Transdisciplinary Design

Systemic change through ritual

Posted on October 28, 2014 | posted by:

by Alix Gerber

A friend and I have been having this debate for at least a year: he argues that some people are inherently “bad”, committing acts that are destructive to society like murder and theft because they were born a murderer or thief, and I respond that nobody is “bad” – people who are destructive to society commit these acts because they are led to by the ill-functioning systems that surround them.

Assigning responsibility is important because we think of rules as a way to enforce behavior. But creating and enforcing rules doesn’t change anything if someone is stuck in a system that doesn’t provide a rule-following option. Donella Meadows says, “Seeing how individual decisions are rational within the bounds of the information available does not provide an excuse for narrow-minded behavior. It provides an understanding of why that behavior arises. […] Blaming the individual rarely helps create a more desirable outcome.” Rather than continuing to enforce rules and punishments that are clearly not working, why don’t we take a moment to listen to the motivations and perspectives that are leading to the perpetration of these crimes. Can we make more long-term change by reconfiguring systems to align these motivations with larger systemic goals?

I recently spent time with Kai Smith, founder of an organization called GRAAFICS in Harlem. Having spent 16 years in prison, he had some opinions about the system. He described the process of reincorporating into society – meeting weekly with a number of different agencies, all pushing him in different directions; being forbidden from being near drugs when they were always around all of his friends and family… He had the same goals as the people who made these rules: to become a successful member of society. In addition to the obvious task of redesigning the rules and programming to more effectively account for the entire experience, how can we go back in time and realign everyone’s actions with this goal? Instead of a parent telling their child, “You’ll never amount to anything”, like Kai’s mother did, how can we give parents ways to support their children’s growth, celebrate achievements and imagine futures? How can we give young men like Kai ways to experience belonging and trust in a way that’s disconnected from violence?

This is where I believe designed rituals come in. On our first day in this program, Tucker Viemeister presented the example of the Happy Birthday song, developed by a preschool teacher to give parents a way to celebrate their children when children were considered just another pair of working hands. The song and its accompanying ritual of the birthday party helped reframe the cultural meaning of children in a radical way. What if similar rituals could be developed in a way that resonates with targeted cultures, in response to repeat incarceration? Joan Laird applies ritual design to social work in her article, “Sorcerers, Shamans, and Social Workers”. She tasks social workers with “discover[ing] the rituals and ceremonies that consolidate, communicate, and sometimes mask the family’s paradigm, its system of meaning and belief, its values, its rules for relationship and behavior, and its conflicts and paradoxes.” Professionals can then use that knowledge to help families “plan” or redesign rituals to change those paradigms, meanings, etc., creating more healthy relationships and family systems.

Using rituals in this way could give victims of the system a way out of negative feedback loops. It could align the goals of different players to create roles that support each other rather than conflicting. It could leave behind the conception of “bad” people and force us to face our ineffective systems instead.

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Laird, J. (1984). Sorcerers, Shamans, and Social Workers: The Use of Ritual in Social Work Practice. Social Work, 29(2), 123–129.

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. D. Wright (Ed.). White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.