Systems Dialogues with Habiba Nabatu

This conversation is part of our Stepping into Systems series, an introduction to fundamental systems change topics and concepts. Here, Anna Birney is joined by Habiba Nabatu, Director of Practice at Lankelly Chase.

Getting started

Habiba Nabatu is Director of Practice at Lankelly Chase, a charitable foundation working to improve the quality of life of people who face severe and multiple disadvantage. She supports pioneering people and communities to nurture the ideas and relationships that can help improve the way we all approach social disadvantage.

In this conversation we explore how we can come closer in relationship to our beyond-human kin, and the limits of systems change from a Euro-American lineage.

Habiba Nabatu and Anna Birney

What is a system? What metaphors do you use to help describe systems?


Great. Let’s begin. From your perspective, what is a system? What are some metaphors you regularly refer to?


I guess family. Family is a good metaphor. The web of relationships and interdependence that are not just about membership of family – but also the wider tangible, and the many more intangible, ways we're related. 

I'm also African and in my culture we have totems associated with plants and animals. It’s through totems that we declare and affirm our sisterhood and brotherhood with animals and plants, with whom we could not be without. So I'd have to think about how that's related to the different realms of ancestors and spirits. Family is not this very neat thing. 

If you want to be very cognitive, where you draw the boundaries of all of that might be a system, but I think it's unbounded in so many ways, both in time and space. Our stars are ancestors, carbon is ancestors. But I'd probably start with family.


Oh wow. That gave me a tingle, Habiba! How it started so simple and then expanded. Like you say, there's a boundary and then there’s a porousness to the boundary. I love that. That's just beautiful. Thank you. We can stop there. No, I'm joking.

What object or prop would use to help describe a system?


Next one: if you were to bring an object or a prop to the conversation that helped describe what a system is, what might it be?


This is hard given what I have just said about family. I've got a picture of a bird right in front of me. We are all connected in so many ways - from this bird eating a worm etc. so it depends on the boundary you choose of where the bird starts and ends, knowing that it’s a false or at least a limiting boundary you have made a choice about.

How do you understand how systems change?


Lovely, thank you. And how do you understand systems change?


I mainly understand it through push-pull factors. Some changes are going to happen after volatile events, like war or uprisings. If I think about Britain, some of the biggest changes around social justice came after the First and Second World Wars. 

So these push-pull factors are really important. I think they’re always happening, at every single level, all the time. When they build momentum, we see the Me Too movement or the Black Lives Matter movement or Extinction Rebellion. 

This can also be termed as struggle. Struggle, resistance, fighting power, gaining power, using collective power. All of those things are push-pull factors, as well our own authority that change can happen and will happen. Does that make sense?

What are your lineages into systemic practice?


That's brilliant. I guess this follows on from that conversation: what is your lineage or lineages to this kind of practice?


Having just talked about the Euro-American order, I’d admit first that those of us who have been colonised - in the sense that we have been schooled, and schooling is one of the most effective tools of colonisation - see ourselves in that Euro-American order. 

In many spaces of learning we think that we are learning, in fact we are taking on European assumptions and presuppositions about the nature of reality. And those are very different from African assumptions and presuppositions about the nature of reality.

For African people, schooling has been brutal because it's part of telling us we are savages, we are backward. It makes us internalise some of this racist ideology about our own selves, it teaches us the whole point of progress is to be modern, like white people. The indoctrination is deep on every single level. So the practice of unlearning requires me to unschool myself in many of the Euro-American ways I have been taught to see the word. So I value both the field of systems thinking that is rooted in Euro-American thought and my own African belief systems. 

I guess Black people's struggle for freedom and against colonisation is of course fighting back in order to survive. But it’s also a rejection of how Europeans see the world. It’s saying hey, you can see your thing your way, great for you, but we also have a different way of seeing it. So I would say that I feel both existing within myself, those lineages.


And yeah, thank you for that. That's really wonderfully put, as always. And what do you see as the divergence in different histories or lineages of systemic practice?


So I guess for me, I would reject this question because I don't accept that there is a unifying thing called systems practice.

Systems practice has its own logic in European thinking, but from an African perspective it would be completely different, I wouldn't recognize it. So that's top level. I do think though that in a globalised world we might have to come together and continually ask ourselves what it means, especially when we are faced with crises that are global, interconnected and we all come from different cultural traditions.

For example in many African cultures, we don't accept that there is only this one realm. You might also find this in some European thinking, for example Jung or Freud express similar ideas. So I think there might be convergence and divergence but it’s so contextual and complex, so overall I have a problem with the question, because it makes an assumption.

If systemic practice is about addressing the root problems of systemic issues, which is what I think it is, then we can’t escape issues of power, domination over, access to resources, history, violence, politics etc. So the divergence of lineages is complicated by all of that. 


Yeah. I think that's one of our challenges: how to use the word systemic without being a colonising force and using that word to capture everyone. And I think that's one of our challenges here - working in a very European-Americanized professional schooling system, and trying to appreciate this broader understanding of the intrinsic connectedness to life and what it means to be living.

And like you say, there are multiple ways to do that. I love what you said about there is not one realm - I think that is the spiritual element of what I call systemic. Is there anything else you want to say there? If not, that’s cool.

What are your best examples of systemic transformation?


What are the best examples or stories of this sort of systemic transformation? Are there examples or stories you use for that transformational process?


So I think there has to be a bit of pushback on this question, because otherwise we just fall into the trap of thinking, "Oh yes, we can measure, we see this." I find this obsession with transformation, impact and evaluation plays into the ideas of separability that are at the core of Euro-American beliefs.

In grant making, there’s this play between foundations who have the money and people who want money to do the important work. Foundations say ‘hey show me the impact you are having.’ And the people who want money are forced to play along. But actually very little impact can be directly attributed to a single intervention, organisation or initiative.

We can't always see the push-pull factors. If we take the Black Lives Matter Movement following George Floyd’s murder. There had been murders like this for years, why that particular one? Maybe because of COVID, people were home and were paying a bit more attention. No one could have predicted that but the day to day work of grassroots organising and advocating, mostly by Black women women in poor communities is what enabled the light to spark. But a lot of those stories are not sexy or shiny bright new innovations. But that’s where I think the stories of the sparks for systemic transformation are. 

Another story or example around systemic transformation is around indigenous knowledge, which is beginning to enter into the Euro-American consciousness. Of course we have to take care not to co-opt it, but what is it asking those of us socialised in Euro-American culture? What questions is it raising about how we construct reality, how we relate to nature, how we consume and buy lots of stuff. Who is violated and exploited and whose land is stolen so we have food, gadgets, homes and clothes? What is progress when we have crossed six of the nine planetary boundaries? It's the daily work of those indigenous folk over the last hundred or even 300 years that gets us into a moment where we can have these conversations in mainstream spaces.

I think it’s important for systems thinking and systems change to come from a Euro-American tradition. It counters scientific reductionism. It can surface the limitations of the mind or cognitive abilities. It can acknowledge exiled lineages, for example paganism in the UK.

If Euro-Americans can reconnect to this forgotten and marginalised side of themselves, which by the way was marginalised through violence for example burning women labelled as witches and religious reformations, they might rediscover their connections to other people in other parts of the world. They might not see themselves as civilised and others backward because they are so detached from rituals, the land, seasons and all of that.


Which is the opposite. We are poorer. I think that's the point, we are poorer from not being attached to that stuff and ourselves, definitely. Yeah. I’ve been going on a bit of a journey with paganism and my ancestral Celtic spirituality, because that was completely killed through Christianity. I'm doing little local rituals to try to tune into that because I think that's also part of our cultural indigeneity that got colonised and killed.

How are you creating or seeking transformation?


Where and how are you creating or seeking that change or transformation?


So at Lankelly Chase, we have moved away from the language of systems change. I think partly because - like I said - ‘systems change’ and ‘transformation’ have a particular lineage which so many people in the organisation didn’t resonate with. There is more focus on grassroots organising and social movements and supporting work led by people facing the issues directly. But this is also where the sparks for creating change are. 

What I do think is, because of the times we're in, the interconnected crises we face - the problem is not about lack of knowledge, so let’s know more about systems change or systemic practice. For those of us who live here, our existence, the clothes we wear, is based on exploitation of other people and their land. Most of us know this. Our crisis is not about knowledge, our crisis is fundamentally to do with... being, so how do we have the courage and stamina to face that?

How do we create space everywhere to be in deeper relationality with each other, with others and our beyond-human kin? How do we face the fact that our comforts, securities and enjoyments are subsidised by expropriation and exploitation of other people and their lands? And that our attachment to these comforts means we have crossed six of the nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to thrive for generations to come. How do we face this as we head towards a world of two degrees rise in global temperature. How can people access resources and be in control of these resources, so they can face this? How can we be in a relationship with people in the global south who pay the price for our comforts and enjoyments? What does democratic governance of resources look like? Those are the kind of things my colleagues are working through with other people.


I mean if that was the biggest shift we could make in the world by supporting and holding space for that ‘being’, that's the transformation. I was reflecting on that the other day, my whole role, I feel, has always been about just giving permission and creating space for people to do that.

 Our crisis is not about knowledge, our crisis is fundamentally to do with... being

How is your practice systemic?


My final question, I know you’re rejecting of the word systemic, but if we own a different definition of that, how is your practice systemic?


I am rejecting the universal application, not the word. For me, I think the first thing I'll say is, it has to be communal. Let's do this together. And also knowing that community has been kind of co-opted, like everything gets co-opted, But it really is that showing up. Showing up with a depth of being together and being prepared for working through the bad and the ugly and still turning up, I think.

Through that, then practice emerges. The second thing for me is re-remembering to be in relationship with my beyond-human kin and really trying to be intentional about that.

Everything in my house, everything comes from the Earth. What does that really mean? Western culture tells us, ‘consume and discard’, it's all limitless. What does it mean to live with limits? Not because of the climate crisis but because of my relationship to my beyond-human kin.

Then I have been trying to think about what that might mean in an organisational context. How can we bring in things like intuition, gut feelings and other modalities of being in the world, into our organisations? Most of us have been taught to detach from our feelings. When I say feelings I include our own attachments and addictions to the status quo, even as we say otherwise. Nonetheless there are billion dollar industries in the form of marketing, PR and advertising that are obsessed with our feelings, how our brain chemicals work so they can sell us shit we don’t need. 


It's so fascinating. Thank you. I love that, the ultimate machines of the consumer state know that feelings are really important and yet we forget to put it through the whole. If we actually felt for what we were selling, it would be a totally different thing. So that's the end of the questions, is there anything else you’d like to share?


I'm interested in how to expose some of the assumptions in your questions…


Yeah. It's a good point. It's exactly what I was reflecting on as you were speaking. I wrote an article on something called Marshlands, rather than Bridging. How do we recognize that we are predominantly speaking to people who are being professionalised via a schooling system like ours, who we’re helping to open up their view, without also colonising. We're going to also write some articles around it in terms of some of these dilemmas of what it really means to do this work.

I think you've done that beautifully today, you can ask the question, reject the question and still answer the question. Do you know what I mean? It's all those layers. So I think it's a great challenge for us to go, just because it's difficult, doesn't mean we shouldn't try to do it.


Yeah, absolutely. And as I said, I believe this work, in this lineage, has to be questioning. Thank you.

Enjoyed this Systems Dialogue? Meet the rest of our contributors or dig deeper with our Stepping into Systems film series.

aerial view river class school system change teacher

Learn to diagnose complex systems with Basecamp

Learn to embrace the toughest challenges of our times: build the foundations of your systems practice with Basecamp.

Learn more