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Group Reflections on the Work and Teachings of Dr. Levy Odera: a Collective Narrative

Updated: Jun 11

Produced by Fyodor Ovchinnikov



On Wednesday, June 1, 2022, a group of systems change practitioners gathered for the seventh peer learning session of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program to discuss their reflections on the work and teachings of Dr. Levy Odera.


Participants’ reflections were recorded and processed according to the Collective Narrative Methodology to create a balanced summary of key ideas that showed up in group discussions using participants' own words and giving every participant an opportunity to ensure that their ideas are included.


Here is the recording of the group call with Dr. Levy Odera based on this collective narrative:


COLLECTIVE NARRATIVE


Appreciating Dr. Odera’s work and recognizing the importance of African leadership for the future of the world


We talked about the importance of Dr. Odera’s work at this age and how grateful we are to become more aware of it. As 60% of the African population is currently under the age of 25, it is a continent with a massive number of young people. This generation of African youth is going to be the future of the continent and to a large extent, the future of the world. This is incredibly significant and working with youth in a way that Dr. Odera does becomes even more important because if we train these young people to be better leaders in the VUCA world—the world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—they will be better equipped to solve the challenges of the present time and the challenges of tomorrow.


Some of us with direct experience as young people in the Kenyan context shared that Dr. Odera’s methodology is a vital tool that is able to bring change and transformation to the young generation because there is a very big gap, especially in Kenya, between governance and youth: young people are always regarded as leaders of tomorrow and that tomorrow never gets us. Young people should be able to take initiative right away so that they also become leaders of their country, and Dr. Odera’s work gives them a platform to engage in leadership and governance at a very tender age. This creates an opportunity to avoid leaving leadership to old people alone which would mean that when these old people get out of power, there would be no transition of knowledge from them to the young people who are going to take over the leadership of the country and even Africa.


So throughout our conversations, we highlighted the importance of Dr. Odera's work. Some of us even felt a bit overwhelmed by the significance of this work as if we had gone to sleep for a minute, woke up, and got reminded in a very important way of something that is just centrally important. It is almost time-lapse photography of the role, the centrality of the role of Africa in our lives, always. What is that history and how is it tied to the history of each of us, including those of us who live far away from the African continent? How is it tied to different parts of the world? How is it tied over generations? Standing in 2022 and looking at what that means right now is so important, so the first thing is just to be thankful for this work.


What limitations does the SAYDS toolkit have in complexity? How is the methodology evolving?


Some of the questions we discussed were related to methodological aspects of Dr. Odera’s work. Talking about different systems thinking approaches applicable to different kinds of systems, some of us recalled our TLST session with Dave Snowden and the distinction that he makes between complicated and complex systems. There is a whole area of systems thinking that is about complicated systems where cause and effect relationships are known by experts. However, when we work with social complexity, while it is still useful to know things like feedback loops and other concepts that can be applied to complicated systems like a rocket engine, there are many properties of complex adaptive systems that are very different.


Some of us without direct SAYDS experience asked those of us who work with SAYDS whether the emphasis of Dr. Odera’s work is on complexity or on more traditional, complicated systems thinking. Based on these conversations and on the SAYDS materials that we reviewed, some of us got a feeling that while the complexity and wickedness of social problems are definitely discussed by Dr. Odera, there is still a huge emphasis on systems thinking that can be applied to complicated systems.


One particular detail that some of us noticed was SAYD’s emphasis on the toolkit and the impression that it is taught as a complete and sufficient guide to problem-solving. Does Dr. Odera himself see it that way? Is the toolkit, in fact, that one methodology that can and should be applied to all social problems so the task is just to make more people apply it and everything will be better? Or are there some other approaches that set the context for a different role of the toolkit, for example, the role of a first step, a door into the practice of systems transformation that would inspire and empower young people to continue their practice and keep learning from different other approaches in this evolving field with a lot of different, sometimes contradicting tools and methodologies? If that is the case, what kind of methodologies does Dr. Odera see working in different areas, and how does he choose them so that he is able to apply them in those contexts?


How can we transform educational systems to meet the challenges of our time?


We also discussed how to change systems for students coming out of college so that they could stay creative and adaptive. We talked about many students coming out of academia through a disengaged, linear process. Looking at the messiness of it, some of us were curious about how we can change that process so that students could engage and adapt to their own communities.


Specifically, we talked about how mass education was created to produce factory workers, how our education is still preparing people for the old world, for the industrial society of the 20th century, and how it is still more based on instruction and very rigid forms of learning as opposed to being more open, asking questions, and preparing people for the uncertainty and ambiguity that we currently experience.


We talked to a great extent about the importance of building personal tolerance to uncertainty and ambiguity, about how uncomfortable that place is, but also how important it is to be and help other people be more comfortable in that and work through the process that makes a lot of people sit in that uncomfortable place because that is what is needed to work with complexity.


How can we transform politics to increase youth engagement and ensure the accountability of the political establishment?


Another question we touched on was how we create a system of accountability within the system to help engage better accountability to each other. For example, some of us who are young want to involve the political class and make these people accountable within a specific system that we think they have very high stakes in. So how can we make sure that they are accountable within that framework and within that system making sure that they are collaborative so that we would effect change with them?


Some of us from Kenya shared that when we study our system we see that the government is pretty much involved within that system but many of us cannot reach them or engage them in addressing a particular issue, which means that a very high percentage of the solution that we are trying to effect is really dependent on the government or the political class. So how can we make sure that the systems or the people within our system are actually accountable to so that they could change and create ecosystems that are actually made for problem-solving? Some of us were reminded of the TLST session with Alyona Yuzefovish and Anastasia Laukkanen where they talked about the limitations of systems thinking practices and a conceptual void that is created when certain stakeholders have massive power and no interest in collaboration. Has Dr. Odera encountered that in any of his contexts and what does he think about it?


In connection to that, we also talked about the importance of youth involvement in the government and in community work throughout the world in many countries. Young people who are eligible to vote, for example, do not vote on the same scale as the older generation and as a result, it is the older generation that still has an influence on future policies. That is a problem because older people are generally more likely to have a more dated approach to solving problems and up not understand such issues as, for example, climate change. So if we have greater youth involvement in politics, if more young people vote and are represented in government and are more active in community work, this will lead to better outcomes for everyone.


One of the main observations for some of us was that the conversation around patterns that we notice across our individual perceptions of Dr. Odera’s work was incredibly useful. Such similar themes and patterns were coming up that at the same time looked different in different locations. These big picture questions around what it means for systems thinking to become more present in the political arena and what kind of language and discourse are required for that. What does that look like? What kind of language is going to be useful? How does that happen?


What is Dr. Odera’s experience with navigating the cultural and institutional legacy of colonialism and what impact does it have on his work?


One of the most intense observations made in our discussions is that some of us who spent time in Israel/Palestine and the United States brought up the collective history of anti-blackness and of racism that is embedded in our economies and other dominant institutions. This was connected to some of our previous TLST conversations about the toxicity of global institutions that are built by extractive Capitalism and that are based on colonial history and the neo-colonial present.


Given that these institutions control most of the global resources, some of us wonder how they affect the work that Dr. Odera is doing. How is he able to leverage these institutions and their resources for the benefit of his program while keeping the integrity of his purpose? How is he able to navigate these institutions to avoid negative impact on the core value of his work? Which institutions have been effectively supporting his work and which have been creating barriers? How did he go about the barriers? Was he able to overcome them or do they still exist?


What does it mean to hold the importance of this work as part of that healing for all of us?


Looking at the history of colonization from within Africa and the intergenerational work that is happening there, some of us who grew up in the United States reflected on what that work looks like from here. When we are working with institutions in the United States, we have intergenerational phenomena that we are observing and engaging in. It plays out in terms of demographics: the older generation being white leadership and the younger generation being people of color from many different places including from outside of the United States.


The heaviest thing is that there is all the healing and trauma, all the mental health work, all the personal work, and the collective work that goes into getting somewhere new at this moment. So we discussed what it means to hold the importance of this work as part of that healing for all of us? We looked at youth leadership in Africa today and the ability to do the work that Dr. Odera represents as part of the process of collectively getting to a very different place. The healing that can happen in this process and the newness that can come out of it are something that we all need to hold, protect, and defend together.


Considering how new ways of thinking and new politics are moving through this place opens up the theme of moving from being knowers to becoming learners. One of the things that some of us appreciated about our TLST conversations and about watching systems transformation work happen is what it means to actually not know. What does it mean to be asking each other? What is this like for us? How did we learn about this? What was our experience with doing this work? What mistakes did we learn from? That process was identified by some of us as vital.


What is the role of transcontextual learning and how SAYDS work can scale in a complex interconnected world?


We talked about interconnectedness, about how the world is increasingly interconnected, how we all are interconnected, and how someone’s future is also our future. We recognized that this is very important and that we all need to internalize this thought and become better.


How how does his work relate to others from an interconnected perspective? How can the work that he is doing be transferred from one person to another? And how does it relate to people so that it can become a holistic outcome that each of them is adding to? A major observation that we discussed was how this knowledge is not for us only, but it needs other stakeholders so that it can lead to even more success in the end.


What role does trans-contextual learning play in Dr. Odera’s work? Some people brought up how relevant this work is for other places like Greece, for example. We discussed how Kipepeo Foundation from Kenya received a request from Meraki People in Greece to send volunteers from Kenya so that Greek rural communities could learn from regenerative agricultural practices and systemic approaches to community empowerment that are successfully applied in Kenya. This is just one example of transcontextual learning that works much better in complexity than isolated efforts or standardized solutions based on low-context blueprints.


Another potential example comes from some SAYDS members among us who said that the toolkit is great but it is very academic which is a barrier for young people in Kenya to understand and apply it. This made some of us recall TLST sessions with Cleofash Alinaitwe and Ignatius Ahumuza who apply systems thinking in communities where up to 80% of people cannot read or write and they can still effectively use systemic tools such as systems mapping in these communities through their organization Agri Planet Uganda. So we wonder whether there could be an opportunity for learning or even collaboration between SAYDS in Kenya and Agri Planet in Uganda as the two organizations might have some complementary strengths and powerful synergies, and of course, we wonder if Dr. Odera could talk about any past, present, or aspirational examples of transcontextual learning that could involve his work with SAYDS.


How can SAYDS harness the patterns that its team has observed to diversify the reach that the program can attain to have a higher impact? How can Dr. Odera’s method be scaled to reach more people and build a steady systems thinking foundation in an African setting? If someone were to create a similar program in their location, what would advice would Dr. Odera give to them? What is the most important thing to get here? What is the biggest challenge of this work? Just in general, what would be his advice? What are the key performance indicators on the local level or on a larger level in Kenya or in Africa that can help us see how that work is progressing? What are the larger-scale indicators that we could be looking for or using as guideposts?


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