Urban Equity blogs

Using a systems thinking approach to equity work

2 August 2022 by André Darmanin2

Having been immersed in equity work over the last few years, I’ve learned quite a bit. During my experience in the public sector, I grew tired of incrementalism. In addition, I interviewed for a variety of positions, mainly related to training or equity work that tied into human resources functions. I always had an affinity towards strategic and systems thinking and that is why I mentioned that equity work should never report into human resources.

When we as equity practitioners are doing this work, and while the Global Majority lived experiences should be intersectional in scope, the work should never be piecemeal. Using a multidisciplinary systems approach allows us to fully understand how education, health, city building, and other disciplines are impacted by the inequities that currently exist within organizations.

Banafsheh Ghassemi, CEO of Tangerine Lab had put it succinctly in her 2021 LinkedIn post on common gaps in EDI. There common and obvious misses in getting to organizational equity. The most obvious one is the exclusionary nature of efforts where they simply forget those who are the most impacted – customers, citizens and employees of the global majority. The most common is the intersectionality from those with lived experiences. Systems thinking addresses and reduces intersectional complexities that diverse cultures, generations and systemic biases of an organization related to the change process. In addition, what is commonly missed from organizations are the one off events to “celebrate” events. Those activists responses time and again end up becoming performative in nature.

Systems thinking is about having the strategic foresight to understand the implications of each operational decisions to create the necessary understanding of the needs, requirements, and essential processes which would be helpful for the system as a whole. Once a leaders adapt to systems thinking, they can make critical decisions regarding the activities based on their need to cater to the entire organization, creating a better understanding of the processes. In addition, when organizational change occurs, leaders must account for the resistance and manage change effectively otherwise the change efforts will go awry.

Ghassemi says that instead of being reactive and performative, cultural mindsets should be adopted such as empathy, cocreation, embracing diversity, having a bias for action, learning from failure and allowing for ideas to percolate from all levels of the organization. I would add one more area to this list – having the cultural intelligence and awareness to do this work. These decisions will impact leadership behaviour modelling, talent recruitment and leadership development and performance management.

Jonathan Westover, PhD, provides a great example of using a systems thinking approach in a global organization. He was asked to work on a project related to gender equity within an international electronics company in South Korea. He created a holistic case by mapping the interconnectivity and causality of inputs and outputs, and asked probing questions of leadership to arrive at desired conclusions. Another example is the 2020 ETIO Report “The Urgent Need to Use a Systems- Thinking Approach to Address Anti-Black Racism in Ontario” where the consultants presented a call to action to address oppressive policies that affect Black communities in education, socioeconomics, health and justice systems. While this report was a policy response, the importance of using a systems thinking is necessary.

I have yet to come across a report that looked at intersectionality, human-centred design and cultural intelligence as part of a holistic and strategic organization change. It is still important to note the complexity of advancing equity, inclusion and belonging and it is not meant to be easy or comfortable. It is the hard work that is necessary and should never be done piecemeal. At the end of the day, why do so many organizational change experts not use this systems thinking approach or are afraid to look at this work from an intersectional lens? Inquiring minds want to know.

I’m waiting for the moment I can use this approach in my work.


  • Amri Johnson

    3 August 2022 at 7:06 AM

    Nice piece, @André. Each of your points is covered in my upcoming book Reconstructing Inclusion: Making DEI Accessible, Actionable, and Sustainable.

    I look forward to keeping this dialogue you’ve been spearheading going.


    • André Darmanin

      3 August 2022 at 6:28 AM

      Thanks Amri. It was our talk that inspired me to write it. I am looking forward to reading your book.


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