My work in the social justice movement is with organizations who want to change, want to be more inclusive, who want to create learning environments where people can thrive and feel respected. But that really means, I work with a lot of people. While I am not alone in this work (there are many brilliant and gifted colleagues), my place in these efforts is with people who are just like me: white people of all genders, orientations, and socio-economic classes who want to uproot the system of -isms and oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, etc.) in their daily lives and in their organizations, but don’t know how to do it. I help them find their possibilities of change.
In my learning of how organizations change and shift, I have learned that passion and enthusiasm for change is never enough to shift the formal and informal structures, policies, and procedures that consistently benefit the few at the expense to the many. Organizations and systems often have a life our their own, and, as Donella Meadows describes, they “self-regulate.” This means that we as individuals in a system or an organization don’t need to be consciously “maintaining” the system; our mere presence and participation in it is what delivers the results, whether we are actually aware of it or not. This is often the biggest learning hurdle for social change activists, but especially for well meaning people who believe (perhaps hope) that their enthusiasm for a better world erases a history of racism, sexism, classism, active oppression, and generational pain (it took me a long time to understand ad accept this too, but more on that later).
Elaborate structures (like balancing feedback loops, reinforcing feedback loops, etc) are built around them that are not influenced by a community’s passion for something different. Organizational change requires a systems view and analysis to understand how these feedback loops are in operation, how they “feed the goal of the system” to create the outcome (desired or not), and what are effective leverage points to shift the system in another direction (for a more in depth, complex, and infinitely illuminating description of systems, I recommend the works of Jay Forrester and Donella Meadows).
One of Meadow’s most impressive contributions has been her chapter on ways to intervene in a system. In that chapter, she talks about the various ways that one person, a team, or a community can create enough leverage to shift a system in a new direction. Her list of twelve ways, in order of effectiveness and importance, offers great insight to my work in social justice-based organizational development, and they are useful visuals to generate understanding and awareness with those with whom I work.
An important leverage point, especially for leaders, and the one that garners the largest shifts and influences the greatest changes is changing the goal of the system. This describes when a leader of a system (country, government, organization, etc.) acts to change the direction, output or goal of the organizational system. This seemingly small action has a profound ripple effect within a system, a country, a government, and an organization. It does not happen very often, but when it does, it transforms the system. It is the leverage point that many enthusiastic, well intended, white people (or really anyone in any dominant social space who desires change) wish to have at their disposal. But most of us don’t have the power or access within the system to use that leverage point. So we hope, pray, criticize, and try to influence our leaders to use their leverage point.
More often, leaders don’t use that leverage, even in the face of good data and overwhelming feedback. Human nature likely has us believing it is better to try to improve a system that has a poor outcome by using small tweaks than using a powerful leverage point to shift the system dramatically. This belief is rooted in fear; we are afraid to change, because we don’t know what that change will do or what the result will be (because systems work requires studying the system to understand its operation and goals before we can understand what leverage point will be effective in shifting the system in the direction we wish). In that fear of the unknown, it is easier to stay with the status quo, no matter how bad, how unjust, how ineffective the system is.
So many of us who desire social justice and change in our society, our community, and our organizations do not use the leverage points we have at our disposal. We keep looking up to those people above us, asking or waiting for them to use their more powerful leverage point. While a leverage point in a larger system might be more effective (with proper assessment), we don’t use the ones at our level because of the messiness involved, the hard work that comes with the analysis of the system, the hard work that comes from engaging the community within the organization, and to accept the responsibility and criticism from those who want the system shifted in another direction. So we do nothing, and as described earlier in this article, doing nothing within a system just delivers those same status quo results that we wish would change. Our fear keeps us perpetuating unjust systems, ironically, even when we have the power and influence to make the changes toward a more just system.
The fear is powerful. I am still afraid of using my power to initiate some of the systems shifts that I wish to see, especially in the face of great resistance. At times I fear confronting the intolerance in my friends or family because i fear losing the relationships; at times I fear challenging my organization regarding poorly designed and implemented policies and procedures because some of them could mean I could lose my job (and my kids, spouse, health insurance, and way of life depend on my income); at times, I fear confronting and uprooting racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and other oppressions because it will force me to see that all of my successes, achievements, and that of my family have come at the expense of others from a system that we did not design but from which we have heavily benefited.
Courage is essential so that we can overcome our fears, shift the systems within our influence. Our work also requires respect, compassion, and vulnerability. We cant wait. Change is possible, and it starts with us.