5 Key Elements of Change-Making

ncsl-conference-logo-with-titleYesterday I had the honor of offering a workshop to student leaders on Engaging the Social Dimensions of Change: Catalyzing Sustainability Through Dialogue and Action at the National Conference on Student Leadership. For the past 37 years, the conference has drawn emergent student leaders from around the country to spend several days diving into fostering values-based leadership skills. The NW Earth Institute was asked to present on the power of small group dialogue as a way to spur and support change-making initiatives. Here are some key takeaways:

1. Collaborative learning and shared discovery are essential. Think: peer to peer learning. Think small groups. Think connection. In working to effect change, we need to engage people in a way that draws forth diverse perspectives. We also need to create space for people to share about what matters most to them. If we can remember to speak from our experiences, and not from a place of being “right” or and “expert,” we can encourage full participation and engagement from everyone involved.

2. Remember to foster opportunities for reflection. When we create a supportive environment where reflection can occur, this is where shifts in perspective are possible. As one student remarked today, “When we slow down in small groups and really listen to one another, this is how we can really tell what is going on with any issue. We can really hear one another and take all experiences into consideration when working to effect a change.”

3. Work ‘deeply’ on problems, which entails new ways of thinking. As Ronald Heifetz reminds us, some problems are adaptive in nature, which means they are highly complex and evolving, often with no immediate solution available. In order to respond, we often need to dig deeper to consider how our values, attitudes, beliefs and habits are playing a role in the ‘problem’ at hand. (Adaptive challenges include climate change and fossil fuel dependence.) When our perspective shifts and broadens, we become more able to explore new possibilities and solutions and to tackle otherwise seemingly unsolvable problems with greater skillfulness.

4. See and act with systems in mind. As I said in my workshop today, “Hold a systems perspective when working to find a solution to any issue you are wanting to tackle.” One fantastic tool that we draw from in several of the NW Earth Institute course books is the Iceberg: A Systems Thinking Model. When holding a systems thinking perspective, we look for patterns and relationships – and we work to make visible the invisible (for example, our assumptions.) We’re seeking out root causes. We’re asking ourselves, and the groups we work with, “What assumptions, beliefs or values do people hold about the system in question?” And, “What beliefs keep the system in place?”

5. Weave in tangible opportunities for action. Finally, make sure to offer tangible ways for people to get involved and work towards effecting change. There is nothing more difficult than a feeling of powerlessness or uncertainty about where to start – especially when tackling big issues and complex systems. Discern a starting point and consider ways that each individual can insert themselves into the systems at work in order to have an impact. There is always a place to begin.


Guest Blog Post: Part Two – Systems Thinking and Science

NWEI Board Member, Rod MacDow
NWEI Board Member and Guest Blog Post Contributor, Rod MacDow

Last year NWEI created a course book focused on systems – a reflection of our desire to address the intersections between peace, justice and sustainability issues. We’ve always approached this work with a systems approach, but have been focusing on more directly infusing our programs with a systems thinking perspective. We’re delighted that Rod MacDow, NWEI board member and former Encore Fellow with NWEI is guest authoring a series on systems here on our blog. Here is the second installment. For the first post, click here. 

Welcome back! A quote to start off our second discussion on systems:

“Science might almost be redefined as the process of substituting unimportant questions which can be answered for important questions which cannot.” -Kenneth Boulding – Activist, Author, Economist, Educator, Philosopher, Poet

Indeed. Science is remarkably poor at answering important questions like “Is there a God?” or “Should we have another child?” Most of the questions asked by science are quite small, like “What is this?” and “How does this work?” Occasionally, these small questions add up to big ones. Our discussion of systems will mostly relate to the questions of how things add up and how they work together.

Last time, we introduced the idea that understanding systems might help us better understand the world around us and make better choices about how to act within it. A lot of the information we receive is “scientific” information. In this second discussion, let’s look at what science is, and how the concept of a system is used within science. In general, what is a system?

Let’s start with a common definition of the word: A system is a set of components that interact in some way. Let’s describe an example: Your automobile is a man-made system – it is actually a system of systems. In your car, the engine is a component system that’s part of the power train. The power train also includes the transmission, axles and wheels. Steering, braking and suspension systems all interact with the power train. When you’re driving, you’re a component too. You’re the “brain” of the car system, interacting with the power train, steering and braking systems through the pedals and steering wheel. You don’t have to know or control all the details of how those lower-level systems work – you just drive down the road. Getting from the house to the grocery store happens through the total interaction of all of these components of the automobile system.

Just like your car, components of the natural world interact with each other in systematic ways. In fact, the ways in which natural systems and man-made systems use energy and do work are exactly the same. That’s the bedrock of this series.
The entire universe can be described as a system. Every atom in the universe exerts a gravitational pull on every other atom. Granted, the individual effects of an atom are quite small, but they add up to form molecules, crystals, rocks, continents, planets, stars, galaxies. It’s how the universe is organized. Every system we can observe or devise is, in the end, part of this total system. How do we know that? Well…science.

Science is getting a rough time these days. A sizable chunk of Americans state they do not believe what science has to say. Underneath all this is a lack of understanding about what science actually is. Let’s define it here: Science is a process where evidence about the universe we live in is observed and described so that others can observe it as well. It is also the accumulated evidence of what has already been found, theories about how it came to be, how and why parts of the universe interact, and, based on all that, what might happen in the future. In contrast to popular view, science is not “truth” in some abstract sense, although a goal of science is to become truer over time. The fundamental nature of science is that it is continually tested and revised in small and large ways. Like the universe, science has no “edge.” We will never know it all. The answer to every question simultaneously raises more questions.

The current state of science is not absolute truth. Some of the things we believe today may be revised in the future as we learn more, while other things may become more firmly established and still other things will be discovered or understood in new ways. Science is a discipline and a process, not a dogma. Sometimes, we learn as much by what fails as what succeeds. The discipline of science overcomes this variability with a process called peer review. Peer review is the mechanism by which observations and descriptions are judged by other scientists with expertise in the same field. It is often a contentious and messy process. But over the centuries, with all its imperfections, science has added a great deal to our knowledge about ourselves, our planet and the universe we inhabit. It is not useful to trust science blindly; it is just as foolhardy to mistrust it blindly.

Carl Sagan loved to say “We are all made of star stuff!” To that, I would add, “And we are all part of the system of the universe!”
So, while the word “system” is used in many senses, system and science are tightly intertwined. We cannot truly understand how systems work without understanding their scientific basis. If you don’t have a scientific background, don’t worry – you might have to read closely, but I’ll try to make it clear and logical. If you’ve studied science, I hope you’ll be able to see what you’ve learned in some interesting new ways.

Stay tuned for the next post, where Rod will explore the point of view of physics.

World Water Day and Climate Justice Month: March 22nd

CJM-fb-iconOn this first day of Spring (Happy Equinox!), we’re excited to head into a season with many opportunities for action. With World Water Day on Sunday, March 22nd – and the kick off of Climate Justice Month (a climate justice initiative beginning on World Water Day and culminating on Earth Day), opportunities abound. Organized by the new climate justice initiative Commit2Respond, participants will make commitments to new long-term actions that will help us collectively shift to a low carbon future, advance human rights, and grow the climate justice movement. NW Earth Institute is also excited to be launching our new course on climate change in May.


In honor of World Water Day this Sunday, we are sharing Marsha Rakestraw’s reflections on water from the Institute of Humane Education’s blog: “Many of us take for granted washing our hands, using flush toilets, getting a drink of clean water, and having water on demand whatever we want. But more than 1 billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water. In the U.S., the average person uses more than 300 gallons of water/day. In Mozambique, that number is a little over a single gallon/day. World Water Day, celebrated each year on March 22, calls attention to just how vital water is for every living being on earth. But exploring issues related to water, and taking positive action to solve water challenges for people, nonhuman animals, and the earth, must be a year-round endeavor.” 


We couldn’t agree more. Want to dig deeper into water issues? Click here. Regardless of where you insert yourself in order to effect change, we are wishing you a happy beginning of this new Spring season!





A New NWEI Climate Change Discussion Course – Coming in May

This is the East Antarctic coastline. Icebergs are highlighted by the sunlight, and the open ocean appears black. Credit: NASA.
This is the East Antarctic coastline. Icebergs are highlighted by the sunlight, and the open ocean appears black.         Credit: NASA.

Yesterday’s Washington Post article, The Melting of Antarctica was Already Really Bad. It Just Got Worse, caught my attention as I scrolled through my social media feeds. Throughout the day photos of the melting ice sheet popped up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

The news outlets and people sharing the article and photos were spreading the word, reposting the latest in a long string of warnings about the fate of our planet. Perhaps my six years working for the NW Earth Institute are to thank for this being my reaction, but my reaction to these stunning images and the “we knew it was bad, but we didn’t know it was this bad” news was to ask the question “where is the call to action?”

Perhaps you too have noticed the uptick in media coverage of climate change (due in part, no doubt, to a winter of wacky record-setting weather across the United States) and wondered how to take action in your life. Or perhaps you’ve been wondering how to make an action plan for your community.

We’re happy to announce that very soon we’ll have some answers to the “what can I do about this?” question that arises while reading or hearing the news on climate change and encountering daily reminders that the world is changing around us. This May, the NW Earth Institute will launch a new discussion course focused on climate change and the role that we can play, as individuals and community organizers, in taking action in our own communities.

The new course (title forthcoming) will be an overhaul of our existing Change By Degrees curriculum, but will still focus on personal leverage points for action. We’ll tell you more in the coming weeks, and look forward to sharing this new climate change action planning resource with you and your community!


Our Next Course Organizer Training Webinar is on April 9th


We had so much interest in our first-ever course organizer training webinar held in January that we’ve decided to make it a regular offering!

We’re excited to announce that registration is open for our next course organizer training webinar on Thursday, April 9th. Please join us and invite others in your community who might be interested! To register, click here.

As you know, NW Earth Institute discussion courses give people a framework to talk about their relationship with the planet and to share in discovering new ways to live, work, create and consume. And – all NW Earth Institute discussion courses begin with a Course Organizer –someone just like you who has the desire to create change. The Course Organizer initiates the discussion course group and serves as the primary contact for the group. You don’t have to be a ‘sustainability expert.’ Organizers are simply people who are motivated to help others learn about and commit to action through the discussion course experience.

On Thursday, April 9th at 1pm PST, we’re offering our next Course Organizer Training Webinar. The webinar will provide you with background information on our course and best practices for organizing a course, strategies for success and a question and answer period with NWEI staff. We’ll also provide you with access to helpful tools, including a detailed Course Organizer’s guide.

Space is limited — please register here to reserve your spot.



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