Fractals: Considerations for More Effective Change-Making

Last month was the 6 year anniversary of #OCCUPYWALLST, a political movement in the US that needs no introduction. September 17th, 2011 was a pivotal point in my life. It was the day I started down a road divergent from the status quo, the day I left the confused world of early 20’s “adulting” and joined The Movement. It brings hope of a world arranged in such a way that poverty is impossible and extractive ecocide is not the basis of economic activity.
It took me three years to begin to grasp a very important lesson that The Movement demanded I learn.

Photo by Steven Diaz on Unsplash

“Change must start from within”

It’s almost cheesy in its simplicity. But this was such a profound realization that I recall the exact moment it truly stuck. Sitting on a low wall, looking over the East River on September 17, 2013, I realized that change starts within me. This is why a protest that seemed to be about big banks and income inequality spent so much time talking about systemic racism. It’s why I was constantly being told to “check my privilege,” why I was told to examine my bias. The systems that created the economic crisis of gross inequality didn’t come from nowhere; they came from people just like me. People who hold within themselves the schematics of oppressive systems. It is through people that these horrors are birthed and through them that the horrors are overcome.

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.”

Bell Hooks

In this quote, Bell Hooks is describing the connection between violence against women with the internal violence against one’s self. She makes a similar connection to police violence in the US and its roots at home. There is a thread of commonality that runs between the unaccountable violence we see from police as an institution and the individual acts of violence we commit against ourselves and others. The way we treat ourselves as individuals and those around us is linked to the whole of a culture.

Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

As Above, So Below

I believe the message here is that we cannot hope to address systemic violence in our institutions if we do not also face the violence in and around ourselves.

More broadly, we cannot change anything outside of ourselves if we do not also change within. This is why:

“Change must start from within”

I don’t believe that it is a controversial thought, that a person who commits domestic violence will bring that same violence into their workplace and, inversely, a workplace that is violent will be carried home by those who work there.

What The Movement taught me with #OCCUPYWALLST was that I couldn’t hope to change the way the world worked if I didn’t change the way I worked within the world. If I want women to be equal I’d better treat them as equals. If I want equality, then I must practice equality in my life.

The fractals of change

These thoughts are not groundbreaking; the Dalai Lama was tweeting about this before I even integrated it into myself.

What I want to do is apply this truth to work we do and how we do that work. Consider the leap between me not interrupting women at meetings and systemic violence against women being eliminated. I’ll admit, a single act of not-being-a-dick doesn’t do much to erode thousands of years of systemic oppression. But the actions of the self and the actions of a culture are fractal reflections of each other, with too many steps in between for a single act to resolve this deep-rooted issue.

For the purposes of this article, “culture” is defined as the dominant form of human activity on earth. This could be K-12 education, nation-states, money, etc. Basically, everyone except for the 0.01% of tribal people still holding on.

If we consider culture to be a mighty river, then the individual is but a tiny spring that flows into it. These individual springs flow together to form a small creek, and all the creeks join together to form a stream, and the streams join to form the river…we can see how this analogy might be used to map the fractals of human endeavors. The individual flows into a group, the group into a team, the team into an organization, the organization into sectors, the sectors into economies, the economies into culture.

Image taken from Pexels

So, if we agree with the premise that “Change must start from within,” we see the fractal connection between the atomic part (the individual) and the whole (culture, or all humans). Change the humans, change the culture. This connection is present between every step in that system. To change the family, you must start with the family members. To change the team you must start with the members of that team. Again, I suspect that this isn’t earth-shattering news to you. Basically, what I’m saying is, “To change the whole you must start with the parts.”

There is a relationship between the components and the whole. If you want to change the educational system, teachers will change how they teach, schools will change how they run, school districts will change how they operate, and so on up the fractal ladder. If we want to address police violence we must address violence along the fractal, from violence against the self to domestic violence, to violence among nations. The violent tweet is connected to the bombs dropped on Syrian children is connected to a bully beating up a peer is connected to the violence that the bully witnesses at home. All are parts of the fractal.

You are part of the world and part of the fractal

At this point, we must be careful not to get lost within ourselves. Change along these fractal ladders happens all at once. Its influence is omnidirectional, happening up and down and at all points. It can be easy to confuse the need to start within with the desire and ease of staying within. We must address state violence as we address police violence as we address our own violence. It all happens in tandem. The spring flows at the same time as the river.

You might think that you need to do all the internal work before facing the work that needs to be done in the world. This is not the case; I can advocate for a carbon tax while still driving a car. You can and will be a hypocrite and that’s okay.

The whole system moves at once. We start from within because it is where we have the power to start. I can only move my body. I cannot move yours, yet by moving my body, I inspire yours to move too.

Photo by Dan Roizer on Unsplash

What you do is how you do it

Let’s consider how we make change in the world. The kind I’m talking about is often done through activism and organizations with social good as their bottom line, which in the US take the form of non-profits or a 501c3. These organizations seek to change something other than the numbers in their bank account. The idea that “Change must start from within” is probably very familiar to them. Personal development, anti-oppression training, and other means to change the “within” of the individual are often present. But what doesn’t seem to be given much thought to is how these organizations’ structures mirror the fractal patterns they target for change.

Can an organization that wants to reduce inequality in the world complete their mission if those very patterns of inequality exist within their own organization?

“Change must start from within”

Even if the people in the organization are all woke as f**k, that organization also needs to start from within.

This is the fractal ladder we must climb to get out of our current crisis. Just as we need to look inward to work through our internalized biases, so too must our change-oriented organizations look within. How can a group fight for women’s rights if women are talked over in meetings discussing this very subject? How can a group push for greater democracy in the world while organized as a tyrannical hierarchy? How can a group demand equality while it’s interns go unpaid?

It is this relationship between the meta and the micro that we need to address. I do not mean to say that a group cannot work toward change without being perfect. Instead, we need to always remind ourselves that working towards change means working to change –on all levels of ourselves, our lives, our peers, and our culture.

This is why my co-op chose to organize as a co-op instead of any other hierarchical business model. This is why we spend so much time working on our internal culture. If we want to be able to shift other groups’ culture towards alignment with their goals, we too have to shift our culture to align with ours.

“Change must start from within”

This post also appears on if you’d like to click buttons about it over there.