Pathways Toward Sustainable
Impact, Beyond “Eureka!,”
Unawareness & Unwitting Harm
Change Elemental chose to offer a monograph to share our thoughts on the inseparability of Systems Change and Deep Equity, given our 40 years as an organization in the systems change, capacity building, and social justice fields. (1) We offer this especially given the proliferation of equity awareness and significantly deeper requests for equity support across the organizational development and movement network fields in the last few years. This expansion in requests for deep, transformational equity support has grown dramatically since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Now, many more social change organizations and philanthropic institutions are working to deepen their knowledge and capacity around Systems Change and Deep Equity. In our opinion, the combination of these two fields is pivotal and likely the work to do for the next phase of our human evolution if we are to become the societies we hope for in our deepest hearts and visions for just and healthy communities.
The co-authors of this article have 65 years of combined experience in systems change, equity, and organizational transformation. We have worked together on a number of projects for nearly 8 years, sometimes separately and, at times, together in local, national, and international spaces. We have worked across foundations, non-profits, medium-to-large school systems and universities as well as with individuals, institutions, and networks to support leaders, change agents, and groups to deepen their capacity to realize the full potential of their missions and collective dreams. We have observed over the last decade or so in the field of organizational development, the more popular advent of “Systems Change” as a domain of effort that can lead to more comprehensive, lasting, and effective transformation for institutions, communities, neighborhoods, and groups.
Yet, our observation is also that these approaches to “complex systems” are new to some and not so new to others. Here enters “equity.” We have written elsewhere on the dimensions of equity, and refer readers to those pieces. (2) Others of our colleagues have also written extensively across the fields of social justice, organizational transformation, network development, and movement building. (3)
Our purpose in this article is to dispel mythology and to illuminate essential dimensions of approaches to Systems Change intimately connected with Deep Equity. Our perspectives and our experience have shown us that the two are inseparable if they are to be pursued at depth. The degree of healing needed in our world, and in our collective institutions and communities, requires nothing less than depth from us at this time (if less comprehensive approaches were ever appropriate).
We indicate in this monograph what, from our perspective, are the most salient aspects of approaches to Systems Change and Deep Equity combined that can lead and, in our experience, have led to the most profound changes in organizations, local, national, and global communities, networks, and movement building efforts. (We also refer readers to Change Elemental and Building Movement Project’s 2018 webinar on Systems Change and Equity for further grounding in our approaches. (4) )
As we have stated, nothing less than the robustness of complex Systems Change approaches are necessary to solve some of the most intractable situations we are and have been facing for quite some time—socially, environmentally, and economically, in terms of the overall health and well-being of individuals and communities, nationally and globally. We have grown as a species in our ability to be aware of the interconnectedness between so many of our issues and circumstances; this insight is a gift. We are now challenged to take that growth and insight, and apply it at depth with particular attention to our areas of unawareness—i.e., the places we have been ignoring for centuries. It is to these areas that Deep Equity speaks. In fact, Deep Equity, by its very nature, is complex Systems Change.
To put a finer point on these statements: Systems Change pursued without Deep Equity is, in our experience, dangerous and can cause harm, and in fact leaves some of the critical elements of systems unchanged. And “equity” pursued without “Systems Change” is not “deep” nor comprehensive at the level of effectiveness currently needed.
Both need each other. The challenge in effectively combining these domains of practice is that often many systems change actors—particularly those with access to publishing, funding, and other critical resources to achieve depth and scale—do not seem to understand nor are they embedding Deep Equity into their work. Or when “equity” is addressed, it is piecemeal, seems an afterthought, and/or is shallow. Actors pursuing and advancing critically needed systems change efforts often bring limited awareness to address or adequately embed equity. This is the wound we must heal.
We have observed too many times systems change efforts pursued to the neglect of equity, or Deep Equity, despite living in a period where information about equity (and Deep Equity, in particular) is proliferating at an unprecedented rate. Gone are the times when any of us could say, “I couldn’t find any information on it,” “I didn’t know anyone,” or “I didn’t know better.”
We owe it to ourselves and to each other to confront our old habits that are preventing us from creating the most robust, healing, catalytic, life-affirming, and transformative solutions we can develop, and that are desperately needed. Pursuing Deep Equity and Systems Change will require us to squarely address issues of power, privilege, places of unawareness, and the meaning of “depth” in approaches to equity and systems change. It will take bravery and courage, finding out how deep we are really willing to go to help heal and transform this world, committing to the depth that we discover in our exploration, and partnering and complementing each other in ways that may be heretofore unprecedented. (5) (We also refer the reader to a previously published piece from one of the authors on the relationship between these two themes plus “inner work:” “Waking Up To All of Ourselves: Inner Work, Social Justice & Systems Change.” (6) )
This monograph is structured as an interview of Sheryl Petty conducted by Mark Leach, but it is ultimately a dialogue between two long-term Systems Change and Equity actors.
One of us is a soon-to-be middle-aged cisgendered, (7) queer/pansexual, Black woman from Detroit, whose professional career in social justice and Systems Change began in Oakland, CA in educational systems and nonprofits, and branched out into capacity building and systems change with school systems, nonprofits, and philanthropic institutions around the country over the last 25 years. She also has a nearly 25-year inner work practice in African-based and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, in both of which she is ordained and teaches.
The other of us is a well-past middle-aged, cisgendered, white man from Long Island, New York. Based on early experiences in some of the world’s most economically poor countries, he has spent his life trying to understand who gets what, and why, and working with people, organizations, and networks across big differences in identity, wealth, and worldview to tackle big, messy problems of systemic inequity.
1. Change Elemental was formerly known as Management Assistance Group (MAG). We changed our name in April 2019.
2. For example: Petty, Sheryl. Seeing, Reckoning and Acting: A Practice Toward Deep Equity. Change Elemental, 2016. https://changeelemental.org/resources/seeing-reckoning-acting-a-practice-toward-deep-equity/ ; and Petty, Sheryl and Amy B. Dean. Pursuing Deep Equity. Nonprofit Quarterly, 2017. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/five-elements-of-a-thriving-justice-ecosystem-pursuing-deep-equity/
3. Please see more resources listed in the appendix.
4. Systems Change with an Equity Lens: Community Interventions that Shift Power and Center Race. Change Elemental and Building Movement Project, 2018. https://changeelemental.org/resources/systems-change-with-an-equity-lens-community-interventions-that-shift-power-and-center-race/
5. Petty, Sheryl. “Introduction.” Equity-Centered Capacity Building: Essential Approaches for Excellence and Sustainable School System Transformation. Equity-Centered Capacity Building Network (ECCBN), 2016. https://capacitybuildingnetwork.org/intro/
6. Petty, Sheryl. “Waking Up All Of Ourselves: Inner Work, Social Justice, & Systems Change.” Initiative for Contemplation, Equity, and Action Journal. Vol. 1, No. 1, pages 1-14, 2017. http://www.contemplativemind.org/files/ICEA_vol1_2017.pdf
7. Cisgender is a term used to describe people who identify with the gender assigned them at birth. Source: Words Matter: Gender Justice Toolkit. National Black Justice Coalition. https://www.arcusfoundation.