Lessons for communicating about systemic change

The American Aspirations blog shares insights you can use to connect your cause to hopes and values that motivate people—and create communications that inspire and engage them. Sign up to learn more.


The system is broken. The system is rigged. We ought to blow up the system.

Americans talk a lot today about how “the system” isn’t working. Many social change leaders say they work to create “systemic” change. “You can’t change the system” is a common catchphrase.

Despite all the talk about “the system,” it is an abstract idea. That can make it difficult to motivate people to join the cause and fight for change. How can you change something you can’t grasp?

The American Aspirations team explored this topic with people in focus groups across the country. People from all walks of life expressed a similar narrative about “the system”—what people or organizations are part of it, how it works, and how it affects people’s lives.

We began those conversations by asking participants to draw what “the system” meant to them. Drawing pictures to represent abstract ideas helps people express what those ideas “look like” in their mind’s eye. This exercise can unearth not only vivid images, but also powerful language and meaningful metaphors. We use these insights to create content that reflects the way people intuitively understand complex topics.

Overwhelmingly, people drew pictures of government and big business working to benefit each other, often at the expense of everyone else.

Evan—a 25 year old in Denver, Colorado—drew a diagram, shown below, showing corporations and lobbyists contributing money to politicians, who in return pass favorable laws and special tax breaks for business. This cycle will go around and around, Evan explained, until the system is changed to get corporate money out of politics. Otherwise, politicians won’t have any incentive to pass laws that benefit ordinary Americans.

Evan’s representation shows how people think of “the system” in terms of the people who comprise it and the rules that govern their behavior within it. Putting people in the picture helps explain complex systems in relatable, human terms. Shining a light on rules that drive their behavior shows how the system can actually be changed.

This is a simple but powerful approach to communicating how “systemic change” is possible. Experts who attempt to explain the complexities of systems to non-experts can overwhelm and de-motivate their audiences. When engaging non-experts, it’s critical to keep it simple.

Our focus group discussions also revealed that people believe all Americans are supposed to have equal opportunity resulting in equitable outcomes. Many saw the system as “broken” because it isn’t delivering things people need to build a good life, and because it’s creating a massive gap between haves and have-nots.

People expressed a common narrative: When government and big business work only to benefit each other, and don’t listen to regular people, our economy favors the wealthy and well connected. Rich people get special tax breaks unavailable to middle-class people. And their wealth opens doors for them that the rest of us can’t access.

Ultimately, people said, this means that Americans’ hard work isn’t rewarded like it’s supposed to be. One man in Nashville expressed a common sense of fatalism about the inequities of our current system: “To make it in life, either you’re going to struggle or you’re not going to struggle at all. That’s what the broken system is to me.”

These insights suggest a clear and compelling narrative about “the system”—the problems it creates, what it should be, and its impact on people’s lives:

The purpose of our government and economy is not to make a few people rich and powerful; it’s to ensure equal opportunity and reward hard work. But government and big business work only to benefit each other, and our economy favors the wealthy and well-connected. The system should ensure that Americans have the opportunity and tools they need to build a good life. Government should listen to everyday people and do what’s best for all, not just powerful corporations. And businesses should uphold their responsibility to society, not just their shareholders.

A narrative that shows how government and big business rig the system to benefit themselves, and how a broken system erodes America’s promise of equal opportunity, can make the problems you’re trying to solve concrete and meaningful to people. And a message that sets as its goals reforming government and leveling the playing field for all Americans will make your cause compelling to Americans of many different walks of life.

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