In late 1970, about a year after I returned from combat in Vietnam, I had an epiphany about change that was so powerful, it started me on a 45-year journey to understand both the general change of the world and the ways of intentional change. I came to this post-combat world and this epiphany with a deep experiential understanding of social justice from being immersed in Catholic social justice theology.
I started working in a small medical clinic that supported families with children who hadn’t been institutionalized (the standard practice at that time). There were no supports for families that made this choice and choosing to keep their child left them bereft of community. The clinic’s goal was to enable knowledgeable management of the child’s medical and nutritional issues and to build a support plan of activities (PT, OT, sensory, etc.) that would enhance engagement between family members and the child. The point was in part to improve the child’s functions and ability to engage the larger world, and partially to teach family members, friends, and relatives, that this child, no matter the reach of the disability, was working hard to accomplish the same things that every other child struggled to achieve, albeit in a different, more complex way.
From this fortuitous and strikingly powerful foundation, I worked in a crisis intervention program (which I eventually ran), provided substance abuse therapy, worked in a school setting focused on children with severe learning disabilities, became an advocate in Michigan’s Protection and Advocacy Service, staffed a state council on employment rehabilitation services, and most recently, ran a state level rights and community organization called Michigan Disability Rights Coalition. I am currently a consultant to MDRC to maximize the impact of thmission-focusedused activities.
These different work experiences and the struggles of those with whom I worked forced me to come to grips with my own ableism in regard to the many, many communities of people with disabilities, and with my own experience of severe depression, social anxiety, and PTSD. I also learned through change efforts, both successes and failures, the mechanisms of the labyrinthine systems of support that constitute the societal response to the utter devaluing and social confinement of all people with disabilities. Struggling with these systems taught me the reality of change effort, and the myriad implicit ways that such bureaucratic systems undermine their own purposes and the passion and commitment of their employees.
Parallel to my work in this ongoing stew of change, I also tried to find conceptual frameworks that I could use to enhance my understanding and support my change efforts. One part of this process was a notion that each area of human knowledge developed a theory of change along with the development of the field. I began a task, that would take a number of years, to explore these different frameworks of change by reviewing a first year text in the field, and following up with one or more texts that included essays by members of the community. Such multi-author texts always convey information about the academic community’s views on change, even if that theory of change is not a direct topic of the text. My expectation was that, by reviewing a number of fields in this manner, I would discover a residue that would constitute a common framework of change that would have general use.
I was wrong. Instead, I found that there were a number of frameworks that only partially overlapped, and that these frameworks had very different implications for successful change. I had settled on distinguishing ongoing change as the general environment, and intentional change, formulated as advocacy. These various change frameworks had different implications for the use of advocacy as a tool of intentional change.
At the core of this journey was the growth of my understanding of systems theory, a large scale framework that has continued to evolve and split into many threads ( a system of frameworks as it were). My current work focuses on only some of those threads, the ones I believe are most useful to small advocacy organizations and groups. Combined with the ongoing insights I gained in my practical work, I have reached a point where I feel I need to begin to communicate what I have learned. That is the work of this blog.
Change Strategy: Making Our Lives Larger by Norm DeLisle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License