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System Change: Can We Get It Right From the Start?

Publication date: 
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Curtis OgdenSenior Associate, Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC)

Note: The following post originally appeared on the Interaction Institute for Social Change blog.

Once upon a time there was a funder.  This funder had been working for almost a decade to strengthen local community efforts to improve early childhood development opportunities and outcomes around the state.  The communities appreciated and were grateful for this support, and the number of community collaboratives grew.

At the same time, in the face of persistent and racialized inequities, recognition was growing that something more was needed to hold these local efforts together, to harness and connect them, and to align state-level efforts with community needs and aspirations.  So a call went out from the various communities to the funder to help do something about this.  The funder responded, cautiously, and engaged in “listening” sessions with communities and advocates.  And it reached out to some potential resources, including IISC, to explore what might be done.

After much consideration, the funder stepped forward to convene what was called a “system building” initiative.  The goal was to create an equitable early childhood development system that worked for all families and children in the state, regardless of race, income or ability.  And this collaborative effort became known as Right from the Start.

But here’s the thing, as enthusiastic as people were to come to the collaborative table, to take “right” action at this right time, the discovery was quickly made that not everyone was in agreement about what it meant to build a new system, or even what the system in question was.  So the funder and the people took a deep breath and stepped back, and engaged in a process of conversation and dis-covery.  This included learning together about systems thinking, networks, and racial equity.  The learning was rich, and it was hard.  What prevailed was an understanding that the system was much more than what anyone had originally imagined.  For example:
The system is not a machine, it is alive and dynamic.

The system is not an “it” or “out there;” the system is an “us.”

The system is not just made by policies and programs, but at more fundamental levels by perceptions, power dynamics, privilege and purpose.
And . . . If we do not understand our role in the (complex) problem, it is difficult to be part of the solution.

What began as a system “building” effort became more about system discovery and evolution with equity at the center.  Focus on policy and state-level infrastructure now embraces ongoing learning and the creation of new narratives to support a system that truly sees and embraces all.  And “getting it right from the start” has become more about trying to get our own thinking right, constantly bringing diverse perspectives together, and leading with curiosity and an appetite for justice.

IISC will join with staff from the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund and The Color Words to share more about this unfolding story and be in conversation with others about their experiences with system change at the GEO National Conference.  Our session is entitled “Net Work, Net Equity, and Emergence: Getting It Right From the Start” and will happen on Wednesday, March 12, at 8:30 AM PST.

Curtis Ogden is a Senior Associate with the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC) through which he provides collaborative capacity building support to individuals, organizations, and multi-stakeholder change networks.  He is currently working with a number of system change efforts including CT Right From the Start, Food Solutions New England, Inter-Institutional Network for Food, Agriculture and Sustainability, and the Cancer Free Economy Network.

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Johanna Boomsma's picture

By Johanna Boomsma (not verified) on

Thank you for a great analogy, and for the call toward humility, another name for constructive & beneficial power wrapped in gentleness.