The School of System Change Launches in London

Back in February I attended opening days of the School of System Change, a cross-cultural gathering orchestrated by Forum for the Future in London.

Here are some of the notes that I scribbled down during opening days:

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The world is a system that is constantly changing. Through storytelling, we can co-create what is needed to address complex challenges. Stories are a map for understanding the world, a microcosm of what’s happening in the larger whole.

The goal of the School of System Change is to build a community of people practicing those skills. We are alive and part of this ecology, this system.

What is the shape / thread / wave of your life? What is the context? Life is change, is motion.

If you frame things too quickly, it becomes your prison.

Sin crisis no hay crecimiento.

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Walking away from the thing often means circling back to it. Challenge your own story. Create a structure, a framework, but recognize when you’re holding onto old stories, and have the strength to let them go.

What is the story that you always tell yourself about your life? What happens when you let that story go, and tell another story?


We can understand ourselves as agents of change. There are many roles.

(At the moment my role is Connector / Amplifier / Disruptpr / Archivist. I move between).

We can look at change through the lens of relationships. Working smarter means getting out of our silos.

People don’t like change. People fear change. To admit that your theory is wrong is really hard.

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London is dense with layers of time.

Become cunning. Bring others in. Give them the opportunity to become part of the change. Rather than telling them something, bring them on board.

System change is about partnerships. How can we create spaces where those relationships are built? People are very busy. We need to find spaces to step out of  busy-ness and reflect.

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#resist together (Paris)

The Latin root of the word “conversation” means “to turn together. Human communication is a dance ritual.

We live in language. Language is a place. You’re a different person in a different language.

Find the part of the system that you can twang. Seek a journey for maximum wobble.

The future is a figment. It doesn’t exist. The future is a product of the present.

Institutions aren’t immutable. They can be redesigned and reinvented. Think for the long-arc, the 100-200 year future.

Leadership in systems change requires that we have:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Courage (to look deeply at ourselves & our strengths and weaknesses / biases; to know them; to listen to others).
  3. Joy (because it’s hard to overcome the barrier of time and attention)
  4. A group of people who believe in the need to change and define the problem together.
  5. Fail fast. Fail forward.

What does your ideal future look like, feel like, etc.?

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textures of home, other side of the pond

How do we get people who have the power to change the system involved in system change?

We must have the patience to listen and seek to understand perspectives that are different than our own.

A map is a tool. A systems diagram embodies structure and causation.

What is the behavior in the system that we want to change?

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You don’t create systems change. You create the conditions for it. Do the thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because you expect the right outcome.

Keep options open. Do stuff and see what happens. Then re-frame your strategy, noticing things that were completely outside of your strategy that work well.

What is the underlying assumption of the system?

Everything is in a state of flux. Things are always in the process of becoming, just as a murmuration of birds flows and shifts.


Image via alain delorme

Tensions make life rich. We have to deal with tensions that can’t be resolved. Unsolvable tension is, sometimes, good.

Things emerge when something changes that suits the local conditions.

Embracing complexity means embracing that the world is more systemic and emergent than we’d like to think it is.


Here is some audio I recorded from other participants on their thoughts on Basecamp’s opening days.


Interview with Story Collector Monica Niki Elenbaas

Do you have a story about Hurricane Katrina to share? 

August 29th, 2014 marked the 9th anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.


In reaction to the fact that she heard almost nothing in the news about the anniversary, Niki was inspired to collect stories. Her work focuses on people who volunteered in the aftermath of the hurricane, as well as those who were helped. Niki’s goal is to ensure that this part of the story is told for the 10th anniversary next year.

Here’s to storytelling as a form of activism and memory.


What is motivating you to collect stories about Katrina?

I have held a variety of roles—from small to national—leading volunteerism. And I have a very personal connection to what happened during Katrina because of family members. I feel like the national attention of the 10th anniversary provides an excellent time to gain attention for the win:win:win of volunteerism.

What is your own Katrina story?

My brother-in-law and his wife prepared for Katrina as best they could, by “buttoning up” their home and her dental practice. When we talked with them on Sunday, we were concerned that they planned to stay slightly inland from Pass Christian (at her parent’s house). When the storm finally arrived, I was glued to television and the internet while the rest of the world went on, not realizing the magnitude of what was going on.

It took two days before we were sure they were fine. It took a month before we could fly into New Orleans and then drive through roadblocks and devastated (and yet uncleared) area after area to get to Pass Christian to help them with recovery. Even typing this now makes my anxiety level rise in a disconcerting way.

America went on with professional sports and stupid television and news of terrorism. By the time I was back home (after a week of helping with recovery), no one cared. I couldn’t sleep. I was so anxious over the fact that our country had moved on.

We have been back about a dozen times since the storm. People outside of the area think the disaster was in New Orleans, and they think recovery is in the past. We know better.

How do you see Katrina as linked to issues of water and climate change?

I see Katrina, as well as issues of water and climate change, as all related to the damage created by our culture of greed.

What do you hope for the future?

I hope that the best keeps coming out. Countless Americans have given their time and energy to disaster recovery, and their work goes largely unsung. I hope that we stop glorifying terrible role models like Justin Bieber or the latest NFL abuser in favor of our best heroes.

What is the power of storytelling in creating this future?

Each of us needs to tell and tell and tell.

If someone wants to share a story with you, how can they be in touch?




nikiAs past national director for volunteer service and learning for the YMCA, Monica Niki Elenbaas has seen over and over how service benefits both the giver and received. Personally, helping family with recovery after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast led to a life-changing experience with the clean-up. Nearly a decade later, the recovery is far from over and that the storm’s continuing impact reveals a great deal about the best and worst of our country. Niki is collecting stories about people who volunteered in Katrina’s aftermath, as well as those who were helped, to help ensure that this part of the story is told for the 10th anniversary in 2015.

Interview with Writer Laura Kiesel

Laura Kiesel is a published journalist, essayist and poet. As a journalist, she frequently covers the topics of climate, energy and the environment and has written for The Street, Al-Jazeera America, BioScience, Salon, Orion, E Magazine, Science, Earth Island Journal and She holds a Master’s degree in natural resources and environmental policy from the University of Vermont and a Bachelor’s in English and journalism from the State University of New York at New Paltz.


How do you see poetry and journalism as similar? How are they different? Does your work in one genre inform your work in the other? 

Both are ways to tell a story.

Poetry is a more artistic outlet and form of writing than journalism. Whereas with journalism you are usually exploring the hard facts of a topic––the who, what, where, when and how––poetry goes deeper into the emotional and even spiritual implications of whatever themes or topics it is exploring. And while there exists more literary or narrative journalism that can implement poetic devices, I unfortunately haven’t had much opportunity to write that kind of journalism.Sometimes my work in one genre will inform or complement my work in another, mostly in that both contain an inherent sense of the importance of justice and both can wax polemic at times.

How does your background in biology inform the way that you approach the world?

Having an educational background in biology has offered me a keen awareness of how closely connected everything is and how delicate that connection can be. Since I know erasing a species from this planet can set off a domino effect and cause entire ecosystems to become unstable or unravel (whether from the top down or the bottom up), or that there is no “away” when disposing of items, I have tried to live as low impact life as I can for an individual living in an urban area of the United States. Many of my life choices, from becoming a vegetarian to abstaining from using certain products/chemicals and trying not to purchase new electronics or clothing is inspired by what I learned about biology either through my schooling or independently.

Do you have a story about water or climate change that you would like to share?

A few years back I went to the annual conference for the Society of Environmental Journalists in Madison, Wisconsin and the keynote speech was on water scarcity in the coming decades. There must have been at least 50 tables with five or six places at each table. At each place was a pre-poured glass of water. Only about half the chairs were taken, which meant that all of that water was dumped right out afterwards and went to waste. It seemed the height of hypocrisy and drove home to me how we still don’t quite get how deeply we have to change and start walking the talk.

On a larger level, here in the United States our carbon emissions have been going down, but this is mostly because we have had a natural gas boom and NG has a lower carbon footprint than coal or oil (at least at the stacks). Yet, most natural gas is extracted by hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which uses enormous amounts of water in the process. So, the argument of natural gas is the more sustainable choice is a myth as it is hugely resource (specifically, water) intensive while also being very polluting to groundwater resources. Our dirty energy choices combined with climate change are seriously threatening our water security in the near future. I’ve been so inspired by the threat climate change and our energy drive has on water, I am currently at work on a young adult dystopian novel about a world where water is rare and is rationed called “Thirst.”

What is the role of writing and storytelling in the push for meaningful measures to address climate change? 

People do not usually react to an issue in a meaningful way unless it is made personal for them. Writing about climate change and putting a human (or in other cases, animal) face can help people relate and understand the topic not as something abstract but something that impacts them personally and emotionally. Otherwise, climate or our environment is perceived as an “other” — something separate from us rather than what we are part of.

You might find this blogpost of mine relevant to this question:

Do you believe that the solution to this problem lies inside or outside of the political system?

Yes and no. On one hand, I think that like any major movement that has occurred in history and required a huge paradigm shift (civil rights, women’s rights), there will need to be a strong social uprising in order to confront climate change on the level we would need to to make a dent in averting its worst impacts. This would take nothing less than a large-scale and cohesive grassroots movement that occurs from the bottom-up. And like with civil rights, this movement will need to push a very reluctant political system to pass strong legislation to enable action on climate change, because individual changes (even in the aggregate) will not be enough to address it since we need to restructure our entire society and the way it does business. I think we’ll need to get a lot of the money out of politics before we can achieve this, as the system is too entrenched in the interests of the fossil fuel and agribusiness lobbies. Also, I just don’t think our current capitalistic economy is compatible with creating or maintaining a sustainable society. An economy based on unlimited growth and inflation does not make sense in a planet with finite resources and a carrying capacity (of which have already far exceeded ours by pushing countless other species into extinction while we crowd them out, hunt them to extinction or build over/pollute their habitats). I believe we would need a steady state economy to achieve climate stability. We need to learn to truly live within our means, and that might mean giving up things we don’t want to like cars and plane trips to other parts of the world or eating hamburgers on a regular basis.

How do you respond to people who don’t believe that climate change is an issue?

It depends on the situation and the context. As an online journalist/columnist who frequently reports on climate/energy issues, I am often the target of climate deniers in the comments section. Initially I tried to engage some of these commentators in a meaningful discourse, but that seemed futile. I sometimes have used humor and other times have tried to appeal to reason and other times to one’s conscience or morality. Overall, it can be very frustrating to deal with die-hard climate skeptics. But also, I have had dialogue with those who just don’t understand the topic very well and are open to learning about it and through discussion can come to understand it more and care about it.

What do you hope for the future? Is fear a part of that vision?

Fear is a major part of my vision. My hope is that we will get our act together on time to avert the worst impacts of climate change and salvage our species. Unfortunately, though, I think history has taught me that we usually don’t get it until it’s too late, or almost too late. So, my somewhat more positive hope is that it will be the latter of those two scenarios and we can make changes on time to not totally lay waste to this world as it exists now. We’ve already inevitably bought ourselves a decent amount of warming over the course of this century that will lead to greater frequency in floods and droughts and that will compromise the future security of some staple crops. We really need to start focusing on adaptation and creating some local and regional economies that are growing their own food when/where possible and that we no longer have such a staunch car culture. For me, I’ve decided not to have children because I worry what the future will be with climate change, which will become more apparent mid-century at the same time our overpopulation will be reaching record numbers and our resources will be more strained than ever.

Outside of writing, what do you love?

Being a writer, I love to read and tend to do it voraciously, as well as consume other forms of art, whether it be film, museums, and music. I love music: Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elvis Perkins, Bob Dylan, the Shins, Jimi Hendrix, etc.
I also love being outside, whether hiking, biking, cross country skiing, swimming or just sitting in and being surrounded by nature.

What are you reading right now? 

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

What is your favorite word?

Melancholy. What a beautiful word for such a sad state of mind.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am writing a collection of personal essays about my life as well as working on two novels (including the aforementioned YA novel, though that’s on the backburner). I am a weekly contributing writer for and am working on a series of articles about women in today’s workforce.