Alumni Spotlight: Ellen D. Lewis - Systems Thinking & Global Development

By Heather Blahnik (Madison '96, US '98, AI '99)

I had the opportunity to talk with Ellen Lewis, an AIESEC alum from San Jose State University, California during 1984-87.  Ellen has spent her professional life working with organizations to help them thrive in the face of change, complexity, and uncertainty.  She has a master’s degree in organizational development and a Ph.D. in systems science and she uses her innate skills and abilities as well as the tools that she has gathered through her studies to help organizations and communities better attend to gender equality, environmental sustainability, social justice, economic well-being, and community engagement.  

Ellen joined AIESEC at San Jose and after university, she went to work for the Girl Scouts for 12 years - 6 years in the US and 6 years in Heidelberg, Germany.  After that, she was hired to be a “Community Entrepreneur” with Petaluma City Schools in Northern California where her goal was to increase the number of college and career-ready youth.  In Ellen’s 12 years working in Sonoma County, she created various youth employment services, led and found funding for projects to enhance career/college readiness and also co-created the Petaluma Youth Network, which included the people and organizations who touched students’ lives at some point during their day, everyone from police officers to school administrators to the mayor’s office.  Ellen worked with the organizations in the Petaluma Youth Network to adopt a developmental assets framework that was used to evaluate success, identify goals and strategies, and worked with them to access new funding and to collaboratively apply for that funding.

Raised in Puerto Rico until she was 12, Ellen identifies herself as a “Third Culture Kid”, a child who is raised for a significant part of their childhood in a culture different from his/her parents.  Although Ellen is American, she also identifies with Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rican culture. Ellen’s bicultural life led to her consulting career in international development.

Although much of her work has been in Latin America and the Caribbean, she also has worked in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Southeast Asia, Europe and the United Kingdom. She saw that there was a gap between the stated gender equality priorities of development projects she had worked on and how they were being translated in the field, noticing a pattern of policy evaporation. Ellen applied and received a PhD scholarship at the Center for Systems Studies at the University of Hull in the UK.  For her field research, she worked with rural business owners in Nicaragua along with the National Agrarian University in Managua, where she introduced and culturally adapted systems thinking as a means to support locally defined social change.

Her doctorate research was the foundation for work she later did with UN Women.  She spent the last two years working on a publication that she co-authored called “Inclusive Systemic Evaluation for Gender Equality, Environments and Marginalized Voices (ISE4GEMs)” which was recently published by UN Women.  It broadens existing evaluation practices by bringing in systems thinking and encourages evaluators to include stakeholders in an effort to locally define, analyze, and implement evaluations as a means to social change and capacity building.   

So, what is systems thinking?  Systems thinking, which is a form of analysis, challenging traditional cause and effect logic and is most useful when dealing with complex social situations. As opposed to a traditional linear approach, it does not focus on separating the individual parts of what is being studied (e.g., individual stocks in the stock market) to gain understanding.  Instead, it focuses on the interaction between the individual parts (e.g., a broad array of technology, social media, and wireless network stocks) giving a broader understanding and offering different conclusions.

In my conversation with Ellen, she used the example of a village that does not have access to clean water.  In a more traditional linear way of thinking, people in the village may quickly identify a solution which is to divert a nearby river for their use.  There is a problem – lack of clean water – and a solution – a nearby river. However, with systems thinking, different voices and different parts of the system are looked at and included in order to identify other, and possibly better, options. Boundaries are identified (e.g., should a nearby village that is using the river be included in the analysis?) as well as perspectives (e.g. who can represent the river?) and also interrelationships between people, things or ideas.  These three building blocks – boundaries, perspectives, and interrelationships – are continually discussed, re-evaluated and changed in order to identify courses of action that bring the most benefit and the least negative impact.

Ellen says that the tools of systems thinking that she uses in development work are also applicable to organizations.  For example, in a change effort within an organization, it is necessary to define the boundaries of the problem or change effort, to identify interrelationships, and to ensure that different perspectives are included. This can be seen at the level of a meeting, identifying different power dynamics (e.g. management and staff) or personality types (e.g. introverts, extroverts).  It can also be seen at the level of a larger change effort where it may be necessary to include people from all levels of an organization as well as from customers, suppliers and the broader community if those parties are included in the boundary of the project and bring valuable perspectives on interrelationships. Also, as Ellen mentioned, people who help create the change are more likely to support it.

Ellen is consulting on a project called Systemic Partnerships for Positive Peace, which is a UK Global Challenges Research Fund project that aims to build partnerships between academia, government agencies, NGOs, community groups, and the private sector in order to tackle issues in post-conflict societies in a more systemic way.  She recently traveled for 5 months to Nepal, Australia, Angola, Thailand, Indonesia, and Colombia to meet with individuals and organizations who can be potential partners in the project and are making plans to apply for the funding. She is also delivering workshops and capacity building to organizations that are interested in using the ISE4GEMs methodology. If given some time in between projects, she would also like to travel to Puerto Rico and help with post-Hurricane Maria efforts.  

At the end of our conversation, Ellen told me that she still is close to a large number of the members from her LC. She also collaborates on business ventures with some of them including meeting up with a fellow AIESEC San Jose colleague in Nepal when she recently traveled there.  She said that AIESEC gave her so many life-long friends and so many experiences. It was and is very important to her. Thank you Ellen for sharing your time and your story!

Other news