Collective Change Lab
5 min readJan 22, 2024

by Katherine Milligan, Laura Calderon de la Barca & John Kania

What if a major source of the “stuckedness” of our systems — the resistance, blockages, defensiveness, denial and distrust so many of us experience and are stymied by — is unresolved, unintegrated trauma that remains in the system?

It’s a provocative question. And even though it will be greeted with skepticism by many, for millions of others who continue to be traumatised by systems affecting many aspects of their lives, it often comes as a relief to name and acknowledge their lived reality. “The collective trauma of colonization shows up every day in the lives of my people,” said Louise Marra, a descendent of the iwi Ngāi Tuhoe and Co-Founder of Unity House in New Zealand. “A white Western audience may find this challenging to absorb, but for colonized people and people of indigenous descent, it is actually a relief to name trauma and acknowledge it — because when our stories can be heard and our pain can be met, that’s when the work of repairing and healing can begin.”

Collective, historical, and intergenerational trauma remain almost entirely absent from our mainstream discourse about systems change. As we articulate in our article Healing Systems, that is a significant oversight given recent advances in our understanding of how trauma works and the ways in which trauma impacts us both individually and collectively.

But how does trauma manifest in our systems? What does it look like and how can we recognise it when we see it and experience it? In the simplest terms, systemic trauma responses mimic individual trauma responses: same pattern, different order of magnitude.

To help social change leaders identify systemic trauma, we created a set of guiding questions using the Polyvagal Theory as a foundation, which has popularised the “fight, flight, and freeze responses.” We then extrapolated the most common symptoms or manifestations of trauma from an individual level to a systemic level using the concept of a fractal: self-similar patterns that repeat across different scales of magnitude.

We tested those manifestations of systemic trauma in several workshops with social change leaders working in child welfare, criminal justice, education, housing, and other systems in multiple countries. Many participants instantly recognized several examples of systemic trauma we provided — perhaps not as surprising as it sounds if we accept the truism that systems are relational. “If people live in wound, then systems live in wound,” as one practitioner surmised.

It’s our hope that the guiding questions in the table below can serve as conversation starters as we search for answers together. We stress this is more of an illustrative guide rather than a diagnostic tool, as some of the symptoms listed here may have another explanation. Nevertheless, we hope it helps to shine a light on the multitude of ways that trauma might be shaping a system’s behaviour and obstructing efforts to produce more equitable and just outcomes.

As an example, one social change leader in Australia used this tool to guide a conversation with colleagues who were frustrated to their breaking point. As they unpacked the trauma symptoms exhibited by various actors in their system, team members realized their frustrations were not with each other but with different blockages in the system they each had to deal with. As the conversation unfolded, they shifted their perspective on what they were experiencing and brainstormed new ideas on how to get unstuck.

“First, we identified and named the behaviors of system actors creating the blockages in the system, like denial,” said Kylie Burgess, former Shared Learning co-ordinator at Burnie Works in Tasmania. “Then we explored how some of the behaviors exhibited by marginalized people in the system are in fact protective in the face of decades of collective trauma. That exploration helped my team members readjust their expectations and come up with new ways to communicate risks and make decisions.”

As this example shows, when we become more adept as social change leaders in locating trauma and building a common language to name it and describe it, we can discern new ways of doing the work of systems change. As you read through the guiding questions, ask yourself:

  • Do you recognise any of these symptoms in your organization, your community, or the broader system you are working in?
  • Do these illustrative examples help you see other potential manifestations of trauma not listed here? Do they help you interpret the behaviour and actions of other system actors?
  • What might these new ways of seeing help you discern how about to do the work differently?
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Our hope is that the practitioner-oriented concepts and language shared here begin to build a vocabulary to help us identify and name what so many of us see and experience, yet struggle to find words for. Nevertheless, you might be asking: how am I supposed to use this set of guiding questions? You may wish to use them as a conversation guide with your colleagues or a broader set of collaborators with the intent of building a collective understanding about how unresolved, unintegrated trauma continues to manifest in the system you’re working in. A next step might be to facilitate collective meaning making experiences such as peacemaking circles or storytelling practices to deepen relationships and heal from many kinds of harms.

However, let us offer a word of caution: trauma is always in the room. We are not creating the conditions for restoration and repair if people walk into that room, get activated by the charged conversation, and revert to their trauma responses of aggression, blaming, withdrawal, and denial. So as you enter these conversations, make sure you resource yourself and resource the group to navigate this challenging topic.

We don’t have all of the answers. However, we are heartened by the number of social change leaders who are asking challenging questions, refusing to look away from trauma any longer, and integrating collective healing principles and practices into their ways of working.