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.


Day One Learning Inuktitut

… because languages matter.


I’m learning using the Inuktitut Podcast Project and Inuktitut Tusaalanga –– so glad that these resources exist!

My hope is to one day collect stories about water and climate change in the Arctic.



The Power of Deep Listening

“If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” We are, in other words, made of the words we give breath to — the very sentences we speak into existence.

We build ourselves houses of words, and we live there.

We are the stories we tell ourselves.

I just published a piece over on Medium. It’s a bit of a manifesto — why I listen, how I listen, why I believe listening is powerful.

Check it out:


Margaret Atwood on Climate Change

“I think calling it climate change is rather limiting. I would rather call it the everything change because when people think climate change, they think maybe it’s going to rain more or something like that. It’s much more extensive a change than that because when you change patterns of where it rains and how much and where it doesn’t rain, you’re also affecting just about everything. You’re affecting what you can grow in those places. You’re affecting whether you can live there. You’re affecting all of the species that are currently there because we are very water dependent. We’re water dependent and oxygen dependent.”

Margaret Atwood, in an interview with Slate

“Everything change” is a better phrase than “climate change.” Yes, Margaret Atwood. Yes. Words are so important.

I want to gush for a moment about Margaret Atwood. If you haven’t read her work, start anywhere. Really.

Because I’m a poetry nerd, I read her collected poems before anything else. Now I’m slowly making my way through her fiction. I started The Handmaid’s Tale on the plane from Tuvalu to Fiji and stayed up all night finishing it when I got back to Suva. Warning: The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that you will not be able to stop reading. This is a good thing.

Here’s a poem of Atwood’s I love.

Variation on the Word Sleep

I would like to watch you sleeping, 
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you, 
sleeping. I would like to sleep 
with you, to enter 
your sleep as its smooth dark wave 
slides over my head

and walk with you through that lucent 
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves 
with its watery sun & three moons 
towards the cave where you must descend, 
towards your worst fear

I would like to give you the silver 
branch, the small white flower, the one 
word that will protect you 
from the grief at the center 
of your dream, from the grief 
at the center. I would like to follow 
you up the long stairway 
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands 
to where your body lies 
beside me, and you enter 
it as easily as breathing in

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.


In April 2014, Margaret Atwood was honored with the Harvard Arts Medal. I was lucky enough to be among a group of artists on campus selected to have dinner with the Canadian goddess herself. You can imagine how over the moon I was to get this invitation.

2014 Arts Medal Invitation_2During a public Q&A in Sanders Theater, the moderator asked Atwood about different genres––how she manages to balance writing poetry and prose (and weave environmental activism in between).

She responded with characteristic wit and pithiness: “No one ever told me that I couldn’t.”


After her talk, I gathered with the invited group of professors and students for drinks and dinner and dessert with the guest of honor. I spoke at length with Margaret Atwood’s daughter (they have the same eyes) during the chat-with-wine portion of the evening and told her about my upcoming trip to collect stories about water and climate change. When Margaret Atwood finished an adjacent conversation with a professor, her daughter pulled her over to talk to me. I don’t remember much of our exchange except the intensity of her gaze, the way she nodded when I mentioned my trip and wished me well.

I floated through the rest of the evening.

On the way out the door I lingered until there were just a few people in the room. I put on my coat and walked up to President Drew Faust.

“Hi. My name is Devi, and we met twice before. Once at Freshman opening days [I didn’t know who she was then, and awkwardly said hello over a bowl of vanilla ice cream––my roommates filled me in after] and once during your open office hours about HEI. Please divest from fossil fuels.”

I was hoping to catch her off guard.

President Faust was visibly angry. She huffed up her shoulders (I should mention that she is already a good foot taller than I am) and told me, “You students don’t understand investments.” Then she stormed out of the room.

Good lord.

I worry that the very funding I received from Harvard for this trip to collect stories about water and climate change could be supported by Harvard’s investments in the oil and gas industry.

The Divest Movement has been going on at universities across the United States for years. Stanford divested. Brown divested. Harvard is still holding onto its $79.5 million direct holdings which are spread across the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies.

Art and protest go hand in hand. When I get back to the states I will find a way to weave this project into a performance piece at Harvard. Something small. With puppets. It worked last time.

HEII care where my university invests its money.

A Very Tuvaluan Christmas

High tide after thick rain. The waters lap close to my feet. I’m suspended over a trash heap––coconut husks and tin cans and empty chip bags––in a hammock, breathing in the horizon. If I squint, I can see a rainbow. Tall clouds move south, taking the raindrops with them.


Losite, my host, comes up behind my shoulder. “Devi, we go bath in the sea!”

I wrestle my body from the view and follow Losite and her two sisters as we run across the main road––a sand pathway––to the other side of the island. Soft sand squishes under my toes and I can feel the holes in the ground that were not long ago filled with rain. The whole trip takes less than a minute.

Just before the beach sit the pens of many families’ pigs, a mess of pink and brown bodies stacked close. The smell of slop and pig poo permeates the air. I hope there aren’t parasites in the water.

I shelve that worry, though, as soon as I see the raw beauty of the beach. Coconut fronds frame the red-orange curve of sunset. White sand kisses the deep mauve and azure of the water on this sheltered side of the atoll. We step in barefoot. The water is soft and warm.

Losite’s middle sister, the daring one, starts to swim across the bay to a small island. I follow. Losite laughs, revealing her missing front tooth. “I can’t swim!”

I slow down to stay with her, the vestiges of my mother’s lifeguarding instincts taking over. I make sure that it’s shallow enough for Losite to walk across the whole way. The current pulls at our limbs, but it’s not strong enough to knock us off balance. When we’re out in the middle of the water, I pick up a piece of algae and joking toss it in Losite’s direction.

Losite splashes her sister with a mouth-full of salt water as she dodges the green, slimy projectile, prompting a full-on splashing and algae-hurling war. The rhythm of our laughter travels across the water as we dodge the pieces of slime. I pick a piece of algae off of my cheek and exhale salt.

We reach the opposite shore but the bottom is sharp with crushed-up shells so we turn around. Back in the water, Losite’s youngest sister points and says in a completely serious tone: “That’s a big shark.”

Losite and I freak out and start hurling our bodies towards shore. The other two sisters collapse in laughter. Cue more algae hurling.

The middle sister reaches her hand to the bottom and picks up a tubular, brownish creature as long as my outstretched hand. She offers it to me and I touch it, recoiling and making a face at the slippery squish.

“This animal makes sand.” she says, finding another and tossing it in my direction. I duck, just in time for it not to hit my face. “We call it loli.”

Loli.” I taste the Tuvaluan vowels, the long “o” and the upswing of the “i.”

The dark rises. We continue to soak.

“Dave, on your island do you have a boyfriend?”

“In the states? No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s more fun to be alone.”

“And on your island, Christmas is warm?”

“No,” I laugh. “It’s snowing.”

“What would happen if it snowed for Christmas in Tuvalu?” one sister dreams.

Losite thinks this would be a brilliant idea. “We need snow! The sun here is too hot.”

I express concern for the coconut trees. Could they handle it? Probably not.

The first star comes out, then a second. I point and shout for every time a new one appears. “Two stars! Three! Four! Another, there!” The simple jewels.

“In Tuvaluan, we call the night sky ceitu.”

I try on the word for size. “Ceitu. Cei-tu. Cei-tuuuuuuuuuuuuu.

Losite and her sisters laugh and mimic my exaggerated pronunciation. Drum beats echo across the water from the village.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“The evening summon to prayer.”

“That means it’s almost Christmas!” I proclaim. “Happy birthday, Jesus! Amen.” I stick out my hands like they’re pegged on the crucifix and fall backwards into the water. I dive down, do a handstand, and come up to cheers.

“Dave, how you do that?”

I explain putting hands on bottom, toes pointed in the air. The youngest sister tries and succeeds. The middle sister flicks her toes back and forth in the air like a mermaid tail. Losite tries but comes back up for air, sputtering.

We give up for home. Outside the one-room house we huddle around a spigot by the rain drum, passing around a bar of soap and a cup between our hands. We soap our hair and use the suds to point it straight up in the air.

The middle sister says to me: “You know, Dave, you’re a nice girl.”

“Ha! And you’re a very naughty girl,” Losite retorts. She is met with a cup-full of water in the face. We all laugh.

“Tomorrow we bath at the wharf?”


“You ready?” Losite asks me from the top of the platfom. We look down at the ocean from above: a stretch of pristine blue lapping placidly at the concrete pillars supporting the platform from where we stand.

“Is it deep enough?” I manage, curling and uncurling my toes.

“Yes! Yes! Very deep. Tide is high.” Losite punctuates each word with a hand gesture and smile, our fallback if neither one of us understands the other. “We go?”

I swallow my suspicion as another round of kids, some naked and some in shorts, push past us to jump in, chortling and hollering and making all manner of gleeful sounds as they descend to the water below. It can’t be that bad, right? I poke my head over the edge to make sure they are all unharmed.

“Okay, we go.”

We walk closer to the edge, looking down.

“One, two, three!”

My body is filled with blue. How can the sea be this warm in December? I have to remind myself that Christmas is always sunny and sticky hot in this realm of the southern hemisphere, far from the white Christmases of my childhood in New England and Ontario. I let myself float on my back for a moment, taking in the milky clouds overhead. Tiny, electric blue and yellow fish dart in and out of the currents surrounding our bodies.

We climb the stairs, dripping and laughing. Losite and I jump again and again and again until the harsh bite of salt water finds my nose and my fingers are wrinkled like tiny chestnuts. The water is coming in, almost filling the shore.

The Tuvaluan island of Nukufetau sits like a smile of a sandbar atop the ocean. There are no cars, only motorcycles. You can walk from curved one end of the island to another in twenty minutes, and that’s if you pause to chat with a few neighbors along the way. One boat, the Navaga II, arrives monthly from Funafuti to delivers the essentials––flour and sugar, breakfast crackers and rice––plus, of course, relatives.

Without warning it starts to rain in big, fat drops. I love swimming in the rain. It feels defiant, somehow. Hey raindrops, you thought you were going to make me all wet? Nope!! Turns out I’m already swimming in the sea!

The rain stops as quickly as it came. I look to the horizon, where a rainbow arcs from one point in the Pacific to another, so clear I could lick it.

“Rainbow! Nua nua!” No one else seems to take notice. A second arc appears, lighter and fainter about the first. I shout and point, flapping my arms like a baby bird who hasn’t quite mastered the art of flying.

Rainbows must be a daily occurrence in Nukufetau, especially in the rainy season.

Children continue to swim and splash each other, dunking their heads below the surface. One has found a dead fish, yellow with stripes of white and black. The fish passes between the children’s hands, salty. Its dead eyes fix on no one in particular.


Losite’s family lives in a one-room concrete home that her grandfather built at a perfect angle so as to maximize the passage of the sea breeze. The floor is covered with woven mats that double as a sleeping surface and an eating surface.


Decorating for Christmas happened entirely in the two days before. We hung up a string of multicolored lights around the perimeter of the room and taped a gold and red sign that reads “MERRY CH” to the wall. I don’t know what happened to the “RISTMAS.”

Losite’s dad cut a branch of a bush-like plant from the shore that, when stuck in an empty tin of biscuits filled with sand, served as a tree. We wound more lights around the bush. The whole thing was so simple and beautiful that I almost cried. Being part of a family celebration here in Tuvalu dispelled any loneliness that I had lingering from a non-Thanksgiving in Fiji.

Tuvaluans open their gifts on Christmas Eve. At dusk, Losite’s mother leads us in a long prayer followed by a bigger feast of barbecued chicken and a heaping plate of the local root crop, followed by another blessing.

After the last streaks of barbecue sauce have been licked from the plates, Losite and I, as guests, are in charge of handing out gifts. Each family member has one gift hanging on the tree. Earlier that afternoon, Losite’s sister meticulously wrapped each item in left over lined paper from a school notebook. She sealed the edges with a roll of packing tape, securing each with a handle that could be used to hang the present directly one of the Christmas bush’s branches. Each person’s name is scrawled on the paper in permanent marker in all caps.


We tear at the paper in unison, smiling. Each of the kids opens a packet of corn chips and a lolly pop, which they eat immediately. Losite’s father and I both open a tin of pineapple in sweet sauce. It feels decadent.

“Thank you,” I manage, overcome with an emotion I can’t quite name. I hold on to the tin, the cool cylinder and ridges of its lips a blessing. “You didn’t have to do this.”

I add two gifts to the tree: a beaded necklace, maroon and gold, that I bought from a craftswoman in Suva, and a postcard from Manhattan Beach with 50 AUS$ inside tucked in next to thank you note saying how grateful I was to spend time with this family. I make a point of thanking every person who hosts me, whether in writing or in person. Losite’s mom reads the letter aloud and then hands it to her youngest daughter to read to everyone again.

After that is nap time on the floor––the real festivities don’t start until the early hours. Starting at midnight and going until dawn, local kids gather at the playground with pieces of tin that they use as percussion instruments, the soundtrack for an all-night dance. I am exhausted from the day and only make it through half an hour of shaking it under the stars before I walk home under an upside-down Orion and fall asleep, joyous. All in all, definitely a Christmas I am not soon to forget.