Contemplating SHIFT 2021

Here at SHIFT Collaborative, we’ve always encouraged, supported, and fostered four fundamental “shifts”:

  • from working in isolation to working collaboratively across siloes and perspectives;
  • from addressing symptoms to tackling root problems;
  • from dealing with single issues to changing systems, and
  • from linear planning to real-time experimentation and adaptation.

So, as we enter our 4th year at SHIFT, we’ve been engaging in our own practice of adaptive learning. We’re asking ourselves how SHIFT can continue to be of greatest service to those working towards social transformation in the face of climate change,  social inequities, systemic racism, economic instability, and food insecurity, all now compounded by an ongoing pandemic with wide-ranging political impacts. We know that deep, enduring change that leads to a better world is possible, but how do we collectively get ourselves there? And what can SHIFT do to help?

The past year has certainly highlighted the importance of our core principles – but it’s also taught us new lessons about how to support true systems change.


What a year this has been.

Most of us have been experiencing unprecedented disruption and uncertainty in our daily lives. The pandemic and adaptations and responses to it have shaken nearly everyone’s personal and professional footing, along with our collective sense of social “normalcy.” 

And this crisis, alongside the epidemic of opioid overdoses and mounting impacts from climate change and climate-related disasters, have been exposing and exacerbating some of our society’s long-standing economic and racial inequities, and the frailty of our global food and supply chains. 

Meanwhile, many people see these simultaneous social, economic, and environmental disruptions as a sign of what’s ever more likely to occur going forward – But they also see in all of this an opportunity.


We are in a moment of transition and transformation.

The current situation presents an opportunity to bring diverse movements together to collectively re-envision the world as it could be. Indeed, for all its challenges, the pandemic and the related crises of the past year have given us all very potent reminders of how vital human and social connections are, and of how quickly we can make major changes in our society when we really want to. And across different movements from Indigenous and Black Lives Matters to climate strikes, more people are acknowledging that we can’t and shouldn’t “go back to normal.”

Yet the enduring shifts we need are not merely technological, but cultural. The intersecting crises call on us to pause, reflect on what’s most important, and recognize what we can let go of as we move towards transforming our underlying worldviews, norms, beliefs, and practices. We must step away from our desire to “tinker,” and begin to work for profound personal, political, social, economic, psychological, legal, institutional, and environmental changes. 

Climate science tells us we have eleven years to act; Black  and Indigenous Lives Matter movements tell us enough is enough. Creative approaches and broad-based solutions are needed now. 


True transformation isn’t easy and needs commitment and support.

Our envisioned future is about hope, emerging innovations, and building alternatives that put the planet and people first. But we should not mislead ourselves into believing the journey will be completely rosy. Any serious, large-scale transformation can involve anxiety, loss, anger, grief, isolation, conflict, and tremendous uncertainty. To effectively navigate these transitions, changemakers and leaders – in communities, organizations, and governments – need support in developing new capacities at the individual, organizational, and systems levels. 

 SHIFT’s core practices of “sense-making” and adaptive learning and action are becoming even more critical amid the disruption, uncertainty, and prevailing lack of clarity about the “right” paths forward. And our commitment to cross-sectoral, integrated approaches to addressing multiple issues simultaneously has never been more relevant.

What is different, though, is that our culture’s underlying tensions are being elevated and brought to the surface by the intersection of the climate, pandemic, and social justice crises, and are being more deeply felt than ever before. Consequently, changemakers must deepen their capacities to meet and grapple with these new levels of challenge. And we hope the SHIFT Team can play a role in nurturing and supporting this capacity development.

This in turn calls on us at SHIFT to be bolder in our work with our partners, and not ignore or sidestep the mindsets, norms, and practices that often sit beneath the surface and block true, fundamental change. It also calls on us to deepen our own practice and better understand our blind spots so that we can more effectively support others in these same processes.

 SHIFT’s core practices of “sense-making” and adaptive learning and action are becoming even more critical amid the disruption, uncertainty, and prevailing lack of clarity about the “right” paths forward.

Let’s move from ideas to action.

So, what does this look like in practice for SHIFT? We are adding a fifth approach to our list of “shifts” that we encourage, support, and foster:

  • from superficial reforms to transformation that is fundamental and profound, both inwardly and socially.

And these are some key working principles that we are working with to help guide this kind of transformation moving ahead:

1. Slow down and be with the uncertainties.

We must acknowledge and “sit together” with the uncertainties and challenges that lie before us. We don’t have all the answers we need yet; no one does. But the more fully we understand the depth of the challenges, the more likely the solutions we do eventually find will be real and lasting.

2. Recognize the system “out there” is “in here.”

True social change work is “an inside job.” Thoughtful reflection, inner exploration, and personal transformation, especially in collaboration with those around us, is a vital part of grappling with the “messy bits” of systems change, such as interpersonal conflicts and personal discomfort, grief, or trauma.

3. Look for our blind spots; tend to issues of power and equity.

We must be open to the possibility that we ourselves may unintentionally have developed false or counter-productive beliefs or attitudes that cause harm to some, and be willing to hear the suggestions of others for how to begin to better understand and transform these. 

4. Let go of the old, and cultivate creativity and experimentation.

We may need to let go of some of our old patterns, beliefs, and stories that have guided our personal, work, and political lives. In recognizing this, we will be more ready and willing to consider creative new ideas and fundamentally different approaches.

The complexity of this time calls on us at SHIFT to be bolder in our work with our partners, deepen our own practice, and not blast past  the mindsets, norms and practices that often sit under the surface and block true change. As we look to the year(s) ahead, we are excited to nurture and foster these capacities in ourselves and those we work with.

Several portfolio items from SHIFT projects in a mixed display.
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