Addressing persistent inequality — through power structures, creation of opportunities, social justice, systemic action, or consciousness?

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Life is always in a state of dynamic flow, some parts receiving and giving more, some less, at different times and places. That applies as much to weather patterns as it does to families, yet whilst healthy systems have the capacity to maintain healthy exchanges over time, unhealthy ones do not. In unhealthy systems, something becomes stuck to such an extent that the inequality will turn into a pattern that replicates itself in an ongoing way. Global wealth is stuck in such a pattern; a UN report in January 2020 reported inequality growing for over 70% of the world’s population, with the richest 1% continuing to increase their proportion of wealth since 1990.

Today we’re at a moment in time where racial inequality and structural racism is firmly in the collective focus, arising within a wider context of significant intersecting global challenges — the urgency felt within racial justice movements and the urgency within climate movements collides right at a time of global pandemic, and all three have some interesting shared patterns. The words ‘I can’t breathe’ are most recently associated with George Floyd’s final moments under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman, and a 2020 report in the New York Times shows these have been the final words of over 70 people who have died in police custody in the last few years. With rising numbers of heatwaves, predicted to become an increased cause of death in many African cities, there is another way in which people are unable to breathe, with climate change impacts felt disproportionately in the global South, but their plight often missing from the lens of racial justice movements, having as they often do their centres of gravity in the global North. Added to this, COVID-19 can also seen as a pandemic of inequality, highlighting disparities within society, an illness that literally stops people from breathing. We are reaching a number of global and societal limits, where there is an urgent need to address structures of organisation and structures of thinking, not just individual behaviours.

In the face of such great urgency, the stuckness of unhealthy systems is often replayed amongst the very people who wish to see things change. A key challenge to addressing these overlapping issues are the often-invisible paradigms of thinking, like hidden icebergs, that interrupt meaningful conversations and coordinated action. For example, in regard to addressing structural racism there may be a number of differing yet hidden visions of the future — one person may be looking to see an increase in proportionate representation within senior leadership in institutional and political life within a capitalist society, whilst others may view the goal as the breakdown of capitalism itself, seeing racism and capitalism inextricably linked to systems of oppression. Until we make our paradigms more explicit to ourselves and each other, we are likely to keep missing each other, ascribing negative intent, or build simplistic narratives to explain the way things are which put people in binary categories, creating greater polarisation in an already fragmented world.

Understanding what kind of meta-discourses frame our conversations is therefore critical, and maps of human evolution, such as Spiral Dynamics can help us develop trans-contextual lenses that enhance understanding of multiple discourses operating simultaneously. With its origins in the work of Clare Graves, Spiral Dynamics was developed through the meta-analysis of statements about the characteristics of good leadership, and suggested an evolving spiral of social evolution which swings predictably between a collective to an individualistic focus at each stage of development. Whilst each stage of the model builds on the level before, it is unhelpful to think of different levels in the spiral as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than each other, as each has its role to play in society.

Spiral Dynamics illuminates the different patterns of addressing inequalities, in that each level has its own prevailing worldview, which shapes how inequalities are addressed. By understanding the framing of inequality, and the priorities of each level, we can bring more mindful, open awareness to addressing complex issues. It’s important to recognise that each stage of societal development has its own internal set of logics which enable it to become stable for a while, and that each has come into being partly as a response to mitigating the limitations of the previous levels that have gone before.

Below is a description of some of the most pertinent levels of system found in organisations and organisational thinking today, borrowing from the colour descriptors which were later applied to the model for ease of reference by Cowan and Beck. Along with a descriptor of each level, is a short comment on the overarching approach which each level might take to address inequality from their own set of logics.

Blue Values Meme — Collective Duty

· Allegiance to a perceived greater good whether to a god, ruler or nation-state

· Establishing governing rules of law and order

· Leadership is seen as a public duty

Blue values meme organisations today are still found in the public sector, or in long-established institutions, such as the law, or the church, and although many have evolved in part to the next level, Orange, some are still firmly rooted in Blue foundations.

They tend to address inequality by encouraging under-represented groups to fit in to the existing system, rather than accommodating difference. Another strategy might even be to diminish difference in the first place; China’s oppression of the Uighers and the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants and asylum seekers is a retreat back into the negative aspects of Blue which include:

· Oppression of those who do not ‘fit in’

· Creation of powerful institutions which are hard to challenge

· A pattern of leadership belonging to the privileged few in apparent service to the whole

Blue organisations, being highly institutional, are only likely to address systemic racism through wholesale reform, which might initially arise from lobbying at its margins, or criticism via the media, and the implementation of which will often require monitoring by another institution. Because the logics of Blue organisations centre around conformity, there is likely to be an ongoing battle to address negative behaviours (covert and overt aggressions) which target difference, whether that be gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other category.

Orange Values Meme — Individualistic Opportunity

· Democratic meritocracy

· Individualism, personal brand and success

· Heroic and ambitious leadership

Orange aims to redress the constrictive aspects of Blue organisations by glorifying personal success. They tend towards free-market capitalism, sometimes with scant regard for their social and environmental impact. They reward individual contribution and team spirit, as long as it is ultimately directed towards the financial success of the organisation.

Orange organisations seek to address inequality by creating an environment of ‘equal opportunity for all’, with an emphasis on personal development and ambition. They base their activities on the logic of competition, so will often frame their diversity initiatives around research which shows what actions will make organisations more successful. Many Blue organisations have developed a veneer of this approach also, seeing training programmes and coaching schemes as the way of supporting staff to break through ‘the glass ceiling’. They often have a naïve understanding of how power is actually distributed, and their blindspots include:

· Inability to see and address uneven playing fields

· Creating over-competitive cultures which works in favour of privilege

· Extractive in outlook, where both the environment and human resources are seen as mere commodities to be used in service of organisational aims

Given their individualistic orientation, Orange organisations are likely to address differences via recognition of key champions, where performance goals are adapted to include behavioural competencies considered to be effective in fostering inclusion. The highly commercial nature of Orange organisations means their focus on diversity and inclusion will often be framed culturally, i.e. how they engage with different markets and partners around the world, as opposed to how they address legacies of patriarchy or colonialism internally.

Green Values Meme — collective caring

· Communitarian values, fairness

· Strong moral cause

· Inclusive, nurturing leadership

Green organisations (or more often green parts of organisations, as outside of B Corps , ethical trading companies and charities, there are still rather few examples) arise from a reaction to the excesses of Orange. They root themselves in strong guiding principles and values which actively seek to make the world a better place.

Addressing inequality may well be the Green organisation’s raison d’etre. They seek to highlight issues by aligning themselves to a specific causes, and are committed to creating equity and fairness both internally and externally, recognising systemic issues of power and privilege within themselves and in society, and commit to addressing unequal playing fields.

In doing so, they paradoxically become highly intolerant of others who fail to see things their way. The shadow side of Green is to:

· Stifle differences of opinion, or of initiatives that don’t precisely fit their aims

· Engage in extreme ‘othering’ of those who do not share views as bad, evil, uncaring

· Resorting to passive aggression, martyr complex

The Green values meme is represented as the most evolved level within the conventional levels of social evolution, yet it struggles to see the world beyond its own paradigm, and becomes increasingly scattered through its obsession with identity politics. Without being able to recognise the complex interplay of many different levels of system interacting together, and to evolve to a more situational and wider systemic approach, Green stays where it is, doomed to keep replaying a persecutor-victim story line.

Post-conventional Yellow Values Meme — new self-identity within an array of complex systems

· Systemic perspective — capable of working with complexity and polarities

· Contextual and experimental

· Flex-flow emergent leadership

Yellow organisations (where they exist) tend to be consultant groups. Laloux posits that Teal organisations (yes, the use of different colour categories is confusing) also fits this category — those organisations who are fully authentic, self-organising and aligned to evolutionary purpose. The regenerative organisational and leadership discourse is often located at the beginnings of post conventional awareness — that’s the capacity to see the interplays of each of the previous levels and to be able to work situationally with each, recognising, unlike Greens, that different contexts require different approaches.

They seek to address inequality through enhancing wider systemic awareness and via systems interventions, paying attention to different power plays and interest groups. They tend to be less committed to a particular outcome, as opposed to helping systems find their own ways forward, and their open-ended thinking can make them seem like terrorists to Green organisations, who might expect their wholehearted allegiance and allyship.

The shadow of Yellow is that they can seem:

· Excited by ideas, but be perceived as lacking compassion

· Don’t pay enough attention to the impact of their interventions

· The lack of clarity of roles can perpetuate unconscious patterns of inequality unless these are consciously addressed.

Yellow individuals and organisations relish the freedom to think and act in agile ways. They can come across as chameleons, shape shifting at will which is confusing to the previous values levels. The challenge for Yellows is translating their liberated thoughts into a form which lands respectfully with different audiences, otherwise they will be continually misunderstood and rejected.

Post conventional Turquoise Values Meme — porous identity nested in global consciousness

· Eco-systemic perspective — sees self in the world as an integral, living system

· ‘Glocal’ awareness and empathy, sees repeating patterns of system through a fractal lens, inner and outer are one

· Self in service of the emerging highest future potential of all

Whilst Yellow is still playing with all the new toys they have discovered, Turquoise is surrendered to its role within a much wider planetary evolution. Living systems thinking is at its heart, with individuals and organisations releasing ego needs to be whatever is needed for the highest future potential to emerge.

They seek to address inequality through a powerful sense of mutuality in relation to the other — seeing their self within the other and vice versa, whether human, animal, planetary. They see that the only way for deep and lasting transformation to occur is through the collective healing of collective trauma, to create new agreements about a shared life on a shared planet.

To the other levels Turquoise may seem:

· Out of touch with ‘reality’, overly spiritual

· Seeing everything as inter-related, they tend not to engage with narrowly defined issues

· Overly idealistic at expense of seemingly practical solutions

Turquoise consciousness is embedded within a wider field of global awakening, with movements such as Presencing Institute’s GAIA initiative, and Thomas Huebl’s Collective Healing events drawing diverse participants from across the world. In the words of Dayna Cunningham of MIT in her talk ‘ From Structural Violence to Structural Love’ at one of the GAIA events, she described her concerns as a black woman, in the face of the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on those within her community, and the hope of structural love — ‘Maybe as a start we have a different set of agreements amongst ourselves that are about attentional love, attentional focus, compassion and empathy, just holding ourselves in that as we walk around in the day, and visualising our world as a shimmering net of agreements and commitments and emotions and what if we can strengthen that through just an intention to hold ourselves in love. It won’t answer everything — still a lot of poverty and a lot of other things in the world to worry about, but just holding ourselves in that is I think a really good place to start.’

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So where does this leave us in our different attempts to address inequalities, and specifically structural racism? No organisation or setting is always purely located in any one of the above values memes, but hopefully by seeing the patterns at play in each, we can be more confident in finding the right chords, rather than a single note for addressing one of the most persistent and complex issues of our time. There are no simple answers, and attempts to diagnose the problem or define the solution at just any one level of system is bound to be inadequate. We need to harness the wisdom of all of these levels to shift chronically stuck patterns. My personal journey with the above has involved plenty of moments of frustration, feeling like I was letting myself down, letting others down, finding a home, finding myself homeless. Ultimately I believe that operating at each level requires us to be as honest, transparent and loving with each other as we can, whilst willing to stay open to the many different voices that may challenge our thinking, behaviours and practice, in the spirit of learning and making real, lasting change. And to recognise that it is ultimately our shared humanity which is both at stake, and the remedy.

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Katherine Long is a leadership and organisational development practitioner, specialising in regenerative living systems paradigms. Her next programmes are:

The Dance of Trauma and Healing — in person retreat at Hawkwood Centre for Future Thinking, 27th August 2020

Introduction to Focusing for Change Practitioners online course — approaches to embodiment to support deeper use of self in client work, next groups in September

Originally published at

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Living systems, diversity and inclusion, people and organisation development.

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