The Right Lever at the Right Time |
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The Right Lever at the Right Time

Photo of Jane Elder in front of Academy offices

I’ve spent much of my career working for positive change, from advancing environmental policy to championing the value of the arts in our lives. At some point along the way, I was introduced to the now classic (at least in the field of systems theory) 1997 work by Donnella Meadows, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” In the essay, Meadows outlines twelve important “leverage points” within most complex systems that can be influenced to drive change. I found Meadows’ analysis a powerful tool for understanding why change is so hard—and also why finding the right lever to pull at the right time can result in big change.

At the Academy, we’re a small organization seeking to make positive social change at a time when our state, nation, and world are reckoning with complex systems and their limitations, whether we’re talking about economic and social systems that perpetuate racism or those that pose barriers to rapid responses to climate change. 

I recently watched a webinar that explored the concept of approaching complex problems as a “systems entrepreneur.” One of the webinar speakers, Tulaine Montgomery of NewProfit (a venture philanthropy organization), was urging philanthropists to invest in these systems entrepreneurs—leaders, experts, and actors—who know how to pull the levers that lead to transformative systems change. 

Montgomery then went on to describe three ways of supporting these systems entrepreneurs. The first was to create collaborative spaces where change agents can come together to build relationships that increase their capacity, spaces from which new ideas and partnerships can emerge. Montgomery’s description sounded a lot like what the Academy has been doing for decades through our Wisconsin Strategy Initiatives. We find leading thinkers and actors across relevant fields and bring them together to wrestle with Wisconsin’s biggest challenges, from ensuring a healthy future for our farms and rural residents, to safeguarding our freshwater, to responding to climate change. 

Montgomery’s second suggestion was to support the innovators who bring fresh solutions to the forefront. Innovative ideas have certainly been a product of our Wisconsin Strategy Initiatives, but we also showcase a wide range of emerging ideas in the sciences, technology, and the arts in Wisconsin People & Ideas, as well as through our public talks and other forums. Many of these emerging ideas have been shared beyond the borders of our state through the 150 videos and over 600 articles we’ve posted online.

The third area of support she suggested was for the agitators—the people who push us to see things in a new light or imagine other possibilities. The provocative and challenging writing we’ve presented in our magazine does this, as does the work of the many artists we’ve shown at our James Watrous Gallery. From the poems and projects of Wisconsin Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton—who describes herself as a “creative change agent”—to the powerful works of the women artists in our Vulnerable Bodies exhibition (on view through July 24 at Garver Feed Mill in Madison), the Academy is stirring things up through showcasing cutting-edge creative arts.

The Academy is committed to continue to use our systems entrepreneur capacities to shape a better Wisconsin—and a better world. At the same time, we’re working hard to ensure the Academy values the diversity of Wisconsin’s people and their many powerful ideas.


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Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

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Wisconsin Academy Offices 
1922 University Avenue
Madison, Wisconsin 53726
Phone: 608.733.6633


James Watrous Gallery 
3rd Floor, Overture Center for the Arts
201 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: 608.733.6633 x25