Updated: Oct 30, 2022
This blog post will explore seven different approaches that can be considered when beginning systems change and justice-focused strategies.
This was the most common, yet focused question I receive when working to dismantle (or reform) a system: jail transformation into a Center for Equity, youth crime reduction strategy, racial equity visioning, clean energy and equity planning, etc.
The answer is, "You don't get past it. You hug it. You embrace it. You get comfortable with it. Resistance is a necessary pass through. It's where everyone's beliefs and worldviews come together and are forced to introduce themselves. It's a personal space often tucked under much trauma."
I mean the reality is that anything worth having is worth fighting for and if everyone around the Board Room table or on the front line believes that, you will naturally experience resistance. I remember one time when I stepped into a Board Room with a Chief of Police, Head of Parks and Recreation, and the Commission of Workforce Development. I was told to collaborate with these leaders to address why there was so much youth crime and recidivism in a southern city. As you can imagine, these three leaders had their own reasons and anecdotes as to why youth were engaging in numerous offenses weekly.
What struck me was how vastly different their explanations were. They simply drew conclusions from their interactions with youth and how their collective agencies were created and instructed to interface with them. They also weren't youth themselves, so there was some inherent bias. I remember hearing how they described youth in the city. Then, I started meeting with their teams and took notes of how youth were discussed, I heard anything from "knuckleheads, bad kids, students, trainees, etc." It was clear they all wanted to help solve the challenge of youth crime but it was also clear, that a subculture of language existed. It struck me that we were going to have work slowly and tread lightly because this was going to have to change to get on one accord.
Sometimes in systems change, you might have to first start with just acknowledging the power of language. If we were going to truly uncover the reasons for youth crime and violence, then let's start by all agreeing how we were going to refer to them. I remember presenting best practice research from across the country and local data that showed the very real circumstances youth similar to ours were facing: incarcerated parents, poverty, gang pressures, etc.
After a couple of meetings, we could at least align on the fact that if we were going to serve them, we should call them what they are "youth".
Now, this may seem small, but small wins matter in movement building. That was the first step to alignment, do we all see them the same? It didn't happen overnight, there were many more instances where we had to take a step back and remind ourselves why were there - to create a collective vision and strategy to help our youth. This meant digging into history of crime in the area (aka: taking a placed-based approach), conducting local focus groups with youth and their parents and guardians, and visiting their communities to see firsthand what they were experiencing. Of course, even things like visits only came after we felt like we had built some form of trust and relationship with the community.
So I say, "Be Encouraged!" We live in a time where if everyone is fighting, it is okay. It is NOT okay. I am down for some level of dissension. It is healthy to disagree. However, it's important to take small steps as we work toward a bigger goal and know that all these steps add up to greater glory in the end, especially for our most marginalized.
Check out these tips I am happy to share my team and I have learned over the years when driving systemic and organizational change:
Words have power so let us use them wisely. Spend time at the beginning of an initiative, program, or policy agreeing on how groups and challenges will be described in a way that empowers and honors.
Listen for what is and is not being said. This is their community, organization, lived experience, and aspiration. Approach these experiences knowing that the community (Board, executives, administration, employees, residents, visitors, etc.) are ultimately impacted by your thoughts and approaches so listening is key.
Explore what local history tells about the current state of needs and be transparent in solutioning.
Ask who is being left out of the conversation and strategize how to include all voices. I see this so often. We talk about an entire group of people who are not represented in the conversation from the start.
As we embrace resistance, acknowledge that change work involves an ecosystem. All issues are interdependent. Silo’ing challenges should not be an option.
Acknowledge that every person involved in change work has room to grow and be introspective. Employees at all levels of an organization have a viable solution to be heard and considered. This is hardest for cultures that have done the same thing the same way for decades.
Small wins are still wins. Change is hard and messy. Take time to account for what is going right and push toward the collective goal.