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Effective Advocacy: Understand the System

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The effective advocacy planning process:

A. Identify, examine, and understand the issue you want to address.
B. Identify the key actors and their roles and build relationships with appropriate actors.
C. Understand the system, what can be influenced, and what the leverage points are.
D. Develop goals and objectives.
E. Develop strategies, tactics, a plan of action, and a plan for evaluation.

Understanding your issue and its root causes will help you better understand the system(s) that your problem is part of and help you find the best leverage points—those places where intervening in a system can create meaningful positive change.

Systems expert Donella Meadows created a list of places to intervene in a system, ordered by effectiveness (and also by the level of difficulty in achieving them).

If you were looking at possible ways to transform our food system, here are a few examples of potential leverage points that Phoenix Zones Initiative incorporates into its policy agenda and programs:

TypeLeverage PointLeverPotential Solutions
Physical12 NumbersConstants, parameters, and numbersTighten pollution standards.
11 BuffersSizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flowShift land used for animal exploitation to plant-based agriculture and/or to dedicated wildlife habitat.
10 Stock-and-flow structuresPhysical systems and their nodes of intersectionChange agricultural practices to reduce emissions and to eliminate water pollution.
Informational9 DelaysLengths of time relative to the rate of system changesSpeed up the legislative process for passing comprehensive protections for workers, communities, animals, and the environment.
Speed up implementation of new standards for emissions.
Impose an immediate moratorium on new Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and phase out current ones.
8 Balancing feedback loopsStrength of feedback loops, relative to the impacts they’re trying to correctRemove public subsidies that support large meat and dairy production conglomerates.
Make the price of all goods reflect their true human, animal, and environmental cost.
Impose the liabilities and costs of pollutions, accidents, and disasters on the agricultural conglomerates that control the market.
7 Reinforcing feedback loopsStrength of gain around driving positive feedback loopsFocus on green development: mechanisms that allow people to improve their quality of life with readily accessible and affordable plant-based food options.
6 Information flowsStructure of information flows: who does and doesn’t have access to informationGet scientific assessment results out to the public faster, and in more accessible formats.
Publicly report data about pollution, and worker and animal exploitation.
Social5 RulesRules of the system: incentives, punishments, constraintsSupport and promote community projects that respect the rights, health, and wellbeing of people, animals, and the planet within the context of the food system.
Transform the US immigration system to better protect workers.
Pass laws that provide nonhuman animals with basic rights.
4 Self-organizationPower to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structureFocus on evidence-based policymaking.
Create resilient human and animal communities.
Change to proportional representation.
Celebrate social and species diversity.
Empower the most vulnerable and most affected to be an integral part of the planning and decision-making process.
3 GoalsPurpose or function of the systemAim for sustainability and wellbeing, rather than growth.
Focus on rights-centered economies instead of GDP.
Change corporate charters to prioritize human, animal, and planetary rights and wellbeing.
2 ParadigmsMindset or paradigm out of which the system arisesShift our mindsets from consumerism to living in harmony with other beings and the planet.
Shift our mindsets from individualism to community.
Shift our mindsets from individual or corporate greed to egalitarianism.
1 Transcending paradigmsPower to transcend paradigmsApply systems thinking to see systems from multiple perspectives.
Realize how our perspectives shape our interactions with the system.

Here’s an example of some leverage points to address the climate crisis.

In REimagining Activism, the authors list several potential high-impact leverage points to help people in general, including instituting universal basic income; implementing worker, housing, and consumer cooperatives; and replacing the GDP/GNP with an indicator like Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness indicator.

Tools to help you find possible leverage points include these:

Systems Map helps you visualize and analyze the factors that make up a system.

Iceberg Model helps you analyze the events, patterns, systemic structures, and mental models that underlie a system to help better understand the system and potential leverage points.

Pillars of Power helps you analyze the institutional pillars that prop up the problem and identify those most critical to holding up the system and those that you can most influence.

Leverage Mad Lib (see p. 71) helps you “build your leverage hypothesis” of what could happen by engaging that leverage area.

Points of Intervention highlights the points of production, destruction, consumption, decision, and assumption as potential areas for intervention.

Also see our section on using systems-thinking tools.

For more insights into leverage points, see:

The Donella Meadows Project by Academy for Systems Change
Identifying Leverage Points” by Robert Steele
A Systematic Approach to Ending Homelessness” by David Peter Stroh and Michael Goodman

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