Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards

How storytelling can get to the heart of systems change

Systems—like the education, health care, legal/justice, and political systems—have significant impact on our lives. They produce opportunities and barriers, helps and hinders, justice and injustice. Their impacts are not uniform. Most of us are often failed by the systems we live within. As a result, people are clamoring for systems change.

Spoiler alert: This story takes place in Italy

So why hasn’t it happened? What will it take to reimagine our systems, creating new and improved structures and practices that serve all people well?   

Getting to these answers will take deep conversations with many, many, many people so we can see a system from a myriad of perspectives, developing a fuller, shared understanding of what is working and must be protected as well as what is harming and how we can best solve for it.

When I entered the field of philanthropy in 2015, collective impact was the touted method. It recognizes that no single individual or entity can tackle complex social issues on their own, rather a multi-sector approach with shared goals, actions, and accountability is needed.

It’s wonderful to see people from different walks of life walk get on the same path and move toward a common destination. But for the most part, people on the collective impact path aren’t forging a shared experience. The time invested in getting to know each other’s histories, viewpoints, fears, and hopes gets rushed. The matters at hand are urgent ones that call for swift action, so we’re quick to get back to our siloed spaces, put our heads down, and get to work. But what if the heart of systems change is, well, the heart?

Enter Collective Change Lab

Founded by John Kania, who sparked the theory and practice of collective impact, Collective Change Lab contends that: “The prevailing view in the social sector is that technical, rational, outcomes-based approaches will generate impact. […] To get to more radical outcomes, we need more radical ways of working together. Ways that bring people in a system into deep, authentic relationships with each other and create a safe space for vulnerability. Ways that create profound experiences of healing, of connection to our shared humanity, of being a part of something larger than ourselves. Only then will we produce shifts in individual and collective consciousness powerful enough to transform systems.” This excerpt was taken from If you’re reading this blog, do yourself a favor and visit the site. It is filled with way more tantalizing ideas than I am able to offer here.

John and the truly amazing Collective Change Lab crew brought 10 storytellers together from across the globe for a yearlong exploration of what the relational work of collective systems storytelling could look like. Then, last week, this group and a handful of other systems storytellers took part in a retreat at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Italy to continue developing the foundation of this potential new field.

Photo taken on our last night together, sharing stories, naturally

Golden arrows

These are beautiful and the brilliant people who took part in the retreat:

Philippa, the poet and the singer who calls us to attention.

Tara, the storyteller and the truth teller who makes us think BIG.

Mwihaki, the storysmith and the open heart who understands us.

Nico, the filmmaker and the adventurer who calms us.

Joanne, the academic and the writer who introduces us to new concepts.

Nat, the anthropologist and the runner who proves it’s possible.

Nayantara, the narrative strategist and the beautiful thinker who weaves our thoughts together.

Monique, the philanthropic leader and justice-seeking bad ass who shows us what fashion really is.

S’bu, the music artist and the youth mentor who brings us laughter.

Natalia, the peacemaker and the international tax expert who pulls us to be global.

David, the writer and the social innovator who connects us to our full selves.

Afshan, the playwright and the party girl who makes us dance until midnight.

Pascal, the food justice advocate and the connector who sees us, hears us, and emanates joy for us.

Carinna, the justice champion and the systems thinker who reminds us that we can.

Najla, the community organizer and the energy current who dances with us.

Juana, the chameleon and the fighter who mesmerizes us.

Tad, the master communicator and interviewer who loves us.

Kerry, the social change practitioner and the sunshine who warms us.

Katherine, the social innovator and the ally who helps us get down to business.

Cynthia, the researcher and the lover of fun who makes sense of us.

John, the big thinker and the doula who brings ideas to life.

Beauty abound in Bellagio

Making meaning    

All this and more walked the hills of Bellagio, Italy. We explored a practice of communal storytelling, growing our knowing of each other and of ourselves.

The first day started, as did every day, with a shared meal and open conversation. Then, we’d sit in a circle. In the middle of this space was a table we filled with sacred objects, each of us bringing one item of significance to us. Mine was a picture of my Grandpa Irving, a person I love deeply and try my hardest to emulate. He was a guide throughout my life and his guidance has only intensified in the years since he passed. My memories of him are like a fingerprint, me tracing the spirals, practicing his way of being.

Kerry, Mwihaki, and I on a walk-and-talk

That morning, we didn’t talk about our sacred objects. But over the next few days, these stories unfolded in quiet conversations over coffee or while we stretched our legs, crossing the hills that surrounded us. My story of Grandpa Irving, my memories of him and my practice of emulation, came out between short breaths on a walk with Mwihaki and Kerry. While we talked, we took in our breathtaking surroundings but always came back to meet one another’s eyes.

I was given the opportunity to open our session on our final day. We closed our eyes and envisioned ourselves on our 80th birthday where one-by-one our loved ones arrived and told us what we brought into their lives. After the visioning prompt, some of us shared what we heard, felt, or experienced. Mwihaki shared that she had difficulty thinking of herself. Later, she told me she spent the time thinking of Grandpa Irving.

This is the magic we seek to reveal and repeat, on a global scale. When we make space to share and hear what moves us and ails us, what experiences—good or bad—have marked us and how we wish to make our mark, we get to a level of care and understanding in which we begin to carry each other’s stories within us.

Stories are not only told through words, but through visual arts, music, and movement

Then, we can create collective stories, weaving together diverse identities, experiences, and perspectives. This is the relational work necessary to begin to dream and build as a collective people. Only then will we recreate our systems into the structures, policies, and practices needed to nurture us all.  

Comments (2)

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  • Alvin Gay

    What a wonderful story and amazing experience. Bellagio was the perfect venue. Love your portraits of the attendees.

  • kelva Perez

    Nice group of chalenger People it looks like you are having fun together!!!

    I would like to belong to a community like this. By the way , my name is Kelva, I worked for USAID for 11 years in my native country Dominican Republic.
    I like to write poetry and short stories, and I am writting in my mother tongue language, i have more freedom doing that.
    I have been traveling to some countries , and I can understand at least three more others lenguages.

    The best important, i Congratulate all of you for this fabulous ,nice happy group.

    My best regards,
    From Santo Domingo, DR

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