Changing systems can be slow — and maybe it should be
At the Ashoka Changemaker Summit, women and queer entrepreneurs share wisdom for changing systems, shifting mindsets, and healing ourselves.
The term “systems change” is rising in popular use. It reflects a shifting conversation towards identifying root problems and working together to solve them. But it’s also difficult — and risky — work. What happens when “systems change” isn’t rooted in relationships, doesn’t take power dynamics into account, prematurely rushes into solutions, or marginalizes community voices in favor of dominant groups?
At the Ashoka Changemaker Summit, Zeynep Meydanoglu Ertan, Ashoka’s Turkey Country Co-Director & Next Now Gender Field Lead, speaks with three social entrepreneurs to go deeper on systems change and the time, care, resources, empathy, and healing it requires.
We hear from Aditi Gera, Ashoka Young Changemaker and founder of Empowerette, a mentorship program in rural India; Tatiana Fraser, co-founder of System Sanctuary, a peer learning platform for systems leadership; and Tarek Zeidan, Executive Director of Helem, the leading LGBTQ rights organization in the Arab world. Watch the full session here.
Here are our highlights.
Systems change often comes from a place of dominance and privilege
Systems change itself isn’t immune from the same problems it tries to solve, Tatiana points out. The academic field was born out of a primarily Western, white, privileged context. We must recognize that change takes time and resist Western ideals of speed and efficiency. We must center and start systems work in the communities who are living and experiencing harmful systems. And we must create time, space, and context to work across differences.
We can’t fix systems by power alone
Without analyzing the powers at play in a system, we’ll misdiagnose the problem, Tarek says. But we can’t fix the system simply by giving more power to those who have less of it. A system is more than a tug-of-war between different groups, Tarek says — there are many factors that often go unchallenged. To make real systems change, we must also focus on the difficult work of shifting values.
And an important reminder: Power imbalances have created trauma. You can’t ask someone who is oppressed to lead the way without also providing the resources and support to do it.
Before you mobilize, stop and listen
Tarek and his team of activists spent years working with mothers of queer people, hoping to leverage their authority to counteract the damage being done by influential leaders. But when they stopped to listen, they learned a valuable lesson: people resist loss, not change. The moms needed spaces for dialogue and healing to grieve the loss of the future they had dreamed of — before they could embrace and enter into a new future. When the activists started seeing them as women, not just mothers, the movement took off.
The ripple effect — when one girl changes her mindset
Aditi connects young girls in rural Indian communities with mentors who can support them to realize their power. For her, it’s all about shifting mindsets. When one girl sees herself as powerful and discovers new possibilities for her future, the impact spreads to her peers and everyone around her.
Resources aren’t just monetary
Systems change can’t happen without resources. That includes financial resources, but it’s so much more, Aditi says. Working with girls primarily in rural Indian communities, she believes the right set of resources includes emotional wellbeing, values, and the space to shift away from the patriarchy and other harmful structures. She explains more:
What feminist practice teaches us for systems change
“Systems change” and feminist practice have much in common, says Tatiana. At its core, feminism is working to shift hierarchical systems still rooted in dominance and violence to more “collaborative, life-affirming ways of being in the world.”
Tatiana draws from her earlier experience co-founding Girls Action Foundation to inform how she understands — and complicates the narrative around — systems change. For example, she says, systems work is often missing a “critical power analysis” to understand the forces at play. Hear four feminist practices that can support the ultimate goals of systems change:
Healing systems is connected to healing ourselves
Our work should be grounded in our humanity, Tatiana reminds us. When we focus on healing ourselves and our relationship, we can create communities of care. Collective healing is powerful, but it also carries risk for re-traumatization. “Systems change can look to the collective healing that feminist activists and others have done this work well,” she says. Hear more:
Empathy is a must to do systems change, but it can be hard not to simply center our own pain. Shifting values takes time, and we need each other’s support and empathy to do it.
About the Ashoka Changemaker Summit
The Changemaker Summit “A New Togetherness” is Ashoka’s yearly global gathering. It connects a vast community of social innovators and leaders from business and philanthropy to celebrate inspiring solutions, learn, and collaborate towards systemic change. Tune in every Thursday through December for conversations on Planet and Climate, Equity, and more. The culminating event on December 2 will be hosted in Turin, Italy. More information at https://acms.ashoka.org/