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Why Transformation? Moving Beyond Systems Change

At Inspire to Change, we’ve spent the last decade working with partners in support of systems change. But in 2020, the COVID pandemic and the uprising after the murder of George Floyd became a wake-up call for our country and the world. Systems were changing in response to these events, and people all around us were saying, “We just want things to get back to normal.” But WE didn’t want to get back to normal. Normal had us burnt out and exhausted. Normal had us valuing human productivity over inherent human worth. Normal determined that some people were disposable–at the hands of the police, the healthcare system, and, really, all of our systems–whereas others were considered worthy of care and protection.

So, we started thinking about transformation instead of change. And there’s a real difference between the two. For example, when you change your clothes, your hair, your mind, or your attitude, you can always change back. But when you transform, there’s no going back. You may hold onto bits of your past self, returning to them when you need to, but you are unable to change back into that exact version of yourself pre-transformation. The butterfly will not be a caterpillar again. The delicious tomato soup can never be a humble tomato again. And we will never unsee systems of oppression that were invisible to some of us for too long.

We’re working on our theory of transformation at Inspire to Change, and while it’s not complete, we have some things we know to be true.

What we know to be true

Transformative work is rooted in place. The type of evaluation we practice is alive: it lives in our communities, and it lives in our bodies. No living thing can exist without roots.

Transformative work is both individual and collective. For us, transformation is a deep and fundamental change. We have often been taught that transformative change is linear: transform people, and then systems–or vice-versa. But we must think of the individual and the collective as interconnected and interdependent: each transforms the other in an ongoing and iterative process.

Transformation takes energy. We think in terms of energy, recognizing that our life energy is one of the greatest gifts we have to give. Some things deplete and diminish our life energy, and some things restore and expand it. People and systems don’t transform when all exchanges are depleting.

Transformation happens when there is creative tension. Peter Senge introduced the idea of “creative tension” in his book, The Fifth Discipline. This model proposes that the energy for change is generated by making clear the discrepancy between what people want and where they are. If people hold to the vision of what they want and are simultaneously clear and candid about where they are–individually and collectively–then the tension will tend to resolve in favor of what they want.

Creative tension is translated into action when a compelling vision is paired with active hope. We cannot fully address new challenges by fixing outdated systems. We must help people imagine something fundamentally different and better than what they have–a transformed system. And that vision must be paired with hopeful action.

Transformative action needs to be based in values. A values-based set of guiding principles guides learning, action, and adaptation.

What this means for our practice

We can’t do this alone. The opposite of a catalyst is an inhibitor. Collective work is a catalyst to transformative change; isolation and working in silos inhibit transformative change.

We must take risks. We’re going to make mistakes. That’s okay. We’ll also learn from our mistakes, and that’s better. But no risk means no skin in the game. Limited risk means holding back some part of our personhood. As author Taleb wrote, “How much you truly ‘believe’ in something can be manifested only through what you are willing to risk for it.”

If we aren’t willing to risk anything, the power is asymmetrical and we are engaging in charity work. Or, as Indigenous Australian visual artist, activist and academic Lilla Watson has said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

We must know ourselves. We are each, in our own way, both a part of the problem and a part of the solution. But we can’t take responsibility for either of these if we don’t know ourselves. The work of knowing who you are is to learn how to be more aware, accepting of yourself, and loving towards yourself. As Bessel van der Kolk wrote in The Body Keeps the Score: “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”

We must seek to understand others. We must seek to see in ways that are not natural to us. We must seek to know in and from ways that aren’t available to us. Our identities shape what we can know and experience: Social, historical, and ideological forces and structures shape what we can know and experience. We must actively seek to understand beyond these boundaries.

We must cultivate the conditions for transformation. Rather than controlling change, we must adopt the approach of setting the conditions for change to emerge. While all systems are capable of self-organization and emergent change, certain conditions impact the speed and direction of change.

We reflect. Reflection is wise action. It requires us to stand still long enough to see what is going on around us–that we take time to understand the flow of events and the context of the moment; that we evaluate the impact of our actions and interactions to date; and that we draw action implications from what we see and understand.

We Move. We must make decisions and act. We must move into new possibilities. We can't jump from where we are to where we want to be. Rather, we must hold a hopeful and inspiring vision, walk a path that is guided by our principles, and move from one adjacent possibility to the next. In this way, we have both a destination and a strategy for stepping into emergent possibilities. While we might not be able to see the path as we're moving forward, we may be able to look back and say “because of X, Y became possible.”

We Embody. We must embody through evocative playback and engaging the senses. We must have a commitment to full-sensory knowing, relationships, and care.

We Repeat. We have changed. The world has changed. Start again on the journey towards transformation.


Nora Murphy Johnson, PhD, is a teacher, coach, healer, and evaluator for soul-driven, spirit-guided transformation work. Her top three coaching topics include helping you identify and live into your personal, professional, and organizational guiding principles and developing principles-driven strategic visions for social change. You can reach Nora at

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