Racial Justice and Power-sharing: The Heart of Leading Systems Change

Systems change of all kinds, including public health, must begin by tackling the deep inequities entrenched in our social systems.

“No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.”

Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Picture any social system: A school system. A food system. A tax system. A workplace. A healthcare system. A city. An economy. Now, picture who has the power to decide how these systems operate. Picture who benefits from the system, who is most harmed by its failures.

When we think about these systems, we see that those with the power to decide are often quite distant from those who experience the system’s harms and burdens. Power — the ability to enact change in the system — is not justly shared. People who bear the brunt of broken, inequitable systems — for example, people who receive inadequate healthcare, live in lower-quality housing, work in high-risk jobs, attend lower-resourced schools, experience disproportionate pollution and climate impacts, and incarcerated people — are the furthest from formal centers of power. And all these dynamics are racialized.

So how can public health leaders change these systems?

Recently, we were given a chance to think in depth about this pressing question as part of a book project called “Leading Systems Change in Public Health,” edited by public health leaders from the de Beaumont Foundation and the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health.

Drawing on HIP’s experience working with over 100 health departments and public health organizations, we authored a chapter in the book that unpacks how power operates within social systems, and why systems change leaders must center power-sharing and racial justice at the heart of their processes. In this chapter, we describe how these values can be operationalized to create more effective and transformative systems change processes.

We propose the following overarching strategies to achieve this:

  • Develop a shared analysis around how power imbalances, racism, and other forms of oppression define and structure the systems that drive health.
  • Tend to the work of “being” together, and not just “doing” together, as a way of deepening the relationships necessary to disrupt these patterns at the interpersonal, team, organizational, and community levels.
  • Establish change processes that embody a model of sharing power; shift who represents and is leading transformation.

The chapter walks through concrete approaches for how to operationalize each of these strategies. For example, we detail how to:

  • Facilitate processes and practices for groups engaged in systems change work to examine the histories of racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression and how they continue to influence power in social systems today.
  • Create what we call a “container” for systems change processes — a shared working and thinking space with clear group agreements that allows us to tackle complex and emotional problems effectively. A few examples include having trained facilitators guide hard conversations, providing tools and space for emotional responses to discussions, and encouraging participants to share racial and gender identities as part of building deep relationships and learning to talk about race and gender with nuance.
  • Integrate the head and the heart, and make space alongside our intellectual work to feel the physical sensations and emotions that arise when confronting the reality of racial inequities and unjust power imbalances, both in the policies and systems we aim to shift and in our own organizational culture.
  • Adopt a power-sharing approach in internal work, meaning those with more power relinquish control and authority and those with less power step into greater responsibility and ownership over decision making.
  • Forge long-term relationships with community power-building organizations, which often represent and are made up of people and communities most impacted by inequities.

Systems change of all kinds, including public health, must begin by tackling the deep inequities entrenched in our social systems. By explicitly naming and centering how racism and other forms of oppression shape the distribution of power, resources, and wellbeing in our society, we can not only push for more equitable policies and practices, but also work to transform the underlying norms and assumptions that impede change.

This is an ongoing process with no set arrival point. Successful systems change leadership is responsive to change, continually adapting to new information, integrating new wisdoms and insights, and balancing new perspectives. Conflict is inherent to this process of transformation and should be welcomed as a sign of growth. Dismantling the oppressive hierarchies that define our current systems and redistributing power equitably across all people and communities is no easy process. It will take a vast network of dedicated systems change leaders and movers to guide us towards truth and reconciliation, justice, health, and abundance. We hope our reflections and recommendations can support you on the way.

Check out the full book chapter to learn more. We welcome opportunities to talk through these ideas with our community — reach out to let us know what you think!

Lili Farhang is Co-Director at Human Impact Partners. Along with Solange Gould, she’s responsible for advancing the mission and strategic direction of the organization. For nearly 20 years, she has visioned, developed, and implemented policy and systems change to advance health equity in the government and nonprofit sectors, and she’s feeling energized by people’s willingness to talk about race, power and the other root drivers of health.

Solange Gould is Co-Director at Human Impact Partners. Along with Lili Farhang, she’s responsible for advancing the mission and strategic direction of the organization. She has been in public health practice for over 20 years, advancing progressive policy and systems change to improve health, equity, and sustainability with government partners, advocates and organizers, and communities most impacted.

📌 Did you know? Human Impact Partners provides health equity capacity building to public health organizations. Contact us to learn more about our offerings at info[at]humanimpact.org.

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Bringing the power of public health to campaigns and movements for a just society

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