Berkana Blog

Whole Person, Whole System

by Warren Nilsson on November 23, 2011

Originally posted on Organization Unbound.

Many people involved in social purpose work champion the idea that organizations need to become places where we can relate to each other not just as roles but as whole human beings. We believe that when we are free to express dimensions of ourselves that don’t fit neatly into job descriptions, our work becomes more engaging and our relationships more authentic.

I think this is true. But what is less well understood is that treating each other as the patchwork, unruly human beings we are, rather than the zippered office functionaries we pretend to be, is also the only way we can really come to understand, let alone affect, the larger institutional patterns we are trying to change.Why? Suppose we are interested in food security. We decide to create an innovative project that will help transform the causes and effects of institutionalized food systems. Our project will include a food bank, a buying cooperative, training in sustainable urban gardening and food preservation, health workshops, policy review and advocacy work, etc.

So far so good. But if we really think about the institutional patterns that are bound up in all of the issues related to food security, we are just getting started.  A complex theme like food security is woven from an almost endless series of institutional threads: economic paradigms, cultural beliefs, law, class, health, race, gender, education, religion, crime, addiction, socio-environmental interactions…

And this complexity would be true of any social issue we decide to address. Institutions are sedimented. They are layered one atop the other with such density and pressure it is almost impossible to analytically unpack them. Systems theorists are right when they say we can only understand complex systems by looking at the whole. But how do we do this?

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