This Week in Systems Thinking

By design or just coincidence, the New York Times ran two articles on housing in the last week.  

The first featured Ben Carson and his views on government "subsidized" housing for the poor, namely that it shouldn't be too comfortable or people will lack motivation to find "unsubsidized" housing.  

The second highlighted how home ownership benefits the upper-middle and wealthy classes.  Really, home owners live in subsidized housing as well, we just don't call it that.  Thanks to the Mortgage Interest Deduction, the government props up home values and the ability of certain classes to afford home ownership.  

Because of rising housing costs and stagnant wages, slightly more than half of all poor renting families in the country spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs, and at least one in four spends more than 70 percent. Yet America’s national housing policy gives affluent homeowners large benefits; middle-class homeowners, smaller benefits; and most renters, who are disproportionately poor, nothing. It is difficult to think of another social policy that more successfully multiplies America’s inequality in such a sweeping fashion.

Most people, the HUD secretary included, don't seem to see all housing as an interconnected system.  But when you look at the world through a systems lens, you quickly discover that nothing lives in isolation.

We tend to speak about the poor as if they didn’t live in the same society, as if our gains and their losses weren’t intertwined. Conservatives explain poverty by pointing to “individual factors,” like bad decisions or the rise of single-parent families; liberals refer to “structural causes,” like the decline of manufacturing or the historical legacies of racial discrimination. Usually pitted against each other, each perspective serves a similar function: letting us off the hook by asserting that there is a deep-rooted, troubling problem — more than one in six Americans does not make enough to afford basic necessities — that most of us bear no responsibility for.

I could keep quoting from these articles, but really, why not go and read them yourself.  Start to use a systems lens when you read the news, consider our interconnected lives and think about how we might shift one aspect of inequality in our country that could in turn affect many other areas.

(Author: Rebekah Papé)

Systems Theory in Toddlerville

(posted by Rebekah)

This week I'm thinking about systems design in relation to parenting.  My son is almost 20 months and we're undergoing a massive schedule shift.  For a full year we stuck with two naps and settled into a great daily rhythm.  I have a hunch we could hang out here quite happily a while longer, but while the daytime works for us, the nights are rough.  My son has struggled with night sleep much of his young life, and three months ago we entered a particularly rough stretch.  First the sleep regression hit, but we figured we'd just wait it out.  A month later, we started in on potty training.  Once that was going pretty well, but night sleep was still a struggle, we tried to do a little sleep coaching.  Suddenly potty training regressed and sleep didn't get any better.  So we gave up on the sleep  (somehow sleepless nights seemed more manageable than poop on the floor).  Potty use normalized.  Back to tinkering with sleep.  More poop on the floor.  You get the idea.  And let's not even talk about all the advice I get to wean already.  Now we're three months into the sleep regression.  What's a parent to do?  

Well, in systems theory, we talk about entry points.  There's more than one way to enter a system and it's not about right or wrong.  We also talk about feedback loops and how in reality, progress isn't a neat linear line projecting infinitely upward.  Instead the path is an infinity loop, with a leap forward and upward preceded by a downward slump.  And the overarching theme of this lens is the interconnectedness of everything.  Change in one aspect of a system affects everything else.  Nothing can be done in isolation.  We're not living in a vacuum.  

So how does my work as a systems designer inform my parenting?  We'll leave weaning for the future. For some mothers, it might be time.  I still enjoy breastfeeding for the most part, and would rather have a well-rested, potty trained child.   I'm looking for a different entry point to affect change on nighttime sleep.  We're trying one nap instead of two, and using an earlier bedtime to promote better early morning sleep.  So far it's helping, though a big adjustment for our family for sure.  And while we haven't had poop on the floor this week, we did have to clean the shower and there's been a good amount of pee in places I don't want it.  But instead of panicking, I'm trusting in that infinity loop.  We're in a slump, but as we adjust to the new schedule, my son will remember how to use his potty.  

Expertise Has Its Place

 Image captured from Rebekah Erev's  Moon Angels Cover .

Image captured from Rebekah Erev's Moon Angels Cover.

So we've been silent here for a while.  We last wrote in October about our collective exhaustion with expert opinion.  And then a whole bunch of shit went down in November (and December and January, and yes, it's still going down).  We each took some time to wade through the muck and disbelief and grief and anger in our own ways.  We kept meeting weekly, encouraging each other and discussing systems theory, but we just weren't up for sharing publicly.  

Something that popped up in our conversations was the realization that our disillusionment with experts was connected to the rise of Donald Trump.  As we asked questions and consoled each other and explored the political power shift happening in our country, we couldn't help but observe that many of those who voted Trump into the White House were also questioning the value of experts.  Hmmm.  That certainly put a different spin on our own thinking.

Somewhere in there we came across a post from 2014 that seems even more relevant in 2017. In The Death of Expertise , Tom Nichols discusses the important role experts can play in a democracy.  He isn't advocating for rule by experts, but rather a respect for what they/we/you have to offer. 

Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge.  It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense.

We really could just quote the whole piece here, so just go read it already.  In a well functioning system, there's room for action based on both what the experts have to say and what you know to be true in your own gut.  Let's honor both - be willing to admit when we don't know but someone else does AND equally, let's nourish the knowledge we all have within ourselves.



Solstice and Summer Intentions

The change of seasons is always a good time to reflect and set new intentions.  When we met last week, 6 days from the solstice (powerfully coinciding with a full moon this year!), a frenetic energy was building in our work and personal lives.  The perfect time to take collective deep breaths and help each other harness this energy, rather than be overrun by it.  

We spent the past two weeks looking back at over spring, and forward into the summer months.  Our conversation began around these three concepts:

  • share your spring highlights - both inspirations and frustrations
  • discuss general summer intentions
  • commit to one specific action item between now and September

As per usual for us, our conversation benefitted from these parameters but wandered outside of them for two weeks before circling back.  We explored themes of dissolution, money/time, dogma and routine.  We revisited social permaculture and the principles that offer a grounding perspective to our work.  

For Casey, Observe and Interact is currently playing a big role in her explorations into re-establishing daily rituals and preparing her creative space

For Jehna, opportunities are opening to move from macro to micro - to become intimately engaged with lessons and themes of her educational experiences.  In the language of Permaculture, this is known as Designing from Patterns to Details.

Rebekah is ready to take action, to tap into stored energy and ideas and work towards Obtaining a Yield.

Together, we are committed to ongoing collaboration.  We offer each other a space each week to bring our disjointed ideas, passions, and intentions and help each other find patterns, themes and some semblance of cohesive direction.  By discussing intentions and sharing specific goals, we practice yet another principle - Applying Self Regulation and Accepting Feedback.  




We tried another writing exercise for our time together a few weeks ago.  This go round, we used Rebekah Erev's  Moon Angel Card Day 27 as a mind prompt, a motif to shape our writing.

Whirlwind: There’s something there in the chaotic windstorm and twisted lankiness of this moment.  There’s something there.  You’re uncomfortable.  There’s something there in the discomfort.  There’s something there.  It’s gold.

Against this backdrop, we each spent five minutes in our morning to free write.  Five minutes of stream of conscious scribbles.  

Upon Reflection

Casey // this brought together several threads of thought that have been wandering around my mind. the imagery came simply and strongly. something is still brewing in here around circulation-bleeding-opening-breathing. taking the moment to free write offered up a daydream i didn't know i was having.
Rebekah // the exercise served as a reset, much as sitting in meditation.  Whirlwind acted as an anchor, something to come back to over and over as my mind and fingers wandered off telling stories.

For us collectively, nearing the end of the lunar cycle brought up imagery of a storm brewing, the discomfort felt while waiting for the storm, then calm and comfort once you hunker down and experience it. When you keep sitting, when you don't hide from the discomfort, when you hold space for the uncomfortable, it becomes something like sifting for gold.  What’s there is precious.

Slant of Sunlight

We often share inspiration from our personal practices with each other between meetings.  Rebekah Erev's Moon Angels are a daily ritual for our Rebekah, to help track the lunar cycle.  Today's follows right on the heals of our recent conversation around filters, lenses, and systems thinking.  

The mobile above a baby's head parallels an adult's experience watching dust particles suspended in sunlight.  The secret invisible universe within the dust particles is always there.  You need the slant of the sunlight to see it.  (Day 8: Microverses)

Our work demands curiosity - a willingness to shift perspective, wait for the sun to come out, or circle back again the next time the moon journeys towards fullness. 

Lenses and Filters

We let our last meeting lead itself, meandering our way through stories from the past week and ideas big and small.  While structure has its benefits, so does open space to let our minds roam.  

We found ourselves questioning an always on "systems thinking" brain.  We spent a lot of time and energy to learn to see the world this way, but the three of us know by now that we aren't well suited to a strict and one dimensional worldview, no matter how enlightening that one perspective might be.  It's why we chose to call ourselves Bricoleur Collective, because we believe the ability to hold multiple perspectives and talents in one container is powerful.  Our work together is a process, it's our art together. 

As we tackled administrative details, like our blog and Instagram account, we also told life stories from the previous week, which kept gravitating towards big ideas and themes.  We bounced back and forth for a bit before realizing systems thinking and design is really a lens we can use, a camera filter, if you will.  You may see us play with this concept on Instagram in the coming weeks. 

An Exercise in Courageous Writing

Hello world - this is Rebekah for Bricoleur Collective.  I'm excited to have our blog up and running, and have the chance to add to it.  

I got to lead our weekly meeting last Thursday.  I asked each of us to share a piece of writing- something old, something new, good, bad, ugly even, so long as it was offered out to be read.  My inspiration came from Elizabeth Gilbert's Podcast Magic Lessons, Episode 8.  Essentially, if you are called in life to create things, do it often, even if sometimes it's bad.  It's important to keep at it. And so...we gathered our courage and wrote.

Casey reminded us that writing can be lighthearted and silly.  Her piece is inspired by an invitation from a friend to participate in a project.  His parameters are simple: he chooses the photo (as a start, inspiration, fodder, whatever) and types the letters up.  The letter can be as 'normal' or 'weird' as you wish. the end. 

Jehna awed us with lyrics for a new song about breaking up with the fear of forgetting.  In her writing process, she starts with music, then lets the sounds birth words.  Imagine a soft tone for this piece, along the lines of the Virgin Suicides soundtrack.

I decided to finally dive into a written account of my son's birth, which I'd been asked to put down on paper for friend who is publishing a collection of birth stories.  Coming up on the deadline, I wrote in fits and jerks for days before settling into the piece.  Below is a brief excerpt.

R-E-B-E-K-A-H! My grandfather could really embarrass me with that cheer at a school performance. But I never had any doubt he loved me. I could come in last place, play the wrong song, screw up or fail completely in life, and it still wouldn’t stop Papa from celebrating his 10th grandchild. Arms outstretched, huge grin - when I was in his presence I could believe I was the most important person in the world...

...I had made a list of everyone I could think of who I might want to call for support during the birth. And then the one person who I could always count on showed up just when I needed him. There he was, beside the tub, with that old cheer R-E-B-E-K-A-H. I’d repeat the mantra my doula gave me oh, wow, wow and he’d chime in with his special chant for me. He stayed with me through the rest of my labor, every few minutes as the sensations built, he’d root me on as he always did R-E-B-E-K-A-H.

And so we each renewed a voice within ourselves and re-discovered the power of creativity to emerge from everyday life with just a gentle nudge.  But more on that next week...


Group Pattern Mapping

This is what we did today.  All for the grist.  

Sequence Planning with Group Works card deck.

The Group Works card deck is a collection of 100 cards representing patterned language that speaks to group design.  Created out of a three-year long undertaking named the Group Pattern Language Project, the card deck was designed to support processes in group engagement and facilitation. 

To learn more about the card deck and the team who created it, check out

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Jehna first learned about the Group Works card deck while taking a course on facilitating group engagement taught by Sue Woehrlin, a core team member of the Group Pattern Language Project. Since then, Jehna has integrated the printed deck into stimulating and effective group work. She envisioned Bricoleur using the deck to create a systems approach for our blog, meetings, and projects.

For BC's recent planning meeting, the Group Works card deck was used to map out our group's planning intentions for next few months. To support distance communications, we incorporated the online deck available on Group Works site. 

We started our session, with two guiding questions:

Where do we want to see our group going?


What do we want/need in this group development?

Each of us picked 3-4 cards that represented how we see the next three months enfolding. After mapping and discussing the cards, we considered how our card layout could be enacted into group goals. 

Here's our notes from our pattern mapping session:


Dive in // Inform Group Mind // All Grist for the Mill

Fractal // Seeing the Forest Seeing the Trees

Reflection/Action Cycle // Feedback // Mapping + Measurement

Creativity // Power of Constraints


Tend Relationships // Relationship

Go Deeper // Iteration // Commitment

Playfulness // Improvise

Breaking Bread // Celebrating

Card patterns mapped out on Prezi.

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Closing Reflection

Everything that occurs is not only usable and workable but is actually the path itself. We can use everything that happens as the means for waking up. We can use everything that occurs-- whether it's our conflicting emotions and thoughts of our seemingly outer situation -- to show us where we are asleep and how we can wake up completely, utterly, without reservations.

- Pema Chodron