Reflections on the Language & Practice of Systems Change

Introduction to a Garfield team dialogue in two parts

By Jessica Conrad

What does “systems change” mean to us? It’s a question our team often returns to after having first asked it in the early 2000s. That’s when we began experimenting with different forms of investment and collaboration grounded in systems thinking. Now, as we look back on 2020, it’s no surprise that the tone of the question has changed, gaining gravity and priority.

On the one hand, the relentless tragedies of 2020 revealed in full contrast how inequitable our systems truly are. They also raised people’s awareness about how dire the need for systems change has become on many levels — and about the systemic nature of society’s problems. One of the many stark inequities that emerged last year is the fact that, nationally, COVID-19 cases and deaths of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color exceeded their proportional share of the population. The roaring public discourse about racial injustice has made it easier for more people to connect dots between what’s currently unfolding in the public health system and the consequences of systemic racism in other realms, including the US criminal justice, public education, and economic systems, to name a few. In a word, the current landscape shows just how interconnected our issues are. At the same time, it’s exposing people to the language of system change.

Meanwhile, we are noticing a greater number of organizations in the social sector describing their approach as systemic or in service of systems change. We see many others who seek to learn about how to apply a systems approach within their work. And we also see more and more practitioners building new relationships, developing shared language, refining and diversifying practices, and sharing their experience of leading projects using systemic approaches. They are purposefully collaborating to build the emerging field of systems change practice. It seems very likely that the events of last year contributed to and accelerated these shifts in language and practice.

Yet as these dynamics unfold, we are also noticing that the terms — systems change, systemic, systems approach, et cetera — aren’t yet well defined in broad use or within the field itself. Very rarely do the words come with an explanation of their underlying assumptions, and when they do, we’ve found that people use them with different meanings in different contexts, leading to confusion.

With the language of systems change now firmly in the zeitgeist of the social sector, and growing in use in the general public, we see an opportunity to help clarify the definition and practice of systems change. Anyone who follows our work knows that we believe that the practice of systems change offers immense opportunities for solving society’s toughest challenges. Our hope is that by helping people align around what systems change means, we will strengthen the field’s ability to develop and share systems change practices with more practitioners and organizations to create greater impact. Given that a systemic approach requires intentional work at multiple levels — from the micro to the macro — we also intend to bridge these concepts from the social sector to everyday life. The work we’re talking about here is more than just collaboration and strategy setting within organizations or networks. It’s about our individual mindsets and values and how we act on them. In every interaction. Everyday.

With these intentions in mind, we’re releasing a two-part piece on what systems change means to us and how we apply the concept in practice through the foundation’s activities and in the way we live our lives at home. We also want to acknowledge that we continuously evolve our approach in response to wise thinking and lived experience in the field and beyond, so we will also share the trends we’re following.

Before we dive into Part One, let us explain our chosen format and outline the themes included in each part. We decided to explore our thinking through a discussion among members of our team. It was our hope that this format might be more engaging for readers and stimulate associational thinking, allowing us to dance among multiple idea threads at once. Two core themes emerged in our conversation, which anchor each part:

  • PART ONE — explores what we mean when we use the words system and systems change in the context of our work, and what it means to put the concepts into practice by acting systemically.
  • PART TWO — shows how acting systemically translates into the structures and programs we create to support our grantees and develop the field.

In publishing this piece, we want to acknowledge that we’re offering our experience in thinking about the language and practices of systems change — not the only experience. We are confident that we have blind spots. We hope you share what our reflections bring up for you in the comments so that, collectively, we might bring about greater clarity for all.

Jessica Conrad is the Strategic Communications Manager with the Garfield Foundation.

We support changemakers in creating greater impact through systems-based collaborative networks. This is the space where we’re sharing our learning.