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  • Writer's pictureTasha Harmon

How Does Change Happen?

“Two questions have been with me most of my life: How do people change? How do systems change.”

These words open the introduction of Staci K. Haines’ new book, Somatics, Healing and Social Justice: The Politics of Trauma.

Reading them felt like… coming home; like being deeply seen, acknowledged, accompanied. 

Reading them felt like belonging.

I grew up with those same questions, and with an intense but hard to articulate sense that there were deep connections between the two that were not being acknowledged or explored by people around me. 

My father was a community organizer, who focused on systems change. His work was all about building and leveraging collective power to change the economic and political systems that reflected and created injustices. For most of his life, he dismissed the work of healing, supporting people through hard times, and nurturing our bodies as at best “downhill” work (reactive, not really creating change), and at worst as self-indulgent.

This still seems strange to me, coming from a man who deeply understood the power of storytelling and the need to nurture leadership and group capacity, and who was often stymied by how resistant people were to changing their perspectives and responses. But, he had many reasons – personal and cultural – to be disconnected from his body, and to therefore focus on understandings and strategies created in, and comfortable for, his mind.

My mother was a preschool teacher, who focused, every day, on creating a rich, accessible, nurturing environment where small children felt encouraged, accepted, and celebrated. To walk into her classroom was to experience, immediately, a felt sense of welcome, expansion, comfort, and, as you engaged with it, delight. She never thought of her work as being about social change, but she surely nurtured self-worth, healing, resiliency, and curiosity in every child who entered her classrooms.

I grew up enormously sensitive to the injustices all around me (this was Chicago, Buffalo, and NYC in the 1960s and 70s). 

I could feel the fear underneath the verbal and physical violence, the numbness and uncaring, the brittle justifications of the status quo.

I could feel it, but none of the frameworks about social justice I was being offered truly wrestled with what that meant. 

I have found myself, again and again over the course of my life, grappling with how the systems we are immersed in damage us – all of us, wherever we stand on the ladders of privilege and oppression – and how that damage limits our imagination and capacity to change systems.

My father told a story about a young, black organizer he was working with who broke down in the debrief after a meeting with the white management of a large department store who they were trying to force to hire black people. (This was Buffalo in the late 1960s.) His agonized question was “Why do they hate us so much?”

That story ends with the family of that organizer coming to get him, and my father saying “We never saw him again.” The clear assumption on my father’s part as he told the story was that the young man’s pain, and his tapping into the deep question about the root of that hate, made him too sensitive to be an organizer – organizing was about systems change, not about feelings. 

I wonder what would have happened to the organizing team – and their work – if they had instead paused, noticed their own pain and fear, noticed that the question he was asking was, in fact, at the root of what they were up against.

I wonder what would have happened if the last 5+ decades of community organizing work my father and his comrades did had chosen to take that question seriously. 

Maybe we would not be in the place we are now, facing a huge, trauma-fueled backlash against BIPOC. 

Maybe, as people working in social change movements, we would have created cultures where we could address the trauma and fear we are all carrying. And maybe that would have led to creating healthier cultures/workplaces where we have the capacity to see, wrestle with, and address assumptions and behaviors that run counter to the values we are espousing about equity, inclusivity and belonging.

Maybe deeper change would have happened. 

I am deeply grateful to have found Staci Haines’ book; to be able to read about the ideas and experiences of people who are wrestling with the questions I have been wrestling with, to hear their stories, absorb their wisdom, and feed my own sense of what is possible.

I expect I’ll be writing more about this over the next few years. I hope you will come along with me for that exploration. I hope, too, that you will share your own questions, experiences and insights, so we can reach together for a way to bring the threads of individual and systems change together by acknowledging the traumas that sit at the root of what needs to be transformed.

. . .

Do you wonder what it would be like to work with someone who was wrestling with both these questions? Who could bring a systems lens to your personal struggles, or some clarity about how to acknowledge and work with the “personal” issues that seem omnipresent in your workplace?

Let’s talk! 

You can email me at, or call 503-788-2333 (landline).

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