Working Across Difference: Building accountability & learning infrastructure

Working Across Difference: Building accountability & learning infrastructure

At The Systems Sanctuary our approach to teaching systems practice is rooted in practical experience. We come to systems change work as practitioners first. We are experienced, but are also ever-evolving, network builders and systems entrepreneurs.

Our journey began by hosting intimate learning spaces for systems leaders globally, spaces that we wish had been available to us when we were leading significant projects, but simply didn’t exist. In these sessions we have always asked systems leaders to share the live challenges they face in their work, providing us with valuable insights into common patterns across contexts.

The more we have codified our work in Systems Practice, the more clear it has become that ‘Working across Difference’ is a key capacity for effective systems leadership. This capacity is often overlooked, relegated to the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion, or overshadowed by the detailed mapping of systemic barriers we face.

We know from our work that if you don’t know, like or trust the people you are working with, meaningful progress remains elusive. You can build a shiny innovation that looks good from the outside, but if the systems of inequity or the power dynamics inherent in these are not worked with, then we risk perpetuating the very harm we are trying to change.

At The Systems Sanctuary we teach the cultivation of relationships, trust, and mutual respect among diverse stakeholders. Below we share the framework Systems Sanctuary has developed to Work across Difference in systems change initiatives.

What is a healthy ecosystem?

In nature, a diverse ecosystem consists of various plants, animals, and microorganisms, all which play essential roles in maintaining the ecosystem’s functionality. Diversity enhances the ecosystem’s resilience in the face of environmental changes, such as climate change, disease outbreak breaks, or natural disasters. An ecosystem rich in diversity demonstrates greater adaptability to shifting conditions.

In our work, we adopt the concept of ecosystems as a framework, drawing inspiration from the natural world to understand the dynamics of social innovation.

In social change terms, an ecosystem refers to a dynamic and interconnected network of individuals, organizations, and resources working towards a common goal. Much like a natural ecosystem, it is characterized by collaboration, diversity, and mutual support.

In systems change, ecosystem initiatives bring together actors from different regions, issues, or fields with a shared intention to transform harmful systems towards balance and health. Within these projects, actors take on different roles, fulfilling vital functions that contribute to the overall impact. These range from the role of the fire starter who ignites new initiatives; to bridgers who build connections across communities; and convenors who bring ecosystems together. Each actor plays a unique part in driving change. You can read more about the roles that we see are crucial in building these kinds of ecosystems here.

Working across difference is a practice that sits at the heart of these ecosystem projects. It involves working across sectors, silos, regions, communities, and diverse contexts.

In systems change, healthy ecosystems connect on a regular basis, facilitate collective reflection, inquiry, and sense-making. These ecosystems create opportunities for exchanging and learning. They build in feedback loops, and connect resources and new partners. They also nurture trust, understanding and capacity to work systemically.

Healthy ecosystems learn together and grow together to support life. Ecosystems remain connected, healthy, and nurtured through working across difference, and they thrive on diversity.

Creating the conditions for this work requires preparation; tending to the soil of an ecosystem. It requires skill and a capacity to hold multiple perspectives and ways of knowing, as well as the capacity to lean into discomfort and engage in difficult conversations. This work is supported by strong power analyses and intentional time for deepening and building relationships. It also requires a willingness to learn and grow, and to be doing this work at all levels.

In a recent training session we hosted for an ecosystem project, one participant thoughtfully spoke up and noted:

“People often and easily acknowledge inequities and the need for diversity in their ecosystem projects and yet there is a lack of actual integration into action.”

We hear it over and over again. This is the work and it’s hard work. Ecosystems are a helpful metaphor to help guide and create different paradigms for this work.

Our Working across Difference framework

In our experience, working across difference is a key capacity for systems leaders. Working across difference reframes inclusion and diversity work from inviting outsiders into dominant centers of power and cultural norms, to decentering dominant norms, leadership and power. Our understanding and practice in working across difference is rooted in feminist praxis and systems practice. Working across difference is one of the foundational workshops that we teach in our Systems Change and Ecosystem Building Masterclass programs.

To codify our approach, we developed a process tool to help teams and cohorts develop an action and accountability plan for their work. It is a simple framework that dives right into complexity, moves into action and is informed by our Feminist Systems Change practices.

We have used this in both training workshops and also in strategy intensives with our partners where it helps teams to identify priorities, as well as create processes of accountability and collective learning.

Below we outline practical steps, questions, and the process we use to integrate this infrastructure into systems change work at various levels.

We use this working across difference framework to:

  • Develop shared language around power, equity & justice.
  • Identify current and desired strategies for working across difference.
  • Develop new strategies across all multiple levels of their work on systems change.
  • Create a shared accountability mechanism for on-going practice & learning and to track progress.

Ultimately, using this framework creates a process for collective learning in a team, which requires trust, working at the edges of our comfort, personal reflection and a sincere commitment to shift internal systems.

Working with a multi-level strategy

Working across difference requires effort at multiple levels to create systemic change. These levels include: individual, team or ecosystems, organizational, and societal/cultural levels. In systems change strategy development, we use the concept of emergence and nested systems to allow us to see and analyse interventions and dynamics across these levels.

In our process, we invite participants to map out both their current and desired strategies at each level in a two step process. Using a simple table, participants work in teams to identify actions they were already engaged in. Each team reports back to the larger group to share reflections and insights from each round. The final step in this process involves creating a learning infrastructure to ensure accountability.

STEP 1: Ground in what are you already doing

It’s really important to begin with where people are at. In our initial round, we identify how people are already engaged in practices that support working across difference. We invite participants to take a few minutes to think on their own, and then to discuss in a group. We ask:

In what ways are you creating the conditions to work across difference? In what ways are you practicing and integrating a justice/power lens already in the work you do?

This asset based approach sheds light on practices that are already working, or small efforts that may already be in motion.

In some cases we may begin with an organizational audit which can include reviewing organizational policies and conducting interviews with team members individually. We use this data to identify system challenges and to prepare the ground with recommendations on how to move forward.

Step 2: Generate and map out desired actions

In a second round, we ask participants to identify desired actions:

What are the next best steps to move forward?

This process generates ideas and facilitates deeper discussion on the challenges and blocks in the work or ecosystem culture. These ideas then become a basis for commitment to moving forward and the framework becomes a tool to track progress over time.

Here are the prompts to identify work that can be done at each level to create systemic change:

Individual and team level: learning

This level is focussed on learning. It emphasizes the importance of individual effort that is required in preparing oneself and contributing to collaboration. Meaningful preparation is important as working across differences is a lifelong learning journey.

Individuals can engage in learning that brings awareness to systems of inequity like racism, sexism, and colonization. They can also engage in decolonizing practices and learning about their own history, lineages, and cultures.

This is a process that locates our experience and context in the work that we are doing. It recognizes that our understanding and perspective of the world are limited and biased due to various factors, such as our personal experiences, cultural background, social conditioning, and cognitive limitations.

Recognizing the partiality of knowledge is crucial for understanding that no single perspective or understanding can capture the full complexity of reality. It encourages us to approach knowledge with humility, openness to diverse perspectives, and a willingness to challenge our own biases and preconceptions.

Acknowledging the partiality of knowledge promotes intellectual humility, encourages ongoing learning, and fosters a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the world.

Practice pathways for individuals include:

  • Raise awareness and consciousness around internalized bias, assumptions and dominant culture.
  • Engage in critical thinking and seek diverse sources of information
  • Actively listen to different viewpoints, and cultivate intellectual curiosity
  • Engage in reflexivity, an on-going process of reflection and action.
  • Providing training and resources to support employees/team in working across difference.

We use the following prompts to locate ourselves in the system:

How does my story, my culture, history and identity give me privileges and challenges?
How does it inform the work I do, how does it give me strength?

Organizations and ecosystems: power

This level is focussed on analysing and shifting power. Working across difference requires intention. As Johanna Leinius concludes in her research,

“Solidarity across difference does not emerge spontaneously but is tied to the organizational decisions, discursive logics, and pedagogical practices that structure how subjects encounter each other.”

For ecosystems, it is important to use a power analysis to assess patterns inherent in dominant power and to develop strategies for shifting power from domination and control, towards collaborative, mutual and respectful connections.

Dominant centres often hold significant power and privilege, which can perpetuate systemic inequalities. By shifting power, these imbalances can be shifted, allowing for a distribution of resources, opportunities, and influence. This enables actors from multiple and diverse contexts and communities to participate, contribute, and shape discussions and actions.

Dominant centres also tend to uphold and perpetuate dominant narratives, which can silence other perspectives. Shifting power allows for the challenging and deconstruction of these dominant narratives. It encourages the amplification of diverse stories, experiences, and knowledge, enabling a more comprehensive understanding of complex issues.

We use the following prompts to strategically and critically reflect on where power is centred and how we might decentre it. These prompts can be integrated across all activities:

Who is/should be leading?

Who has/should access resources?

Who is/should be supported/heard?

Who is/should be centred?

Here are practice pathways for the organizational and ecosystem level:

  • Produce a power and justice audit and/or intersectional analysis to identify what is currently being done and what steps we need to take to engage with power in a healthy, respectful, conscious and collaborative way.
  • Develop an actor map to analyse relationships in the system including weak and strong ties, and power centres.
  • Implement leadership strategies to support collaborative and decentralized leadership and decision making.
  • Recenter and amplify narrative/stories/ that center lived experience to re-frame the problem and generate innovative solutions.

Cultural level: Deep Root Systems

Working at this level requires time for building and deepening relationships. From a systems perspective, we start from a place where the world is seen as complex; there is a focus on inter-dependence and the interconnectivity in social systems. Relationships are everything.

A systems lens helps us to understand the interconnected nature of social and environmental issues, fostering holistic perspectives and creating transformative environments for working across difference.

In a world that moves quickly and prioritizes efficiency and silver bullet solutions, it is counter cultural to deliberately slow down and value the time required to nurture the meaningful relationships in our work.

Working at the cultural level means we also have the capacity to engage and hold multiple ways of knowing including mind, heart, and spirit. This can include welcoming artistic practice, mindfulness, embodiment practice, and wisdom traditions. It also means actively involving lived experience and community knowledge.

Working at the cultural level means that we must facilitate hard conversations. This requires a combination of skills and approaches to create a space for dialogue across the ecosystem. A skilled facilitator will be listening deeply with emotional intelligence, they will have cultural humility and skill in conflict resolution. They are able to hold the complexity in a room and invite the full human into the work. They are able to navigate power dynamics and hold boundaries with clear intention.

Here we set intentional cultures of care which can transcend division. Ethics of care emphasize collaboration and solidarity rather than competition and individualism. They promote a sense of shared responsibility and a commitment to supporting and uplifting others. When working across difference, these ethics encourage individuals to come together, build alliances, and work collectively on intersecting common ground, fostering collaboration and unity in the face of diverse perspectives.

We can identify ways forward be asking questions like:

How are we expanding our perspectives?

How are we challenging/shifting dominant cultural norms?

Practice pathways at the cultural level include:

  • Forge, bridge, nurture relationships.
  • Build and steward partnerships, collaborations networks and alliances.
  • Create intention and practices for collaborative leadership.
  • Broker and convene across the ecosystem.
  • Identify the knowledge systems and lineages informing our understanding, our decisions and actions.
  • Nurture cultures and ethics of care and love.

Step 3: On-going learning and accountability infrastructure

When we work with ecosystems, we use the above framework to establish a baseline and create accountability.

After we complete the process, there is a clear pathway forward and a shared sense of ownership. We write up the strategy in the multi-level framework. This identifies commitments and actions which become the indicators for accountability.

Next, we establish the learning infrastructure. We set up peer learning spaces for the team to convene, report back on progress made, share individual and team learning and insights, identify key challenges, and strategize next steps together. This space creates an intention to appreciate the work being accomplished, cultivating a culture of care and enabling deep and honest conversations.

These peer learning spaces are scheduled and facilitated on a regular basis, they can be monthly, or quarterly. This becomes a practice that people count on amidst busy schedules and competing priorities. Peer learning spaces provide a sanctuary for slowing down, engaging in collective reflection and fostering learning.

Three basic prompts guide our peer learning spaces:

What have we accomplished since we met last?

What key insights/learned have we gathered?

What are the next best steps that we need to take?

We track themes from the sessions, and share these results back with the group. This process helps to see and appreciate the global progress across all the levels and it prioritizes next steps.

Our Foundational Approach

Our learning infrastructure embodies a feminist pedagogical approach. This approach informs and builds the groundwork for the framework explained above. Key pillars to this approach include:

  1. Ground learning in practical experiences.
  2. Share and exchange across the ecosystem.
  3. Create new knowledge through emerging collective intelligence.
  4. Inform our actions and strategies for change.

In feminist terms this approach invites critical reflection around power, challenges dominant expertise, and centres participants as agents for change. We believe in the wisdom that comes through the collective knowledge and experience of participants.

An intersectional analysis brings consciousness to the power dynamics that mire systems in the first place. Add in relational value, and we shift from ‘fixing problems’ to holding everyone in their humanity and agency. We shift from victims of systems to becoming agents of change, moving away from ‘othering’ to working together in an interconnected web of interdependence.

We hope you found this helpful. If you have questions or a team who would benefit from a session teaching this capacity, you can email us here:

Tatiana Fraser has spent her career starting up and growing ecosystems and networks for systemic change. 

She co-founded the Girls Action Foundation, which became a network supporting the empowerment and leadership of girls and young women, scaling it nationally across Canada before stepping away and letting it fly. She was selected as an Ashoka Fellow for her work and recognized as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network.

originally published at Refuge for System Leaders

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