Leveraging Love in Systems Change 

by freya February 13, 2024

I’ll admit, until recently I hadn’t thought much about love, especially at work.  

But a little coincidence set me on a path that has me noticing love all around me, all the time, and wondering, do other people see it too? Why don’t we ever talk about it?  

What if we did?  

I should back up. This year, the quarterly Systems Change Community of Practice meeting we convene happened to be scheduled for February 14th, Valentine’s Day. Lately, we’ve started taking inspiration from the natural rhythms of the seasons to help us plan content – in spring we talk about what’s blooming in our work, in fall what we’re letting go of, etc. For this meeting, we decided to center “love.” It sounded fun, at first. Then daunting.  

What does love have to do with systems change, really?  

The process of exploring this question has me wondering if this might be our most meaningful meeting yet.  


Defining Love 

“What is love? It is the morning and the evening star.” Sinclair Lewis 

I started planning as I often do – by steeping in all the great thinking I have come across on the topic. I pulled my old bell hooks books off the shelf. I reacquainted myself with the teachings of Margaret Wheatley, Erich Fromm, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Dali Lama, Mahatma Ghandi, and Dr. Cornel West. I consulted with my friend Curtis Ogden who, unlike me, has never been afraid to write about love. I waited eagerly for the latest edition Non-Profit Quarterly: Love as Social Order. And, I was re-introduced to the Ojibwe Seven Grandfather Teachings and zaagi'idiwin (love) a central tenet.  

I won’t pretend to suddenly be fluent in love, but what I was left with could be distilled to this: love is nuanced and powerful. It’s a feeling, an action, an art and discipline, a religious mandate, a value, and a fundamental human need. Love can be directed at ourselves, our relationships, our communities, and our place and planet. 

Though we may not often name it, love is an undercurrent of nonprofit and changemaking work – from the roots of the word philanthropy (which translates to love of humanity), to human services, health and wellbeing, arts and culture, and conservation. Love has a long history of fueling social and ecological movements like the civil rights movement, anti-apartheid, LBGTQ+ rights, conservation, and restorative justice.  

Despite its complexity, it was clear, love has the power to transform.  


Love’s Transformative Power 

“What barrier is there that love cannot break?” Mahatma Ghandi 

I started noticing love in new places. I noticed loving care in our staff meeting check-ins, compassion in our work-from-home policies, loving connection and trust in grantee meetings, generosity and vulnerability in Native American Elders sharing their history and cultural practices at a recent summit, deep empathy in a meeting with a long-time coach, and mutual care in peer learning spaces.  

While I appreciated the significance of these practices before I started this exploration, what I see now that I didn’t before is that it is love that makes them transformative. I wondered, with more intention, could we bring more of this transformative energy into our work?    

Donella Meadows's Places to Intervene in a System reminds us that the goals from which a system operates are the among most transformative places to intervene. In other words, if the purpose of a system changes, everything is more likely to change.  

In systems change work, those intervening name the goals they are working towards. For some it is a healthier system; for others, it’s about a more regenerative system, or a more equitable system. Would a more loving system encompass all of those things?  

What if love was the goal, or purpose, of every system? 

More loving workplaces?  

A more loving philanthropic system?  

A more loving housing system?  

A more loving education system?  

A more loving health care system?  

A more loving food system?  

More loving climate action? 

What would more loving systems produce? How might it be different from what our systems are producing now? These felt like exciting questions and conversations I’d eagerly join.  


Leveraging Love in Systems Change 
“Embracing a love ethic means that we utilize all dimensions of love – care, commitment, trust, responsibility, respect, and knowledge – in our everyday lives.” bell hooks 

“Teach us love, compassion, and honor that we may heal the earth and heal each other” Ojibwe prayer 

What might work towards more loving systems take? Like any systems change, my mind went to work at nested levels: it will take weaving more love into our individual work, interpersonal relational work, and community and system-level work. Much of what came up for me through my reading, discussions and reflection were ideas that weren’t entirely new to systems change, but seeing them in the light of love, they took on new power, new possibility.    


Self-love and awareness  

“The success of our actions as change-makers does not depend on what we do or how we do it, but on the inner place from which we operate.” - Otto Scharmer & Katrin Kaufer 

I often remind myself and others that the most powerful leverage point in any system you wish to change is yourself. At first glance, the systems that are creating the challenges we find ourselves in today look loomingly large, complex, and impenetrable. It’s true that systems have many interrelated parts, but each of us are also a part of the systems we seek to shift. Humans make the choices that make our systems operate the way they do.  We can choose differently. And when we do, we affect and influence those around us. And slowly, new systems are born.  

I wondered, what might I do to begin to amplify self-love and awareness to contribute to more loving systems? A few ideas came up for me.   

  • Seek to understand myself more completely – my own identity and the mindsets and biases I carry with me, my sources of power, the strengths I can offer, and how each of these might impact the systems I work within.    
  • Give myself the grace to be a learner – I will be confused, I will get things wrong, I will regress. But, I will be patient with myself as I find lessons and continue to call myself forward towards adaptation. 
  • Continue to attune to the love around me, and practice naming it. 


Relational love 

“When we choose love, we choose to move against fear, against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect…” bell hooks  

The field of systems change is beginning to recognize the power of relationships to shift systems. These connections facilitate the flow of resources, challenge and widen perspectives, seed learning, and scale new approaches. Relationships are the connective tissue that fortify organizations, networks, change initiatives, and communities. I wondered, what might we do to amplify relational love to create more loving systems? 

  • See others more completely - learn each other’s stories, what shapes and motivates them, their strengths and needs.   
  • Give others the grace to be learners. Others will be confused, get things wrong, and regress. Be patient. Allow others to learn from failure. Forgive. 
  • Cultivate the skill to acknowledge, value, and bridge diverse perspectives. 
  • Appreciate others liberally.  


Love in community  

“Justice is what love looks like in public.” Dr. Cornel West 

“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” Margaret J. Wheatley 

Systems change takes collaboration, an appreciation of the interdependence of people and parts of the system, and a willingness to find and work on root causes together. In place-based systems work we often have the added benefit of a common love of place. How might we begin to amplify love of community and love of place to create more loving systems?      

  • Create rituals and structures that support belonging and inclusion. Reach beyond the existing power centers in systems. Connect the disconnected to the work of changing the system. 
  • Find a common purpose. Recall it often. Be open to evolving it as new information and perspectives are included.  
  • Build networks of shared resources and mutual support. Create space and structures for rest, regeneration, and wellbeing. 
  • Consider how each part of a system might be designed for more loving outcomes – more loving policy, more loving governance and leadership, more loving resource distribution, more loving communication and flows of information, more loving mindsets. 
  • Uplift and celebrate signs of change. 


What does love have to do with systems change, really?  

When our work is rooted in love, we seed more love. Loving action connects us to a feeling we know and something all humans need and desire at a fundamental level. Love can transform patterns and create different results for individuals, groups, communities, systems, and the world.   

What does love have to do with systems change? It could be its very purpose. A different paradigm from which to consider the individual, relational, and community work needed to create healthier, more equitable, and regenerative systems. It can lead us to new questions and new solutions.     

This Valentine’s Day, I’m excited to explore these questions with the Systems Change Community of Practice and invite you to do the same.  

  • How does love show up in the system(s) you’re a part of? What is it transforming? 
  • If a more loving system were the goal of the system(s) you work within, what might that shift? 
  • In your work, where might you amplify self-love and awareness? Relational love? Community love?  



Freya Bradford was named after the Norse goddess of love and beauty, so perhaps she was destined to consider love in this level of detail. She feels indebted to all of the pioneers in this space for opening her heart to this connection, especially Curtis Ogden, whose generous work and discussions have most deeply influenced the reflections in this piece. Freya is Rotary Charities’ Director of Systems Change & Learning and helps us support systems change work in the region with funding, learning, and new connections. Freya can be reached at

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