I was readying an article in Non-Profit Quarterly recently, an article about how to change an established system.  I was reminded of a few important principles around system change.

  1. We are not the only group in the world working for change. Economists look to change markers related to money — interest rates, wages, taxes — in order to change how the economy works. Other social justice entities look to change society and its perceptions and prejudices for much the same reason we do — in order to remove barriers and change attitudes. We can learn from each other in the IL movement. We can also learn from the world around us if we are paying attention.
  2. There is always a leverage point where you can apply pressure for change. Jay Forrester said of these leverage points, “People know intuitively where leverage points are. Time after time I’ve done an analysis of a company, and I’ve figured out a leverage point. Then I’ve gone to the company and discovered that everyone is pushing it in the wrong direction!” Finding the right leverage points is key. As you approach any system change effort in your community, consider where you can apply pressure to get the change you want. Do you know and have a relationship with someone in power in the situation? Is this a time to enlist public support by getting on the news? Is there a legal aspect that can be explored? Do you have facts, figures, data that will apply the right leverage?
  3. Just because a method of pushing for change worked once, doesn’t mean it will be effective the next time. Continually assess whether your efforts are getting the results you intend. If not, step back and analyze why not. Then adjust your strategies to get a better response. This is something you should measure if you want peak effectiveness in your Systems Change advocacy efforts. Sometimes gathering the troops, circling the target with signs and shouts, is extremely effective. In other situations, the target for change becomes more and more entrenched. When that happens, it is time to see if other leverage points can get a different result.
  4. Measure the things you need to know. Donella Meadows wrote, “In 1986 the U.S. government required that every factory releasing hazardous air pollutants report those emissions publicly. Suddenly everyone could find out precisely what was coming out of the smokestacks in town. There was no law against those emissions, no fines, no determination of “safe” levels, just information. But by 1990 emissions dropped 40 percent. One chemical company that found itself on the Top Ten Polluters list reduced its emissions by 90 percent, just to ‘get off that list.’” Information can power change, if it is the right information and is put in front of those who need to change.” What information loops are in place to measure what concerns you? Use them.
  5. Pay attention to the rules.  Rules — laws, policies, or even unwritten social rules — can drive change. Change the rules and the system will be required to follow. Meadows also said, “If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules, and to who has power over them.” A review of the rules in a system fraught with barriers may very well tell you where that system is malfunctioning.
  6. Sometimes you need to break away from the old rules and start over. We have all seen those systems that are inflexible and difficult to change. Sometimes those systems need to go, and something new needs to take its place. “”Any system, biological, economic, or social, that scorns experimentation and wipes out the raw material of innovation is doomed over the long term on this highly variable planet. The intervention point here is obvious but unpopular. Encouraging diversity means losing control. Let a thousand flowers bloom and ANYTHING could happen! Who wants that?” – Donella Meadows

Independent Living Philosophy teaches us that we should have equal access in our communities, and each of us defines where access is compromised and where our systems advocacy efforts will be focused.  The point of system change advocacy is equality. It is change we work for every day.

Donella Meadows is an ecologist and founder of the Donella Meadows Institute who died suddenly of meningitis on February 20, 2001. Meadows wrote extensively about economic systems and sustainability, and wrote and worked tirelessly on behalf of the Earth.

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Systems change advocacy – six effective strategies

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