When I reflect back on my experiences that have shaped how I view change, I remember hearing the Serenity Prayer as a young person:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
More recently, I have come across this quote from Angela Davis:
I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change.
I’m changing the things I cannot accept.
What I notice in both of these influential perspectives is the power of self within change. To have courage to change what I cannot accept. To boldly step in and step up in a change effort. I find that acceptance comes a little slower for me these days, but it is a helpful practice when a desired change feels slow or wrought with complexity. It takes resiliency to face that kind of change. I also believe there are times in my life when I knew I did not have the energy or know-how to step in and step up so I stepped back or stepped out of a change, for better or for worse.
I have been fortunate over the past decade to be involved in systems change work. This often means there has been some acknowledgement that the way things are being done no longer, or never have, served the needs of those who connect to the system, whether that be around technology, social services, or long-standing institutions. I have witnessed the compassion, courage, and commitment humans who care for other humans are capable of and I am deeply grateful for that experience.
Systems change work is humbling and complex work. Change in systems often requires a change within self. This requires us to see ourselves as part of the systems we are trying to change. That can be challenging to do sometimes. That is why my colleagues and I created the Systems Simulation. To provide an opportunity for individuals to experience being part of a system and to reflect on what shows up in the room and in themselves.
There are so many behaviors that show up when we facilitate The Systems Simulation. One that has always fascinated me is when a group of strangers seem to quickly build a sense of team identity and loyalty to each other. In the beginning, a small group works together to complete a challenge. Then, the next challenge they are faced with requires that they work with others in the room (the system). In the transition between those moments, some teams begin to compete with the other groups in the room. Especially if the team is one of the first to complete the initial challenge, there is often a sense of team pride and a spark of competition is lit in the system. The last challenge involves the creation of a collective piece and some of the teams interpret “collective” as their group and not the whole. There is no right or wrong in this choice, but often, there is that conscious choice. Sometimes choosing not to participate is an act of resistance or a way to practice self care.
Consider what that looks like in a system change effort. How often do we isolate ourselves or narrow our focus such that we miss seeing the whole system and the impact we have on it? I believe that is actually a very common experience. A system is like a rubber band. It takes conscious awareness and effort to change its shape and without that, it quickly goes back to the way it was. The more complex the change or entrenched the system, the more difficult it is to make change. Yet, change is possible.
We are often holding two systems - our current way of being shaped by our past and our emerging way of being based on an unknown future. This is a space of presence. To stand in this moment and reflect on the changes you are experiencing or want to make. How does courage and acceptance play in that change? How will you choose to show up to consciously impact the systems you are in to make change?
I wanted to be the change. I wanted to change systems. I wanted to serve the common good. These seem to be reasonable, rational, achievable goals, right? Yes, these aspirations are indeed possible. My expectations of said change, however, are not.
My work in public, nonprofit and education systems has been an attempt to do these very complex things. In many ways I feel good about the ‘change’ I was able to be a part of, the mindsets I was able to shift. But questions still linger, did my work have an impact? Did I do enough?
This work has taught me that change comes about in two ways- naturally or by force. Enhancing or advancing what currently exists, is a process that occurs without having to justify the need for change. Change through force is a volatile disruption of the status quo. It is the divergence from a current state of being, one that no longer serves the common good. It is collective in nature, coming from multiple forces of power. This type of change happens when a process, or behavior becomes unethical or inequitable.
When in conversation about systems change, social change, or just change in general, I often find myself reciting the takeaways created in collaboration with fellow change agents for The Systems Simulation. These takeaways served to connect participants to their identities and role within a given system. Sit in uncertainty – immerse yourself in complexity; Have a nimble mind and heart – learn, practice, reflect with others; Build and hold onto trust, hope, and identity to guide you; Pioneers need to step out and name what needs to change; Systems decisions and policies are made by people and can be changed by people. The truth is that these takeaways, although simply stated, in many ways are the principles, the catalyst for the perspective and adaptability needed to shift from one state of being to another. The catalyst for systems change.
To sit in what is uncertain or immerse oneself in what is complex, is not our nature. We are creatures of comfort. We busy ourselves, our lives with the unconscious intention of avoiding sitting in complexity. We run from discomfort. We run from our thoughts.
In doing this work, I can recall so many uncomfortable conversations and encounters with opposing parties. Two or more individuals or groups both consumed with addressing the same issue at the core, but who differed in opinion on what could be or the manner in which this change should occur. They do not sit in uncertainty, because they feel they are expected to know the answers. To sit in uncertainty is to admit that you may not have the answers to what is pressing. They do not immerse themselves in complexity. To be immersive is to give yourself the space to innovate, to dream, to reflect on what was or what is, taking all that is good into what could be.
I find the tension between individuals and groups addressing the same symptoms of one outdated or inequitable system to be amusing. You know you are striving toward the same goals? You see that you are saying the same thing only using different words, right? You realize your work is addressing the same issue? What if you stopped to listen, to learn from one another, to practice understanding, to reflect on what is and what could be? What if you admitted that you do not have all the answers, allowing yourself to be nimble in mind and heart?
To be an agent of change, you must understand that the issue, the system you are seeking to address did not become what it is without a collective body. Therefore, changing that system will too take the thought and commitment of a collective body. It is imperative that you build and hold onto your trust of others, understanding that your identity- though robust in nature, cannot alone shift a system into change.
In facilitating The Systems Simulation, I was always struck by how ‘right’ people needed to be. How they became rooted or resistant to change or lacked the ability to think outside of their initial thoughts. The simulation is ambiguous in nature. Participants are not aware of what exactly will come next, yet they form opinions and then become paralyzed by their assumptions, unable to shift from their predisposed, self-inflicted disposition. This is the fork in the road. The point of decision. Will you choose to be a pioneer and step out, or will you remain rooted?
Experience facilitating change on the individual, interpersonal and institutional levels, has taught me a few things about change in its essence. Change is a choice. You have to make the choice to do or to be different and assume (take) all that comes with that choice. The principle, ‘Systems decisions and policies are made by people and can be changed by people,’ speaks to this truth.’ Individuals must choose to believe that change is possible.
To be the change, you have to acknowledge that you are a part of the system. You have to be willing to sit in discomfort, collaborate and reflect with others, reflect on yourself, humble yourself, and acknowledge default behavior that hinders change at its core.
I often sit in discomfort. Honestly, I like pushing others to be uncomfortable. To me discomfort is growth. Discomfort is a practice of reflection. It is how we learn to adapt. Being the change has taught me to be less focused on the results and more focused on doing the work to create change. I have suppressed my expectations to do the work. Did my work have an impact? Did I do enough? All that matters is that I am working, doing, being the change.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my role when it comes to change. I’ve been involved in several systems change efforts, with varying degrees of success. When I first started doing this work, I think I wanted to be on the forefront of change, pushing it to happen. And now I’ve realized that the most impactful change has been the change that has taken place inside me, in my mindset, in unlearning old ways, and applying that new way of seeing the world to my actions. That has lead me to realize that my role is to be more of a guide or someone who creates space for others to go through a similar self-examination and reflection process.
This desire to offer a space for reflection and unlearning was part of the impetus for creating the Systems Simulation. My colleagues and I wanted to offer an interactive, engaging experience that would allow people to reflect on their own approach, mindset, unconscious beliefs, and barriers when it comes to systems change work. The simulation doesn’t provide answers, but acts more like a mirror. It reveals and opens up things to the participants about themselves that will likely make them uncomfortable. In our experience facilitating the simulation, it’s highly emotional and sometimes stressful, and that is exactly the point. It’s meant to model the difficulty of systems work and also expose the things within ourselves that are getting in the way of doing the work.
When people get uncomfortable, they often resist. This can look like outright defiance or questioning of the rules. But in some cases, as often is the case in the simulation, it looks like inactivity or an arms-crossed “I’m not playing” kind of attitude. It can also look checked out or apathetic. I believe these responses correlate with what Johanna Macy describes in her book Active Hope as either overwhelm or business as usual:
These responses are common, and are a reflection of the way people behave and are treated in larger systems. In this simulation, people find themselves readily falling into roles that they play in real life, and also experience the treatment in the simulation that they experience in real life. The people who have had systems generally work in their favor, in other words white people and people with privilege, are those who bristle the most against the lack of clear direction or the constraint of the rules that are placed upon them by the simulation. In other cases, for people who experience systems that work in their favor, they will find “work arounds” in the rules that they might think are clever, but other people perceive as entitled flouting of the rules. This often causes a discussion of power and perception of who can and can’t do certain things when it comes to systems change and the relative risk that people feel they can take.
This demonstrates that without self-awareness, consciousness, and care for the larger systems, how quickly people can fall back into old patterns and ways of thinking, most of which are rooted in the characteristics of white supremacy culture, as outlined by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun: either or thinking, defensiveness, quantity over quality, power hoarding, individualism, and right to comfort. In the simulation, this looks like focusing on the self first, the team second, and the system last.
Change takes intention and time. And even in the safety of this simulation, people often don’t take the time to do the work. By the time they reach the third round, they know what they need to do, but they fall back to old ways of behaving. They don’t check in with each other. They don’t talk about what they are trying to create. They may go back to their table to create something there. They are tired and the effort seems too great. They do what is easy. What would happen if they took the time to ask and connect with each other to uncover what they could create together?
That is what systems change requires. Time, connection, exploration, shared vision, awareness, consciousness, and the willingness to be uncomfortable or give up power and privilege. It’s fascinating that we can see all of this play out during the simulation. By creating the space of exploration and reflection in the simulation, we hope that it opens people’s eyes to what change is required and what they might need to do in order to make it happen.