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.

Organising foundations and structures

So many of us are looking for ways to work together that are collaborative, moving away from hierarchy and power over and force and ‘should’ (the legacy of Patriarchy), and towards sharing our gifts, responding to needs, staying within capacity and flow.

In so many places where these experiments are happening, I see beautiful things happening, but sadly also conflict and burnout and struggle. Without the structure of authority which is all most of us know, we need some other form of structures in place to support the co-creation and flow that we want to find. Without any structure, we inevitably will fall back to informal and invisible structures will develop over time, recreating the systems that we have been trying to avoid. (I recommend reading the classic essay ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness‘ for more on this.)

It can be so tempting to skip over this step and focus on tasks that need to be done. I hear often ‘but we are all nice people, we will just keep talking’, and i love that, and also see often it is not enough. It is sad to see conflict, burnout, stress and tension coming in when the initial intentions of projects and energy people bring has felt so hopeful.

The way I support groups to organise is based on the work of several people/organisations whose work I value, most notably Miki Kashtan (Nonviolent Global Liberation) and Frédéric Laloux (Reinventing Organisations). The following is a brief overview of some of this learning, with links to follow if you want to know more. Please get in touch if you would like some support to work through this process with a group you are part of, or for support with existing conflict.


For new or existing groups, a starting point can be to looking for shared clarity on the foundations of what the organisation is and why it exists. This from Miki is the most precise and clear description of the key elements I’ve found…

  • Vision: where we’re heading – what we want to see in the world over time.
  • Purpose: why we do what we do – what inspires us to get up in the morning and do the work.
  • Mission: what we do – the nuts and bolts of action, including strategy, goals, objectives, and action steps.
  • Values: how we do what we do – what we orient towards to operate with integrity in service to our purpose.
  • Theory of Change: why we believe in what we do – the rationale for the mission as a way of accomplishing the purpose.

In addition to getting these clear, it is also super important that anyone involved has awareness and easy access to these principles, so that the framework can support everyone when confusion and conflicts arise. Within all of this we stay aware of willingness and capacity, our strengths and limitations, so that what we do is not asking anyone to stretch beyond what’s healthy for them.


From these shared foundations, we then look for the minimum organising structures to put in place so that we can get started. These can be lightweight and simple, or more complex, depending on the context. Again, Miki’s work and Reinventing Organisations guides us through finding the systems and structures we need to support us to align systems to purpose. Here are some of the key structures and questions to bring into the room…

  • Decision making: Who will make which decisions and how?
  • Information flow: How will we ensure information is accessible and transparent to everyone who might need it?
  • Resource flow: How will we generate and distribute resources?
  • Feedback system: How will we know what is and isn’t working for people?
  • Support system: How will people get support in a way that is within our capacity?
  • Conflict system: How will we respond when there is conflict?

There is often a mix in the group between people who want more structure and people who want less. This can be a cause of tension, but also a useful balance. A model i find helpful in thinking about this is ‘The Chaordic Path‘ – in the sweet spot between too much chaos and too much order is the chaordic, where there is flow and creativity, conditions for emergence.

“As we move between chaos and order, individually and collectively, we move through confusion and conflict toward clarity. We are all called to walk this path without judgement – some will feel more comfortable with chaos, others with order. Both are needed as, together, we walk the edge that is between these two toward something wholly new.”

Each group will need to find this place for themselves, creating just enough structure to support people to understand how they can contribute their creative ideas and energy in a way that supports the mission of the group.

Please get in touch if you have feedback, questions or are interested to find out more.

Recommended Resources

Liberating structures

I’ve loved stumbling across ‘liberating structures’ – a fantastic menu of tools and practices for many-to-many communication.

“Liberating Structures are easy-to-learn microstructures that enhance relational coordination and trust. They quickly foster lively participation in groups of any size, making it possible to truly include and unleash everyone.”

Beyond conventional structures of presentations, managed discussions, open discussions, status reports and brainstorm sessions, there is a menu of structures freely available to use (ordered simplest to learn first at the top left), and there is also a ‘matching matrix‘ to help match structures to goals.

One simple example I enjoyed recently was using a set of starter questions to build trust and engagement – so simple and so effective…

  • What first inspired me in my work is…
  • Something we must learn to live with is…
  • A bold idea I recommend is…
  • What I find challenging in our current situation is…
  • Something we should stop doing is…
  • A courageous conversation we are not having is…
  • A question that is emerging for me is…

Another brilliant tool for exposing and strategising when there appears to be conflicting needs is to find the ‘Wicked Questions‘ using the starter “How is it that we are … and we are … simultaneously?” – moving the question to an ‘and’ that includes both. ‘Integrated Autonomy‘ is a more in depth way to help a group move from either-or conflicts to both-and strategies and solutions.

(NB: Convergent Facilitation is the most effective way i know currently to find a way forward when there are a lot of different perspectives and needs to take into consideration.)

I also love the ‘Conversation Cafe‘ (and similar formats) to build trust, reduce fear and make sense of complex, difficult or painful situations.

There is so much here to explore! If you are interested to try out using Liberating Structures with your group or community, browse liberatingstructures.com or get in touch if you would like support.

Kingian Nonviolence – Accept Suffering without retaliation, for the Sake of the Cause to Achieve the Goal

This is one of the most challenging principles for many, and asks deep questions of us – who is suffering, what are we choosing to take in and close off from, where are people suffering involuntarily, and where might we be willing to voluntarily accept suffering in order to be an ally and support others?

Through the 50 days for peace course, we explored several questions…

  • Who is bearing the bulk of the suffering for unjust systems in our communities?
  • How can we support systemic injustice being seen and attended to?
  • What do you love more than retaliation?
  • Where might you be willing to accept suffering voluntarily in order to reduce harm?

With so much in our culture based on judgement and blame, it can be easy to fall into guilt and feeling ‘not enough’. This principle asks us to re-centre those who are being impacted, be really conscious about what we let in and keep out, and without giving up care for our own capacity and limits. We also explored the resources, training and community support it takes to accept suffering in some of the ways people have been called to, and also all of the ways we can support people who are willing to make sacrifices.

Can we find the courage and capacity to take in the involuntary suffering of others, within our limits? How can we resource ourselves to do this? And centring their experience, is there some action we can take that might reduce harm?

If you are open to it, you could listen to this recording from a US customs and border protection facility, sensing into the suffering of all those voices in the recordings, and in yourself.

Next up: Avoid internal violence of the spirit, as well as external violence >

Where we are and Vision

I have a recurring question lately… how can we both start where we are, rooted in current experience AND create conditions for imagining a new paradigm, open to a radically different vision?

I spend time in spaces that focus on current situations, and spaces that are imagining the new, and I often wonder where and how the two might meet, might influence each other. How do we imagine and create a new world beyond current structures and limitations, without disconnecting from the ground, seeming out of touch with people’s everyday reality?

A friend shared a practice with me from a Scottish innovation space that has something to offer this called ‘Standing in the land in between’* – spending time seeing where we really are, spending time imagining something new, and then standing in between and seeing what emerges. (*I think this is the right name – I’ve not yet managed to find a link.)

This leads me to reflect on how this happens inside of me – the past, present and imagination of future possibilities is all here now, in the present. Sometimes imagining a different future can be an inspiration and guide to new possibilities, and sometimes it is a way I avoid seeing reality, feeling the pain and mourning what’s not working.

I can imagine this mirrored in social change work too. How can we open to reimagine a world where all needs matter, where all life can thrive, without avoiding what’s here now, the suffering and the grief and the joy and the care?

I see what ULab/TheoryU can bring to this – seeing the present in ever expanding awareness, from other perspectives, inspired by what others are doing… and then pausing in all of that, feeling and sensing what is here, and listening for the new emerging. We are experimenting with this through GM Transformation Lab, and I’m longing to be in more diverse groups to explore.

Where do you see great work being done in the ‘what’s here now’ and deep imagining of ‘what could be’, and where and how do you see them coming together?

I sense new possibilities emerging from the space between, and would love to hear the questions stirring in you.

Roots and vision

Kingian Nonviolence – Attack forces of evil not people doing evil

This weeks principle may take some unpacking for many of us, maybe especially for those committed to nonviolence who might have rejected ideas of evil and hear ‘attack’ as violent. I’m grateful for the encouragement to start where I am and explore my current felt sense and ideas around these words…

For me ‘evil’ is tied up with the idea of ‘bad intention’. As I grew up the focus was on naming (and sometimes shaming) the intention behind an action, and on admitting my actions were ‘bad’, rather than focus on hearing the impact. For some of us the word ‘evil’ brings up concepts of fixed right and wrong, of bad actions and bad people, and associations with religion and authority.

Similarly while in ‘attack’ there could be ideas of violence, there is also a strength and conviction, with the object of this being the forces (structures, beliefs, systems, habits), and not people. This is an active and proactive strength, finding the energy and courage to do the work that needs to be done to reduce harm.

Something like “dismantle and upgrade systems and institutions doing harm, rather than blaming individuals” lands more easily in me in this moment. AND there still seems something valuable about inquiring into my relationship to these words, maybe reclaiming them with a new understanding. As I think about systems and beliefs that lead to harm, systems that really don’t meet the needs of many, and that actively oppress, might that be a new understanding of ‘forces of evil’?

I loved Roxy and Cathy’s unpacking of this idea during 50 days for peace, at the same time as encouraging people to find the words that resonate for them, and allow others to choose differently. And so from there, in words that speak to you, how you might complete this sentence?

I want to find the strength to attack forces that [do what] by [how].

Some things coming up for me…

  • “I want to find the strength to dismantle systems and structures that threaten our shared conditions for life, by reimagining ways forward where all can thrive.”
  • I want to find the strength to challenge and dissolve ideas of fixed right and wrong, by supporting groups to connect to their needs and find more creative solutions.”

As we each focus our attention on what matters most to us, bringing the skills and strengths we have, something new and more attuned to needs seems more likely to emerge.

Community and accompaniment

All of this is a lot to ask, especially for those recovering from trauma or still facing oppression and violence. Another key concept from this week is to understand the need for support and resourcing ourselves for the fight . We need to find accompaniment – develop our own capacity to accompany ourselves, and to seek support. We need to find community – to lean on each other and know that we will all have different capacity to show up in different ways at different times. We need to find what resources us – coming from gratitude, time in nature, time to rest, music, friendships, pets, touch, whatever helps us reconnect and recover.

Personal and systemic

I’m so grateful too for reminders to notice both systemic and personal layers in this. There can be a tendency for some of us to focus on the personal (especially with an NVC lens), and miss the systemic. If a person is talking about pain related to the systemic, there might also be personal pain, but to go only to the personal can be painful, and also not feel safe if there is not consent.

I remember several times in working in homelessness partnerships people who had experienced homelessness talking about the injustice around housing and support, and anger around how people are treated for not being in work, and sometimes the focus has gone to their personal circumstances. I’m grateful for this clarity, to discern the personal and systemic, and be aware of the level someone is speaking at – an edge which I am still learning to work with.

Systemic change

In this intersection between the personal and systemic there is opportunity. Systems are created and maintained by repeated behaviours (including compliance and silence), and systems are changed by new behaviours. So what might nonviolent action that changes systems look like in the contexts we are in?

Kathleen brought in research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan that points to the success of nonviolent resistance, and some of the attributes needed…

  • A large and diverse population of participants sustained over time
  • Capacity to create loyalty shifts in groups that support current systems/institutions
  • Creative imaginative methods of resistance
  • Organisational discipline to face direct repression without going to violence or collapse

There is much to unpack in all of this, and I’d love to spend more time pondering all of this with others as we head into whatever comes next.

Up next – Principle 4: Accept Suffering without Retaliation for the Sake of the Cause to Achieve the Goal >