Transitions and Systems Change: An interview with Vanessa Reid

For our second Systems Sisterhood call we invited the wonderful being that is Vanessa Reid to join us for a session on ‘Transitions’. Vanessa is Co-founder of the Living Wholeness Institute.

We convened The Sisterhood, because we observed that so many of the women systems leaders we knew, were actually living through disruptive and life changing transitions. We also knew, from our own experience with transition, that this process was rich in learning as well as important information for system change leaders. Like really important. So, we launched the sisterhood to host a collective inquiry. The Sisterhood is a cohort of women systems leaders who are leading through transitions.

Vanessa- why are you interested in transitions?

I work in transitions because they happen to me all the time. I struggle with them, and I love them and they change me. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, I just happen to be in transitions often so I’ve been learning a lot. I’m in another one right now!

I often find myself working with organizations when they are asking a question that doesn’t have a clear answer. And I find myself living in places of conflict and collapse where the new ways forward are yet to be discovered — like Israel and Greece. People and places in transition. Transitions are rarely something I plan, but they usually come and find me. And so I am building more and more awareness about how to follow what a transition is trying to show me.

What is a transition?

The first thing to say is there is a difference between a change and a transition.

A change is a fact. A new job. We broke up. A transition is a feeling. It’s a process. There are all sorts of feelings connected to moving into the positional power of that new job. There is a process around “Who am I when I’m not in that life partnership anymore?” Suddenly a shift in identity begins to happen. Transitions are psychological and spiritual processes of becoming and unbecoming. They can be very difficult because they involve a loss of a known identity or a status.

There are all sorts of juicy things that happen in a transition. Some of it we like, and some can be uncomfortable. We can experience unease or confusion because we don’t really know what’s going to come out of it. This is very vulnerable. We might be letting go old relationships that no longer work, or ways of being that people expected of us. It can be really hard to talk about. It’s a complex thing to be a human. There can be excitement about a new chapter in our life. And there can also be a sense of loss, or grief, for parts of ourselves that are not needed anymore.

We all go through many transitions in life. Our emotions and bodies change, our context changes, we move house and each change brings a loss and a new possibility. At each juncture we have to look at the stories that no longer serve us. In that is the letting go of an identity that may have previously given us strength or status. Who will I become as a result of this transition?

How can we begin to notice the cues or clues that something is wanting to happen?

Some transitions hit us in the face, and others can creep up on us. Some we can plan in advance, but often a transition has some mystery involved in it. To spot them, we need to pay attention to secondary information. Or what I call the cues and clues.

In Process Oriented Psychology we learn about our primary and secondary identity. Our primary identity is the one I relate to most. I might say “I love my job, I’m a success.” But there’s a secondary part that says “I’m exhausted, I need a break”. We usually try hard to keep our primary identity solid. We think “I like being successful like this”, but we’re getting messages about slowing down. We have dreams at night in slow motion or being stuck in mud. We keep overhearing the same conversation on the bus. We notice the same song going through our head. You find you’re attracted to something really slow. These are cues and clues. Something else is trying to be known to us, and it’s showing up in all different ways. But it challenges our primary identity.

Sometimes a transition will begin without us really knowing it — or wanting it. If we don’t pay attention to cues and clues we might keep going even when we have pain in our body. You think “I’ll just keep going.” That pain is information! Somehow your body is speaking to you. It’s a secondary conversation that our primary identity isn’t aware of yet. Body symptoms can be an expression of an inner conflict. Your external identity (being successful) and an inner need (I need rest) are not in alignment.

When a body symptom comes to you, it is an invitation to inquire. If our primary attitude is go go, go, then our secondary might be slow, or super dreamy. We might have judgement about being “slow” and so we fight it. We don’t want to slow down and yet that is what is happening. Follow the cues and clues.

Burnout is a really good example of this. It knocks you out so you have to rest. In that resting is a different state of being that we can’t really get to when we’re on the go. Our bodies are amazing. They will keep trying to pick up the deeper conversation that our conscious mind isn’t yet having: Maybe if you rest, different ideas will come to you. Maybe in resting, another part of you gets to participate more in your life. Or maybe, you will receive instead of give. People you love can take care of you.

In Process Work, we learn that it is the disturbance in the secondary information that is key, as opposed to the primary of what we already know. It’s about valuing the marginal part of our experience because it is trying to show us more of who we are and can be.

You talk about myths related to transitions, can you say more about that?

Transitions can invite us into a deeper conversation with life. In every culture there are stories and myths about transitions. Stories help us in times of transition because they show that we are not alone and that similar paths have been walked before.

It can feel very shameful or vulnerable to go through transitions when we are invested in staying a certain way. But it’s very normal to go through weird times and not know exactly what is happening. In all the myths, the hero or heroine steps out of their ordinary world into another one, one that is strange and unusual. And always, there is the journey into the underworld, into something really unknown and dark. There is value in not trying to control transitions, but to honour them as deeply mythic and mysterious.

Women’s myths tend to take the heroine into a non-linear path, moving her from one life to another. The Greek maiden Persephone has to taste the underworld in order to mature into her womanhood. Innana, the Sumerian Queen of the World goes into the underworld. At each step of the way, she has to take off a symbol that represents her royal power. She becomes naked one layer at a time. Only then does she get insight that changes her. Only then can she return to the upper world, changed and deepened.

These stories remind us that it feels dark and murky in the middle of transitions. But no matter how weird, there is always new information to be gleaned from the dark, from our deeper selves. The dark is related to both death and birth. We don’t talk about this dark passage much in our daily lives. But it’s so normal and necessary. It gives us the information for the new stage of life.

The archetype of the Hero’s journey is helpful. There are three stages — the call, crisis and cure. There’s a departure where we leave the current life, we then move into trials and victories and finally there is a return.

And to pass each stage, we pass a threshold. We all have threshold moments. In threshing wheat we are taking off the the skin to find the essence. It’s the same with a transition, we shed a skin to get closer to ourselves.

How are transitions related to systems change work?

Transitions are a huge part of systems change work. Transitions are not often funded, not that sexy, but they happen all the time. In fact, I think this is where the biggest change happens — in those times where we are uncertain what’s happening. It’s in transitions where the most significant learning takes place, learning that can shift us.

When I worked with Rachel on The Finance Innovation Lab after the financial crisis in the UK, we asked “How do we build new systems for finance that sustain people and planet?” But the biggest work we did was with Rachel and her team. The work we were setting out to do was to create new systems of finance — so how do we do that? We first asked “Who are we? And “Can we hold the potential of what is wanting to come through this work?”

The answer was that we as a team needed to go through the fire ourselves before being able to hold others as they go through personal or societal change. Changing the system “out there” means we need to be the change ourselves. So the stronger the team got from navigating their own transitions, the better they were able to hold the system as it went through its own transitions.

The big work is us. The system is us. The more aware we are of ourselves as an actor in systems, the better we are as systems leaders. We can hold others as they go through big changes, if we are aware of what is going on in us. This ability of leaders to learn and be changed by what they are doing is one of the core elements or skills of systems change.

Transitions are a reminder that change is constant. Systems grow and emerge, and they also die. It’s natural. But mainstream thinking is very focused on growth. Bigger is better. In #MeToo we see the dying of old roles and patriarchal assumptions, so hopefully there will a death of those assumptions and values. That will mean real systems change is happening.

What are some other skills for transitioning?

Not-knowing is a really important skill for systems change. In North America in particular, the mainstream way of doing things is rational, capitalist, colonial, patriarchy. We’ve got the analysis, the experts, the theory of change, but I don’t believe systems will change unless we tap into what we don’t know. Usually what we don’t know comes from a more secondary part of ourselves or society. Outside our comfort zones. From the margins. From what we have marginalized inside our own selves and in the world.

Bell Hooks’ great book “From Margin to Centre” talks about how those who live at the edges of the mainstream always know both margin and centre. If you’re central, there is less urgency for change, and less need to know the margins. If we work or live on the edge, what we bring in isn’t always understood by the centre, but we bring different kinds of intelligences that are necessary for change and transitions to happen.

Often, we find that our lived experience, our family systems, our difficult moments give us the tools or experiences to navigate systems change. We need to value these multiple kinds of intelligences, and especially what we have marginalized, and bring this into our systems change work.

Just as we all have individual primary identities, we also have collective primary identities and collective secondary identities. In systems change work it’s interesting to look at how our collective identities are connected to a collective journey.

I’ve talked a lot about noticing, and awareness and I think these skills are really important for transitioning and systems change — as well as a certain quality of listening. There is deep wisdom in us and between us already. Like right now, the way you are listening to me, is bringing out more of me. I’m sure you’ve been in situations where the way someone listened, you heard yourself say things you didn’t know you knew.

What kind of transitions are happening in the field of systems change?

Our systems were built in certain times with certain sets of values and assumptions. All things change because we are living beings. Our systems are also living things, and so they are in constant change, too.

One change is a generational one. White middle class, English speaking people founded the first wave of social innovation language,academia and funding. Now there’s a new generation and wave of people whose wisdom comes from what’s been marginalized and their voices and actions are shifting the awareness of what systems can become.

As women if we look at the #metoo movement, we see women saying ‘this can’t be underground anymore.’ Those people who are not thinking about it as an issue, mainly white men suddenly get very uncomfortable. We need women elders right now.

Why are places like The Systems Sanctuary important at times of transition?

When I stepped down as Executive Director of an organization in Montreal, people said ‘Aren’t you now going to lead a bigger organization?’ It was the opposite, instead I went through a deep inner journey. I stepped out into more of a pilgrimage than a career stage. I didn’t know where I would end up, but I was following the feeling that I needed to grow in some new ways.

At the time, I didn’t have mentors who understood that I wasn’t going after a bigger job or even a linear career. I had mentors who supported my successful identity as an Exec Director, but I was missing women who understood an unravelling of my public persona and who were willing to sit with the very private inner parts of me as I changed. So I was very, very alone.

When I see people stepping out of that role and want to grow into a new role, into a new identity, still unknown I think “How can we create a boat, to see more clearly the secondary thing that’s coming.” How can we help each other transition. Doing it alone is very difficult.

Sanctuaries like this give us more courage. They create shelter or a container for seeing ourselves by being seen by others. Being in something like the Systems Sanctuary helps us to continue these important journeys.

To learn more about our work visit The Systems Sanctuary

Special thanks to Vanessa for joining us at the Sisterhood and for sharing her work with us!

Vanessa Reid is a co-founder of The Living Wholeness Institute which works with citizens, teams, organizations and social movements around the globe on initiatives that are transforming broken systems and creating new, deeply just and sustainable social realities. Vanessa is practice innovator, process designer, and inner and outer systems leader who weaves the layers of living and dying in our current and emerging systems. She works with individuals and collectives who are on the edge of a new scale or scope, who are in transition and transformation and creates collective learning spaces that amplify our collective wisdom. She works with the not-knowing, with the mythic life, and the many marginalized forms of intelligence in ourselves and our systems.

Vanessa is a former executive director of Montreal’s unique Santropol Roulant which re-framed social services as a catalyst for social change and intergenerational community. She co-created the participatory practice grounds for social innovation labs including the Finance Innovation Lab and Tasting the Future-UK. She is a co-initiator of The Art of Hosting –Athens, and a global steward of the Art of Hosting and Harvesting Meaningful Conversations/Participatory Leadership, a self-organizing global community of practice. She has a Masters in Architecture and a Masters in Process-Oriented Psychology and Conflict Studies. Vanessa is currently writing her book, The Wild Life of Dying.