Community Engagement for Equitable Systems Change

Community Engagement for Equitable Systems Change

Over the past five years we have collaborated to birth and cultivate a constellation of tools to support people seeking to center community voices as we create more equitable systems. 

The tools and frameworks we’ve created are for anyone seeking to create equitable systems. 

We know that context matters, and these tools were birthed in the context of our collaborative. A collaborative made up of practitioners who were ourselves hungry for tools that would support us in centering community in order to create more equitable systems.

Our Origin Story

Our journey began in 2019, when we attended a health equity summit that brought together people from across state government as well as a broad array of community organizations. During the summit, there was a panel of government staff from different state agencies and they were asked about what they believed would advance equity. Every person on the panel answered that community engagement was the key. 

While we agreed with this wholeheartedly – we know that those most impacted must be at the table when we are designing solutions – and yet, we had partnered with government on so many community engagement efforts and we had seen how often it was simply a box that was checked. Community was asked for input, but their ideas were never operationalized. We were excited about this energy around community engagement and worried that if it didn’t lead to real change it might be seen as unsuccessful and abandoned as an approach. 

We wanted to help practitioners increase the chances that community engagement could lead to real systems change. Thus the vision for the Community Engagement for Equitable Systems Change collaborative was born. We sought funding to support us in this effort and began inviting people to join a collaborative group to help us co-create the tools & frameworks. 

Our Ideation Process

Our collaborative began meeting in the fall of 2019. We soon arrived at our primary goal: developing tools and frameworks that would support people working at the intersections of racial equity, community engagement and systems change. 

Our plan was to begin with a convening in the spring of 2020 where we would engage local systems change agents in appreciative inquiry interviews about what was present when they had been a part of successful systems change efforts. Of course, as with all efforts undertaken at that time, our plans had to transform as we learned how to operate in online spaces after the arrival of COVID-19. 

Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota USA, we found ourselves in a time of powerful disruption. Systems were changing rapidly as they sought to adapt to the new realities ushered in by COVID. Soon after, the murder of George Floyd and the racial uprising that followed deepened our landscape of painful and transformative change. The power of self-organizing was evident and the demand for equitable systems was bold and unapologetic. People were unwilling to tolerate the continuation of the status quo. 

It was in this context that we held our first gatherings of systems change agents in the summer of 2020. We held two online convenings where we got to hear from folks deeply committed to advancing equitable systems change. We wanted to hear from these folks about both the barriers they encountered and to conduct Appreciative Inquiry interviews to identify what leads to success.  

Our harvest was incredibly abundant, so much so that we keep returning to it. Three main themes emerged about what is needed: 

  • Relationships at the center
  • Building Systems Awareness
  • Understanding the multiple roles that an ecosystem needs as it evolves new systems using frameworks like Two Loops Theory 

As our collaborative reflected on this harvest we moved through the steps outlined below. Asking ourselves questions to deepen our understanding of the theme. Questions like: What would it mean to keep relationships at the center? How does it benefit the system/status quo for us not to see/be aware of systems?

Then we asked ourselves what these questions were revealing and what tools or mindsets might help meet these needs. This journey of reflection led us to the four buckets around which we would begin to develop tools and frameworks: 

  • Systems that Shape Us
  • Self-Awareness
  • Letting Go
  • Collaboration Skill Building

We generated a ton of ideas. So many it was clear to us that we could not develop tools around them all. So we created our Prioritization Criteria to help us determine where to focus our energy. 

Parallel to this process we also worked with our Evaluation Partner to conduct a lit review of existing resources. We wanted to ensure that we were drawing upon the resources, tools and frameworks that were already available to support creating equitable systems. We organized all that we found in our lit review into the same four buckets around which we developed our tools and frameworks.   

We came up with the ideas for tools, and our first impulse was to dig in. To choose one and start developing it. We quickly realized that we couldn’t think about them in isolation and that there were throughlines that we felt needed to be present in all of the tools. We needed to understand how they related to one another. Through that exploration we realized we needed something that could hold the complexity of the work, that would acknowledge that people are at different skills levels and in different contexts – a framework that could hold our tools. Our constellation metaphor emerged.  

Our Constellation & Galaxy

Constellations have guided people from cultures across the world on many journeys. As we seek to build community-driven, equitable systems, we do not find ourselves on a linear journey. Our path to transformation is multi-layered, interconnected, and requires us to move through cycles of focusing in and zooming out.  We designed this constellation of tools to support systems change practitioners to move through those cycles. 

The constellation we have developed, like all constellations, is embedded in a larger galaxy. The elements in the galaxy are bound together by a set of shared values that invite us to center our humanity. These values – reflection, relationships, joy, embodied wisdom, and decolonizing – are woven through all of our tools and frameworks. The galaxy values are what remain constant in the ever-evolving work of systems change.  

Our Birthing & Cultivation Manifesto

Once we finished the constellation and galaxy values we were ready to start prototyping tools. We realized that we had a lot of feelings about prototyping. We felt uncertain and intimidated by the process and had a set of limiting beliefs about our capacity to “prototype.” We also recognized that the language of prototyping didn’t resonate with how we had been holding our work – it felt mechanical and like a tool of capitalism. Once again we decided we needed to slow down and do some decolonizing. We needed to explore how we would develop these tools and frameworks. This led us to develop our Birthing & Cultivation Manifesto – you can watch a video of our collaborative members reading the manifesto on our website. 

With our Birthing & Cultivation Manifesto to ground us, we began developing our tools & frameworks. We engaged our community of systems change practitioners along the way to help ensure we were on track with what we were developing. They provided us with invaluable insights and feedback that we used to refine and complete the tools. New things emerged in these conversations that helped us notice things we’d been missing and led us to reconsider certain aspects of our thinking. 

Our Tools & Frameworks

We are so excited to share what we birthed through this journey we have been on. We created these tools and frameworks to support those seeking to create equitable systems and we want to get them into the hands of as many practitioners as we can! 

Here’s an overview of our three tools & frameworks: 

Interdependence Framework: Antidotes for Us vs. Them Dynamics  

  • A framework for understanding the interdependence that exists between you, your community and the systems you are embedded in. 
  • As you are seeking to create equitable systems change, this tool can support you to remember interdependence and the possibility that interdependent reality creates. 

The tool can help…

  • Illuminate the interdependence of individuals, systems and communities and explore how the dynamics of interdependence can inform our strategies for creating change
  • Invite us to reflect on our positionality as we seek to create equitable systems change
  • Identify common us vs. them and power dynamics that emerge at the intersections
  • Provide antidotes to these dynamics – actions and mindsets that can support you to move in new and more productive ways 

Reflection Tool-Kit for Changemakers

  • Our toolkit is a compilation of many of the reflection tools and resources that our collaboration members have used in their systems change efforts. It’s divided into three sections:
  • Individuals: These tools can be especially helpful in grounding individuals who lead, host, participate in, and/or pursue systems change efforts.
  • Groups: These tools can be especially helpful for groups navigating systems change efforts
  • System: These tools can be especially helpful when reflecting on how the system(s) you are embedded in are operating

Collaboration Mindsets: Moving from Individualism to Solidarity  

  • This tool works to make visible the mindsets and behaviors of individualism and solidarity. It engages you in reflecting on your context and assessing how individualism and solidarity are showing up in your work and provides some resources that can support you in embedding practices in your collaborations that can move you towards solidarity.

This tool is broken into three sections:

Section 1: Understanding Mindsets 

  • Provides a framework for reflection by naming and making visible the mindsets and behaviors of individualism and solidarity. 

Section 2: Collaboration 

  • Supports you to think about the collaborations you are engaged in as you seek to create equitable systems. The tool can help you reflect on how you can move your collaborations from being rooted in individualism to being rooted in solidarity.

Section 3: Assessment & Action 

  • Engages you in reflecting on your context and assessing how individualism and solidarity are showing up in your work and provides some resources that can support you in embedding practices in your collaborations that can move you towards solidarity. 

You can access the tools on our website:

We’d love to connect around the tools or just in general around partnering to advance equitable systems change. Feel free to reach out to us at

The Community Engagement for Equitable Systems Change collaborative aims to bridge the divide between systems and the communities they serve, change how systems operate, and equip systems to advance racial equity.

Network Weaver is dedicated to offering free content to all – in support of equity, justice and transformation for all.

We appreciate your support!