This post is part of a collaborative series of reflections on doing systems change work. Read the other posts in this series by Steph Jacobs of Trailblazer Leadership and Jen Mein.
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.