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  • Writer's pictureFyodor Ovchinnikov

Group Reflections on the Work and Teachings of Mich Levy: a Collective Narrative

Updated: Jul 9, 2022

Produced by Fyodor Ovchinnikov

On Wednesday, June 29, 2022, a group of systems change practitioners gathered for the tenth peer learning session of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program to discuss their reflections on the work and teachings of Mich Levy.

Participants’ reflections were recorded and processed according to the Collective Narrative Methodology adjusted to the experimental process we used for the session.

Here is the recording of the group call with Mich Levy based on this collective narrative:


Appreciating real-life examples of culture production beyond progressive politics

It was a pleasure to learn more about Mich’s work and her way of thinking. Her approach is very interesting and for some of us it felt refreshing in a way because it attempts to go beyond left, progressive politics, towards trying to imagine what can be beyond that and people normally do not venture there. Some of us mentioned that we really love her framing that comes not from political parties but from the real needs that people have in their communities. This was especially inspiring to those of us who are facing sharp political divides and hope to use Mich’s work to find ways for dialogue in our own projects.

We talked about the relevance of Mich’s approach in more local contexts and some of us highlighted the case study that stood out from the materials. We really enjoyed how useful it was in illustrating the shift from struggle to culture production when, using Buckminster Fuller’s words, instead of fighting the existing model, we create a new one that will make the dominant model obsolete. It is a great example of how it is possible to engage with existing institutions and other systems only when you need that and only in alignment with your purpose and values. We discussed ways to learn more about this impressive example and if there are any more case studies from diverse communities that Mich can point us to, that would be very helpful.

Exploring the roles of action, activism, and third-order change

We also discussed figuring out by doing as an important aspect of Mich’s approach. Given that a lot of places these days emphasize the value of pausing and thinking, when we look at action vs. non-action, at awareness vs. will, we wonder how much doing we should be doing to be able to figure out what change must look like. How is Mich’s interpretation of activism related to how this term has been used historically and to contemporary attempts to reinvent it as “post-activism”, etc.? We know that she addressed some of that in the materials, but talking about those differences in approaches a little bit more would be helpful.

Another question that came up in our discussions was whether, according to Mich, we are supposed to be progressively moving towards the “third-order change”, or we are supposed to acknowledge all the different orders of change as necessary and valuable? Also, even though she has “systems change” and the “second-order change” in her terminotogy, does she see this term used elsewhere to point to the third-level change or does she think that some basic premises of systems change limit it to the second-order?

Finding a name or an image for the paradigm shift we are working on

Talking specifically about the third-order change, we reflected on our fascination with the whole question of “What is a paradigm shift, really?” that Mich puts in front of us. A lot of conversations that we hear in spaces ranging from the tech world to activist communities are about building a new world and living through fundamental change, but is this change really fundamental and how do we know if it is fundamental? This is probably the most important question to ask ourselves and just having that question in mind is very powerful.

Some of us suggested that we still have to name the paradigmatic shift we are working on. What is it? Some of us suggested that instead of naming it we can have images of symbolic significance that can point us towards alternative ways of being because we cannot win the game of describing all the aspects of the new paradigm. The existing paradigm is embedded in our ways of thinking and the new paradigm is not there yet so every time we try to think about all the details consciously, we will not be able to win that game, but when we have some powerful image of the new paradigm that we can identify with, specific aspects of our social reality can self-organize around that image. At the same time, others stayed with the power of words. For example, it is important to name Capitalism and human-centeredness in our approach to any problem-solving.

Recognizing Capitalism and human-centeredness as our core dominant ideologies

If we are operating under the basic assumptions of Capitalism, then we are trying to solve poverty in a Capitalist way: we want our young people to fit into the Capitalist system of earning income, acting as consumers by purchasing products from manufacturers, etc., and this produces kids that are eventually are fed back into the system. And then this whole Capitalist system is structured in a way that assumes human wants as the central meaning so everything is structured to satisfy human want or, in fact, let’s be honest about it, greed.

But if we start from a completely different place and say that the purpose is to assist Nature, because Nature took all these billions of years to create life, this huge diversity, this miracle of planet Earth, then our meaning, the true meaning of humans would be to understand that central mystery, that process, to see our place in it and how we can be in service to that. If we phrase it that way, it is no longer about jobs, the economy, GDP growth, or unemployment rate, it is about how, as a part of the living system on this planet Earth we can fit in in a way that multiplies its diversity and abundance as opposed to reducing the diversity and abundance by extraction which is what we are doing now.

Today we are approaching true poverty, which is mass extinction, pollution, etc. The very environment that we need to survive is being destroyed. This is true poverty, but we praise it as wealth, as development which is a problem. So unless we truly name our common assumption, if we take that almost all NGO work, under whether the umbrella U.N. or a lot of local initiatives, is actually part of propping up the Capitalist system, that would be huge.

For example, training youth entrepreneurs is generally about training youth to create companies that will then do profit maximization, nature and human exploitation, etc.. We discussed the story of a single mother who was a keynote speaker at a food entrepreneurship conference about ten years ago. She talked about how she wanted organic baby food when her baby was born but could not find any such food on the market. She then talked about how she created her own product and built a company for equitable sourcing of organic products from around the world and also locally, set up labor standards, made sure she does not exploit nature, etc. So with all this wonderful narrative, she built it up, her punch line was that she sold it to Procter & Gamble for $400 million and that “you too can one day be like me”.

This is so telling because in our current culture the success story needs that punch line, otherwise, it is not a success story. And that is the point: no matter how good the narrative that we are hearing from all this “activism” is if we are trying to be successful in that manner, it is very different from saying “Well, I created this, everything is local, and the point is not to make a profit, the point is how many healthy babies the company supports, so let's do our whole Profit & Loss Statement based on babies supported as opposed to money”. In this case, we would end up with a very different company that does not grow, that cannot be sold to Procter & Gamble, and that is never a success story in the mainstream culture, we almost never hear it at any conference, in any keynote, etc., and that is a problem. As a result, most entrepreneur training is basically a pipeline back into predatory Capitalism. So if we want to talk about a paradigm shift, we really need to go right down to the root of it, because if we do not touch Capitalism and human-centeredness, we are still serving the existing system.

Resisting the corrupting influence of the dominant systems

In one of her models, Mich describes feedback loops that preserve the dominant system: on one hand, anything that can strengthen the constitutive elements of the existing system gets supported and is allowed to grow and gain more energy and power, because the more energy and power it has, the more it contributes to sustaining the existing system, and on the other hand, there are balancing feedback loops that keep everything that can threaten the system small and struggling for resources. So we discussed how this works in a lot of different ways and that even if we are aware of some of those ways, we are not aware of all of them so it can actually be easy for us to get co-opted by the system.

In order for us to have traction, we need to communicate and engage with existing institutions and with people who are part of the dominant culture. We need to speak their language, to follow their rules to some extent, and through these little acts of engaging with those systems we are supporting them in a way that slowly transforms what we are doing, how we are doing it, and ultimately it transforms where we are going.

Some of us shared our struggles of having access to incredible wealth, power, and knowledge while trying to do good work with very poor, displaced, and disabled indigenous children. Working from within the dominant system as part of an organization proved to be counterintuitive to what we were trying to do. It was getting in the way, sucking us into an ideology, and that felt like a real betrayal. Coming out of that created more space for independent decisions. However, what we should do is still an open question and we need to stay accountable as well.

We want to give up our power because we do not trust it. With our privilege, we can just make things happen, but at a price, so we are learning to give our power away and just go with what our deaf students tell us they want to do. And even then when we look into our hearts, we find identity issues. For example, some of us can identify as an activist: “Activism is who I am, that is what I do, and if you mess with my activism, then you attack my identity”. So we are learning to make sure that our identity is not dependent on the people we are trying to help, on some organization, and so on. There are always those paradoxes, but before our work gets bigger, we need to address these bedrock things, so those of us who are struggling with that are especially grateful for these conversations.

Engaging people at scale and using collective processes to work on third-order change

Appreciating the framework for looking at different forms of change, some of us wonder how we can get people to buy into the value of pursuing collective well-being. What are some of the new forms of power that could emerge or are already emerging that need to be codified and legitimized in the system? There is a part where Mich talks about people moving towards becoming practitioners of change and contributors to our conscious becoming, but how do we get people who are not doing this as a career to go through this personal journey?

The mechanism, the channel for this was not quite clear for some of us while others suggest it to reframe it into the question of how we can facilitate the self-discovery of what is trying to emerge. Rather than tell people what to do or pick one person and have that person tell them what to do, it is better to do it as a group and have people self-discover and do it with different dimensions in mind. Each person might have some different aspect of the whole and that way we get a systemic view of what is trying to happen, and then it is much easier for people to align, do something with it, and act consistently.

Do paradigm shifts truly account for motivations? In some instances, people might appreciate different mindsets and ways of thinking, but this might not change the motivations as much as we would want them to. So maybe Mich could elaborate on that specific point and share some examples. Additionally, given that one of the competencies she suggests is the knowledge of current and historical root causes, how do we make sure that our own biased lenses do not affect how we view history or at least understand how they contribute to our understanding? Obviously, diverse perspectives can help cover some of those blindspots but we still wonder whether Mich would like to elaborate on that a bit more during the session.

These questions go hand in hand with the inquiry into collective processes that can move us away from struggle towards cultural production. A lot of times struggle stays within the lines created for us by the old paradigm. For example, some of us noticed how American universalism plays out alongside Capitalism trying to mold the entire world into identities that originated in the American or broader Western context which is actually cementing some of the basic structures we have.

So how can we transcend that and discover new ways of being together? Engaging in generative dialogue can be very helpful, however, there are institutions that are not willing to cooperate and engage in dialogue and collaboration. So how do we work with these institutions and other critically important stakeholders, especially given the little time we have to deal with existential threats of global proportions? It is easier to do it at the local level, in organizations, groups, etc., but how do we actually connect change that is happening locally, as in the Matias case study, with the change that we need globally and we need it relatively fast? So is it even possible to actually have a global paradigm shift and what would be effective ways to call out the mechanisms that keep us bound by the old paradigm?

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