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I am now three months into my fellowship with the Lead for NC program. Unlike many of my colleagues I have not followed a straight path to arrive at this point. In my pursuit of a career that allows me to engage in good trouble I have watched my path zig-zag from immigration law to electoral politics. As a millennial that came of age during the Obama years, I am no stranger to activism, having spent much of my 20’s campaigning against unjust policies and marching in the street in support of a better vision of America. And with this in mind, it can feel strange reflecting upon how I have arrived to find myself working to create change from within the system.

Working within the system presents its own unique set of challenges. And from an activist’s mindset, its own gnawing questions. How do I advocate for change without becoming co-opted by the inherently unjust system? How do I build social capital such that my ideas are taken seriously? How do I, as a year-long fellow with LFNC, transform the system’s fundamental behaviors so that a new, equitable pattern can emerge?

These are difficult questions and attempting to answer them while adjusting to life in a small town adds its own layers of complexity. The city of Kinston faces many challenges – it is built on a flood plain and faces the constant threat of yearly flooding (especially with the exacerbating factor of a warming climate), the East Side has been rated as one of the most economically disadvantaged communities in the state, and it continues to struggle to overcome its past as a manufacturing town. Trying to tackle these problems as just a yearlong fellow can feel immense and intractable.

But I believe that in this context, the key to maximizing one’s impact upon a system is to take a localized approach and focus on changing your specific department. In Robert Gray’s excellent article on system change, he defines a system as “an entity which maintains its existence through the mutual interaction of its parts.” It is easy to view a system as a giant disarticulated blob, however, when thinking in the language of systems change it is more helpful to examine it as a machine of interdependent parts. Gray explains that if you can make something good happen in your own little patch of turf – and sustain it – then the organization will eventually have to absorb it. Therefore, when working to implement transformational change we must remember that by adopting more equitable policies in our own small sector we are actually changing the larger system.

As my first project with the City of Kinston, I have been tasked with creating the city’s ADA transition plan. My work falls under the jurisdiction of the Human Resources department, yet federal ADA compliance requires that all city infrastructure be up to standard in order to maintain eligibility for federal grants. This means that by working within my department I can prescribe structural changes to city buildings and establish new ADA friendly HR policies that will translate into larger changes to the city as a whole. While I cannot change budget line items or zoning regulations, I can craft more equitable changes to the system’s ADA policies, program standards, regulations, and governance. Change to these interconnected elements will define what the system actually produces. That is, a more accessible and inclusive public space for our disabled neighbors.

One year ago I would not have imagined myself working to be an agent of change in a Tier 1 county, but life has a funny way of placing you where you need to be in the time in which you are most needed. And while I am still searching for an answer to the activist’s dilemma, I believe that I have found a transitory compromise. There is no shortcut to achieving the kind of long-term transformation change that is necessary to enact racial and economic justice in our system. However, by concentrating upon what is in front of us and our surrounding environment we can stay focused, hopeful, and have a lasting impact in the time that we are given.