Digging Deeper on Systemic Change

Marion Osieyo

“Most of what we know about boundaries comes from maps, and by making new kinds of maps we can start to think about boundaries in new ways.” – Bill Rankin

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the work that I do, the work the development field does in relation to one question: What is the difference between changing a system and systemic change?

Five years ago, I participated in a transformative community development program in Newham, east London called Lush Oasis. Lush Oasis was a joint project between Lush Cosmetics, Instituto Elos and a local movement, the Momentum Project. Our aim was to work with a neighborhood in Newham to regenerate their community by creating one vision they had for their area. We had seven days to do so, no resources and no money.

The area we were working in had experienced several public policy failures including a depressed local economy, and inadequate health and social infrastructure leading to various forms of disintegration including high poverty and unemployment rates, and environmental pollution.

Using a participatory development approach designed by Oasis, we rebuilt a community center in seven days, sourcing all materials from local environmental waste and donations from local businesses. Here’s a video documentary of the project (featuring a bright-eyed me!).

Our role as community leaders was not to ‘empower’ the community but to facilitate enabling behaviors that could create the long-term change they wanted to see. In other words, draw new maps (and new boundaries) of the physical space that could make transformative change happen. Reflecting on the experience, here are four lessons from this project which I believe are catalysts for creating systemic change:

From conflict to co-operation (Trust): Building trust between community leaders was an important first step. Trust allows you to change your mindset from seeing barriers to finding opportunities in any circumstance. On the first day of the program, the community leaders took part in a trust building exercise. One person was blindfolded and another person acted as their guide, directing them as they moved around the area. This was an important lesson in trusting another person to lead and most importantly, using your other senses to see the local environment not as a place of depravation but a place of wonder, of opportunity, of possibility.

Listening as an act of mobilizing: Once we built trust amongst ourselves, the next step was to build trust in the community by listening. This experience taught me just how important listening is as a skill for transformative leadership. As community leaders, we facilitated listening by creating spaces for the community to convene and listen to each other. One of the ways did this was by removing any disempowering behaviors/tools used in public discourse. For example, we encouraged children as opposed to adults to lead conversations. We used different tools of discourse that were accessible to all such as mind mapping and drawing as opposed to technocratic debates on urban planning and local politics. Listening as a tool for mobilizing also meant changing the physical space to remove power hierarchies in interactions. People would sit/stand at different levels and discussions were held in circles with community leaders dispersed around the room.

Planning and plugging: I was initially skeptical of the idea of building a community space in seven days with no money and no resources. By the fourth day, that skepticism had disappeared. Having done the work of changing mindsets, listening and mobilizing, I quickly began to realize just how much opportunity there was for change. Following a series of open forums, the community decided they wanted to redesign and refurbish a neglected community space. Our role was to plan (turn the vision into a series of actions) and plug (organize and link these actions).

Beyond this, the change process was led and realized by the community. Without their skills, their ideas and their commitment, there was no way we could have built that space in seven days. This is the ‘big magic’ of the Oasis Game; it used a combination of systems thinking and participatory development to transform the community. We started off by diving into the deep end. Using systems thinking, we identified the big cogs preventing development from happening (i.e. mindsets, co-ordination, consensus blocks). Once we did this, we started to build; building opportunity, by building community. In the end, we ended up with change which no-one person could claim to have brought about and results that could not be attributed to one single action.

Putting the social in social development: When entering a community that is not yours, with the purpose of facilitating change, it is important to establish a power dynamic that is truly compatible with systemic change. That power dynamic is interdependence. Put it simply, interdependence is sustainable, dependence is not. Interdependence allows for power to become a practical tool for change as opposed to a fixed framework to operate within. This is the idea explored in this action research piece on the potential of power as a tool for social change. By recognizing the fluid nature of power, proponents of social change can learn how to identify and work with the changing nature of power to achieve their objectives. This is a concept the international development community needs to work on; not seeing the communities they seek to support as powerless but powerful. I am optimistic the Sustainable Development Agenda is our chance to get it right.

How do you define the difference between changing a system and creating systemic change?

This post originally appeared on Marion Osieyo’s blog. Featured image courtesy of the author.