Inspire to Change
6 min readJan 11, 2023


Why Transformation? Moving Beyond Systems Change

by Nora F. Murphy Johnson, PhD

We launched Inspire to Change in 2019 with the goal of working with partners in support of systems change. But in 2020, the COVID pandemic and the uprising after the murder of George Floyd became a wake-up call for our country and the world. Systems were changing in response to these events, and people all around us were saying, “We just want things to get back to normal.” But WE didn’t want to get back to normal. Normal had us burnt out and exhausted. Normal had us valuing human productivity over inherent human worth. Normal determined that some people were disposable–at the hands of the police, the healthcare system, and, really, all of our systems–whereas others were considered worthy of care and protection.

So, we started thinking about transformation instead of change. What’s the difference? Well, when you change your clothes, your hair, your mind, or your attitude, you can always change back. But when you transform, you can’t go back. You may hold onto bits of your past self, returning to them when you need to, but you are unable to go back to that exact version of yourself pre-transformation. The butterfly will not be a caterpillar again. The delicious tomato soup will never be a humble tomato again. And we will never unsee the consequences of systems of oppression in our families and communities.

We’re working on our theory of transformation at Inspire to Change, and while it’s not complete, we have some things we know to be true.

Our vision

We envision a transformative movement to co-create a more whole, beautiful, and just world.

A just world is the goal.

A just world requires wholeness. People, communities, and cultures that have been fractured must heal to wholeness before any meaningful reconciliation can occur. Both are necessary for justice.

A just world requires beauty. Beauty stops us in our tracks and makes us consider something besides our own problems.

What we know to be true

Transformative work is rooted in place. The type of evaluation we practice is alive: it lives in our communities, and it lives in our bodies. No living thing can exist without roots.

Transformative work is both individual and collective. For us, transformation is a deep and fundamental change. We have often been taught that transformative change is linear: transform people, and then systems–or vice-versa. But we must think of the individual and the collective as interconnected and interdependent: each transforms the other in an ongoing and iterative process.

Transformation takes energy. I think in terms of energy, recognizing that our life energy is one of the greatest gifts we have to give. Some things deplete and diminish our life energy, some things restore and expand it. People and systems don’t change when all exchanges are depleting.

Transformation happens when there is creative tension. Peter Senge introduced the “creative tension” in The Fifth Discipline. This model proposes that the energy for change is generated by making clear the discrepancy between what people want and where they are. If people hold to the vision of what they want and are simultaneously clear and candid about where they are — individually and collectively — then the tension will tend to resolve in favor of what they want.

Creative tension is translated into action when a compelling vision is paired with active hope. We cannot fully address new challenges by fixing outdated systems. We must help people imagine something fundamentally different and better than what they have — a transformed system. And pair that vision with hopeful action.

Transformative action needs to be based in values. A values-based set of guiding principles guides learning, action, and adaptation.

What this means for our practice

We can’t do this alone. The opposite of a catalyst is an inhibitor. Collective work is a catalyst to transformative change; isolation and working in silos inhibit transformative change.

We must take risks. We’re going to make mistakes. That’s okay. We’ll also learn from our mistakes, and that’s better. But no risk means no skin in the game. Limited risk means holding back some part of our personhood. As author Taleb wrote, “How much you truly “believe” in something can be manifested only through what you are willing to risk for it.”

If we aren’t willing to risk anything, the power is asymmetrical and we are engaging in charity work. Or, as Indigenous Australian visual artist, activist and academic Lilla Watson said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

We must know ourselves. We are each, in our own way, part of the problem and the solution. But we can’t take responsibility for either of these if we don’t know ourselves. The work of knowing who you are is to learn how to be more aware, accepting of yourself and loving towards yourself. Bessel van der Kolk wrote in The Body Keeps the Score: “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”

We must seek to understand others. Seek to see in ways that are not natural to you. Seek to know in and from ways that aren’t available to you. Our identities shape what we can know and experience. Social, historical, and ideological forces and structures shape what we can know and experience. Actively seek to understand beyond these boundaries.

Cultivate the conditions for transformation. Rather than controlling change, adopt the approach of setting the conditions for change to emerge. While all systems are capable of self-organization and emergent change, certain conditions impact the speed and direction of change.

Reflect. Reflection is wise action. It requires that you stand still long enough to see what is going on around you. That you take time to understand the flow of events and the context of the moment. That you evaluate the impact of your actions and interactions to date. And that you draw action implications from what you see and understand.

Move. Make decisions and act. Move into new possibilities. We can’t jump from where we are, to where we want to be. Rather, we hold a hopeful and inspiring vision, walk a path that is guided by our principles, and move from one adjacent possibility to the next. In this way, we have both a destination and a strategy for stepping into emergent possibilities. While we might not be able to see the path as we’re moving forward, we may be able to look back and say “because of X, Y became possible.”

Embody. Embody through evocative playback and engaging the senses. Embody the commitment to full-sensory knowing, relationships, and care.

Repeat. You have changed. The world has changed. Start again.

Explore Together.

Marshall Ganz shared the following in his 2009 article, “What Is Public Narrative: Self, Us & Now.”

Most people who want to make the world a better place have stories of pain, which taught them that the world needs changing, and stories of hope, which persuaded them of the possibility. You may have felt excluded, put down or powerless, as well as courageous, recognized, and inspired. Be sure to attend to the moments of “challenge” as well as to the moments of “hope” — and to learn to be able to articulate these moments in ways that can enable others to understand who you are. It is the combination of “criticality” and “hopefulness” that creates the energy for change.

Take 30-minutes to write about your own experience. When did the pairing of criticality and hopefulness combine to create the transformative energy or action? Please share in the comments below!

Explore Further.

The following books are some of the writings we return to again and again as we think about engaging successfully in transformation.

Murphy Johnson, N., Rafael Johnson, A., & Patton, M. Q. (2022). Creative Evaluation & Engagement: Volume 1: Essentials.

Palmer, P. J. (2008). A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (1st ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Scarry, E. (1999). On beauty and being just. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization (Rev. and updated). New York: Doubleday/Currency.

Taleb, N. N. (2018). Skin in the game hidden asymmetries in daily life. Place of publication unknown: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.

Westley, F., Patton, M. Q., & Zimmerman, B. (2007). Getting to maybe: how the world is changed. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

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