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“I don’t know” is a good place to start

By Rich Bell on October 9th, 2015

The most important thing I know about systems change is that I don’t. I don’t know.

The fields of public health, health care and the many other disciplines that influence social determinants of health are full of brilliant, hardworking, big-hearted professionals who gather and share loads of knowledge about the theory and practice of systems change. Much of what we know about systems change is right there in its erudite glory online.

However, elite knowledge is not the currency of enduring grassroots change or equity.

In the case of systems change theory, it can make your head spin—or hurt—if you dive too deep or stay too long. Well, let’s take a breath for just a moment and rest in not knowing.

Let’s lay down the burden of having to keep up with the dizzying pace of intellectual productivity, of knowing all the latest ideas about “disruption,” “quarterbacking” and “scaling impact.” Let’s stop pretending for a moment that our credentials, expertise and ambitious tools can explain to us how overlapping systems influence low-income communities and individuals and their behaviors and their health outcomes. Let’s take a moment free from false confidence, dense diagrams and the need to teach, control or justify ourselves.

Let’s sit with the possibility that we can’t know how to transform population health across the nation before we’ve taken the time to learn how to achieve and sustain it in single communities.

Let’s just daydream for a moment. Let’s imagine that we could meet together on a regular basis with the dazzling range of people in the communities we serve and all admit that we can’t see the path(s) yet because we simply don’t know and can’t predict.

Then, I think we’d have a real conversation that everyone could join.

We’d share a process of discovery and avoid clashing, preconceived notions about the nature of reality, why things are the way they are and what works for sustainable, equitable change. We’d create more room for community residents to expand their networks and nurture more authentic, balanced and sustainable local leadership. We’d circulate ideas and power more freely and evenly. We’d become for our new partners a bit more honest, accessible and trustworthy. Our relationships would be more grounded, intimate and open to breakthroughs.

We’d make the path(s) by simply walking.

Maybe new community structures, capacities and forms of agency will grow in the space we used to claim for ourselves. Maybe a new language of change will emerge where we used to explain “systems change” and “collective impact.” Maybe new pathways to community health will be built while we marvel from our perches.

Or maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know.

Rich Bell

Senior Project Officer

Student of systems change and advocate of the small, slow and connected.