Making ‘systems change’ language more inclusive
Place-Based Change Community of Practice
Recently our community of practice discussed the language people use when describing systems change and explored where people found the language helpful and where it felt inaccessible. Now we are testing some Plain English ways of describing systems change
The power of language
The meeting began with a discussion about how the language we use can perpetuate power dynamics that hold back systemic working. For us, working as a system means working with everyone within that system – not just those who have previously been part of conversations about systems change or those with a theoretical background in systems thinking. Quite a few members of the group had reflections on where they’d found the language unhelpful, or might have felt excluded by it.
If the language of systemic change makes people feel disempowered, especially those who have previously felt disempowered by thee systems, it is by definition reaffirming existing systems of power rather than shifting them.
Adapt your communication to suit your audience
Systemic change can become more inclusive if we are willing to adapt our language to suit personal preferences and needs.
Members of our community of practice said we shouldn’t assume that the language around systems change is too complex for people to engage with – in fact it might give them the language they need for new concepts and ideas they want to express and try out. But it shouldn’t be the only method of communication – as with everything, different explanations resonate more or less with different people. Some may want academic theory, others may prefer practical and tangible examples, or diagrams, stories and metaphors that describe the systems they encounter or work within.
A starting point should always be listening – especially to those experiencing the issue. How do they talk about it, and what language do they use? This is likely to be the language that best expresses how the system is or isn’t meeting needs, and where it might need to change.
Some of our community said they had found the language around the systems relating to poverty is stigmatising and disempowering when applied to a person’s circumstances without their consent. In this case, the community recommended asking people with lived experience of poverty about how they’d describe the systems they experience, and to avoid jumping to ‘label’ it. We need to be flexible and we need to constantly adapt.
From our conversation with the Community of Practice, it seems we need both language rooted in people’s own experiences of the systems they experience, along with the concepts of systems change to enable us to make radical and lasting change.
What do we mean by systems change?
When we talk about systems we might be referring to systems such as the health, education or legal systems – all made up of lots of different people, organisations, policies and values. We might also be talking about belief systems – systemic racism, sexism, ableism, or other types of deep-rooted beliefs that create systemic oppression. We think of these beliefs as systems because they’re complex structures to dismantle and change.
Changing these systems is really important, and to do it we need to make sure no-one is locked out of the conversation. To do that, we believe we should constantly listen and adapt our language. At Renaisi, we find starting points for talking about systems that reflect the day-to-day language we all use to describe our own interactions with those systems.
Our community of practice recommended that we avoid jargon like “ecosystem” and “leverage”. So, we are testing some new, Plain English ways of describing systems change:
- A fundamental shift in people’s experiences and outcomes.
- A significant and lasting change to how people experience the services and systems that are part of their everyday lives.
- A change in how things are done, made collectively by the people, organisations and decision-makers to shape a particular issue, which means things won’t go back to how they were.
- A change that gets to the heart of why the issues existed in the first place.
Do these phrases resonate with you? What have we missed? Do you have a better way of articulating systems change?