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Individual vs. System Change

Individual change versus system change refers to two different but related ways of addressing inequity. Those who believe in individual change view problems as the result of individual actions, and change their habits in order to influence larger change. This might mean that an individual examines their biases and racist beliefs in the context of their own lives, and believes that oppression can end through individuals changing their points of view. Sometimes, solely believing in individual change can lend itself to white supremacy culture, which we see in values of “individualism” or “I’m the only one”—but it doesn’t have to. As we’ve seen in coding, approaching EDI questions at a personal level can offer a deeper understanding of how oppressive systems impact people’s everyday lives, allowing us to understand how these systems have persisted over time.

 Those who believe in system change believe that larger systems of oppression, such as racism, sexism, classism, etc. are responsible for inequity, and try to change society by changing the system itself. From this point of view, inequity stems from oppressive structures—therefore, individual action alone can’t solve the problem. People tend to approach system change from two different perspectives. Some people look to make change within an existing system; others seek to replace the system altogether. 

Oftentimes, individual and system change are pitted against each other—you either believe in one or the other. However, the two can, and should, reinforce one another. Instead of viewing individual and system change as two opposing viewpoints, we can see individual change as the beginning of a journey which leads to system change. By developing shared understandings of larger problems and identifying what needs to change, individual change lends itself to large-scale system change.