What I've learned about system-change work during this time of crisis

Jun 11, 2020

In late February, the fellows and mentors in the HealthConnect Fellowship gathered to share the system-change goal each advocate wanted to pursue to improve children’s health.

Sitting in a classroom next to the Undesign the Redline exhibit, we acknowledged the intense weight of challenges we needed to tackle to give children a chance to thrive in our community. We also recognized the opportunity we had, working together, to create the change we wanted to see.

Then the pandemic hit. And the economic crisis followed. And then police violence brought to the forefront the root cause of many challenges we are trying to address: Racism.

As we have pushed for change in a new environment—an environment that continues to change by the moment—we have learned several lessons about how we do our work going forward. Here are my takeaways so far:

1. Equity is at the center of creating any kind of change we want to see.

The pandemic has made it clear how intertwined our well-being is and how our systems create conditions that cause violence, trauma, and poor health for people of color. If we are to truly succeed in improving children’s well-being, now is the time to listen to those who have been oppressed and to work together to rebuild our systems to be inclusive and equitable.

2. Self-care matters.

As we feel fear and loss, experience a prolonged period of stress, and work harder to keep up with all the demands, we run the risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. To counteract these consequences, we must take time to talk about and reflect on what’s happening and care for ourselves, whether that’s journaling, taking a walk, catching up with a friend, or breathing deeply for a few minutes. Our roles as leaders and supervisors also require us to foster supportive relationships among our teams and promote a culture of self-care within our organizations.

3. Pivot but still have a goal.

In the fellowship, we often celebrate the times when we decide to pivot. Ralph Smith, managing director for the National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, calls it being “opportunistic,” or going where there is energy to make progress. With a landscape that changes daily, we have all shifted and re-shifted to respond.

Yet, as HealthConnect Lead Mentor Rick Kozin points out: We still need a goal we’re striving toward. Our system-change goal may compete with other goals or our partners’ goals, and we may struggle to identify a goal in a time of uncertainty, but having a clear goal is critical to know what we are working toward and if we are successful.


4. Now’s the time to plan.

See What I Mean offers a great framework for how to plan when disruption occurs. With your mission and goals in mind, consider what parts of your work should be accelerated, sustained, or protected to continue to make progress toward your goals, while deciding what could be reduced or released. Making choices about what you let go of allows you to make room for new opportunities that are emerging. Going through this process as an organization or coalition can help us make strategic choices about how we respond, while keeping our mission at the forefront.

5. Framing is critical right now.

How we frame our issues is more critical than ever to gain buy-in at a moment of opportunity. Frameworks Institute offers a lot of guidance for how to make a case for support, which includes these key points:

  • Instead of talking about a broken or inept system, hold the government accountable for leading us through the problems that lie ahead.
  • Establish the collective “we” before zooming into the needs of specific populations, highlighting the responsibility we all have to each other.
  • Instead of using language like “seizing the moment” or “seeing the silver lining,” focus on what this moment is teaching us and the ideas for change that are necessary and possible.

6. Celebrate small wins.

System-change work often feels daunting, and even impossible in times like these. Yet, when we step back and share what we’ve accomplished in the past day, week, or month, we begin to recognize the importance of our work.

For some fellows, success has been speaking up on the issues we need to prioritize right now, like Aubrey’s and Lina’s published op-eds, or Emily’s statement on addressing racial disparities in Black maternal health. Or for Andrea, success is having more people prioritize helping youth in foster care identify people who are important to their well-being. Or for Lisa, it’s elevating a conversation about the root causes of trauma and how to move forward in an equitable way.

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