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Effective Advocacy: Focus on Systems-Change Advocacy

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“Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” ~ Angela Davis

In his book Upstream, Dan Heath shares a parable (commonly attributed to Irving Zola) about two people rescuing children from a rushing river, and when one starts heading upstream and the other person asks them where they’re going, they reply, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”

Systems-change advocacy is about stopping the guy who’s throwing the kids in the water.

If we want to reduce the amount of harm and suffering in the world, then instead of reacting to the consequences of that harm, or dealing with small pieces of it, we need to focus our efforts upstream on stopping the harm in the first place and on creating new systems that don’t cause harm.

For example, instead of only focusing on trying to rescue the millions of children forced into illegal labor each year, or merely punishing the individuals enslaving the children, we need to implement policies that hold corporations and governments accountable while creating systems that provide people with everything that they need to thrive in ways that don’t exploit others.

As noted in REimagining Activism, “The systemic problems of our times are not the particular fault of one group or another. Instead, if there is one main enemy, it is the system. The systemic shift that is needed requires changes at many different levels. Whilst the abuse of power by certain privileged groups resisting systemic change is without doubt a key factor in the system, dividing the world between good and bad people doesn’t take us very far. It is important that we learn that we all are part of the system and interact with it. We need to deal with complexity.”

Take note iconRemember that, while it’s the systems that are causing our major problems, individuals are part of these systems and institutions and thus contribute to these problems. Our individual actions matter, which means that we can also all be part of the solutions.

Structural Violence

Structural violence is a form of institutional violence which is bolstered by social, cultural, political, legal, and interpersonal factors and which can harm individuals, communities, and societies by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.

Circles of violence show that many forums of violence, like interpersonal, legal, and political, are encompassed within structural violence.

Structural violence is made possible by what some ethicists have termed “pathogenic vulnerability,” situational vulnerabilities that occur because of harmful social factors, abuses of power, and unjust social, economic, or legal systems.

Examples include

  • policies that lead to the disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color;
  • patterns of xenophobia that increase the risk for hate crimes against immigrants;
  • cultural traditions that lead to sexual and gender-based violence; and
  • existing economic models that discount the intrinsic value of human and nonhuman individuals and that intensify social inequities.

In each of these cases, large-scale social forces and institutions can prevent individuals from meeting their needs, which results in suffering at the individual and community levels.

At Phoenix Zones Initiative, our focus is on addressing structural violence and creating systems change by:

  • Shifting norms and values
  • Influencing policy and practice
  • Reinventing legal and economic frameworks
  • Accelerating social change

See more about our approach.

To effectively engage in systems change, we need to understand the systems in which our issues of concern are embedded.

Understand Systems

“If you want to fix something, you are first obligated to understand . . . the whole system.”
~ Lewis Thomas

Our world is made up of social systems that can be natural or human-made. Systems are often complex sets of interconnected parts that work together to function (often for a particular purpose).

Examples of natural systems include a human and/or an animal family, an ecosystem, or the systems in our bodies.

Human-made systems include our education system, our legislative system, and our food system.

Systems include structures, boundaries, connections, feedback loops, rules, mental models (representations of how something works), and other components.

As the social change company NPC says, “Systems are composed of multiple components of different types, both tangible and intangible. They include, for example, people, resources and services, as well as relationships, values, and perceptions.”

To help you understand the systems that any problem you want to address is a part of, you’ll want to look at

  • the components of the system, including its boundaries;
  • the interconnections and relationships between components of the system;
  • the outcomes that the system produces;
  • what forces account for the current system being the way it is;
  • what changes in the system are needed;
  • why those changes are needed;
  • what parts of the system can be controlled and/or influenced; and
  • what might be the unintended outcomes of making those changes.

For example, with the issue of child trafficking, here are just a couple of system components for each element:

To ConsiderChild Trafficking
Components of the systemvulnerable children and families
demand for cheap labor
inadequate justice systems and corruption
Interconnections and relationshipsConsumer preference for cheap food and fiber are tied to child slavery and forced labor.
Companies take advantage of weak laws and enforcement and of government corruption.
Trafficking has significant negative short- and long-term health consequences for children, families, and communities.
Profit-focused business models rely on cheap, exploitable labor.
Trafficking is an international problem, but legislation and enforcement vary by country.
Outcomes of the systemChildren are abused, neglected, and exploited.
Demands for profit accelerate demands for cheaper labor.
Wealth inequality increases.
Forces that account for the current system being the way it isGlobalization and capitalism pressure companies to maximize profits and prioritize competition.
The current dominant worldview values consumerism.
Wealth inequity is prevalent and increasing.
Children and their rights are devalued.
The systemic changes that are neededProvide sufficient material and financial wealth for critical human needs.
Eliminate the demand for cheap labor.
Build capacity to enforce child protection laws and children’s rights.
Hold companies accountable and incentivize ethical practices.
Why those changes are neededWe need to eliminate the abuse and exploitation of children.
We need to expand and advance children’s rights, such as their right to education.
We need to shift the dominant worldview to embrace the rights, health, and wellbeing of people, animals, and the planet so that industries that harm others are devalued and dismantled.
The parts of the system that can be influencedsupply side
demand side
enforcement side
Potential unintended outcomes of changesCompanies might find other ways to exploit vulnerable populations, such as women, children, and nonhuman animals.


Change Systems

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” ~ Paul Batalden

“Systems change aims to bring about lasting change by altering underlying structures and supporting mechanisms which make the system operate in a particular way. These can include policies, routines, relationships, resources, power structures, and values.” ~NPC

As evidenced in the child trafficking example, many of our world’s problems stem from the ways our systems behave (and the institutions and policies within them) and how our social norms and worldviews influence those systems.

Systems-change advocacy seeks to influence and change our systems and institutions by transforming our policies, rules, laws, worldviews, and norms.

It seeks to address the root causes of social problems and injustices, to prevent problems that are happening, and to create new systems that support compassion, justice, and structural resilience.

The structural violence and harms in systems such as our food system, our fiber system, our knowledge system, and our community system must be transformed at their roots.

If we try to implement solutions that don’t use systems thinking or that don’t try to get at the root, we’re likely to

  • address only the symptoms rather than the underlying problems;
  • achieve short-term gains that may be undermined by longer-term impacts; and
  • produce negative unintended consequences.

For example, in Systems Thinking for Social Change the authors use the example of “get tough” prison sentences to illustrate those problematic results. They note that:

While those who have committed certain crimes go to prison “and pose less of an immediate threat,”

  • 95 percent are eventually released back into society without the tools and resources they need to thrive in their communities.
  • nearly 50 percent will be reimprisoned within the first three years.
  • the current system incarcerates parents who can no longer bring up their children.
  • the current system redirects valuable funds away from meaningful solutions that could permanently reduce injustices.

Many of the people involved in the criminal justice system have been trying to address symptoms or pieces of the system rather than the root causes, which include structural racism and the valuing of profit and property over people.

Since leading systemic change is challenging, it can be beneficial to focus on targeted areas where you can make a meaningful difference. But it’s important not to lose sight of the need to fundamentally transform the system itself.

Here’s an example of people tackling a part of the system:

In a 2007 issue of Applied Systems Thinking Journal, an article called “A Systemic Approach to Ending Homelessness” offered a case study of using systems thinking to address helping people who are unhoused in a community in Michigan.

The coalition working on this issue found these two important areas of intervention:

  1. “Increase and accelerate the number of people moving from temporary shelters into permanent housing.”
  2. “Decrease the number of people at risk from becoming homeless in the first place.”

The coalition then developed a plan of action, which included a focus on preventing people from becoming unhoused in the first place by pursuing efforts such as increasing living-wage jobs, affordable housing, and critical services. The coalition also worked to “develop a permanent solutions mindset that permeated all of the other interventions.”

Systems change is complex and requires ongoing planning, innovation, reflection, evaluation, and improvement.


Global Fund to End Modern Slavery
Human Trafficking and Exploitation: A Global Health Concern
REimagining Activism by Smart CSOs Lab
Systems Change: A Guide to What It Is and How to Do It by NPC
Systems Thinking for Social Change by Peter Strom
Tools Against Child Trafficking
Vulnerability: New Essays in Ethics and Feminist Philosophy by Catriona Mackenzie, Wendy Rogers, and Susan Dodds

To learn more about systems change for social change, see:

Systems Change Campaigning Toolkit by Greenpeace
Upstream by Dan Heath

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