Ankle Deep in an Olympic Sized Swimming Pool

Reflections on Week 1 of the School of Systems Change, Basecamp America

March 4, 2018: It’s been just over one week since the Forum for the Future School of Systems Change: Basecamp America, and my mind is still swimming with thoughts of systems, maps, diagrams, and so much potential! The intensive program offered a deep dive into systems thinking over four days in New York City. Joined by a diverse group of aspiring systems thinking practitioners, I took in much during the days we spent together, but I expect the learning is just beginning.

All of us came from different backgrounds with varying degrees of understanding of systems thinking. I came with a passable understanding of the tools and concepts, learned from my participation in the Re-Amp Systems Thinking Academy in November of 2017, where I totally caught the bug for systems thinking. I’m easily the type of person who talks non-stop about whatever exciting framework or opportunity is on my mind, and I’ve been singing the praises of systems thinking for half a year now. I was beyond thrilled to gain acceptance into the SOSC, and it was like a dream come true when I found out that the Garfield Foundation would offer me a full scholarship.

Ruth Rominger, Garfield Foundation, articulating their unique approach.

The School of Systems Change showcased several thought leaders in the field who reflected a wide range of applications and perspectives. I was particularly taken with the ideas around Building Systems Change Networks presented by Ruth Rominger of the Garfield Foundation. Ruth calmly and clearly articulated ways we can design networks to reframe the narrative from scarcity to abundance, from hierarchies to shared leadership, from competition to collaboration with minimal structure and distributed energy. I’m personally driven by the ideas of rhizomic social change, so this presentation just blew my mind. In the presentation, I found ways to better analyze our work, identify gaps, and strengthen the relationships we know are so critical to sustaining the work. It’s not often that I find myself refraining from loud exclamations and wild gesticulations of support during presentations, but there I was holding myself back and frantically taking notes. As the days progressed, I noticed similar behavior in others at various times throughout the week. We had equal measures of theory and practice, culminating in a good amount of dedicated group work with our teams.

A unique feature of the SOSC is longitudinal team-building focusing on field work in different areas. Organizations host teams of systems practitioners and present them with a challenge to work through using the tools learned at the school. I’m doubly blessed to be both a practitioner and participant of the school and also a field work host. My nonprofit, the Climate + Energy Project, is hosting an outstanding team of practitioners to help us work through the complications of shifting the climate narrative in Kansas from a pure focus on clean energy as an economic driver to community resilience and health equity as a means of safeguarding the future of our state. There are lots of stakeholders, interconnected feedback loops, and so much potential for impacts both in Kansas and the Midwest as a whole.

Kansas WEALTH fieldwork team: Denise Abdul-Rahman, Rachel Myslivy, Jaimes Valdez, Elizabeth Rich, Jessica Ginger

Over the course of the next several weeks, our team will work independently and as a group to map out this complex system. Wearing my field host hat, I’ll say that we’re thrilled to host our team of systems thinkers, and we’re eager to see the project outcomes. As a participant, it’s exhilarating to work with my team — they all bring so much to the table!

Following the field work portion, we’ll meet virtually throughout April, leading up to another four days of learning in community on the West Coast and several more virtual meetings through July. The practitioners are responsible for the group project, as well as an individual projects utilizing systems thinking tools in our own unique situations.

Whenever I do any sort of professional development training, my main lens is, “how can I take this back to my community?” During our time together in New York, I registered different levels of intention to that point, ranging from, “I know I’m not an expert yet, I’m not ready to share” to “I’m jumping in head first! Learning as I go!” The latter one fit me beautifully. Prior to the SOSC, I’d worked to integrate systems thinking into our organizational communications via a staff training and board training. I’d been talking about it to our larger peer circles and cohorts. I’ve also worked to integrate systems thinking into my leadership coaching practice. I embrace the “practice makes perfect” mantra with new skills — of which we learned many! Plus, the dedicated practice with my fieldwork team is directly putting the skills to work in a collaborative, supportive team of changemakers. Fun! The SOSC added so much fuel to my internal fire for change and zest for systems thinking. Watch out world, I’ll map your complexity!

The School of Systems Change six-month intensive provides a once-in-a-lifetime deep dive into systems thinking. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with this new and exciting field. While I feel confident in the tools I learned, I recognize now that I’m about ankle deep in an Olympic sized swimming pool, and I suspect the pool is connected to other pools of different shapes, colors, and depths through an underground network of tunnels that I can’t even begin to comprehend. While it may be safer to stand in the shallows and contemplate the depth of the pool, I’m inclined to jump in head first, try things out, and explore the concepts. So, here goes! “Cannonball!”

The full circle of systems changers in New York City. Photo credit James Thuch Madier.