Illustration from ‘Literacy and Liberation’
by Septima P. Clark
Originally published in Freedomways, 1st Quarter, 1964

Septima Clarke as Systems Change Ancestor

I continue to be rocked by Sheryl Petty and Mark Leach’s Change Elemental monograph, Systems Change & Deep Equity: Pathways Toward Sustainable Impact, Beyond “Eureka!,” Unawareness & Unwitting Harm.

I have been especially reflecting on what Sheryl Petty describes as “Eureka!” or “Columbus” moments in the systems change field:

That is, “discoveries” of “new” approaches that were already decades-long practice in the equity field, and perhaps millennia old in some cultures and places. These approaches are often appropriated, re-packaged, marketed, and sold as “novel.” We also see that such re-packaging is too often missing key, additional components of equity, which makes their “sexiness” and “newness” dangerous.”

This thinking about “discovering” “new” approaches is also reflected by Forum for The Future’s School of Systems Change:

The field of system change might be characterised as the coalescing of what has come before. I do not believe it to be a new or radical field but rather a wider ecosystem across a number of fields that are loosely associated with understanding and trying to enact change.

So, I have been really digging into this question, what and who have come before? What are these ancient approaches and who has been practicing them all along? One such ancestor is Septima Clarke.

When I first learned about Septima Clarke and the Citizenship Education Program, it felt so clear to me, this is systems change. Clarke and her collaborators, through the Citizenship Education Program, taught literacy, developed local leaders, and registered hundreds of thousands of African American voters in the segregated Jim Crow South in the 1950s and 1960s. I’ve been noodling on the connection between the success of the Citizenship Education Program and Donella Meadows’ thinking on leverage points, or places in systems where we intervene in order to shift patterns. In the course of my research I came across a thread of systems change connection that I was not expecting, and a quote from Septima Clarke that had me cheering at my desk. In 1964 she wrote:

We must learn to become action-research minded. We must take a look at where we are and where we want to be…you will find yourself doing a type of research that was never given in any college but will prepare you to live in your complex Georgia community…On Johns Island in a Voter Education Internship Workshop we established a few bench marks after discussing the Albany, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina and Greenwood, Mississippi movements. It became the consensus of opinion that:

Appropriate people must be involved in determining the goals; we must marshall all resources; ask ourselves: how well have we done? What level of success have we attained? what contributed to our success? why did we fail in some instances? how can we improve? To these questions came the following suggestions:

- We must be willing to share our knowledge with others and provide settings for these ideas to be tested and improved.

- Struggle more to find better answers to problems that plague us as educators and citizens.

- Be favorable to change — create and maintain within ourselves attitudes of flexibility.

- Teach adults to learn how to learn more effectively.

Septima Clarke was clearly a systems changer on multiple levels, leading a pattern-shifting systems change intervention that went viral, spreading the gospel of action research, and surely plenty of other ways that I am not seeing or perceiving. I hope that we in the systems change field will embrace deep equity practices that help us to see more clearly our own blindspots and the particular lenses through which we understand the world, so that we might honor and offer proper respect to the diverse and myriad systems change ancestors who came before us.

I am a consultant & facilitator in the Deep South dedicated to collective liberation, rooted in systems thinking and deep equity.

I am a consultant & facilitator in the Deep South dedicated to collective liberation, rooted in systems thinking and deep equity.