March 3, 2017
Katie Varatta shares three foundational elements overarching systemic change work in education, as well as other fields, as starting points for reflection.

Three Foundational Elements of Systems Change Work

My career has been spent in the fields of human rights and education, which, though different from each other, are not entirely dissimilar. We can and should learn from each other, as encouraged by one of the ideas raised in KnowledgeWorks’ recent resource, Shaping the Future of Learning: K-12 School-Based Education Strategy Workbook.

The distinguishing quality of the human rights work that I participated in, and what separates it from many mainstream professional fields, is that I worked with communities that lived in conflict or post conflict settings. Through partnership, analysis, documentation and creativity, we worked collectively to formulate actions and responses to solve problems. The further I get from that work and the more I delve deeper into my present work in the education field, I’m struck by the similarities between the two fields. Below are three foundational elements I see overarching systemic change work in education and elsewhere. I offer these as starting points for reflection, in the hopes that the wisdom or our collective experiences will ultimately create the future in which all children receive the educational supports they need.

Build relationships in trust.

Relationships founded in trust are a not just a foundational element, they are quite possibly the foundational element of systems change work. As David Ehrlichman explains, when we say we need to “trust” each other, we do not mean we need to “like” or “agree” with each other. Rather we need to be deliberate about forming relationships in trust that can “hold the tension through difficult conversations, engage in generative conflict, find a slice of common ground, and make collaboration a reality, and not just an aspiration.”

Embrace the interconnections.

By analyzing educational systems, we inevitably find patterns and links to other societal structures: politics, business, the environment, culture, media. The more we learn, the more complex an issue becomes. Challenges are adaptive and the path forward is never clear. Embracing this complexity brings the awareness that no one action, method or organization will have significant impact alone. Rather, networking and cross collaborative efforts involving multiple sectors, experiences and disciplines will achieve more together.

Data, facts, documentation and experiential knowledge.

With each conference or trip, international partners were asked to write reports documenting where we went, who we met with, what we saw and any conclusive thoughts. This was one method of recording and sharing out the experiential knowledge from discussions with the community members with logical fact. Given that the lived experience of the communities I met with were not covered in mainstream media, advocating on behalf of the community could easily be met with distrust, doubt and sometimes anger at any suggestion that such a situation could exist. Being able to point back to fact was a helpful grounding point. Recording data, fact and the experiences of those directly impacted serves not only as an accurate accounting of events but also a starting point for conversation to uncover patterns of inequity across geographical and cultural boundaries as well as ways to move forward.

Shaping the Future of Learning: K-12 School-Based Education Strategy Workbook helps educators to reflect on their own practices and future aspirations.

To consider the future of learning in your community, download our latest resource, Shaping the Future of Learning: K-12 School-Based Education Strategy Workbook.

Katie Varatta

Written by: Katie Varatta

Katie Varatta is the Network Manager for KnowledgeWorks.

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