Introduction to the Equity Series

By Peter Senge


Peter Senge | Tiffany Gipson | Troy Selvey | Neeni Lomborg | Shirley Giroux | Sylvia Russell | Shannon Derinzy | Jovo Bikic | Jennifer Yales
Edited by Art Kleiner and Peter Senge
November 25, 2022

Over the first nine months of 2022, a group of about 20 Certified Compassionate Systems Master Practitioners embarked on an experiment in sharing in writing their work on equity. Eventually eight authors ended up writing pieces on a range of aspects of their work, with one more article still in process. Because of the timing (we started in January 2022), only master practitioners from our first two cohorts (Class of 2019-20 and Class of 2020-21), were involved in writing articles. Additionally, in November 2023 we offered two virtual discussion sessions on this topic to include any Compassionate Systems Master Practitioner from any cohort. Below is a summary of the articles that will be posted on the Center website over the next several months, along with reflections on the two November virtual discussions.

The Process
A series of conversations on equity was convened as part of the Compassionate Systems Master Practitioners Retreat in January 2022 practitioner retreat in January, 2022 (fifteen folks from cohort 1 and 2 participated – a few others joined later sessions).

Notes were written up and a second virtual meeting on the topic of equity was held in March 2022.
Eventually, about six pieces were identified to be developed further cycles of draft and revision continued until the end of the summer. We eventually added a piece written by Jennifer Yales (Class of 2020-21) in 2021 that dealt with the role of data, a focus on artifacts that affect equity not present in the other pieces. All are in final copy editing and formatting for release on the website in the coming months.

The Initial Completed Papers
Our view is that there are few, if any, education issues more central to our common futurethan equity. A society that ignores equity will create systems of education that perpetuate its deepest and most egregious divides — not only between classes, races, personal orientations, but between those who are prepared to address the complex societal issues we all face and those who are not. Yet the word has many meanings to different people. It also takes on political connotations that, especially in this day and age, can polarize and paralyze any real progress. Even as some feel called to address issues that have deep meaning to them and their communities, others can feel distanced, as if equity is someone else’s problem, not their problem.

This new series of articles seeks to describe “equity work” in ways that connect with our core aspiration as educators, to foster individual and collective well-being based on a system of education that “sees” every person – student and adult – as unique and capable of ongoing growth and development. From this perspective, equity should not be a controversial concept. But the ‘doing of the work’ goes well beyond espousing ideals and, as the papers show, demands capacities that few of us have developed adequately.


1. Equity as a Way of Life
The series starts with a general introduction to equity by five Compassionate Systems Master Practitioners (Tiffany Gipson, Shirley Giroux, Neeni Lomborg, Troy Selvey, and Neeni Lomborg) on how they have come to define and approach the field.  “Equity as a Way of Life” offers a collective reflection from five educators who have worked in the equity territory for many years, coming from very different professional paths. Many are former teachers who now coach in-school and out-of-school educators and communities to create caring education environments where all students feel seen and can thrive.

This ensemble piece highlights transcendent themes that connect “equity work” across very different cultural contexts: shifting from deficit to developmental models of education, creating a more generative social field in schools and communities, and identifying the core capacities needed for the work to thrive and be sustained.

2. Context and Cultural Relevance
The second article, by Tiffany Gipson, addresses the fact that all tools arise in a cultural and historical context. The biologist Humberto Maturana, an important teacher for many of us, used to say, “All things are said by somebody.” Tiffany might add, “And that somebody has a history.” This is an important reminder for those of us working with the Compassionate Systems tools. The core territory these tools help us understand – how we think, feel, and interact – is universal and has been explored by diverse cultures for thousands of years.

Tiffany points out that most of the versions of the Compassionate Systems tools and practices we use today come out of academic and consulting contexts that “have their own subtle oppressive biases built into them.” It is easy to use the tools without recognizing this. Tiffany shows how there can be rich alternative approaches if we let go of the one standard way of using the tools, and if we are open to learning from parallel heritages. She illustrates the sorts of adaptations possible for one core tool, David Kantor’s Four Player Model,” and closes with a variety of practical suggestions for more “context-sensitive” use of the tools.


3. On-Ramps to the Equity Highway
To elaborate on how to make equity work broadly meaningful and engaging, Troy Selvey talks about the multiple “on-ramps to the equity highway.” Troy highlights a facet of equity work that was crucial in his own journey but is often disregarded: the link to personal development. The equity highway has a “slow lane” which is the personal work and a “fast lane” where collective work unfolds. But you can only enter the fast lane via the slow lane, and entering the slow lane involves self-awareness and a willingness to confront personal issues.

Troy shares the personal work he has done to respond to challenges both from authority figures who questioned his legitimacy as a leader and from those “he was trying to help.”Drawing on lessons from his experience as a coach – from middle school through professional basketball and then with high school teams – he shows how the attention to self-care and care for others can become entwined and mutually supportive. In the end, being a genuine teacher meant giving up his implicit image of himself as a hero in favor of being a ’host’ who creates space for others to grow.


4. Learning to See People
In the Compassionate Systems approach, change involves both shifts in the artifacts of a system and the mental models that together shape how the system functions. For Sylvia Russell, recently retired superintendent of the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada and now mentor to other British Columbia superintendents, this meant innovation in data and programming guided by a transcendent idea: helping a district’s leaders at all levels learn how to “see people more clearly.”

Re-entering the school district as superintendent where she had once served as a viceprincipal and principal, Sylvia found “a certain malaise and cynicism amongst students and staff because some aspects of the school district that needed to change seemed stuck.” To “see” all students, and especially indigenous First Peoples students whose gifts and talents were consistently not recognized, they eventually came to focus on stories of students who had been disengaged by the system and a better database to illuminate what they were learning, buttressed by culturally meaningful programming.

During Covid-19, when there was great concern about protecting elders from the risks of having children educated outside the indigenous communities, they even established a new school site within one community reserve. Over a period of several years, graduation rates have gone up significantly for indigenous students and the district now has one of the highest graduation rates in the province.


5. Equity and Compassionate Systems During the Covid-19 Crisis
Another article from the same school district in British Columbia focuses on efforts to develop a caring environment that could be maintained through and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, especially for students in indigenous communities. Written by Sylvia Russell’s successor as superintendent, Shannon Derinzy, and assistant superintendent Jovo Bikic, the article has two parts.

The first half tells the story of how social-emotional learning and Compassionate Systems were brought together in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District to create a very different capacity to deal with the challenges of the pandemic, especially for indigenous students. “We did not know how effective the SEL programs were,” which had been a priority in the districts going back to 2016, until they saw how readily people cared to support one another in the pandemic. “For example, when the schools closed suddenly, we contacted families by phone, just to check-in and see how they were doing.” But this also raised awareness of inequity, as they suddenly had a window into students and families who needed to find food to replace the school lunches and other meals schools supplied. “We found that the more attention we paid to the social and emotional well-being during the crisis, the more likely people were to recover from it whole.” The second explores the longer-term consequences of understanding the role a school system can play in raising the wellbeing of students in a community.


6. Equity in International Education (article still in process)
Last, Jane Drake, David Butcher and Yenifer Nahar have been reflecting on the importance of equity in international education. While on the one hand, international education may not seem to be in the forefront of equity work as it is defined in countries like the U.S. or Canada, the challenges of at-risk learners and others disadvantaged by the prevailing education system are present everywhere because inequity is a global issue, driven by growing cultural diversity, widening gaps between rich and poor and the gradual weakening of the western hegemony that has dominated all societies for the past two centuries.

This raises a particular dilemma for international educators who, regardless of the country in which they operate, are mostly Westerners or highly Westernized natives by virtue of their education. How can those in positions of formal leadership authority, steeped in this historical system, be effective in leading change contrary to many aspects of that system? Drake, Butcher and Nahar argue that “de-colonizing” international education must start with addressing some of its most basic tenets: comparing students to standards rather than focusing on their intrinsic growth, relational skills and capacity to make a difference in their societies. Using the International Baccalaureate (IB) “learning profile” as an example, they show how the tools of Compassionate Systems offer a path to doing this.


November 2022 Conversations on Equity with All 4 Cohorts of Compassionate Systems Master Practitioners
The two meetings on November 14 and 15, 2022 felt like a wild mash-up of college reunion and academic seminar. Many were seeing dear friends they had not seen for many months and even years. Others were meeting Certified Master Practitioners from other cohorts for the first time. We were all wrestling with challenges that sit at the heart of our work as educators, are enormously complex, and can often seem overwhelmingly daunting. Yet, we were among friends who are accomplishing significant strides in facing those issues. There were repeated expressions of gratitude and appreciation, for one another’s work and the opportunity to be together in this work. For many of us, it was a powerful embodiment of why this Compassionate Systems community exists in the world.

Each session started with a grounding practice led by Troy Selvey (Class of 2020-21) followed by journaling around why we wanted to be part of this gathering, a check in, and then open conversation around the equity papers.

It is impossible to summarize the depth and scope of these four hours of conversation.

But the following quotes and paraphrasing of key ideas can perhaps give some feeling.

  • “We have been able to make headway to the degree we have let go of the deficit model and learned to see that all kids bring assets and learn how to help them build from their strengths.”
  • “You are there to engage people who have been traumatized and not to re-traumatize.”
  • “How to create the space where it is safe to be willing to do the work.”
  • “I keep asking what is unique about your context?”
  • “A good deal of my journey has been going from hero to host.”
  • “Equity is not a thing.” That why, in the articles, we did not offer a definitive definition. We know as educators that once equity becomes a thing it will become a metric and a target – and the deeper spirit of meeting and seeing each person in their stunning uniqueness will be lost. That said, this too is a dilemma, because without measures and aims we have no way to gauge real progress and equity can devolve into sentimental about “all people being worthwhile” and little else.
  • “We can forget that the data are students and families.” Yet the data matter and can be helpful – “if we can create settings where there is data with a soul.”
  • “The dilemma of white fragility.” The challenge of being afraid of discomfort. “We need to be OK being uncomfortable.”
  • “I have been told to not be the one who starts the equity conversation.”
  • “I want to start here, but people are ‘over there’ and you must be able to start there in order to be able to emotionally handle what you may become aware of.” (conscious) “Generation of conflict versus avoiding conflict.”
  • “The untruths by which we live are baked in to how we live”
  • (so often) “We are just addressing the surface – how willing are we to look at the underlying structures that uphold the current system,” and our investment in and active role in sustaining them.
  • “We are doing lots of trainings but, on-the-ground, things are not changing much.”
  • A subtle structural trap: facing the emotional tension of difficult conversations is necessary but not sufficient. It is necessary to holding creative tension, but there is also the danger that in a state of empathic distress, we focus on relieving the emotional tension. We can then subtly feel the work is done once we have been part of the difficult conversation. When this happens, the difficult conversation can become a ‘symptomatic solution’ that can release the creative tension for more fundamental structural changes. This is why mastery in this work is anchored in emotional intelligence.
  • “When I don’t make space to name an emotion, it is just a piece of information in my awareness.”
  • “Whenever you ask a new question of a system, you have to redefine the boundary of the system.”
  • But of course the system of education was never designed to hold such tensions. We all know the factory history of the industrial age model. Near the conclusion of one of the gatherings, someone pointed out that we were sitting with the profound reality of human experience, expressed poignantly by the Tom Petty lyric: “You don’t know what it feels like to be me.” Embracing this as the ground of human existence as educators makes us radicals in the deepest sense of the word.
  • “Compassionate systems tools make it easier for people to interrogate their biases.”
  • “One question I am holding for the future is, ‘What does allyship look like? – what does that mean?”
    ‘Is there a call to action that comes from this – an action plan? Next steps?
  • “What would you like the takeaway to be for readers?
  • “How about an ‘inside the authors’ studio’ piece? – insights the authors had,
    What made you want to write this? and How does it help your work now?”
  • “’What this work means for us’ is a lovely invitation for us all.”
  • “I would like to explore further well-being and equity”
  • “Dismantling colonial hierarchies”
  • “This (whole writing effort) was not a plan but what came out of our (January) retreat a dialog that we captured; equity means so much. Everyone here is nodding anti-oppression work but it is a word that does not work (as a word) equally well for everyone. We need to support people in using their native language.”
  • “The joy is in the work – it deserves some sort of witness.”


We closed our second session with a one-word check out:









compassionate systems awareness




Peter Senge
Co-founder | Center for Systems Awareness
MIT Systems | USA


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