This post is part of a collaborative series of reflections on doing systems change work. Read the other posts in this series by Isadora Collins of Maude Consulting and Jen Mein of Moxxim.
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 Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone describe in their 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.