Melanie Goodchild is a Faculty member with the Academy for Systems Change, the Presencing Institute, and the Wolf Willow Institute for Systems Learning. She is also a doctoral candidate in Social & Ecological Sustainability at the University of Waterloo and a Research Fellow with the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation & Resilience.
Melanie believes that to make real and lasting change, we need to recognize that we are part of the systems we seek to change. She facilitates collective wisdom journeys to uncover pathways to heal self, and heal systems.
Arts & Culture
Digital & Physical Tools
Melanie Goodchild is an Anishinaabe scholar and “systems and complexity geek” who helps communities and teams engaged in systems transformation work get a solid grounding in systems principles and practices from a uniquely Anishinaabeg perspective. Melanie’s academic paper, Relational Systems Thinking, first published in 2021, was an “invitation to dance with multiple ways of knowing,” and it appealed to thousands of people across cultures, continents and problem domains.
Since then, Melanie has considered how she might create new entry points for her work. She had begun to draft a set of principles for relational systems thinking, and envisioned an infographic that could serve as a one-page summary to share with different audiences. Yet Melanie also knew that her work was more than just a “framework,” which she described as an oversimplified visualization typically catering to an academic and Western audience. She desired for this to act instead as a story or set of teachings that was to be shared, as an invitation into a collective knowledge journey to engage in systems change.
In order to help this part of the work take shape, we acknowledge several key people:
Eleanor Skead and Bert Landon, Anishinaabe knowledge keepers and language speakers, who provided cultural guidance and advice throughout.
Ocean Kiana, Nishinaabe woodland style artist from North Western Ontario, who contributed the beautiful illustrations and ongoing thought partnership.
After meeting with Melanie to understand her work to date, we were able to enter into a generative space with the first yarn, or dialogue circle, with Anishinaabe knowledge keepers and language speakers Eleanor Skead and Bert Landon. This was the first of many touchpoints and thanks to Melanie’s facilitation, we were able to show up as participants, listeners and notetakers.
Based on Melanie’s early drafts of principles, as well as the insights and stories shared, we facilitated a synthesis workshop to start building towards a visual concept. Melanie had identified the Medicine Wheel as a familiar entry point for both native and non-native communities. We used a large print-out to explore how the principles worked in relationship with the Medicine Wheel as an organizing structure. Through this process we made adjustments to the principles and how they were articulated.
Although initial guidance had been shared in our first yarn with Bert and Eleanor, it was important to share with them our revisions, as we would do for the remainder of the project each time changes occurred. Amongst many teachings shared, their ultimate guidance in the second yarn encouraged Melanie to lean into her personal connection to the work, rather than using the Medicine Wheel. At this pivotal turning point, we shifted how we were approaching the work, and embraced ways Melanie’s personal experiences and connections to the principles could be more present. As we reflected together on how this work might take shape we also identified what it should be called: niigani miinigowiziiwin (we give these gifts to the future).
This project included a commitment to work with an indigenous illustrator, ideally Anishinaabe, who had personal connection to the cultural touchstones of this work. We were fortunate enough to be joined by Ocean Kiana, a Nishinaabe woodland style artist from North Western Ontario, who not only understood the importance of the stories that informed Melanie, but was able to translate them into draft sketches, concept illustrations, and ultimately, final artwork.
As we moved away from the Medicine Wheel as an organizing structure, Melanie started to understand the teachings as an example of the types of beings one might meet as you move through your journey of systems change. Inspired by this shift, our team created multiple prototypes which explored a more story-based approach. We shared these with two groups of systems change practitioners—whom Melanie called her “mob”—and documented their feedback about how the teachings could be applied in their own lives and broader work, and how their impact might be felt over time.
Before niigani miinigowiziiwin moved forward, another yarn took place with Eleanor and Bert to share updates and seek their counsel. When Melanie showed how the story was now taking shape, Eleanor and Bert shared that they were able to see Anishinaabe community beliefs and values in it, while also inviting people in who may have different references and experiences they draw from. It was a key goal from the start to create a piece for a cross-cultural audience, but one that didn’t sacrifice authenticity and respect for traditional ways of being and knowing.
The teaching tool we created together is called “niigani miinigowiziiwin,” or “We give these gifts to the future.” It is the story by Melanie Goodchild about her walk in the woods as an apprenticeship with complexity. Each of the seven beings she meets along the way are her helpers, illustrated and introduced in both Anishinaabe and English languages. They are illustrative of different helpers each of us might meet along our own journey.
The “storybook” format above is intended to be used by people who are working directly with Melanie, as part of a larger curriculum to support others through their journeys via workshops, meetings and fellowships.
On each page, a new helper is introduced and identified in the image.
This second version is just 2 pages, and is meant to be used as either a “leave-behind” or a “gift in advance” of Melanie’s various engagements. This document contains a QR code which directs to her website, where you can listen to the full story being read by Melanie herself. This provides a more experiential approach that stays true to the original intent of the piece; rather than individuals downloading it out of context, it’s meant to be introduced relationally, and understood over time.
Client & Community Outcomes
The tools we created together quickly became an essential tool for Melanie’s teaching and facilitation work. For example, she brought niigani miinigowiziiwin to a storytelling event, and told us afterwards, “The Elders Eleanor and Bert loved the story. And the story is exactly what I needed it to be, an entry point for me to introduce some academic theory about systems thinking and complexity science. I can introduce it to our communities, who are pursuing systems change, in a way that they can relate to it. Academic theory is not always celebrated, it can feel like a colonizing force and the knowledge keepers and language speakers re-interpret it based on our ways of knowing. The story celebrates multiple ways of knowing. The Elders felt it and understood complexity at a spiritual level. We sat out on the land and yarned on zoom and they offered so many teachings. A ‘model’ and ‘principles’ became a ‘story’ of the ‘beings’ and helpers I met along the path of my own learning journey. The story when I share it totally comes to life for people.”
As we closed this chapter of our work together, we all felt gratitude for the time and space we had been able to hold. Melanie shared how she appreciated the ways our team listened, took in multiple inputs, and synthesized and reflected those back to her in service to the work moving forward from ideas to a more fully realized piece. Also important to note is how Ocean contributed to our team and acted as a thought partner and shaper of this piece throughout our collaboration.
The Elders Eleanor and Bert loved the story. And the story is exactly what I needed it to be, an entry point for me to introduce some academic theory about systems thinking and complexity science. I can introduce it to our communities, who are pursuing systems change, in a way that they can relate to it. Academic theory is not always celebrated, it can feel like a colonizing force and the knowledge keepers and language speakers re-interpret it based on our ways of knowing. The story celebrates multiple ways of knowing. The Elders felt it and understood complexity at a spiritual level. We sat out on the land and yarned on zoom and they offered so many teachings. A ‘model’ and ‘principles’ became a ‘story’ of the ‘beings’ and helpers I met along the path of my own learning journey. The story when I share it totally comes to life for people.Melanie Goodchild
Team and Studio Impact
Many of our projects lead to new learnings and perspectives for ourselves, in addition to our clients. We often say that while our partners are “content experts,” with the deepest knowledge of the areas they live and work within, we serve more as “process experts” in human-centered design methods. However, throughout our work with Melanie, we also found new ways of stretching and adapting our typical approaches to process.
Much of the HCD canon is imbued with white Euro-centric norms, which was something we were acutely aware of throughout the engagement. Although we strive against these norms in our typical projects, we were even more deeply affected by the very teachings central to Melanie’s work: embracing spaciousness, slowing down, and listening more deeply to what was both said and unsaid.
One example included engaging in yarning, which embraced a more relational community practice as opposed to a typical prototyping approach. When seeking feedback, we tend to use participatory methods, but there is usually still a specific end result we are aiming for. Described in her work “Duck Shit Tea, Yarning & The Magical Space In Between Things,” Melanie explains that “yarns are like conversations but take a traditional form Aboriginal people in Australia have always used to create and transmit knowledge.” (Goodchild) These sessions focused more on unprompted open dialogue, and were a new way for us to enter a space—trusting that even without a detailed protocol, we would gain necessary insights. This method was in fact essential to understanding the value of a storytelling model to build collective wisdom, rather than a more rigid framework.
Another instance was toward the end of the project, when we were feeling deadlines fast approaching – a ripe place to start locking in decisions and ride the momentum to the finish line! When we had started the project, Melanie was considering many principles for inclusion in the final curriculum. Through careful iteration, we had aligned on including seven “beings,” or teachings, depicted in the story – but at this moment we only had six! Ironically, we were missing oshkaabewisag (helpers), as we had accidentally combined it with another principle. At that time, we were so close to finalizing the piece, it would have been tempting to say it was good enough. Instead, Melanie and our team paused to reflect: was there something to learn in this moment that was specific to the principles themselves? Was there a reason this principle had remained “hidden” until now? Upon reflection, we realized that while we had thought about the “helper” as Melanie, acting as a guide for others in the process, we realized that in truth, we each were in relationship with ourselves and our own spirit guides in this journey. In other words, the reader is their own helper.
This merging of the practical and the spiritual was a key part of this process, as it related to Melanie’s work and her goals for the project. While each of us may carry our own beliefs or experiences, in that moment we all felt a profoundness that we let touch us in personally meaningful ways, and that will be carried forward as a reminder that we are not always “experts,” but also students and participants in our collaborative work, should we allow ourselves to be open and feel its impacts.