The Shift Network Blog

Five Key Elements of Effecting Change: Bridging Values and Action

By Deborah McNamara

For those of us working to effect change in our communities, we know that for the big shifts to happen it is a matter of beginning at the individual level. As Gandhi says, “Be the change you wish to see.” Person to person, individual by individual, change-making is a slow process over time of shifting minds and hearts in new directions. Societies only change when enough individuals within them have changed. And so we are tasked with a daunting prospect. How to shift an unsustainable society, comprised of unsustainable organizations and systems, to becoming sustainable and life-affirming, not just now but for generations to come? It is an ever-evolving, adaptive challenge (complex – with no easy answers or quick fixes).

As Donella Meadows reminds me so eloquently, we have to stay humble, and stay a learner – especially in the face of complex systems at work. We have to be open to feedback and cultivate mental flexibility. And, we have to remember our own sense of responsibility. Here are a few key guiding principles drawn from my work with the Northwest Earth Institute for you to consider in your work to effect change:

1. Remember the power of collaborative learning and shared discovery.  Remember the power of connection – both making new connections and cultivating existing connections. Networks of people have immense power. Think small groups translating into larger social change initiatives. 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 an “expert,” we can encourage full participation and engagement from everyone involved.

2. Foster opportunities for reflection. When we create a supportive environment where reflection can occur, this is where shifts in perspective are possible. As one participant in a recent workshop I led remarked, “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.” We need to ask the right questions – and ones that don’t always have immediate answers. We need to slow down and consider new ways of being, together.

3. Work ‘deeply’ on problems, which entails new ways of thinking. As author 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. (Think climate change or 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.  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.

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*Looking for a place to start? The NW Earth Institute has resources for you to use to gather people together and dive deep through dialogue and action. You can jump in and learn more at www.nwei.org.

If you want to jump right into systems thinking and sustainability, I’ll be hosting a three session online discussion course on the intersections between peace, justice and sustainability – and all are welcome. The course, Seeing Systems: Peace, Justice and Sustainability, begins June 3rd and will help participants find pathways for powerful change in our everyday lives. You’ll learn about what it means to co-create peace and sustainability, as well as how to apply systems thinking skills in order to take action. We’ll meet weekly for three, interactive hour-long course sessions online and the course will run from June 3rd to June 17th.  For more information and to register, click here.


Deborah McNamara is a mother, writer, yoga teacher and environmentalist living in Boulder, Colorado. She is the Director of Organizational Partnerships for the Northwest Earth Institute, where she offers sustainability education and engagement resources and trainings, and supports individuals and organizations in their journeys to become more sustainable. Deborah holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Leadership from Naropa University, where she also received a Graduate Certificate in Ecopsychology. She holds a BA in Philosophy and Environmental Policy from Boston University. After hours, she enjoys hiking and spending time with her three young boys.