#4 Summer 2015

Look within if you want to change the system


Syrian refugees camp outside Budapest’s Keleti station. Photo by Francois Swanepoel.
The Syrian refugee crisis highlights a truth that real change does not happen in isolation, but requires an understanding of the systems within which change happens – and it starts with the individual.

The remarkable thing about the Syrian refugee crisis is not so much that people are fleeing their homes and migrating to a better life – this happens all the time, although admittedly usually at a more polite distance from Europe’s shores. No, the really remarkable thing has been the enormous response from citizens in Europe.

Even while their governments vacillate between open borders and more familiar reactionary tactics, vast numbers of individuals have stood up and declared that they want the system to change.

As MIT’s Otto Scharmer writes in a recent article in the Huffington Post, “we may be witnessing an emerging pattern of the years to come: bureaucracy is failing (EU), systems collapsing (millions of asylum seeking refugees in urgent need of helping hands) – AND: citizens rising to the occasion!”

The crisis is playing out on our TV screens a truth that we academics speak about in classrooms: social transformation fails too often because it is overpowered by old systems that are fundamentally flawed, that no longer have any relevance or, worse still, that actively sabotage change. And if we want to transcend these failing systems, then we need a new approach, an integrated approach, that delves below the symptoms of trouble and unpacks how systems actually work so that we can shift them – and individuals play a key role in bringing this about.

So how can the actions of a German citizen taking a Syrian refugee into her own home hope to change an entrenched system with more than a few vested interests in play? The simple truth is that we are the systems. Where the majority of systems are understood as tangible things; externalised in institutions, rules, funding mechanisms and so on, the internalised part of the system – our individual and collective beliefs – are, in a very real sense, the stuff that holds it all together.

In essence, this means that the bigger issues going on outside, also exist in an immediate way right here – inside this room and inside us. So, for instance, if an organisation wants to begin to change gender dynamics, it can begin by looking at its own assumptions – what are people thinking at this moment, what are they saying, how are they behaving? We are then better equipped to understand the kinds of rules, values and beliefs that are holding the larger system of gender relationships in place. This is not just systems thinking, but systems experiencing. In this way any social purpose organisation or initiative becomes its own living laboratory.

Analysing and experiencing systems ultimately helps us to think in a more nuanced and integrated way that challenges traditional assumptions and can result in greater creativity and innovation instead of resorting to well-worn models, belief-sets, processes or procedures.

Of course, merely experiencing a system is not sufficient to tilt its axis – but it is a vital starting point. The Syrian crisis, as with so many other conflict-related crises in the world today, is among the most complex kind of wicked problem that the 21st century is able to throw at us. Pull any thread – political, economic, cultural, from the arms trade to sovereign debt and religious oppression – and it rapidly becomes clear that everything is entwined. As such, it is impossible to identify single leverage points that will miraculously lead to change.

It is enough to make anyone give up and yet, a new generation of social innovators are stepping up to tackle these seemingly impossible challenges.

Ahmet Dawalak, who works for Mercy Corps, says that he believes it is possible to get to a world where there are no more emergency crises, but that would require a radically integrated response that works across systems. “At Mercy Corps we strongly believe that the best change must necessarily consider three systems: ecological, economic and social. We are called to work with multiple partners to provide lasting solutions to improve the living conditions of underserved people whose livelihoods are precarious and vulnerable to shocks and stress.”

He points out that the world is remarkably stuck in old ways of seeing things and that part of the work in unravelling existing systems is to shock the people who support the system out of these ruts. “For the Syrian crisis, as with the majority of humanitarian crises in the world caused by conflict, it is surprising for example that violence and conflict management efforts are not a priority. This prevention is an essential lever. Of the billions spent annually on foreign aid, very little is dedicated to conflict prevention, mitigation or peace, even if the conflict seriously disrupts systems.”

Dawalak is one of a handful of men and women from around the world who are currently engaged in a unique academic experiment funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation Global Fellowship Program on Social Innovation is designed to strengthen the capacity of leaders from the social or ecological sectors who are working to transform systems – political, economic, legal, educational, environmental and cultural.

No longer content to tackle problems at the surface/symptom level, these system entrepreneurs are delving deeper and working across multiple levels at the same time, linking grassroots projects to regional networks to national and international governance bodies. And while they may focus on specific issues like refugee crises, climate change, economic justice or health care, they see these issues not in isolation, but as pathways for developing the overall resilience of their communities. Thus, the Shalupe Foundation, a non-profit organisation run by and for Congolese women seeking to find holistic solutions for ending gender inequality and violence, poverty and social injustice in post-conflict DRC, takes a systems approach that has two main thrusts.

“First, we provide our constituents with education, preparation an opportunity to thrive in this unjust system. And second, we build a tight-knit community of interdependent women who can support one another and maintain sustainable occupations,” says Mireille Tushiminina, co-founder and executive director of the foundation who is also a Rockefeller Fellow.

eMentoring Africa, a social purpose organisation in Kenya that mentors young people, similarly never just works with the young people whose lives it hopes to transform through mentorship programmes, but with the wider communities within which these youth live. For example, when working with a postelection violence-ridden slum community in Kenya (Korogocho), they engaged community elders, as well as church and youth leaders to work with youth and help them shift their minds and attitudes from hopelessness to believing and tapping into their internal strengths.

As with all systems work, a key part of the intervention was to get people to look within, reflect and share their stories as an important prerequisite for bringing about change. “Looking within oneself and recognising the power we hold to change a situation is to me the best approach to bringing healing and growth in individuals affected by a traumatic situation,” said Esther Muchiri from eMentoring Africa.

The work these pioneering system entrepreneurs engage in is inevitably stressful and draining. They themselves need to build personal resilience and manage the psychological and physical implications of feeling swamped by the complexity of the problems they face. Learning to recognise and name their struggles, and self-management are all fundamental skills for people working at this level.

Scharmer posits that there are three responses to the emerging global crisis of which the Syrian refugee crisis is a hard-to-ignore symptom: regression (i.e. reverting back to old ways); muddling through (more of the same); or an empathetic human response. Systems entrepreneurs are at the vanguard of those taking the third option showing us that if we want to survive we need to embrace the future with every ounce of humanity and hope that we can muster. We cannot do this if we do not have the courage to first look within.

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