Reframing: From creating change to living change

Louise Armstrong
Aug 6 · 10 min read
Photo by Ivy Barn on Unsplash

A key change for me over this last decade has been a subtle shift from wanting to ‘change the world’ to recognising we need to ‘change ourselves’ as a starting point.

We are part of an interdependent web of relationships and life, and recognising that is the only way to live, embody and embrace the change.

It sounds simple now, but it has taken more than 10 years of a slow unfolding to recognise this. I’ve come to see this as a base that underpins so much intentional change work — how those creating, designing and participating in change with others need to be living change themselves.

This is shaping how I understand myself and my roles, it continues to shape the choices and decisions I make about where to put my time and energy, how I act, and how I show up. It has changed and challenged my assumptions about where the greatest change can come from.

Reframing is a way to unlock this. It is about shifting our assumptions about us as a human species. It is asking deep philosophical questions about the nature of life and being alive. It is messy, ongoing work that will expand beyond our lifetimes so none of what is shared here will be ‘the answer’, instead it is a snapshot of this moment in time from one person’s perspective and the act of reframing can support this process.

“the most exciting breakthroughs of the twenty-first century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human”
John Naisbitt

Reframing: different iterations of ‘understand ourselves’

Looking back over this stream of work, I realise it’s been a common meta pattern of reframing that has manifested in slightly different ways each time. The work I’ve been doing is offering different ways of seeing and understanding ourselves — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. In individual ways each project and piece of work has been about testing out a different way of reframing. They are frames and models from a particular moment in time — each is only one way of seeing things and there is wisdom, insight and fault in each of them. So this blog is curating some of these in one place.

This project started as being about ‘user innovation for sustainable lifestyles’, but we quickly reframed that work from being about users to being about ‘citizen innovation’. This was an intentional use of the word citizens — it gives more agency and power to people rather than seeing them as mere consumers. (The New Citizenship Project has been a continual source of inspiration for this work too.) The work’s origins were in academic institutions looking at the theory behind it, but we were tasked with engaging real innovators. We knew we couldn’t build meaningful relationships with people if we went in calling them ‘users’, as it didn’t really present the proactive innovating role many were playing in their communities, hence the need to reframe.

Part of the futures work we did with these innovators explored different ways in which we see ourselves, each impacting how we are, how we connect and our sense of agency in the world. The work demonstrated that there are many different ways people understand themselves, and an equal variety in the values and mindsets that support and reinforce these understandings.

This proved an interesting experiment in language and framing, but the stand-out moments of this time were not related to the work itself: a colleague’s life partner getting a terminal diagnosis and dying before the work finished; being stranded in Brussels when the bombing happened in 2016; the Brexit vote happening mid project and shifting the relationships in the collaboration; and my own real-time experience of organising at community level with the Peckham Coal Line. These things went well beyond the limited view of ‘users’ and ‘lifestyle change’, it was about what was meaningful to people and came down to life and death as the crux. So, in retrospect, the ‘citizen innovation’ framing didn’t quite stick or resonate, though it did shift some thinking that I often find myself returning to.

This built on the citizen innovation work as it demonstrated the untapped potential of people and groups organising together to create meaningful change. And in the sustainability field it has often felt like this is an untapped and under-resourced area for radical change.

The Civil Society Futures inquiry offered another place to explore this in the context of England. Even before we started to work on this there was a shift from this being about ‘voluntary’ action, to the wider term of ‘civil society’, which encompassed a broader range of action and actors. But ‘civil society’ is currently a frame or term that is used only by a few — often self-identified, often in a professionalised sense or by activists.

So we took time at the start of that work to craft a definition that spoke to the array of actors and activity that made up civil society, again expanding who we engaged and spoke with through this process as a consequence. This had resonance, as the definition is something I see others adopting and referencing now.

Civil society is all of us. When we act not for profit nor because the law requires us to, but out of love or anger or creativity, or principle, we are civil society. When we bring together our friends or colleagues or neighbours to have fun or to defend our rights or to look after each other, we are civil society. Whether we organise through informal friendship networks, Facebook groups, community events and protests; or formal committees, charities, faiths and trade unions, whether we block runways or co-ordinate coffee mornings, sweat round charity runs or make music for fun; when we organise ourselves outside the market and the state, we are all civil society.
Civil Society Futures definition

When going into professional and charity spaces we also had to take the time for people to connect to their own involvement as individuals, beyond their professional identities. It didn’t take much to realise that, and it really shifted the nature of the conversation once we’d done it.

In some senses this piece of work was an opportunity to reframe how we see ourselves too. Civil society is often seen as secondary to ‘the economy’ or ‘politics’ but it is the foundation on which all of these are built. Expanding this view can support the untapped potential of civil society to support the wider transformation of society at large.

Reframing alone isn’t enough….

Reframing alone isn’t enough to create long-lasting change and impact. You see this with greenwashing or the performative statements about Black Lives Matter that fly around. What is espoused is not always what is enacted.

And that’s because reframing is often really only a pre- or foundational step to a whole host of other considerations and actions that are required and spur from this. In some ways the hard work happens after the reframing is done. Below are some of the ideas for what potential next or aligning actions could happen, and where change is most needed. These themes have been things that have emerged from inquiry work I’ve been part of over the last 3 years — each distinct explorations but with some crossovers.

  • Creating new narratives that enable us to act

The process of framing and its relationship to narrative work is so powerful, though it is underexplored. New and reframed narratives are a core enabler for people to act and live differently. Perhaps reframing is a core part of narrative change work — a primer or foundation for new narratives to be based upon. There are some brilliant people and initiatives who are working on this, but it’s something that needs more time, energy and investment.

Cultural landscapes — shaping the waves of change
There are dominant frames in our culture that lead to us being unintentionally complicit, not aware of our agency and feeling hopeless or in denial. We need to get better at shaping the dominant frames of our culture that allow more of us to act. This can be done by: investing in narrative work and collaborating with narrative practitioners, fostering messaging and frames that centre life and partnership culture, creating collective sensing spaces so that cultural moments can be acted upon and investing in alliances for cultural leaders to support shifts in paradigm.” Boundless Roots

  • Noticing mindsets and how we show up

You can change your framing and shift your narrative, but without really acting or shifting your values and assumptions nothing will change. In part, this requires being aware of which assumptions are driving our actions. Delving into, seeing and understanding the mindsets, myths and values that sit behind how we live and act in the world are critical. Covid has rocked many of the seemingly dominant and established assumptions and given space to question at a bigger level some of what we assume to be fixed.

Part of the work I was involved with as the pandemic started was an exploration into which dynamics will shape the coming decade, while noticing the variety of different responses to this pandemic. We created a set of trajectories to map these out, each guided by a different set of assumptions and values. All of these are present in our lives, though it is as yet unclear which will become the predominant set of values we organise around.

Future Trajectories emerging from COVID-19

”Organising in new regenerative and just ways will require new narratives, based on assumptions and mindsets that prioritise collaboration, collective human wellbeing and planetary health. But at the same time we must also recognise that mindsets based on fear and competition will lead in other directions, and be prepared to work with this reality.” From system shock
to system change– time to transform

  • Understanding what gives us meaning and belonging

A common theme emerging from the Civil Society Futures and Boundless Roots work has been about the need for people to recalibrate around what is meaningful for them.

“We all want to belong and to be treated fairly and equally by others in society. Relevance and meaning in our lives come from relationships, expressing our own identities and being heard, but also part of something bigger. This is central to civil society’s purpose in an increasingly changing, global, individualised and digitalised world. Many feel our society has become too much about individuals, about competition.” Civil Society Futures

To have and to feel the power of these forces can be an anchor in times of turbulence and discontinuity, be that a strong sense of place, community, family, relationships, purpose or a spiritual practice. This is both deeply personal for people and enabled and supported by wider cultures and structures.

The motivating force of change — towards rapid and regenerative meaning-making
One of the core tensions in the shift towards sustainable ways of living is between creating rapid, structural change and deep, internal change. We recognised that both can happen at the same time when we tap into what gives life meaning because our ways of seeing the world can shift in an instant. Therefore, we need to support people to deal with the impacts of climate breakdown through: creating space for many different types of knowledge and wisdom, spaces for contemporary rituals, catalyse collaborations between organisations working on meaning-making practices, adapting and disseminating regenerative processes and enhancing education for meaning making.” Boundless Roots

Reframing: as a process, outcome and powerful leverage for change

In all of this, it points to the part of reframing as part of the change process. One that is easily overlooked but can make a subtle but significant difference. It feels important that one of the highest points of leverage that Donella Meadows talks about is to change the paradigm used to design a system. This matters because how we see ourselves affects how we act, or don’t act.

“To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical / spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change / transform the world, they must change / transform themselves.” Grace Lee Boggs

Part of the harm and injustice of our world comes from seeing ourselves as separate to each other and separate to other living things. Many of our structures are hardwired with this assumption in them and a sense that as humans we can control natural forces. Shifting this will only happen if we see and understand ourselves differently — not as consumers, or as superior or inferior to others.

It’s also important to acknowledge that many indigenous cultures do inherently see themselves as part of life and nature more than western cultures do. Here there is much wisdom and insight to learn from that has been long ignored. Knowing that paying attention and unlearning our assumptions and patterns will support this.

For me, the reframing work has been about that reframing sustainability, civil society, who is innovating, the leverage points for climate action and my own role. The thread really being about how we see and understand ourselves.

And it’s not just reframing that is a process, but also life itself:

“Being human is an open, continuous process of transformation”
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