From Biology to Changemaking: Embracing the Tree of Alignment in Transformative Work

Inspire to Change
10 min readDec 6, 2023

By Nora F. Murphy Johnson, PhD

In the quest for transformative change, whether in organizations, communities, or individual lives, understanding the dynamics and drivers of change is critical. The “Tree of Alignment,” a metaphorical concept, provides a comprehensive framework for fostering environments that are conducive to meaningful and lasting change.

Most of you know me as an evaluator, researcher, or changemaker. But my first love was biology. I couldn’t get enough of my classes on plant biology and comparative physiology. I dabbled in marine biology and tropical ecology, doing site work in Tobago, Costa Rica, Belize, and the US Virgin Islands. I later spent a semester studying the desert ecology of the Southwestern United States. I taught high school biology for a few years and ran environmental service programs for the Student Conservation Association. I didn’t make the jump to research and evaluation until I was in my late 20s, and it was years after that before I found my place as a changemaker through evaluation.

Everything I learned in biology is relevant to my work as an evaluator-changemaker: feedback loops, interdependencies, moving across scales of time, space, and size, and diversity as a necessary ingredient for healthy ecosystems. For my senior project at Earlham College, I delved into the branching patterns of Acer saccharum saplings and their response to light availability...I could go on and on. My point is, I came by the tree analogy honestly!

But the Tree of Alignment isn’t just about me geeking out. I truly believe that the tree analogy is a powerful tool for conceptualizing and guiding initiatives toward a more whole, beautiful, and just world within an ecosystem of change. Here is how I think about each part of our Theory of Engagement (see the original article here) as it relates to tree growth and health.

Soil — Conditions and Capacities for Transformation

Soil conditions play a crucial role in the growth and health of plants, including their ability to absorb water and nutrients, support root systems, and interact with the surrounding environment. Factors including soil texture, pH level, nutrient content…

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