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Shifting Systems for Equitable Change

  • Shifting Systems for Equitable Change

LEE prepares equity-minded civic leaders to tackle systems-level structures to dismantle deep-seated injustices. Here, we’ll define systems change, and explore a useful framework for analyzing and targeting policies and actions towards a system.

The dual pandemics of systemic racism and COVID-19 have demonstrated the need for us to tackle systems-level structures to dismantle deep-seated injustices. But by their nature, systems are hard to see – they are the “water” that we are all swimming in. The fact that systems are hard to see makes them harder to influence.


Thankfully, there are tools that can help us see these systems. In The Water of Systems Change, the authors outline key conditions, or parts, of systems that together maintain social problems and inequities. Civic leaders can use these ideas to guide reflection on how their policy activities can target different parts of a given system.


Six Conditions of Systems Change


The graphic below outlines the relationship between the six conditions of systems change:

Six Conditions of Systems Change

(Source: FSG, The Water of Systems Change)


Below are descriptions of each of these six conditions, as well as examples of each related to the problem of access to high-quality, culturally responsive and sustaining curricula.


Structural Change (These conditions are explicit and highly visible) 

  • Policies: Rules, regulations, and priorities
    • For example, districts’ procurement rules may require schools to select from curricular materials that have not been vetted for cultural responsiveness.
  • Practices: Organizational and individual activities that impact an issue
    • For example, teacher preparation programs may not adequately prepare educators to design or modify instructional materials to be culturally responsive
  • Resource Flows: The ways money, people, and information are distributed
    • For example, funding disparities leave some schools without budgets to invest in high-quality, culturally responsive curricular materials such as diverse texts

Relational Change (These conditions are semi-explicit; it may take some digging for them to be visible)

  • Relationships & Connections: The nature and quality of the connections between different actors in the system
    • For example, educators may not seek families’ input on how the curriculum can better reflect issues that are important to them and their communities 
  • Power Dynamics: Which organizations and actors hold positional and decision-making power and influence
    • For example, district officials make decisions about curricula without giving students an opportunity to share input


Transformative Change (These conditions are implicit and the hardest for us to see and address)

  • Mental Models: Deeply held beliefs, assumptions, and biases that influence individuals’ actions
    • For example, educator beliefs that making curriculum culturally responsive means decreasing its rigor)


Often, civic leaders may tend to focus on structural conditions when addressing inequitable systems. These efforts are critical, as policies, practices, and resource flows have profound impacts on students, families, and communities. Sustainable change also requires shifts in the other, less explicit conditions, including the relationships between actors and actors’ deeply held beliefs. 


Many of us have experienced situations where a well-designed policy or program’s implementation was negatively impacted by a lack of trust between service providers and community members. Likewise, we have seen cases where shifts in individual and community beliefs drive meaningful changes in policies and practices. 


Equity-minded civic leaders must focus on all the conditions of the system in which they work to achieve transformative change.


To learn more, check out the full article, The Water of Systems Change, from FSG. To learn more about the collective impact approach to systems change, check out resources from the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Essentials of Social Innovation collection.



  • What are some problems in your community that might require that you target different components of a system? 
  • How might this framework help you to build a deeper systems-level understanding of a problem you are working to solve?
  • What components of the system do you tend to focus on in your work? 
  • Are there components you would like to focus on more?

Share with LEE how you can address one system-change issue in your organization using this framework or lens:


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