. Specifically, with reference to Britain, we can examine ‘race’ within this context.

In October 2000, The Runnymede Trust produced a damning report of racism in Britain, detailing some very disturbing facts about the inequalities that exist within the society. The post-report reaction among the press was a mirror of reporting throughout the 1980s of anti-racist effort, where the attempts to introduce more inclusive policy and legislation was mocked and dismissed as trivial (Gordon & Rosenberg 1990). However, as Gary Younge points out, we should be concerned with the reaction to the report rather than the contents itself (Guardian 11.10.2000). The leader articles that focused on a recommendation by the Trust to review history saw this as “rewriting our history” (My emphasis). Centrally to the debates about national freedom in this country are white, English sets of rules. The realities are that Britain is now a multi-cultural, devolved set of regions, something that we cannot ignore if we are to present an identity reflective of all members of society. The post-colonial immigration of Black people into Britain driven by capital forces has resulted in a sense of loss among African people, loosing their identity, history and values only to become, what Egbuna describes as, “imaginary white people” (Egbuna 1971). It is this double consciousness that leads, whereby Black British people do not fully claim a piece of British identity without adhering to the white norms set upon them (Carrington 2000).

The focus then for youth and community workers is to promote the cultural diversities within our communities, in order to create a holistic national freedom, one that includes all members of our communities. The problem for critical thinkers is not the issue of questioning the aspect of ‘Britishness’, it is the notion that we do not.


Throughout this essay, I have focused on key aspects of Julius Neyere’s quotation. These were mastery over destiny, changing the conditions of our lives and defending national freedom.

I drew upon anti-oppressive practice, with particular relevance to gender and ‘race’, in order to inform a discussion that is relevant for youth and community workers in practice today. In examining these crucial issues, I utilised Humanistic and Biological Psychological perspectives, together with feminist critique. I also turned to Marxism, Liberal Feminism and Functionalism to present a sociological critique. Finally, I drew upon the writings of key Black British writers on the subject of national identity.

In conclusion, I reaffirm the point about realism and the implications for youth and community workers. The rhetoric of empowerment is good, the system is supportive of the notion, but we must do our professional duty as critical educators in challenging these through a focus on the personal element of Thompson’s PCS model. In order to exact change, we must remain within the structure of functional stability.

For this method of work allows utilising critical thinking, clear outlook, unhindered by structures that retain the damaging and oppressive norms.

As youth workers, we can catalyst change that will ensure stability for the young people that we work with.

© Jason Wood & Student Youth Work Online 2000

References & Recommended Reading

Brookfield, S. (1987) Developing Critical Thinkers, Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Carrington, B. (2000) Double consciousness and the Black British athlete, in Owusu, K. (Ed.) Black British Culture and Society, London: Routledge (2000), p133-156

Durkheim, E. (1972), Selected Writings edited by Anthony Giddens, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Egbuna, O. (1971) Destroy this Temple, in Owusu, K. (Ed.) Black British Culture and Society, London: Routledge (2000), p58-69

Giddens, A. (1989) Sociology (3rd Ed), Cambridge: Polity Press

Gordon, P., & Rosenberg, D. (1990) Daily Racism – The Press and Black People in Britain, London: Runnymede Trust

Gough, B. (1998) Roles and Discourse, in Trew and Kremer (Eds.) Gender & Psychology, London: Arnold

Government Statistical Service (1998), Civil Service Statistics 1997, London: HMSO

Gross, R. (1986) Psychology – The Science of Mind & Behaviour (3rd Ed), London: Hodder & Stoughton

Guardian (11.10.2000) at 

Jeffs, T., & Smith, M.K. (1996) Informal Education – Conversation, Democracy and Learning – (2nd Edition), London: Education Now

McCullough, K., & Tett, L. (1999) Professional Ethics, Accountability and the Organisational Context of Youth Work, in Banks, S. (Ed). Ethical Issues in Youth Work, London: Routledge

Muldoon, O., & Reilly, J. (1998) Biology, in Trew and Kremer (Eds.) Gender & Psychology, London: Arnold

Myers, D.G. (1983) Social Psychology (5th Ed), USA: McGraw-Hill Companies

National Youth Agency (1998) The NYA Guide to…What is the Youth Service?, Leicester: National Youth Agency

Percy, C. (1998) Feminism, in Trew and Kremer (Eds.) Gender & Psychology, London: Arnold

Pilcher, J. (1999) Women in Contemporary Britain, London: Routledge

Porter, R. (1987) A Social History of Madness, London: Orion Books Ltd

Smith, M.K. (2000) Infed – The Informal Education Website, at

Rowan, J. (1976) Ordinary Ecstasy – Humanistic Psychology in Action (2nd Ed), London: Routledge

Seidler, V.J. (1994) Recovering the Self – Morality and Social Theory, London: Routledge

Spence, J. (1990) Youth Work and Gender, in Jeffs and Smith (Eds.) Young People Inequality and Youth Work, Basingstoke: Macmillan

Thompson, N. (1997) Anti-discriminatory Practice, Basingstoke: MacMillan

Thompson, N. (1998) Promoting Equality, Basingstoke: MacMillan

Young, K. (1999a) The Youth Worker as Guide, Philosopher & Friend: The Realities of Participation and Empowerment, in Banks (Ed.) Ethical Issues in Youth Work, London: Routledge

Young, K. (1999b) The Art of Youth Work, London: Russell House Publishing

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