How to: Changing hearts and minds for systems change

“Speak the truth. Speak it loud and often, calmly but insistently, and speak it… to power.” Said Donella Meadows.

When we know a system is oppressing people, or destroying our natural world, how to we inspire enough people to transform it with an urgency that reflects how we feel?

What’s needed is a ‘Paradigm shift’ “a time when the usual and accepted way of doing or thinking about something changes completely”.

In Geels’ (2002) Transition Theory model, this kind of change happens at the ‘Landscape level’:

  1. The Landscape Level- The climate of ideas, culture, the concepts passed down to us that are baked into the systems we inherit; ‘growth is good’, ‘white supremacy’.  Different from:
  2. The Regime- the existing infrastructure of the systems that surround us. The industries, markets, government and civil society organizations we have built to solve specific problems. Full of policies and practices and laws.
  3. The Niches of Innovation – the emerging business models, policies, ideas that represent a different way of doing things, but have yet to make it to mainstream.

The Landscape is always the slowest to move, but also where the most profound change can happen. Cassie Robinson called this raising ‘system consciousness’ and it has resonated with me ever since.

Strategies for raising ‘systems consciousness.’

As systems changers I think this level of change is often overlooked. Many of us have technical backgrounds, steeped in detailed knowledge of the systems we are trying to change. Or we’re strategists who find it easier to experiment with building coalitions, incubators, new business models than in waking people up, inspiring them to stay ‘woke’ and to act from that new understanding.

In my view, this is where the role of the Creative and of Presence come to the fore. Logic alone just doesn’t cut it.

Presence is defined in the book of the same title by Senge, Scharmer, Jaworksi and Flowers (2005) in the following way

“We first thought of presence as being fully conscious in the present moment. Then we began to appreciate presence as a deep listening, of being open beyond one’s own preconceptions and historical ways of making sense. We came to see the importance of letting go of old identities.”

To think more about this I have been reflecting on my own growing understanding of how white supremacy plays out in our culture and systems and how presence and creativity have played a crucial part in this.

A personal story of waking up to white supremacy

I like many other white people have inherited a world where this concept was baked into every system we found ourselves in. I stayed with my Grandparents every summer and on arrival my grandfather would sit me down with a map of the world and teach me proudly about the British Empire. My school was overwhelmingly white, in fact I can hardly remember there being anyone of color in our village or local town. Work was white. The fields of social innovation and sustainability I hung out in, white.   

Yet it was only really when I moved to America a year and a half ago that the ridiculousness all of this really came into view. I started to really notice the whiteness all around, in the most progressive places and began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with it. It felt like some colored glasses I’d been handed by the media, my family, by society had suddenly been lifted and all I could see was ‘this is unbelievably unfair.’

What a privilege to only notice this in my 30s, I know. But this is what we’re dealing with if we work in systems change and those of us who try and lead it are not immune. Doing this kind of work always begins with examining our own unconscious bias.

I want to illustrate how this ‘awakening’ unfolded for me over a period of about 7 years. It is a personal story, quite embarrassing if I’m honest, but I want to show how various interventions that I went through, can be viable strategies for systems change at Geels’ Landscape level.

Cracking open the issue

Reflecting on our ancestors

I attended a retreat with the Living Wholeness in Greece in about 2010. It was transformational in too many ways to list here, but one of the most powerful exercises we did was to explore our connection to our ancestors. We were a mixed group of ‘change makers’ from all over the world. Israeli, German, Dutch, British, Zimbabwean. How shameful it was to have a conversation from the perspective of our ancestors. The power imbalance, the impact it has had on our circumstances now. It cracked open the issue of racial injustice for me in a personal way.

I find history has a powerful way of waking us up to the fact that the systems that surround us are not laws of nature. They were created at some point to solve certain problems. This means they can change, just as so many systems before us have.

Marrying a ‘person of color’

I’d sure he’d love me to refer to him like that! Of course not just a person of color, but also my favorite person to hang out with.

Being immersed in his (Indian) culture post-wedding threw all the cards in the air for me. What was the role of the daughter-in-law? The role of a woman? What does community mean? What time do we eat? How many people are we cooking for here?

It’s really hard to have every norm you’ve inherited called into question. While the miscommunication of the early days has abated now with time, we’ve had to get really good at finding the concept at the heart of our disagreements and trying to have a rational conversation from there. It certainly opened my eyes to the idea that even for our deepest held values, there is no right and wrong, only a set of ideas passed down to us. Marrying someone of a different culture leaves you somewhere in the middle of both somehow. Neither of us fit perfectly back into the culture we came from.    

Storytelling

In 2014 I was invited to an incredible retreat in Cape Town South Africa with the Leading Causes of Life initiative. We heard anti-apartheid campaigners share stories of how they found hope in desperate moments and also from a young organizer there whose first salary out of University had to support the entire extended family.

My Great Auntie Eileen and Uncle Charlie emigrated to Cape Town in the early 1900s. Their stories were of lions and mines and sundowners. We visited Eileen in the nursing home where she lived on the way back from the retreat. The stories jarred against each other in a way that I still can’t resolve. It’s a dissonance that keeps this exploration alive for me personally.    

Learning more

As I said moving to America also shifted my consciousness about racial injustice. I arrived right in the middle of resurgence of conversation, the shootings and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I found a flurry of interventions fed my thirst for more information and helped to paint a picture quickly.  

Powerful films

12 Years a Slave has left me with images that I can’t erase. Finding out some of ancestors lived in Trinidad has made this even more real to me.

Powerful books

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, so beautifully written, gave me an insight into the experience of black person growing up in this country and of the history “The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine.”

Social media movement building  

As Dr Robert Ross said in a recent interview on podcast OnBeing #BlackLivesMatter BLM is a ‘living case study of narrative change and framing, because then it leads to “ok then, if black lives matter then what does it mean to schools?" etc.

Powerful articles

“Let us not forget that, within living memory, tens of thousands of Africans were murdered, tortured and mutilated in British concentration camps in Kenya. This is not a revisionist theory or a left wing interpretation of the past. It is an historical fact, an acknowledged crime for which the British government has paid compensation to surviving victims.” A great Guardian article among many in the last two years on the British Empire that has confirmed my thinking. 

Documentary film making

I challenge anyone to watch the documentary 13TH and leave feeling unmoved about the criminal justice system in this country. The quote that stays with me came from said lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson: “People say all the time, ‘I don’t understand how people could have tolerated slavery?’ ‘How could they have made peace with that?’ ‘How could people have gone to a lynching and participated in that?’ ‘That’s so crazy, if I was living at that time I would never have tolerated anything like that.’ And the truth is we are living in this time, and we are tolerating it.”

Comedy

Luis CK is brilliant at highlighting the ridiculousness of so many of our systems. He said of racial injustice: “I read something in the paper that really confused me the other day. It said that 80 percent of the people in New York are minorities…Shouldn’t you not call them minorities when they get to be 80 percent of the population? That’s a very white attitude, don’t you think? I mean, you could take a white guy to Africa and he’d be like, “Look at all the minorities around here! I’m the only majority.”

More reflection

Mindfulness

A friend sent me an invite to a course. It read: “Be More America is leading the charge to hack unconscious bias through the use of mindfulness techniques. Our goal is to create a measurable shift in the beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors among the gatekeepers and professionals whose decision-making power has a direct impact on all of our lives.”

“How old were you when you first realized you had a racial identity? Discuss.” An exercise they asked us to do in one of our first sessions. The course took us through the root causes of unconscious bias. The history of the term ‘Caucasian’. Showed us images of white ‘survivors’ of Hurricane Katrina and black ‘looters’ in the media. We became more conscious of our reactions by meditating daily, created visual boards of inspiring people of color and consciously replaced our negative reactions with positive ones when they. Most importantly for me, we, a mixed group of African American, Hispanic, white people, openly talked about race, even when we didn’t have the right words.

Safe spaces to talk  

One of the best things about moving to New York was meeting Tanya Birl Torres. We both joined a parenting circle at our daughters’ nursery and talked about race in relation to our children. Then together we hosted I Am in January, an opportunity for our two communities to come together and talk about the cognitive dissonance that emerged for us post US election. One of the discussion groups was ‘racial injustice and being white’. A mixed group of guests gathered to shared their own thoughts and experience of the issue against the backdrop of Trump.  

Tanya has been someone who has kept this conversation alive for me. It’s very easy to just fall back into white friends, ignore the problem, but her presence in my life reminds me of the person I want to become. She has also listened to me clunk through my own ideas about race as they emerged. Talking about it has been crucial. As Eula Bliss said in an Interview with Krista Tippett of On Being: “I do think that when it comes to racism, we pay too much attention to language…. When in fact, I think there are many graver actions that are happening that happen without anyone ever saying anything offensive…. I think if you can’t talk about something, you can’t think about something.”

Spoken word

One of Tanya’s friends is Daniel Watts (of Hamilton fame), a spoken word poet who performed at the event in January. We subsequently went to see his show and I find it hard to articulate how powerful his message is. He is super talented. A storyteller, poet, dancer, singer. He’s like an explosion of truth that hits you from every angle. His show cemented many ideas I’d had about racial injustice in the US. See one of his poems here (or watch it at the bottom of this page). The wrote this poem after the police were called because he was seen in a white neighborhood, while visiting a white friend from University.  

Journaling yoga

It was the wise and wonderful Vanessa Reid who introduced journaling yoga to me many moons ago. Tanya and I’s second I AM event was a yoga session on ‘what do I need to allow to die in me in order to grow?’ We did a yoga session around a series of poses that symbolize death, followed by individual mapping out of what was growing and dying within each of us. 

Inspiring solutions

Through The New School in New York I met Isata Yansaneh who was putting together the Lighthouse project. Her idea was to create the conditions for friends of color to get their art out into the world, whether that was a screen play or a poem, art that changes the narrative. It got me thinking about how to create systemic solutions at the landscape level of change.   

To conclude

I share these interventions here because I want to name them as credible strategies for systems change. This is not a comprehensive list but they give you a picture of a set of tools that are equally as important as our policy papers, our incubators and our coalitions.

The journey to shift my own consciousness around white supremacy has not been influenced by just one thing. It has been through a series of experiences and moments to reflect, creative interventions and opportunities to presence into what I really feel about the topic that I have begun to unravel the stories I have been told by society. What a privileged position I am to be exploring this in my own time, rather than facing the lived experience of it, as a person of color. I know this. 

This is not a heroic story with a happy ending, it is an ongoing saga which is not yet complete. Economist Brian Arthur said in the book Presence; “You observe and observe and let this experience well up into something appropriate. In a sense, there’s no decision making.”…“what to do just becomes obvious. You can’t rush it.”

So with that I will continue to trust the process and know that when the time is right, I will make my move, because the whole ebb and flow of knowledge and reflection has changed the way I am in the world, not simply what I think.