Juanita Zerda - Systems Dialogues

by Saskia Rysenbry

September 28, 2023

Systems Dialogues, our conversations with systems practitioners

This conversation is part of our Stepping into Systems series, an introduction to fundamental systems change topics and concepts. Here we’re joined by Juanita Zerda, a director at the Collective Change Lab. In this dialogue, we explore the family as a metaphor for systems and systems change, plus a powerful example of how healing circles are creating ripples of change at two community organisations in the USA.

Let's begin


Juanita, thank you very much for this interview. My first questions are: what is a system from your perspective? What are some metaphors you regularly refer to in this work?


Thank you, Rodrigo. Happy to be here with you in community. In itself, the two of us are a little system, but "system" truly is an interconnected network. I think about it as the consequential relationship between elemental parts. However, those definitions tend to be static.

"When I think about a system, I always think about movement, so for me, that interconnectedness is something that is always in flow. It expands and contracts. When I think about systems, or define systems, I always want to try to have those two parts: interconnectedness and movement."

The metaphor that often works for me is the human body. We are our body, our human body is a system of interconnected parts. You can have your liver, your liver can be working very well, and your brain can be working very well, but if the pathways between the brain and the liver are not healthy, then it tends to collapse. 

It's important to see the parts, the different organs, but when you're thinking about health, even more important is the interconnectedness between the parts. You can continue expanding the metaphor and say, "That is a system, but truly, even for its own physical health, you need the interconnectedness between this body and the bodies next to me." Studies have been shown how love and community matter for even my physical body to work. You can even go one more circle and say between us is a system within another system: Earth and the energy around us. 


If you were going to bring an object or a prompt to the conversation that helped describe what a system is, what would it be? 


I'd bring a picture of my family. Even the way we are as a family is a little system. Each one of us lives on their own. As parents, we're growing these individual beings to be independent, yet we are fully aware that full independence is a construct and an impossibility, that we are forever connected. 

I am in a different continent, my mother's still in Colombia and I am as connected to her as when I was home. Our relationship has evolved, but our sense of being a system is intact. We are the system with my brother. With my father's death, the system changed, the elemental parts were reduced and yet the sense of connection and the ethos of the system is the same. 


You just gave an example of parts that, at some point, are no longer part of bigger systems. How do you understand how systems change?


I would say to you, when the parts change, the system changes. In the body, when the liver changes, the brain changes, the blood changes. Ultimately, when parts of the system change, the values of the system change. If the structure changes, the culture changes, the values change. 

That's why doing systems change is very important to do collectively, because we are all bringing our own experience around privileges, around biases. The more diverse we are the more different acupuncture points we are going to put into that body. Systems change happens when you think about both the structure or the cultural and almost the energetic part of it. 

Thank you. Do you have a definition you use for systems change, and what is it? 


As an organisation, we have been using a definition by Social Innovation Generation in Canada: "Systems change is about shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place." 

That always gets people like, "Oh, that clicks." Although I like that definition as an appetiser, I find it a little bit problematic that it tends to think about systems change in terms of deficit.

"We're always talking about systems change to solve problems when there is so much potential for systems change to highlight strengths. When you highlight strengths, you solve problems. What are the conditions and energy that bring societies to their full potential, individuals to their full potential?"

That would be a way to twist that very helpful definition. 


Potential, potential. Nice, love it. Thank you. What is your lineage or lineages into this practice? What do you see as divergent and different histories and lineages of systemic practices?


It's a good question. I think as Juanita talking to you today, I've been on my own journey of understanding my lineage or rescuing my lineage because, as an immigrant, when I arrived in this country, I had to start from scratch. I wanted to do well. A lot of what I did was adapt and learn what are the paradigms that I need to function under. 

I would say that, for me first, if I think about my professional life and systems change, I've worked in a couple of different spaces. One of them is government. This is a conversation that we have very often. You think about your own housing system in relation to a workforce development system and how separated they are. 

At some point in my life, with the racial equity movement in the United States, with my Black and community activist friends, I started to step back and say, "Whoa, I am thinking about systems in such a limited way." I started to question my own identity. I went back to thinking, "Okay, what do I think about systems? What is a system?" 

I went back to my Latina heritage. For us, for me, the system is the community. The system is my family, the system is the community within which my family exists, and the way we relate to each other. That is it. The personal aspect of the system, the fact that we're humans who create those systems came really to the forefront, so my lineage went back. Instead of going forward, back, and started rescuing those parts of who I am. Those parts of who I am that I actually sometimes hate, because too emotional, too vulnerable. 

It's exactly what is missing from the systems conversation. That's a little bit of my lineage and I now love both parts. I think that both are necessary. 


What is one of your best stories of systemic transformation?


There’s an organization called United Teen Empowerment Center (UTEC) in a city called Lowell, north of Boston. They started as an open house, in this very gang-led area. Street workers would try to recruit youth to come to this teen center, to literally get them out of the street. 

UTEC kept on growing, and started doing more programming. They said, "It's not enough to have them out of the streets. What about their high school equivalency?" You got the high school equivalency and it's like, "That's not enough, you need to think about workers.” That's not enough.

"Eventually, this organization, like many others, realized programming just puts a bandaid on these issues. The system is going to continue to perpetuate harm."

They started to connect more with local systems. With judges and with correctional officers. Some of the structural changes that have occurred are that, whenever there's a conflict, the police calls UTEC and says, "You guys need to arrive there. There has been a shooting. Come with us." There are now actually policies that mean the police need to go with this community partner. There have been changes, for instance, in sentencing guidelines for the youth. In how the youth come out of correctional facilities. All of those structural changes have happened because there has been a deeper connection and cultural change. Criminal reform has a lot of ways to go, but in local places, has changed significantly and incredibly. It's beautiful to be part of that change, it's truly beautiful. 


Can you say more about how they’re creating and seeking transformation?


UTEC has also begun to use healing circles with youth, judges, police and correction officers. In the case study that we have, there’s a moment in which a youth says, "My father was beating my mother, then I had to intervene, and handle it." One of the police officers responds, "I was your arresting officer. If I would've known this, I would've reacted like you." He shows empathy. That's the power that starts to change the system. If you want to change the system, bring the system in the room. But it's not enough just to bring it in the room, you have to get the system to relate in a completely transformative way. 

These circles are nothing new. We call that a technology that has existed over the ages. It's the way our ancestors relate, it's the way we relate together as a family. Healing circles in particular, there are different ways of doing this, there are different traditions. 

In the case, for example, of Roca [an internationally recognized community-based organization serving Massachusetts and Baltimore], the facilitators of this healing circle learn their practice from the Tagish Tlingit people in the Yukon territories. The indigenous communities in the United States, and also in other parts, do healing circles on a daily basis or on a regular basis. You do have to have a certain skill as the facilitator. If we believe, like I do, in spirituality or energy, the healing circle facilitator, how you arrive, how you show up is truly going to change the dynamic. 

One of the important things about these healing circles is that they establish horizontality from the get-go. Sitting in a circle, not having edges, being all at the same level already changes the way that you're starting to perceive each other. 

I remember when I started working, I'm a very short person, and I've always struggled in the US. To be physically seen was important, because that's the society that we live in. Our individualistic, capitalistic society is like, "Okay, that's what I need to learn in professional life." 

The circle is the opposite, none of that exists. We tend to be sitting on the floor, so connected to the Earth, being in a circle, there's no beginning, no end. There tends to be a sacred space in the middle, there are certain objects. 

"When we usually try to change systems by convincing each other. You present a thesis, you defend your thesis, and then the other tries to poke holes into your thesis. In the circle, no. In the circle, it's truly about getting to speaking your truth."

You have an object that is sacred, that you pass around, and whoever holds the object is speaking. There's a danger to it, which is there's no timing. You are speaking your truth at the moment, so there are no interruptions. Most importantly, I think, nobody's trying to convince anyone. When you're going into the circle, the purpose is not to convince anyone, it's just to show up. The beautiful thing that happens is that people do get convinced. Usually at the end, there's a vibe. There's almost a common narrative that gets constructed, because nobody's story is independent of the others. 

In a circle you start to tell stories, they start to weave, stories start to weave with each other. At the end, there is a common meaning that we found. Sometimes not at the first circle. This ends up being a practice, not an occasion, but something that you continue to do as the way that you make meaning. You make meaning versus sharing meaning, you make meaning together. For me, it's an example of something that is as incredibly simple and yet incredibly transformative. It matters how you do it, who does it, and yet, it also doesn't matter either. 


Sounds like a wonderful experience. The final question is... How is your practice systemic? 


For me, I would say that what is most important about my systemic practice is to break segregation. 

"We are not going to do systems change unless we come closer to each other and to others who are truly different from each other. In my systemic practice, I try to make sure that my daily experience has a mix of people at all the levels of my career. That I am as connected with that community activist or organizer as I am with this head of government in one country or one ministry."

I can't just be writing, I can't just be publishing, I need to be connected in a really tangible, physical way with what is in the field. My practice is systemic that way. It is core to who I am and what truly fills my cup. 

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