Starting out in systems change work…
Alison Spaul, Two Ridings Community Foundation, York
“What are you doing in your new role?” asked a friend, mentor and general supporter, about a month or so into my new position (Systems Change Partnership Coordinator at Two Ridings Community Foundation). I described the work that would bring people together to inquire;
What systems perpetuate multiple disadvantage for Children and Young People in York?
To which she replied “Oh, that sounds a bit academic for you”. I know that doesn’t exactly sound like support, but support doesn’t always appear in cheer leader form. My friend had challenged me into being better (once again). I had made my role and the work sound “other” and inaccessible; that had to change.
I’ve worked in children and young people’s settings since 2007 — Youth Work, Sports, Arts, Alternative Education, Sexual Health support, Covid 19 response, Funding and Community Development; often using systems thinking but not naming it. Since joining Two Ridings Community Foundation in the partnership role with York Multiple Complex Needs (MCN) Network and Lankelly Chase, in September 2020, I have been emerged in Systems Change work; an inspiring, creative and daunting pool of possibilities. I have attended training, discussed possibilities with people across the City of York, Country and Internationally. I have read life changing books and articles. I have met people who have pulled me so deeply into myself that I have had no option but to rise out differently. Thankfully this change is welcomed and elevated by my loving family.
This journey has also created internal conflict. I have fidgeted with the recognition of my own privilege. Not only am I in secure work, I am also attending training and accessing brilliant development opportunities in the middle of the pandemic. I have felt like I am letting people down… “How can we explore change over here when there are people who need something right now, over there?”. In his book Upstream, Dan Heath describes my tug of war better than I can (we have never met or spoken). His words have helped me to reconcile my position;
Imagine sitting by the river with your friends, you see kids struggling as they float downstream, crying out for help. Both strong swimmers you and your friend jump in to fish them out. More kids come down the river, all struggling and need help. You both keep pulling kids out of the river. You’re both committed but tired. But then your friend jumps out of the river — you’re abandoned — “where are you going?!”. I’m going upstream to stop the kids falling in the river”.
System change requires listening, empathy, understanding and a can do attitude. Attributes that if you’re lucky, you’ll be wrapped in by front line workers, parents, family, neighbours and friends. Yet ‘system’ or ‘upstream’ thinking and its application remains aspirational, somewhere off in the distance or perceived as impossible. And for most, it is impossible, people are stretched and the conditions aren’t right. There isn’t enough headspace to do anything but stay with the kids in the river, and get as many out as possible. But if we never intentionally go upstream, we may always be stretched; and those worn out kids who managed to get out of the river will be too knackered from their experiences to see an alternative. You cannot “unsee” system thinking once given that space to explore it — it encroaches every part of you.
Back to the work in York… I, alone, do not have the ideas, understanding and relationships that will make lasting change for children and young people in York. As coordinator, I will do just that, weave together people, ideas and possibilities, creating the conditions and headspace to enable people to do things a bit differently. Or at least I hope I will… like a lone dancer in a field I’m currently waving my hands and moving my feet to a beat and hoping some brave people get me and “it” enough to join in. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW8amMCVAJQ
Correction, I am not alone. I’m with the brilliant people from my past whose generous leadership, nurturing souls, diversity and wisdom enabled me to get here. I’m with my allies who have changed my life forever, in the last couple of months. And I’m with the people, organisations and friends who are ready for lasting change that makes the lives of children and young people in York, better, forever. What are we accepting that we can change?
I also ask the sceptics and doubters to join in this conversation. Make it stronger with a different perspective. Be the critical friend that’s challenges us to be better.
This work will look different. It will feel nurturing. It will feel powerful. It will be together. It will feel human.
But we WILL throw everything out of the window, door, out the boat if children and young people tell us we’ve got it wrong. This work is for them. And will be by them.