Awareness Based Systems Change and Racial Justice


  • Dayna Cunningham Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University



racial justice, awareness based systems change, structural violence, social field


In my years working as a racial justice lawyer I came to realize that the law, while an incredibly important part of the work, is too blunt an instrument for the work of opening people’s hearts. What awareness-based systems change, and Theory U in particular, has to offer is a framework and method for doing this subtle work. In this piece I describe the ways in which this approach can serve as a powerful tool in the transformation of systemic and structural violence through its core movement of turning the beam of observation back on self and system with open-mind (curiosity), open-heart (compassion) and open-will (courage). If structural violence is a series of societal agreements to not pay attention to a set of people we deem less human than ourselves, as I believe it is, then what does it mean to cultivate a quality of attention that redresses these agreements? Not averting our eyes from the systemic racism that shapes our collective existence is core, as is witnessing with a tender heart.  Then connecting the tender heart to effective action means acting with understanding of the urgent need to see from the whole, which cannot exclude anyone, especially people who have been marginalized. While you do not unmake centuries of injustice and violence by paying attention with an open-mind, heart, and will, you do help the social body in the room become more effective at the thing they are trying to do - beginning to address centuries of injustice and violence. That is the potential of awareness-based systems change.


Scharmer, C. O. (2016). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges (2nd edition). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Scharmer, C. O. (2018). The essentials of Theory U: core principles and applications. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.




How to Cite

Cunningham, D. (2021). Awareness Based Systems Change and Racial Justice. Journal of Awareness-Based Systems Change, 1(2), 9–13.