Nested Social Change

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A number of months ago, I posted something on what I called “The Dimensions of Social Space,” the gist of which was the proposal that we are called to tend to different dimensions of our social being in our change work—the autonomous/individual, the communal/collective, and the transcendant/”divine.”  When I wrote that post, I was thinking of these as three interlocking circles in a ven diagram. I have since evolved my thinking to see them as systems sitting in nested fashion, going from the lesser (individual) to the greater (divinity) in terms of complexity. Much of this development owes to the field of living systems thinking and the mentoring of Carol Sanford.

Carol in particular calls our attention to each of these levels by referring to the different “lines of work” required for responsible change leadership. The first line of work is to tend to personal development and integrity, the second to organizational evolution and wholeness, the third to greater systemic health that assures true value contribution and long-term survival and flourishing. The nested nature of systems helps us to understand that fragmentation and separation at one level have ramifications for and reflections in others, and so the call to practicing wholeness becomes that much more compelling.

The test of our leadership is to be able to hold these different perspectives simultaneously and understand what it means to work towards integrity in and across dimensions. This includes identifying existing patterns that cut against health and wholeness, and understanding how practices such as leading with values and value creation, creating deeper and more direct connections, storytelling, designing for emergence, and engaging greater systemic diversity can serve us all.

Curtis Ogden is a Boston-based senior associate at the Interaction Institute for Social Change (or IISC), a nonprofit that works to promote social justice and sustainability by helping clientspublic sector agencies, schools, nonprofits, networks, coalitions, and foundationsfoster collaboration and connectivity, and boost leadership capacity. Curtis’ focus is on education, community building, collaboration, leadership development, program design, holism, and environmental sustainability. He has worked as an independent research, evaluation, and training consultant to a number of civic engagement and nonprofit support initiatives, including the Building Movement Project (currently housed at Demos), the Nonprofit Quarterly, and Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. Curtis can be reached at
[email protected].

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally published on the IISC’s blog on January 3, 2013. It has been republished here on with his permission and the permission of the IISC.

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