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Community-powered change

June 11, 2024

There is often a tension in response to the climate and ecological crises, pitting individual action against systems change. Understandable questions about responsibility, fairness and the sheer magnitude of change required creates inertia and barriers to progress.

The transformation we need is indeed immense, with rapid and radical reform in almost every system we can think of – energy, food, travel, finance, education; in our homes, schools and places of work. In the words of UN secretary general, António Guterres, we need to change ‘everything, everywhere, all at once’.

It would be remiss to write about systemic change without highlighting systemic inequality. Individual choice and influence are far from equitably distributed, with vast variations according to job, age, gender, generation, location, education, ethnicity and wealth. I and many others have written at length about how those with the greatest income, wealth and societal power contribute disproportionally to carbon emissions and pollution in general, while those with the least face the first and worst harms of climate breakdown. Many people may understandably feel powerless or resentful, trapped inside an unhealthy, unjust and inaccessible system that frustrates their efforts.

Yet to diminish the power of individuals is both harmful and misleading. To do so disempowers, undermines and further entrenches a dangerous status quo. It also fails to grasp the key lesson from history that, as Margaret Mead reminds us:

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’ – Margaret Mead*

(*As an aside, this quote appeared in my history notebook at secondary school and I never forgot it. Thank you Mr Donnelly.)

The missing and pivotal piece in this seemingly intractable problem is community. This article, and the model within, is inspired by this simple but powerful idea. An idea that could make a world of difference, because, in the words of another wise Margaret:

 ‘Whatever the problem, community is the answer.’ – Margaret Wheatley

Across contexts, our communities define us. Our families, friends, schools, workplaces, teams, faith groups, neighbours, knitting circles and sports clubs shape our daily lives. They inform our perceptions and principles, our stories and dreams of success.  As powerful shapers and enforcers of norms, we adapt to fit in and seek approval. Whether online or in the real world, the beliefs and behaviours of our communities influence our own. It is within communities that cultures are born, perpetuated and evolve. We place trust in community and, at best, we find belonging, meaning and joy. It is within communities that we can create the collective courage and strength to counter even the most asymmetric and entrenched power dynamics.

So how can we harness the power of communities – at home and at work – to reshape systems for the better? How do we break out of the echo-chambers that may be getting in our way? How can we create resilience, joy and innovation in the process?

Introducing the SCI (System Community Individual) change model

The SCI change model is based on two simple observations. First, that between an individual and a system lies community, and, second, that if individuals and communities do not act to reshape systems for the better, then nothing will.

Figure 1: Individuals in Systems, mediated by Community

It offers a playbook for how and where to start driving systemic change in a way that is effective, creative and energising. It codifies the strategies found in real stories of complex change, past and present into five key focus areas: Learn, Create, Support, Resist and Share. By cultivating community as the key engine for change, we can create multiple, diverse incubators to develop and embed something different and better.

Figure 2: The SCI Change Model: © 2024 Pamela McGill, RE ( ) LEADERSHIP Ltd

Individuals within Systems

We all live within systems. We are born or hired into them. They are historied, evolving over time without our awareness or consent. We have systems within systems: a school within an education system, a hospital within a health service, a business within a market, a tree within a forest. Our systems are messy, imperfect and complex. They are entrenched, hard to shift, made up by multiple people, entities, forces and incentives. Even if we notionally ‘lead’ them, we probably didn’t design them or make the rules. Our systems inevitably lag behind our latest and best understanding and beliefs. We are ‘trapped’ in systems, but we also sustain them through our actions (or inaction).

Our ultimate goal should be to reshape systems so that the default choices are healthy, sustainable and fair by design. We are far from that vision today and such a goal will inevitably take time to be realised. So in the short term, there is a disconnect between what we know and how our systems function around us. During this time of  ‘systemic lag’, even the most fortunate, conscientious and well-intended among us face barriers and limitations in a world where fossil fuels, waste and the exploitation of nature is ubiquitous.  Even if we know what we want to do and change, the choices may not be immediately available and require us to battle against prevailing norms, creating daily conflicts that can tie us in knots.

‘A bad system will beat a good person every time’ – W.E. Deming

Communities as Amplifier and Insulator

While we work to transform systems, our communities offer a bridge: a supportive microcosm where we can create something different, new norms and a supportive culture that re-enforces the positive choices we want to make. They can also act as an insulator protecting us from harm and an amplifier, strengthening and accelerating the impact of our individual actions, unleashing a powerful collective force on the bigger system.

‘What we dream of is already present in the world. The real goal is to amplify the power and reach of existing alternatives’ – Rebecca Solnit

The SCI change model is offered as a free resource to individuals and groups motivated to drive systemic change.  It is relevant to all spheres where change is needed, not just the climate movement. For example, I recently applied it in a workshop on resilience with a cohort of doctors in the UK working within, what can be politely described as, a very challenging system.

How to apply the model:

The following could be applied as an individual or team reflection exercise, with a coach or within a workshop setting. It is intended to act as a catalyst to empower real-world action and is something to revisit periodically over time.

Step 1: Reflect on your communities:

The first step is to consider your own communities. This is an invitation to deepen, broaden and strengthen your relationships within and across communities, existing and new, at work and at home, virtual and local.

The goal is to curate and strengthen communities that enable positive change, where you feel safe and supported, with enough diversity and outside-in perspectives to challenge your assumptions and that help to grow a bigger, connected movement.

Why does this matter?

In his illuminating book, Change, Damon Centola describes the importance of strong relationships when it comes to driving complex, behavioural change and social tipping points – citing fascinating examples from the Black Lives Matter movement, to the Arab Spring to the proliferation of X (formerly, Twitter). Because, put simply, we put our faith in the people we know and trust and we look to them to confirm what is socially acceptable and desirable. If we want to shift behaviours or established cultural norms, we can only do that in the context of strong relationships in communities. Communities create the conditions to cultivate, re-enforce and embed new mindsets and behaviours, especially those that challenge received wisdom. This will take time, dialogue and many of us raising our voices – many  times – but ultimately it can create a new paradigm.

At best, our communities protect us and enhance our lives. At worst though, communities can create division, distrust and polarisation.  Evolved in tribes, our brain chemistry  promotes ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ thinking, a facet that has been exacerbated by polarising social media algorithms to divide and create divergent perceptions of reality. The danger is we lose our shared understanding of the problems we face and the solutions we need. We categorise people into those we trust and care about, those ‘in our tribe’, and those we don’t. Research shows we feel less empathy for and a greater tendency to compete with people in outgroups. Communities provide the lens through which we interpret new information, which can perpetuate and amplify biases and misinterpretation.  But we can avoid this pitfall and reduce biases by intentionally building connections with people from different places, backgrounds and identities.

So, make a list of the communities you belong to in your personal and working life, then get curious. Ask yourself:

  • What do you notice?
  • How diverse are they? Who or what might you be missing?
  • How safe do you feel and how honest can you be?
  • How active and engaged are you within each community? Why?
  • Which ones matter most? Why?
  • What are the community beliefs, norms and stories, and how do you feel about them?
  • Where do you hold a position of power or privilege? How are you using it?
  • What is it that you are not saying or doing?
  • What are others in the group not saying or doing?
  • What would it look like for you to speak up? What would you say?
  • What actions would you like to take?

Step 2: Harnessing communities, amplifying impact:

There is no need and it will likely be counter-productive to try to tackle everything listed in the following section all at once. Rather, trust your instincts and interests and pick one area to make a start. Crucially so with others, not alone. Try to integrate these ideas into the existing relationships and rhythms of your life, for example, at work, with friends or in the community where you live. The goal is to prioritise and harness your time, not to add more to your plate. Choose from one of the following five areas: Learn, Support, Share, Resist and Create:

1. Learn. A crucial step in solving any problem is to understand it. When it comes to solving the climate crisis, there is much to learn. The more you learn, the more effective you can be, yet you’ll never understand it all. See this as a collective effort, a dynamic and continuous process and a habit rather than a destination. Learn, re-learn, un-learn. Pay attention, adapt and be curious as the world around you changes constantly. In your daily interactions, ask questions and seek alternative perspectives. When people disagree with you, say ‘great’, and see it as an opportunity to learn. Why do they think what they think? How did they get there? Remember Ken Blanchard’s wisdom that ‘none of us is as smart as all of us’. Ask around for recommendations on books, articles or podcasts. Could you integrate these resources into existing learning time at work or into an existing group? As you build your knowledge, talk together about your reflections and questions. There are great, accessible resources out there, many of which are designed for self-guided or study-group learning. Some of my favourite examples of community learning in action are:

  • Active Hope book groups, supported by free online resources, a guide for building shared capacity, resilience and creativity.
  • Think Resilience, a free online course, offered by the Post Carbon Institute, joining the dots between the political, economic and environmental crises and guiding effective action in local communities.
  • The Money Movers movement, where women get together in small groups to take climate action with their finances, from pensions to bank accounts.

2. Support. The more you learn, the scarier it can be and it is common to feel overwhelm and anxiety. You’ll be grateful for fellow travellers along the way. Remember that so-called ‘eco-anxiety’ is a rational and natural response to a painful reality in the face of denial and inadequate responses from those in power. Seek nourishment, joy and love from the people around you. Connect, build relationships and support one another. Connect with people you already know and forge new connections too. Spend time with people who energise you and who re-enforce the choices you want to make. Recognise that change can be a long process, especially when pushing against the tides of prevailing social norms. Rest, recharge, laugh and connect with that which you love, and from which you derive your strength, purpose and reason to fight. The online community, Take the Jump, offers science-aligned ideas, inspiration and social support, for actions each of us can take in our own lives.

3. Share. Share things, ideas and actions. We know we need to rapidly and drastically reduce our materials and energy footprint. One of the easiest and most effective ways to do so is to share – whether car-sharing, using a library of things, or simply borrowing rather than buying your next purchase. Cultivate reciprocity; give and receive. Also, share your struggles, ideas and actions. As social beings, we take our cues from each other. The simple act of communicating creates a change in others. Many of us grew up to perceive wealth as aspirational, to admire billionaires for their talents and success. But what if gratuitous wealth and the resulting over-consumption, rather than being admired, was shunned? What if, through our conversations, we re-shaped the socially desirable to be that which is healthy and fair? Speaking up against received wisdom takes courage. Speaking up within your own tribe takes a special kind of courage and skill. This kind of leadership can come from anyone at any time. That said, if you are in a formal leadership role, for example, a political or business leader, the greater your power to shape the conversation. Research has shown that people in formal leadership positions have an out-sized influence on the proliferation of moodideas and even bias. So if you are in a leadership position it is important to remember that others will take cues from you, noticing what you give time to, how you behave and how you respond to others.

What a leader does not bring in the room is not allowed into the room.’ – Brené Brown

4. Resist. Drawing lessons from history, significant social progress has always been predicated by active resistance from citizens. There are countless examples from the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement and the women’s suffrage movement. Whether through direct peaceful protest, legal action or as consumers withdrawing consent, there are countless creative ways we can throw grit into the gears of prevailing harmful systems. When we act together, we yield power and we create social tipping points. Just imagine the impact of a joyful mass movement to boycott harmful polluting industries like aviation, ultra-processed food and drink, toxic self-care products or fast fashion. Some powerful examples from history and present-day:

5. Create. Communities provide an incubator for creativity. They offer space and support to ideate, experiment and create alternatives. Whether at home or at work, find out what is already happening and how you can lend your talent and passions. If you see that something is missing, could you work with others you set it up? Focus especially on your working life, check out the 80,000 hours movement and figure out how you use your time at work as an opportunity to make a difference. Can you join with others to reform your organisation to be more regenerative and fairer by design, perhaps using the Doughnut Economics Tools for businesses or the Flourishing Business community and tools? Or, if you’re not getting traction in your current workplace, will you join the growing ranks of ‘climate quitters’ who are switching careers to focus their time and talent where it is most needed? Whether growing a garden, setting up a repair business or building a community energy project; the possibilities are endless. You don’t need to do it all, but pick something and go for it! Some inspirational examples from the world of work and community:

In summary, the next time you think, ‘but what difference can I make as an individual?’, remember that you are not only an individual, that you are part of a much bigger whole. You are a community member, a friend, colleague, sister, brother, cousin, neighbour, and with that comes strength, agency and meaning. Remember that communities create powerful microcosms to reimagine and rebuild ways of living, working and being.

An interconnected web, an unstoppable force:

Stepping back, individual communities can work to create bridges that connect, support and re-enforce each other. Working separately and together, simultaneously and in succession, we form a powerful, scalable movement that can create unstoppable social tipping points.  We see this in the global transition town movement and the UK’s Sustain network of food co-ops and in the acts of unexpected solidarity across communities, like the  thousands of US military veterans who protested the North Dakota Access Pipeline alongside indigenous youth activists. Once you start to look, you see that examples of collective community powered change are all around.

Figure 3: Interconnected community web: © 2024 Pamela McGill of RE ( ) LEADERSHIP Ltd

            ‘The call for change will become louder as more voices join in.’ – Naomi Klein

So let us work with a mindset of togetherness, of communities working in concert, of shared humanity and collective leadership. By aligning within and across communities, we will amplify our impact and create an unstoppable force for good. While we transition, our communities will provide insulation from shocks and harms along the way.

So take action now to strengthen your communities.

Join in. Lead. Take action together

Inspiration and further reading:

Pamela McGill

Pamela McGill is a Glaswegian physicist turned psychologist turned leadership advisor and coach, mother, founder, life-long learner, global citizen and stubborn optimist. With twenty years of experience in leadership, change and learning, she brings good humour, adaptability and a spirit of possibility. She has had the privilege of coaching hundreds of leaders, individually and within teams, and of working with investors, businesses, non-profits and public sector institutions in the UK, Tanzania, India, Vietnam, Bosnia and the US. With an unusual, broad, global background, she has an eclectic network with precisely the talents and opportunity to effect real change. She founded RE ( ) Leadership, an independent, mission-led leadership advisory firm in 2023. When not writing and working with leaders, she is leading a renewably-powered community heat project for her rural village in England.