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Building Systems Change Capability with Alaska Salmon Fellows

Updated: May 21, 2020

I had the pleasure of writing a Developmental Evaluation for The Salmon Fellows, a program designed and delivered by the Alaska Humanities Forum, funded by a three-year grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The program brought two cohorts through an 18-month program focused on personal growth, relationship building across networks, and systems change. It was an innovative approach to solving the fact that “Salmon have a people problem.” If leaders from different backgrounds, working in various sectors across Alaska could come together and develop deep, trusting relationships in light of their different philosophies, they just might be able to collectively drive and influence sustainable and equitable efforts for Alaska Salmon and the communities that surround them.

Through multiple interviews and supporting data points intentionally gathered over the three years, I was able to start synthesizing a story and a point of view around the realities of advancing systems change. Overall, I learned that yes, systems change is really hard to enact given current institutional, political, and economic barriers. The complexity is astounding. Our education system provides career pathways to powerful commercial industries. Industry provides funding for science research. State and federal government agencies are enmeshed with lucrative industry and Western models of management. These intricacies influence human behavior and decision making within current institutions.

Furthermore, humans are more complex than the institutions they belong to, yet they still seem to be perceived to hold the same standardized beliefs of that institution. This limits openness and prohibits trust which is needed for the collaboration required to take action on any type of progressive systems change. Systems are living organisms that are constantly changing, and these dynamics shift weekly based on a multitude of political, financial, legal and human factors. It is already overwhelming to navigate these waters, let alone take a stand to change a system that is deeply engrained in our culture.

So how do we move forward given these barriers? I learned something incredibly powerful through this experience, and it was a huge high point for the effectiveness of the Alaska Salmon Fellows Program. The majority of Fellows demonstrated a few things in common. They were able to hold the polarities of different belief structures and not let that alter the quality of their relationships. They contemplated complexity, inquired into the depth of diversity, and questioned everything. They took that inclusive and open-minded behavior back into their professional roles. They respected the role of salmon in indigenous culture and appreciated the knowledge gained from different backgrounds. Overall, their paradigm of thought changed to become more conscious, open and inquisitive.

Systems Thinking is modeled like an iceberg, with deep paradigms of thought or mental models at the bottom. These worldviews influence systems and structures and patterns of behavior which in turn shape the visible events on the surface (Senge 2010). In order to be able to see systems change on the surface we must first go deep, and that is what the Salmon Fellows program was designed to do. The sessions were constructed to build trust and relationships, which allowed Fellows to experience learning about themselves as attuned agents of change. By expanding our thought paradigms to hold complexity with trust, openness and acceptance, we can influence decisions, structures, and over time, ultimately see a shift in our environment.

I wonder about the ripple effects of this work as the Salmon Fellows are influential leaders in their communities and organizations, working across sectors and cultures to navigate tensions related to policy, funding, education, resource development, indigenous rights and the economy. Through this experience, they are well equipped to hold the systemic needs of restoration, balance and growth.

Given the complexity we face entering an unprecedented era, I see the potential for the next evolution of conversations that incorporate sustainability and equity concerns into business and policy decisions. Are we ready to do the tough personal development work that will set the stage for difficult conversations within our organizations? Are we prepared to convene across sectors to begin thinking through solutions for a regenerative world? Although the Salmon Fellows program has officially ended, our collective journey to enacting systems change has only begun. Are you coming with me?

For more information on the Salmon Fellows, Click here.

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