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Richard Tafel: 5 Steps for Systems Change

Richard Tafel: My sense is that right now in the world all of our systems are breaking down.  The faith systems are breaking down, education systems, healthcare systems, environmental systems.  So the global leader for social change is going to have to understand how to change systems.

Most social change programs today are symptoms-based.  But I can say as a young man in the ‘80s working as an AIDS buddy—where you volunteered, they died after two months; you volunteered, they died after two months—you very quickly said, "Wow, we can kind of do a better job of burying people or we’re going to have to get involved with systems change."  So what does that mean?  We had to learn about government policy on drugs, discrimination laws. . . . That particular epidemic was so dramatic that it almost drove us to that conclusion. 

Much of the work that I do with social entrepreneurs and clients, it feels a lot like the Titanic is sinking and they’re bragging about what beautiful, clever lifeboats they’re putting off the side for a small group of kids who get rescued from this school, from this broken healthcare system, in this lucky place.  And we kind of laud these people getting into the lifeboats.  And we’ve gotten bigger lifeboats and faster lifeboats and prettier lifeboats, but the reality is a lot of people are going down.  And there’s a great line in that story of the Titanic where the captain says . . . he asked the band to play to allay fear.  I think a lot of what we say is social change and non-profit is allaying fear.  We’re pretending like we’re doing something, but we’re not dealing with systems.  So let me offer five possible ways that you might change systems.

One, I use an expression when you’re approaching the problem of trim tab.  And this expression, trim tab, is the little rudder on a boat that when you change it, it changes the whole system.  So the first thing I ask a global world changer is, what one policy or one rule, if you change this one, it would change the whole direction of the ship?  And that really helps us focus on where we’re going to go in.

The second thing that I often say as we’re playing this strategy out, I suggest that you embrace the status quo to change the system.  In the mid-‘90s I debated gay marriage.  Now what was interesting at that time was that even the gay community criticized me for pushing an issue that was too soon.  "Don’t talk about it, it’s too early."  All my debates were with religious leaders, from Christian right groups in the Republican Parties.  And instead of saying, "I want this right.  We deserve this right"—that’s a change and it sounds like you’re taking something from the system, the conservative system—instead, I talked about love and property rights and kids and being able to go to funerals and inheritance.  I talked in the terms of a conservative traditional system.  And the folks who debated me—even in the mid-‘90s, which, you know, approval was 20 percent at that time for gay marriage—they basically said, "Well, I can see a case for civil unions."  And I thought, "Wow, that’s a huge victory from them."

I also suggest that you ask the system how it can be changed.  So, very often if I’m doing a policy challenge, I’ll go right to the bureaucrat and say, "I want to change this system.  How would I do it?"  And they'd give me a strategy I would have never come up with in my most wild fantasies.  They’ll say, "Sally really does that, but Kim is the one to talk to, but Bill has the power.  Talk to these people and they can do it."  Even people who have disagreed with the system change that I’m suggesting have given me really wonderful strategies.  So you might consider just asking.

Another thing you might want to do as you’re going through this is challenge the system, the people you’re dealing with, challenge them to their better angels.  We can get really cynical in working with broken systems and bureaucracies.  Every success that I’ve had in changing a system is at some point I’ve said to somebody, "Look, you know this is the right thing to do, and this is why you’re really here.  It’s not going to help you politically, it’s not going to get you any votes, it’s not going to get you any money, but you as a person, will you help me in changing this thing?"  And invariably people really rise up to do that.

And the final thing . . . Everyday the path toward world change will change.  Somewhere you’re working with an elected official who will lose office.  The news will shift.  Very often the social entrepreneur will give up and say, "Wow, I spent so much time working on that person."  And I always suggest, keep your eyes on the prize.  What was your goal?  Sometimes the loss of that person or the shift in the world will speed you to your goal.  You must hold on and be tenacious.

So those are the five areas that I usually work with when I create a strategy for an individual or an organization.  I think it can be applied to you as a person who are thinking about being a world changer.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

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