Systems Thinking: A Tool for Advocates

drawing of questions problem solvers ask themselves
Rich Picture for Problem Solving

Thinking about problems as systems of relationships has a very long history. I ran across it in the 70’s when I was trying to understand how change worked. Every 10 years or do, there is a resurgence of interest in systems thinking. It makes intuitive sense that seeing the problem of focus in the larger world in which the problem exists should make it easier to solve.

But systems theory is very abstract, and the history of the use of systems theory in problem solving is basically a path of trying to make it more practical. “Rich Pictures” (above) is one practical method, but there are a very large number of practical methods out there, and there is no easy way to pick one. Basically, if the tool resonates with you, you should learn more by using it. You develop the usefulness of systems thinking by trying to use it rather than by learning some specific magic-bullet method. Systems thinking is a way to frame advocacy problems and advocacy strategy, not a way to replace a leaky faucet in your kitchen.

Advocacy problems are part of a class of systems called “complex”. In complex systems. parts and relationships between parts are changed at least a little every time there are interactions. You can compare complex with complicated (like a 787plane) in which the relationships between the parts change, but not the parts themselves (a changing part is a red flag of danger). When we try to alter a target system because of a rights problem that we either heard about or discovered. we are trying to change the way the system works (and in the process we are changing ourselves). ‘

Hence, Complex.

If this description reminds you of an ecosystem, that’s because ecology is the index example of a complex system, and all complex systems share important similarities. I’ll be discussing some of those similarities in future posts.

Some resources:

Systems Thinking: from

Systems Thinking, Systems Tools and Chaos Theory: from Free Management Library

Next Post: Systems Age Just Like You and Me


Building Better Advocacy Strategies

(My effort to write the “Functional Psychopathy” post is running into problems. I know what I want to say, but clearly don’t know how to say it. So that one will need to wait for the future.)

wooden ship-building in gloucester harbor and kids building small ships
Ship Building

For some time I have been working on a series of four presentations to help advocates understand how change strategy can support, expand, and deepen their advocacy efforts. While it is hard for me to view them as final, I thought I’d provide them for review where they are now. The links are to PDF files of each presentation. The PDFs include both the slides and fairly extensive notes (one slide + notes on each page of the PDF). If you want an alternative format, send me an email at, and I’ll crank one out for you.

Mission 1, Mission 2: Why Our Change Advocacy Organizations Get Off Track

M1, M2

This presentation gives an overview of why strategy for change organizations matters at all. I focus on a very real issue (that all advocacy organizations face); how do we struggle with the problems that our core mission and keeping our doors open create? Sometimes both these missions mesh and sometimes they don’t. How can we manage the evolving relationship between our purpose and our logistics?

Making Our Lives Larger: Creating Effective Social Justice Change Strategy

What Is Strategy?

This presentation tries to revive the importance of strategy as part of our advocacy efforts. These days every plan is called a strategy. But useful strategy isn’t a plan. It is a framework for dealing with the two realities of change advocacy:

  • The future is uncertain and no matter how hard we try, we can’t predict it
  • We have scarce resources (funding, time, capability) and we still have to produce change

Strategic Frameworks: Tools for Creating a Specific Change Strategy

How Do We Create A Strategy?

Since real strategy building is no longer a standard part of non-profit change work, how do we build one? There is a long history of efforts to build strategies and a wide variety of meaningful frameworks to help. Pick the one (or more) that resonate with you and learn more about those.

Executing Strategy: Tools for Making Your Strategy Real

Tools of Execution

Once you have a strategy, how do you make it real in your advocacy environment? Again, there is a long history of methods for making what you want to be real. And Again, choose the ones that are most attractive you and explore them more.

Well, if something occurs to you, let me know!

Next Post: Systems Thinking for Advocates


The Strategy Disconnect in HCBS Advocacy

A chain breaking apart

I am part of a large work group negotiating a rough consensus about how Michigan should implement the CMS HCBS Community Services Rule. This set of requirements for services to people with disabilities through Medicaid is the most far reaching effort to change the quality and impact of supports since the closing of institutions in the 70’s.

What makes the HCBS Rule so revolutionary is the guiding principle of its implementation: The life possibilities and experience  of persons receiving supports should be the same as the possibilities and experience of people without disabilities.

The implementation of this rule will occur over the next few years, and there are many, many practical issues with altering the way supports are currently structured, planned, funded, and implemented.

There is a disconnect between the way a civil right is supposed to operate and the way that we actually go about realizing that right in practice. The CMS HCBS rule highlights this disconnect very clearly.

Civil rights were originally developed as an expansion of the notion of property rights. It appears as though this had to be done in order to make civil rights palatable to American courts. Broadly, property rights were intended to protect contracts (and estate inheritance, a kind of contract between generations). So the focus was on the specification of the meaning of language in a contract, and the preservation of the property interest from fraud.

And, in fact, much of civil rights advocacy whether in courts, fair hearings, IEPs, etc. is an effort to negotiate a final version of a contract (between family, student,  and school; between landlord and person with a disability, and so on).

But the meaning of a civil right to the person who “has” it and the meaning of that same right in an ongoing advocacy process is different, and it is this reality that leads me to describe the HCBS implementation process as having a disconnect.

I realized this disconnect when it became apparent that many stakeholders in the implementation process for HCBS view the implementation as a negotiation over terms, albeit a new one (or as it is often called by providers, a “fad”). Their ideal outcome would be a negotiation that allowed them to behave and be paid in exactly the same way they do now.

But, from the perspective of a person who might benefit from the implementation, the terms have a very different meaning. The rights being discussed are only incidentally about what providers can no longer do in restricting the person’s access to the full community.  HCBS implementation has the ability to open up an unrestrained vista of choice that maps to the one that all citizens expect.

All of the counter arguments to such an opening of possibility are arguments that devalue the ability of people with disabilities to benefit from such possibilities (hiding the true agenda of maintaining current payment relationships and workflows).

The fact that there is a larger “meta” strategy underlying HCBS implementation to open up these possibilities doesn’t change the requirement of negotiating as though we were creating a contract for how supports will be done. But it does re-frame what is at stake. All of our lives are a mixture of what we would choose to do if a broad range of possibilities were available, and how others work to restrict our choices to the ones that benefit them rather than us. The disconnect in the meaning of this negotiation underlies the long struggle of people with disabilities  to realize their self-chosen lives and the efforts of others to stop that.

We will see how far the HCBS implementation reaches toward that goal of equity in life possibilities. But that common goal will remain the harbinger of a truly free disabled community, and nothing less will ultimately be acceptable to all in our community.

Next Post: Functional Psychopathy

Part 3 Cont’d: Examples of Epiphanies

Tile showing a man moving from earth into the celestial spheres
Medieval Tile:  Moving from Earth to the Celestial Spheres

In my last post I tried to frame what I brought to the experience of social injustice gained from the communities in which I was raised. But the actual experience of social injustice and the experience of trying to prevent or resist it are far more powerful ways to develop the meaning of social justice and the motivation to pursue it as a calling.

All people who work in social justice go through such epiphanies that expand and deepen their commitment to, and understanding of, a calling to social justice. And every single one of those people has an entirely unique path. Some elements of mine (not special, just illustrative of how pursuing a path brings on epiphanies related to that path):

  • Personal Disability Experience: A core of any social justice calling is your own experience of stigma and oppression. I was well aware before adolescence that my thinking and mood weren’t normal, but because they were predictable I was able to imitate others and do an adequate job of passing. When I became a teenager, my first serious depression occurred along with massive social anxiety, and I understood that I was seriously disabled. At the same time, a friend of mine, who I knew was a person with a developmental disability was carted off to Lapeer Hospital. When I asked why I was told that his family didn’t think he would be able to handle junior and senior high school. I took this to mean that I too could be institutionalized if adults decided I couldn’t handle school emotionally. I hid a great deal in order to avoid institutionalization. I ran into this friend at the Michigan Arc 50th Anniversary  Conference, and he was living in his own apartment and instantly recognized me. I had a notion that he had been crushed by a system of oppression, but he had found a way to live the life he wished. A very good lesson indeed.
  • Murder at a Fiesta: When I was 15 I worked in a Catholic youth group project with migrant family crop workers in northern Bay County. Our job was to support young children (under the age of 6 or with a disability) in schoolwork. One reason was that migrant families had to come up north before school ended and not leave until after school started. Another reason was to keep young kids out of the fields and the sun.At the fiesta in early July to celebrate the end of one kind of crop work, two young men had an argument with several others. One pulled out a revolver and fired it, missing those arguing and hitting a young man in the heart 30 feet away, killing him.
  • Television of Beatings of civil rights protesters: Like many others, I was shocked by the abuse of civil rights protesters  in the mid-60’s. It was visual proof of what civil rights activists had said was the case. This vision of oppression was cemented by the killing of 3 civil rights workers.
  • Military Experience: I witnessed a large amount of racially based discrimination during both my training and combat experiences. I also tried to do something about what I saw, but was barely able to dent it. But, I saw organized efforts by black soldiers to resist that were much more effective.
  • Fred Hampton: A couple of days after I came home from Vietnam (mid-December, 1969), I read an article about the police raid that killed Fred Hampton in Chicago. There was a small black and white picture of his bed, clearly and deeply stained with his blood. I can still remember that picture though the details of the raid have faded.
  • PWD and Family Support Experiences: In the early 70’s I worked with people who had very significant brain injuries from a wide range of causes. Their families had kept them out of state institutions, and there were no supports for either the families or the person with the disability. The most important lesson I learned in this work was that persons with severe disabilities continued to develop and work for their own development largely unsupported by their environment. This was mostly due to our inability to see their actions as attempts to engage with their world and learn about it like the rest of us. I had to learn (as did the families) a deeper way of seeing so that I could support their efforts to become more. There was a real struggle involved in this learning, but it became easier and easier over time. Now I see this drive to have a larger life in everyone.
  • Advocacy experience: There are far too many lessons from my work as  an advocate at Michigan Protection and Advocacy to narrate them here. Perhaps the most important for my current work and my understanding of social justice was the realization over time and through experience that the most important drivers of oppression and devaluing are habits of thought and work, and that most people (just like me) can come to a deeper understanding of the need for and power of self-determination and choice.
  • Seeing the disability rights movement catch fire and grow: Once I understood that everyone in the disability community was struggling to become more, I could see it everywhere. Social networks (most especially including peer groups and peer work) are now taking that struggle out of the realm of the solitary activist and making it more and more a struggle through mutual support and mutual learning.

I am able to see our common work to expand the possibilities of our community far more as a force or a flow now than I could when I was younger. Even as our community faces renewed efforts to eliminate us from the social stage, we have become far more capable of asserting our right to be as we are, and to pursue our personal and community growth as we see fit. The struggle is far from over, but we are far better prepared to embrace it. My epiphanies may have less impact on me as individual events than they did when I was younger. But now they are occurring all the time, expanding and deepening my appreciation of the gift that is the struggle for social justice.

I am going to take a short break from posts about change strategy to finish work on a couple of ideas.

Next Post: The Disconnect in HCBS Advocacy