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ISDC 2021 Highlights: Tackling Structural Racism with Modeling

The International System Dynamics Conference (ISDC) convenes practitioners who demonstrate what’s new and developing in their fields with System Dynamics. This section of the WiSDom Blog, “Conference Highlights,” asks system dynamicists to spotlight key presentations and innovations presented at the conference.

Conference Highlights Editorial Team: Saras Chung, Will Glass-Husain, Jack Homer, Sara Metcalf, and Remco Peters with coordination by Christine Tang

This highlight by Braveheart Gillani spotlights the work of addressing structural racism with system dynamics



Tackling Structural Racism with Modeling

The brutal murders of George Floyd, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans in 2020 caught the attention of people worldwide, highlighting the inequities caused by structural racism. According to the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, structural racism is defined as “a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.” 

These horrifying events happened alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, which also has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that Black people were hospitalized 2.8 times more and died at almost double the rates of whites. Structural racism has been declared a public health crisis by the CDC as well as by some cities, such as Cleveland, and it also threatens access to decent housing, education, and jobs for many people. 

The topic of structural racism was first featured in two roundtable sessions a year ago at the 2020 International System Dynamics Conference. During these sessions, members proposed the development of a Special Interest Group (SIG) to build a community of practice for system dynamicists studying this topic. The goal is to build the capacity of SIG members seeking to resolve issues of structural racism using SD. The SIG has held monthly meetings to discuss work in progress, and share resources and concerns.  Some of their work was featured at the 2021 conference. 

One example of work on structural racism that was presented at ISDC 2021 included Dr. Peter Hovmand’s plenary presentation, Opportunities, Cautions, and Lessons in Humility: Possibilities for Advancing Racial Equity. Hovmand pointed to John Galtung’s work on Structural Violence, which views structural violence operationally as the gap between the oppressive status quo and an individual’s fully potentiated condition. System Dynamics could be used to identify such gaps, accelerate prevention strategies, and increase progress toward more equitable systems. Case Western Reserve University’s Community Based System Dynamics Lab has been addressing structural violence in the contexts of opioid addiction, sexual and gender minority continuity of care, and food and nutrition equity. 

In a separate talk on the Impact of Racial Discrimination Across the Life Span, Dr. Hovmand explored how seniors’ theories about their quality of life can vary depending on whether the individuals are Black or White. By using mixed methods and participatory systems mapping with two groups, the study found that Black participants reported greater socio-economic deprivation and lower health-related quality of life than their White counterparts. The two groups generated similar causal loop diagrams, but they described different distributions of resources affecting people’s quality of life.

Finally, in a presentation on Structural Racism and System Dynamics: A Scoping Review, Dr. Irene Headen, Mikayla Branz, and Ellis Ballard identified nine studies that addressed structural racism in a theoretical or an applied way. The six theoretical articles sought problem-based and paradigmatic insights, while the three applied articles sought participatory and dynamic insights.  

Dr. Headen also described four essential needs for future System Dynamics work focusing on structural racism: 

  1. Explicitly define time horizons and reference modes to improve problem definition,
  2. Clearly define and design modeling projects,
  3. Identify the best sources of structural knowledge and make the best use of system knowledge holders, and
  4. Think carefully about the origins and reliability of structural knowledge.  

ISDC 2021 showcased System Dynamics projects that are addressing structural racism across a range of disciplines. Leaders in this field are demonstrating how we can use the method to untangle the dynamics of structural racism and find ways to root it and its associated inequities out of society. It is exciting to see the insights that can come from applying SD to this complex and critical problem. 

Braveheart Gillani

Twitter: @BraveheartGill1

Braveheart Gillani earned his Master’s in Social Work with a specialization in System Dynamics from the Brown School of Social work and is currently working on his Ph.D at the Mandell School of Applied Social Science at Case Western Reserve University. Braveheart’s research and advocacy are focused on sexual and gender minorities, healthy masculinity development, along with issues of racial equity. 

ISDC 2021 Highlights: Connecting Perspectives on Gender Dynamics

The International System Dynamics Conference (ISDC) convenes practitioners who demonstrate what’s new and developing in their fields with System Dynamics. This section of the WiSDom Blog, “Conference Highlights,” asks system dynamicists to spotlight key presentations and innovations presented at the conference.

Conference Highlights Editorial Team: Saras Chung, Will Glass-Husain, Jack Homer, Sara Metcalf, and Remco Peters with coordination by Christine Tang

This highlight by Suzanne Manning spotlights work that demonstrated gender dynamics in System Dynamics modeling. Special thanks to Dr. Sara Metcalf for her editorial support on this post.


Connecting Perspectives on Gender Dynamics

“All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome” –  Kate Sheppard, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Kate was a woman ahead of her time, championing diversity and equality in the nineteenth century. She recognized the need to overcome all forms of discrimination.

As systems scientists, we can use our work to spotlight and disrupt discrimination, or leave these difficult issues aside, losing opportunities for insight. Science is not conducted in a vacuum. The research questions we choose to investigate, variables we choose to model, assumptions underpinning our simulations – these are under our control. 

As a first-time attendee at the 2021 International System Dynamics Conference, I was excited to see presenters spotlighting gender discrimination and the emergent system properties of gendered bias.

Two in particular, focused on gender-based violence, one of the biggest issues facing women in the world today. A poster titled It is Not My Fault was presented by Paola García Vázquez, Sandra Vázquez Guerra, Daniela Videa Martínez, and Gloria Pérez Salazar. The authors demonstrated a model of gender-based violence in Mexico, depicting feedback loops that discourage women from reporting by placing them in vulnerable positions without police protection. Their suggested policy intervention was to fund NGOs to provide strong support for women, to which an attendee suggested targeting the “machismo” culture which normalised violence against women instead. 

Eduardo De la Vega addressed that culture in his model of violence among adolescents in rural Colombia, suggesting men’s “conquer and domination” tendencies were a key factor for violence on the streets. Both Paola and Eduardo found that focusing on changing men’s attitudes towards violence in general, and against women in particular, could significantly impact violence. In other words, beyond the basic goal of keeping women safe, the models pointed to initiatives that make men safe to be around.

Trust was spotlighted by Sarah Pritchard, Lucy Puckett and Andrew Brown in their Work in Progress  presentation titled The Terrible Bargain. By modelling intimate relationships, they showed how men’s respectful behaviour towards women could be a balancing feedback loop that disincentivises unwanted behaviour. I agree – that’s a terrible bargain, for all involved. Their model included the impact of “patriarchal cultural norms.” Targeting societal norms of male behaviour…there’s a theme here

Another presentation, Sexual and Gender Minority Youth in the Foster Care Model by Dana Prince, Braveheart Gillani and Meagan Ray-Novak, highlighted a critical perspective using minority stress theory. They provided an alternative to linear models that suggest solutions that “blame the victim”, and instead reveal the complex structural issues that lead to multiple levels of stressors for this population. Policy makers need to see this work.

Policy makers should also see how gender dynamics emerge in Fernando Redivo’s model of household level food security in Zambia. Fernando considered a wide range of variables that might influence food security and found that a key factor for supporting food security was to proactively support women who head households. The presence of gendered structural discrimination in Zambian households meant that without extra help, these women were generally not able to sustainably support their families. 

Hesam Mahmoudi and Navid Gaffarzadegan also found insights that could help improve women’s lives, by investigating what causes disagreement among physicians. Their paper examined how physicians balance risk and outcomes in their decision processes, noting that some obstetricians overuse Caesarean sections for delivering babies. By choosing a gendered medical example, their analysis leaves the door open for questions about how to model women’s agency and influence in decision-making about delivery, suggesting fruitful avenues for further work. 

Parallel to issues of gender, another area for further work was identified by Irene Headen, Mikayla Branz and Ellis Ballard in their review of structural racism research in System Dynamics. They found very few articles in their search. Their recommendation was that models about systemically marginalised people should involve those people in development and analysis. 

This advice was on my mind as I attended a presentation by Takuma Ono of work with Rowland Chen, Ivan Taylor, Saroj Koul, and Mia Vogel, on promoting the success of women of color entrepreneurs in the United States. Takuma presented a thorough and high quality model.  While this project had not yet involved the subjects of the model directly, Takuma indicated that the next phase of their research would involve reaching out to these women to gather their perspectives.

System Dynamics practitioners are making important contributions to gender analysis, and we might expect to see even more at ISDC2022, since next year’s conference theme is ‘Diversity’. One analysis that I want to keep quiet, though, is from a Work in Progress presentation on gender and the Beergame, by Maria Guadalupe Arias, Juan Pablo Torres, Karla Padilla, and Samuel Madariaga. They compared gender differences while playing a look-and-react Beer Game, and the findings were disputing the literature that says men tend to focus their gaze on a single thing and women look around more. Please don’t share this with my kids – I’ve been telling them that as a mother I have an innate ability to see everything they do!

Suzanne Manning

Twitter: @slmanning1

Suzanne is passionate about gender equality, education and science. She is currently trying to change the world by working as a social scientist at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research in Aotearoa New Zealand.