Story From the Field: Systems Change is Like a Flock of Starlings
Introduced by Peter Senge
To families with children, educational data can seem threatening. But it can also be a vehicle for reflecting on our shared responsibilities and can help bring about collaborative change. It all depends on how the data is used.
Some of the most impactful efforts to bring compassion to schools and other systems start out as relatively constrained data-driven projects. Researchers become aware, through the statistics about well-being for students, of the immense challenges and inequities facing children today, particularly children struggling with poverty or racism. As the researchers become more aware of the depth of the problems, and the mental models underlying them, they start or join conversations that lead people to make a difference together.
Such is the story Dana Bunnett tells about herself and her work bringing the tools of systems change to her peers and colleagues – in her case, the many individuals and organizations supporting children and families in Santa Clara County, California. Santa Clara includes San Jose and much of Silicon Valley, and though it is home to some of the most famous high tech companies in the world, it is also a microcosm of the enormous gaps in wealth and opportunity in America. Below, Dana describes how her thinking about her work shifted and the experiences that led to those changes, and the resulting evolution of her view of change. Her central metaphor – that compassionate systems change can take place like the movement of a flock of starlings – offers a compelling way to think about the contribution that diverse people in diverse positions can make in shifting the systems around them.
Dana is the executive director at Kids in Common (KIC), a nonprofit that works on policies, partnerships and investments that improve children’s lives. KIC produces the Santa Clara County Children’s Data Book, which reports annually on 14 indicators of children’s well-being from birth through secondary school, in the areas of safety (for example, data on housing and food security, foster care, and children feeling safe), health (prenatal care, checkups), learning (childcare availability, math and language arts proficiency), and success in life (students graduating on time and having a positive view of their future). The group also sponsors a county-wide network of education, business, government and philanthropic leaders called The Santa Clara County Children’s Agenda, where people from many different agencies and professions meet regularly to share resources and talk about the implications of the data KIC organizes. Dana’s story starts with reflection on the value of that group – and how much more value there could be.
— Peter Senge
Systems Change is Like a Flock of Starlings
By Dana Bunnett
The shape-shifting aerial ballet created by thousands of starlings in flight is called murmuration. Murmuration. As the starlings are flying, perhaps seeking food or avoiding a predator, one starling shifts its direction. This affects seven of its neighbors, who also shift. Each of those seven starlings affects seven of their neighbors, and so on, and eventually the whole flock changes its trajectory with remarkable speed. The flock has become an intelligent cloud.
For me, murmuration is a powerful metaphor for compassionate systems change and how individuals – no matter where they stand in the system – can create the conditions that lead to better outcomes for our children, youth, and families. Through my work with the Center for Systems Awareness, I have endeavored to bring the tools of Compassionate Systems Change to my colleagues. I believe that we can all play a role in supporting systems that truly center on the people they serve, and we all have a responsibility to pay attention to the conditions that lead to poor outcomes for children. As part of this story, I had a shift in my view of systems and my role in transforming them.
DATA IS IMPORTANT, BUT NOT ENOUGH BY ITSELF
I do not work directly with families. I am not a teacher, social worker, therapist or direct service provider. Most of the past 20 years with Kids in Common and the Children’s Agenda has been focused on using data to guide practice, inform decision-making and drive better outcomes for our children, youth and families. Data can be a valuable tool in improving the lives of children and families. If presented properly, it can surface challenges facing our community and spark creative problem-solving.
Many people think that they do not like data. However, I have found when you show people data and ask them what they think is going on, they have thoughtful ideas about the root causes of problems, and they propose solutions about what is needed in their community – no matter what their previous experience with data or math may be.
Even so, using data alone hasn’t led to better results. We realized this at Kids in Common. While significant investments were being made to improve the lives of our community’s young people, we were not making significant improvement. Most importantly, disparities between rich and poor, Latinx, Black, Indigenous, White and Asian children persisted. It was clear that we needed systems-oriented approaches to address the complexity and inequity created by racist structures and policies.
I had been doing data and research-oriented work for about 15 years when a volunteer opportunity transformed my view of the world. I began working with teenagers who were involved in the justice system and needed an adult to support them in their education. These young people grew up in poverty; most were Latinx. Many had unidentified or unaddressed learning issues, and at some point they had begun to slip away from the education system. I became very involved in the life of one young woman who I met when she was fifteen, pregnant, not attending school, and involved in both the child welfare and probation systems. She taught me more about why we were not getting the outcomes we desired than I would ever learn from data and evidence-based research.
After her son was born, they were placed together in a foster home. From my vantage point, the people who were working with her seemed determined to take her son away from her and place him in foster care. They produced reports that focused on her deficits, not her strengths. I leapt to the conclusion that many of the people working with her did not have her son’s and her best interests at heart. I felt powerless to help her, despite my understanding of how child welfare works and my relationships with systems leaders.
Eventually, her son was indeed taken away from her care. He also lost the other adults he had a relationship with, including me and his foster mom. Sad and hopeless, his young mother has struggled with substance use and has been in and out of jail. Over the years, I heard stories through the grapevine about the homes her son was living in. Some were good, some not so great. After several placements, now at the age of 8, he is finally living in a permanent home and being adopted.
At the time, I felt great animosity towards everyone who I thought performed poorly in this situation. While I knew this young woman had responsibility for her choices, I mostly blamed the social workers, educators and others who had worked on her case. I believed they did not seem focused on her success, lacked compassion for her, did not understand teenagers and did not approach her with a strength-based lens. I felt strongly that this poor result was their fault.
I have changed my way of looking at this. I now see that I was in a state known as “empathic distress,” in which people’s perspective narrows as they get emotionally involved. While I tried to stand by her, I was also trying to “fix” her and the situation she was in. That made me less effective when I tried to advocate for her.
I also realize that I blamed social workers’ and others’ mental models and beliefs as the cause of my young friend’s sad story. I did not see how the conditions of the system – the structures, policies, practices, resource flows, relationships and connections and the power dynamics – had more to do with the outcome than individual workers’ attitudes. Today I see how powerful those conditions are, and I realize how hard they are to recognize when you stand in the center of them.
ARRIVING AT THE POINT OF CHANGE
During this time, I started learning about compassion and connectedness through a book: Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Father Gregory Boyle. Father Greg is the founder of Homeboy Industries, which provides hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women in Los Angeles. He doesn’t use the language of systems change, but the book is very much about some of the concepts we covered in the master practitioner certification program. For example, there are analogues to the ladder of connectedness, neutral present awareness, and agape. Father Greg’s expressed goal is for kids’ lives to be better and to stand with them without an agenda: just loving them universally and seeing what is sacred in each of them.
After reading Tattoos on the Heart, I decided I would change the way I worked with young people. I could be there for them, and show them they were not alone, but not try to “fix” them or come with a preconceived agenda about what was best for them. This seemed a reasonably easy shift to make.
However I had a blind spot: My lack of compassion for the adult workers in the child welfare. I perceived them as hurting the kids. In my mind, they did not care for the kids as much as I did. I still regarded the workers as the “system” and the system needed to change.
In 2018, I signed up for the 4-day compassionate systems workshop. I attended this workshop with leaders from Santa Clara County: the chief of probation, the director of child welfare, leaders from FIRST 5 (a quasi-governmental organization focused on children ages 0-5), the director of the behavioral health services department and leaders from other programs and agencies. These leaders are all members of CAST – the Cross Agency Services Team – and they were determined to transform the County’s systems of care to promote healing and family-focused policies, practices and resourcing decisions.
Another attendee was my Kids in Common colleague, Joe Herrity, the director of the Opportunity Youth Partnership (OYP), which was dedicated to creating systems that provide education-to-career pathways for young people, ages 16-24 who are disconnected from work and school. Joe had also seen cases where the system had contributed to negative outcomes. At the end of the training, Joe and I knew we wanted to start sharing some of the ideas and tools we had learned with our partners and colleagues.
BUILDING OUR SYSTEMS CHANGE MUSCLE
After four days of training, Joe and I dared to think we could lead a monthly session for our peers in the county. We started with some initial workshops that winter, but then life got busy and we put our plans on hold.
Joe built his knowledge by digging into Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline and by attending the 4-day compassionate systems workshop a second time. In fall 2020, I began the yearlong Master Practitioners program. This equipped me to try leading workshops again – specifically, to offer monthly sessions and share what I was learning with others in a more sustained way. In the course, Peter Senge quoted a well-known proverb from the Xhosa language in South Africa: Ubuntu ungamntu ngabanye abantu. It translates to: “A person becomes a person through other people.” That is what Joe and I wanted to do, we wanted to become a person with the people who attended our workshop.
Joe and I started the new group in October 2020. We called it, “Building our Systems Change Muscle.” We agreed to approach the gatherings from a mutual inquiry perspective, like a study group. Joe and I would be learning as much as everybody else did.
Between 15 and 20 people attend each Zoom session. Members of the group include health care professionals, early childhood specialists, family engagement experts, and people from social services, education, juvenile justice and youth opportunity groups. A few of these people have a formal decision-making role in their organization. However, many do not.
We start every meeting with a mindfulness practice, reflective writing, and check-in. These are led by Joe or me or often by a member of the group. We then focus on sharing the tools and visual models that we can apply to systems issues such as the diagram of creative tension, the ladder of inference, the four-player model, and the aspirational iceberg.
As we explain each concept, we ask our colleagues to think about a situation in their life where the topic applies. Sometimes we use a case study. It’s up to each individual to determine whether and how they apply the tools in their work, and we sometimes reflect with them on what they have learned. Our goal has been to cultivate a community of colleagues and friends who are curious about the systems around them.
We have had some interesting conversations, fusions, mash-ups, and combinations of the tools and we use whatever seems interesting, valuable, or useful to integrate. We open and close each session by reading a poem or quote (often chosen by a member of the group). We have brought in leadership concepts from Brené Brown and other writers. We have asked members to write about their purpose, using a technique called “Five Why’s.” Each time the writers articulate their purpose, they ask themselves, “Why is that my purpose?” and repeat the cycle at least five times, so that they deepen their thinking.
One powerful moment was when we asked a participant in the group, Arcel Blume, to share her “Aspirational Iceberg.”
A conventional iceberg exercise invites you to look for the hidden patterns of behavior, system structures, and mental models that have led to visible (usually negative) events you are trying to change. It is often easier to see what isn’t working. It can be challenging to focus on what it is we are trying to grow, yet when we do, I believe it invites people into the vision and doesn’t make them feel defensive about how things are now.
In Arcel’s iceberg, her goal was to grow quality customer service in her programs and services. Initially, Arcel identified the challenges: limited freedom for staff to be self-directed, high caseload standards, work overload, and few opportunities to learn from each other. Next, she identified what needed to be created to support her aspiration. This involved transformational change in structures and practices, as well as mental models. You can see her illustrated model in the illustration below.
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Diagram by Arcel V. Blume, Ph.D.
Director of the Office of Cultural Competency
Santa Clara County Executive Office Division of Equity and Social Justice
THE METAPHOR OF MURMURATION
In one session, one of our members stated she felt she had no power to influence or change anything in her workplace system. We discussed murmuration: the ability of one starling to influence the starlings closest to it and those starlings influencing the starlings around them and so on. We also talked about Brené Brown’s idea of leadership: finding the potential in people and processes and having the courage to grow them. This individual said that she was beginning to see how she might be able to shift the way she shows up, and how that might influence others. I believe the group’s emotional support helped her understand her own power. It took everyone together to help her make that shift.
The master practitioner training has made a huge impact on how I see the world and how I can contribute to creating community and loving systems that truly support children, youth and families. I think of groups like our “Building Your Systems Change Muscle” group as potentially providing democratization for the compassionate systems tools. I would love it if families receiving services, direct service providers, supervisors, managers and everyone else participating in providing quality of life for children could know these tools. We could be so much more fluid in our work together. The more compassionate systems leadership that develops among people in this field, the more the flock will turn.
I think the biggest shift in me has been in how I view my colleagues. I have grown more compassion for them because of the structures, policies and other conditions under which they must perform their work. I am not yet fully there. However, when I feel frustrated about how things are going, I am much more likely to pause, breathe and break the habit of blaming others’ “bad mental models.” I am much more willing to focus on how I show up and how we can walk through the threshold together to achieve better results for our county’s children and families.
Joe and I have asked our group members if the sessions are helpful, and people say they value being in the room together. They love learning the tools, but I think they especially like having a place to process what they are doing at work, listening to each other and learning what other professionals have experienced and how they solved their challenges. As we continue these gatherings through the end of the year, I think about how our members can create similar positive conditions for themselves when they are out in the world. If we can figure this out – breathe, pause, pay attention, build relationships, and practice self-compassion – we will also increase our systems-sensing skills and show up in other spaces as the leaders we are.