What needs changing in here?

March 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Sail Away

This post continues a conversation that Curtis Ogden started last week. (Process is Where Change Happens) It’s a conversation we’ve been having for years at IISC. On one hand, we recognize the importance of understand how thinking shapes the systems we produce and reproduce. And it’s important to understand that inequities and oppression are not just a matter of thinking that can be changed simply by changing our minds. I’ve often been impatient with the “change your thinking, change the world” discourse because I’ve seen it used as an excuse for avoiding discussing the systems dynamics and the resulting inequities they produce. Still, I think there are a few ways in which focusing on the change “in here” can provide power for changing conditions “out there.”

First, there is the change that comes when individuals who have experienced oppression discover that their condition is shared by others and cannot be explained by their personal actions or failings. As John Lewis, Cesar Chávez and so many others have described, once people see themselves as part of something larger, discover their rights, and recognize that standing up is more important than whatever they’re afraid of, their power is undeniable and unstoppable. This goes beyond the individualized notion of seeing your own personal worth—which is absolutely, important—to the notion of shared experience, collective rights, and a call to a higher standard of justice.

Secondly, as we examine what’s “in here,” it’s important to explore the mental models, cultural values, and ubiquitous stereotypes that tell us how the world works. My work with the Social Equity Advisory Committee (SEAC) of the state of Rhode Island’s planning process called RhodeMap RI provides a great current example. As drafts of economic development principles, strategies, and policies have been discussed, a critical question has arisen. “What is the economy for?” While much of traditional economic development theory and practice suggests that the economy is for ensuring profits for businesses, SEAC members have a different idea. They see the purpose of the economy and economic activity as ensuring that everyone in the community has access to the resources and opportunities to meet their needs and achieve their potential in a way that does not harm the environment. Proceeding from this mental model, they have raised questions about many specific elements of the plan. This has opened up an important conversation that I hope will influence the contents and ultimate outcomes of the plan.

What are some of the mental models, values or stereotypes that underlie your work? How would examining them explicitly lead to shifts in the what, how, or why of what you do?

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