Dimensions of social change

Through a conversation with a good friend and collaborator reflecting on work we are doing in GM around homelessness, I realised a model had formed in my head around social change that turns out to be a mis-remembering / combination of two well known models! Yet somehow this seems to be supporting me to make sense of things I am seeing, and felt worth sharing.

Joanna Macy’s work includes the concept of ‘Three Dimensions of The Great Turning‘…

  • Actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings
  • Analysis of structural causes and creation of structural alternatives
  • Shift in Consciousness

Alongside this, Saavedra and Paul Engler at the Ayni Institute developed ‘Social Movement Ecology‘…

  • Supporting personal transformation
  • Changing dominant institutions (split into three subsections)
  • Creating alternatives

In my imagined version, this had become what is shown below, with three types of external change, and in parallel supporting all of that is the personal ‘inner’ transformation happening within individuals and groups – not separate from but alongside and as an integral part of the systemic ‘external’ change…

  • Personal transformation
  • Systemic transformation
    • Resisting harm
    • Changing dominant institutions
    • Creating (& testing) alternatives

Each of us will be working in support of one or more of these dimensions. I see in some of the tensions and conflicts experienced in social movements and partnerships, some of what is happening is that we are seeing what we are doing within a different part of this map.

For some of us, often outside of institutions, we are thinking about creating alternatives to our current system, rather than changing (in less radical ways) what is there. For others of us within institutions, constrained by our roles that exist within systems that can feel outside of our power to change, we might be looking at the work as changing dominant institutions lens, and focus on what is possible within our given power.

Many individuals and projects will cross these lines, perhaps some of us hold a vision of a different world that organises based on very different principles (such as organising based on needs rather than deserve, as with nonviolent communication), but in our work role put that aside for what is realistic within the structures that exist.

The dying of the old

I had a vision a few months back, of the dying of the old system (represented by a gnarly yet frail white man), linking with ancient wisdom (represented by ancestors from earth based cultures), and being given guidance to soothe the dying of the old system so that the new could emerge (represented by a medicine that soothed in the dying process rather than intending to heal).

I wonder about some of the work we do in changing existing systems, whether we are keeping them going, rather than supporting them to die and make space for the new to emerge. It is hard to imagine that, with care for those who would be most affected in this transition.

Taking one example i am involved in…It does matter what services are offered to people experiencing homelessness. It does matter if less people have to love on the streets or in substandard accommodation. And maybe some of what we are doing is keeping the ‘homelessness system’ alive, even if in a slightly better form than before. And what we really want is to create systems where resources flow to meet needs, where there is community and a support system that actually works, and no-one has to experience homelessness in the first place.

I’d love to hear any reflection and any other models making sense to you, as we make sense of all of this, in the midst of transformation, the way forward emerging as we take each step.

In gratitude to Joanna Macy and The Work That Reconnects, the Greater Manchester Homelessness Action Network and many others past, present and future for the work you are doing to co-create a more beautiful world.