Taking the Long View to Eliminate Systemic Racism: A Systems Thinking Approach

When john a. powell, director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, was leading the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University in 2010, he wrote a compelling thought piece, titled “Systems Thinking, Evaluation, and Racial Justice.” He advocated for a new approach to eliminating systemic racism, writing, “We need an evaluation approach that acknowledges what we know from a history of inadequate or failed policy interventions. We know that what works on a microlevel may not be able to be scaled up; what appears promising in the short-term may have no impact in the long-term, what helps in the short-term may in fact harm in the long-term, and even policies that are far removed from the traditional concerns of racial justice advocates can either ameliorate or exacerbate racial disparities. The efficacy of a policy can only be adequately understood by looking at how it interacts with other policies and the environment to advance desired outcomes.”

powell suggested that we tend to have a linear way of solving problems, with a focus on the short-term, which can obscure potential unintended long-term consequences. The result is that organizations are good at fixing problems in the moment but not at addressing them in a long-term, sustainable way. In the context of education, he says we often blame a system failure on a single element, such as the curriculum, focusing an intervention there. But if we stand back and take the time to study the interrelationships within a system, and how a particular system produced an unwanted outcome, we will gain better insights into designing interventions that have a lasting impact.

Applying a Systems Thinking Lens to Racial Inequality

Many industries have used systems thinking to better understand of how things work and to approach problem-solving in a holistic way. Could it be the framework schools need to effectively identify, understand, and improve systems that create racial inequities in schools?

Why Systems Thinking Is Important for the Education Sector, a report by the Education Development Trust, a nonprofit that works to design and deliver sustainable solutions to improve education and transform lives, explores how systems thinking can be used to address complex challenges in schools. The authors define systems thinking as “an understanding of how the different components and stakeholders of a system interact and impact each other. Systems thinking goes further than mapping key stakeholders and institutions, and includes analyzing formal and informal interrelationships, and how they influence the functioning of a system.”

They suggest that systems thinking is particularly effective when an issue is chronic, persists over time, and has complex interdependencies. Systems thinking can be a powerful tool in addressing systemic racism for just these reasons, as there are so many formal and informal systems, structures, relationships, norms, and behaviors that have conspired over time to create systems of oppression. In the Education Development Trust report, this chart compares  the traditional, linear way of approaching problems, with the more multidimensional approach of systems thinking.


The authors suggest that we need to use a series of interconnected accelerators to address systemic challenges:

Vision and leadership. Leaders must have the ability to work across boundaries and deal with ambiguity.

Coalitions for change. Systems thinking embraces the foundational concept that to solve complex problems you must have collaborators across systems and stakeholder groups who work together to build a shared understanding of the challenges, root causes, and interrelationships.

Delivery architecture including school collaboration. Structure is essential to systems thinking; therefore, a clear stating of roles and responsibilities is key so that “one part of a system is not inadvertently undermining what is happening elsewhere in the system.”

Data for collective accountability and improvement. Evidence is foundational to building a shared understanding and in identifying root causes.

Teacher and school leadership effectiveness. Individual development is an important accelerator in systems thinking work as it equips stakeholders to own change and to drive improvements.

Evidence-informed learning. Continual learning and adaptability are important elements of systems thinking as there is much that is not known or understood when we begin a process, and we must be prepared to take alternative steps as the journey unfolds.

Two Systems Thinking Models

Equity In the Center, an organization that works to shift mindsets, practices, and systems, also embraces systems thinking as an important tool in the process of understanding and eliminating systemic racism. The organization designed the Race Equity Cycle to push other groups to become “more committed, more knowledgeable, and more skilled in analyzing race, racism, and race equity.” The process includes three stages:

In the AWAKE stage, organizations focus on people and building a workforce and a board that include  different racial backgrounds, with the primary goal being representation.

In the WOKE stage, the emphasis moves to culture and “creating an environment where everyone is comfortable sharing their experiences, and everyone is equipped to talk about race equity and inequities.” At this stage, the primary goal is inclusion and changing behaviors, policies, and practices.

In the WORK stage, the focus is on understanding systems of inequities and using levers to improve race equity.

Their process is designed to be flexible so that organizations can approach the work at different levels of readiness. Like the Education Development Trust, the Equity In the Center team suggests that to achieve a race equity culture, you must engage the strategic elements of the system that build momentum when leveraged. The levers represent both specific groups of people as well as systems, structures, and processes, and include senior leaders, managers, boards of directors, communities, learning environments, data, and organizational culture. The guide, “Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture” provides rubrics for engaging each lever in all three phases of the work.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation produced The Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide to help organizations take a systems analysis approach to understanding and addressing the key elements of systemic racialization, including history, culture, interconnected institutions and policies, and racial ideologies. It suggests, “Examining how racism interacts with other systems of privilege, oppression, and power—such as gender and economic inequality—is another important facet of conducting a systems analysis.” The guide points out that too often Black, Indigenous, and people of color are not at the table when systems are designed, enhanced, or evaluated, so it is key that the systems process begins by involving a diverse group of stakeholders in an exploration of system inequities. It asks questions such as:

  • What are the racial inequities, barriers, or negative outcomes involved in the problem being examined?
  • Who is burdened most and who benefits most?
  • What institutions are involved?
  • What unfair policies and/or practices are involved?
  • What social conditions or determinants contribute to the problem (such as poverty, housing segregation, education)?
  • What other compounding dynamics are involved (such as income or gender inequities)?
  • What cultural norms, myths, or popular ideas justify or maintain the problem?
  • How did things get this way, and what are some of the cumulative impacts?
  • What are the key causes or contributing factors?
  • What solutions or interventions could eliminate the inequities?
  • What can be learned from prior efforts to solve the problem or change the system?
  • What strategies could result in systemic change and advance equitable solutions?

Moving Forward as an Industry

Independent schools must resist the temptation to look for the quick fix for the injustice of systemic racism, which is societywide and permeates all institutions, and instead embrace the long game and do the hard work to engage and leverage people, culture, and systems. We want to do this work, but if approached in a siloed form, we may find little positive movement or unintended consequences that set us back. As the authors of the Annie E. Casey guide say, “Though it may sound daunting, institutionalizing racial equity and preventing institutional racism can be done. Like anything else, it takes practice, partnering, learning, and leadership. Everyone can be a race equity and inclusion leader and champion. Start right where you are with the people around you.”
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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.