A Systems View of Opportunity

March 14, 2012 Leave a comment

“If you don’t understand your role in contributing to the problem,

you can’t be part of the solution.”

– David Peter Stroh

This post is a slightly edited version of something I wrote for the upcoming State of Opportunity convening in Michigan.  My colleague Cynthia Parker and I have been working with the Council of Michigan Foundations staff and membership to design this gathering, the focus of which will be philanthropy’s role in increasing social equity in the state.  We are looking forward to facilitating the proceedings on March 27th. 

The quote above comes from a systems thinking expert with whom we’ve partnered in our collaborative change work here at the IISC.  We’ve found it to be a powerful way of introducing the idea that the complex systems (education, health care) that many of us are trying to change to yield better and more equitable opportunities and outcomes are not “out there.”  Rather, to rift on the old Pogo saying, when we have truly seen systems, we understand that they are us!  In a general sense, a system is a set of interrelated elements that make a unified whole.  With respect to what we will be thinking and talking about during the State of Opportunity convening, systems are comprised of the different arrangements and ways that we work together –in communities, neighborhoods, families, private institutions and public organizations; via policy/program formulation and implementation, etc. – all in support of the P-20 continuum.

Systems thinking as a framework can be very useful in helping us to better understand the production of social inequities.  It does this by steering clear of personalized and overly simplified linear blame of individual people, groups, or institutions for what is undesirable.  Instead it looks at the interactions within and between different elements that yield inequities.  A systems perspective suggests that it is the organization and relationship between a system’s parts as much as the components themselves that shape system behavior and outcomes.  It also appreciates how these dynamics exist or persist across time such that present day circumstances represent an historical accumulation of causes.

For example, research on racial inequities from this perspective shows that interlocking systems of disadvantage disproportionately shape and constrain the choices and life chances of people of color. Flipping this, there are interlocking systems of advantage that disproportionally favor white people and result in unearned privilege. This includes, as noted by Menendian and Watt, the relationships between racially and economically isolated neighborhoods, employment, health, crime and violence, educational outcomes, and a host of other factors.  Failure to look at inequities in this way may result in thinking and actions that do nothing to change, or perhaps even perpetuate or exacerbate, the very conditions we say we are trying to change.

A first step in adopting a systemic lens is to become curious, to look at presenting problems from numerous and inter-related perspectives.  This means “getting the system in the room,” conferring with and convening diverse stakeholders to hear and share stories and consider what these reveal.  A related step is to think about how our own (individual, organizational) mindsets and tendencies may get in the way of effectively seeing and addressing systemic challenges.

So here is the invitation: to dance with the complexity while humbly and enthusiastically sharing what we know, listening to and learning from one another, and leaving each interaction wiser, more curious, and bolder than when we began.

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