Rural Support Partners, mission-driven management consultants with a participatory approach to create lasting, equitable change in rural areas. Rural community and economic development.

What is Participatory Change?

What is Participatory Change?

Unleashing Change in Every Part of Our Lives

As we navigate the complex challenges of the 21st century, we are urged to find solutions that are not just sustainable but regenerative; collective rather than individualistic; not authoritative but participatory. In our ever-evolving landscape of complex problems, we need a strategy that fosters inclusivity, comprehends the broader context, and builds regenerative societies. We also need an approach that helps us listen to, include, and empower people to see and live into their favorite selves, whether it’s in our families, organizations, communities, or larger systems.

That approach and strategy exist within Participatory Change, a praxis that weaves together the best of popular education, systems change, regenerative design, and community organizing with new values, mindsets, behaviors, and practices to catalyze meaningful participation and systems change at whatever level you are working.

Participatory Change: Cultivating Conditions for Participation

At its core, participatory change is about democratizing the process of change. It’s about moving away from a model where a select few make decisions that affect many, to a model where everyone has a voice and a role in shaping their future. This shift is not just about fairness or inclusivity, it’s about effectiveness. When people are actively involved in the decisions that affect them, they are more likely to support and contribute to those decisions, leading to more sustainable and impactful outcomes. With participatory change, rather than being subject to decisions made by the people in the room who hold the most formal power, individuals become co-creators of their future, shaping policies, programs, and initiatives that reflect their needs and aspirations. This democratic process helps build trust, enhance communication, and foster a sense of belonging and ownership among members of families, organizations, communities, sectors, or other systems. 

Participatory change is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s a flexible and adaptable framework that can be applied in a variety of contexts, from families and organizations to sectors and societies. Whether it’s a community-led initiative to improve local education, a company-wide effort to enhance sustainability, or a global campaign to address climate change, participatory change provides the tools and principles to drive effective, inclusive, and sustainable change.

In its simplest terms, participatory change is a values-based approach to leadership. Participatory change is a way of being, thinking, and doing that cultivates inclusive decision-making and action and drives equitable and self-sustaining change. Participatory change is a leadership approach to cultivating the conditions for participation. Participatory change draws on and amalgamates powerful concepts, tools, and practices outlined by the theories and practices of popular education, systems leadership, regenerative design, and community organizing. By taking the best of multiple approaches to changemaking, participatory change emerges as a new approach to leading and catalyzes meaningful change at any level. 

The Core Belief: Participation is Power, Power is Participation

The belief that participation is power, and power is participation, is the cornerstone of participatory change. This belief challenges traditional notions of power as something that is held by a few and used over many. Instead, it posits that power is not just about having control or influence, it’s about being involved, having a voice, and making a difference.

Cultivating a belief that power is something that can be cultivated builds a sense of shared ownership and responsibility, strengthening the capacity of communities to face future challenges. It invites individuals not just to participate, but to take the lead in identifying problems and creating solutions. Inviting participation opens the door for participants to reflect on their own experiences, ask new questions, and think in new ways. 

In a participatory change context, power is not a zero-sum game where one person’s gain is another person’s loss. Instead, power is seen as something that can be shared and multiplied. When people participate, they not only gain power, they also contribute to the collective power of the group or community. This collective power can then be harnessed to drive change that benefits everyone.

The Theories Underpinning Participatory Change

Participatory change is grounded in a set of theories that provide us with a lens through which to analyze how change happens, how it can be facilitated, and what the ideal outcomes of change are. These theories include popular education, systems leadership, regenerative design, and community organizing.

Education as an Empowerment Tool

At the core of participatory change lies popular education. Popular education is a transformative practice that emphasizes dialogue, critical thinking, and action. It’s about empowering people to understand their world, question the status quo, and take action to create change. In a participatory change context, popular education is used to engage people in the process of change, helping them to understand the issues at hand, explore different perspectives, and develop their own solutions. Popular education’s emphasis on dialogue and critical thinking promotes equity by ensuring that all voices are heard and valued, and that power dynamics are challenged and radically reimagined.

By analyzing their societal, political, environmental, and economic circumstances, individuals are encouraged to question existing systems and take active steps towards improvement. In systems-change contexts, this means equipping people with the necessary knowledge and skills to:

  • understand the dynamics of their relationships with others,
  • navigate complex social structures, 
  • notice and make sense of market dynamics, 
  • see the impact of governmental policies, 
  • understand unprecedented large-scale issues such as climate change,
  • engage in systems change efforts and civic action, and 
  • leverage resources and technology for their benefit. 

The ultimate aim of popular education is to empower communities to become active in their community, economic, and environmental futures, fostering thriving, place-based systems. 

The Holistic Perspective: Systems Thinking

Systems leadership is about understanding and influencing the broader systems within which we operate. It’s about seeing the big picture, recognizing the interconnections and dynamics that shape our world, and using this understanding to drive systemic change. In a participatory change context, systems leadership is used to guide the process of change, ensuring that it takes into account the wider context and addresses the root causes of issues, rather than just their symptoms. Systems leadership’s focus on the interconnectedness of all parts of a system promotes equity by recognizing that everyone within the system plays a vital role and that changes must be beneficial to all, not just a select few.

Participatory change adopts systems thinking to understand the wider context within which change takes place. This approach views the community and the economy and all other related systems not as a series of isolated components but as an interconnected set of systems, or open systems, where changes in one part impact the whole. By mapping systems connections and understanding their implications, people within any system can develop solid strategies to address their challenges inclusively so that all can benefit from changes. 

Building for the Future: Regenerative Design

Regenerative design is a principle that focuses on creating systems that are not just sustainable but also capable of self-renewal. It’s about designing systems that are anti-fragile, adaptable, and beneficial to all their members. In a participatory change context, regenerative design is used to shape the outcomes of change, ensuring that they are sustainable, beneficial, and capable of evolving and adapting over time. Regenerative design’s focus on creating systems that are beneficial to all members promotes equity by ensuring that the benefits of change are shared and that systems are designed to adapt and evolve to meet the changing needs of all members.

Regenerative design, inspired by nature’s own adaptable and self-renewing systems, aims to create systems that are not only resilient but are also capable of continuous improvement and adaptation. This approach involves creating diverse, interdependent systems akin to ecosystems, where different elements support and nourish one another, creating a resilient circular ecosystem that can weather changes.

Participatory change and regenerative design go hand-in-hand. The inclusive, collaborative process of participatory change fosters the creativity and adaptability necessary for regenerative design. At the same time, the principles of regenerative design guide the efforts of participatory change towards creating systems that are not only sustainable but also adaptable, resilient, and capable of continuous improvement. Together, they form a powerful framework for building communities and economies that are fit for the present and ready for the future. This fusion navigates the path towards sustainable, equitable, and resilient growth, building not only a functioning present but also a thriving future.

The Collective Power of Community Organizing

Community organizing is a practice that involves mobilizing individuals and groups to take collective action on issues that affect them. It’s about building power, fostering solidarity, and driving change from the ground up. In a participatory change context, community organizing is used to engage people in the process of change, helping them to come together, build their collective power, and take action to create change. Community organizing’s focus on collective action and solidarity promotes equity by ensuring that all members of a community have the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from change.

Community organizing leverages the power of collective action to promote cooperation and collaboration in systems change work. Inspired by the work of civil rights organizers in the 1960s and by the writings of Saul Alinsky, this approach seeks to challenge entrenched power structures and effect change through unified action. Community organizing allows actors, whether in an organization or community, to identify their shared challenges and aspirations, and to build consensus on strategies to address them. This can range from forming cooperatives to enhance economic resilience, launching community-led initiatives to address local issues, or even advocating collectively for larger-scale policy changes.

Putting Theory into Practice: The New School of Participatory Change

The New School of Participatory Change (NSPC) was born out of a desire to walk alongside individuals and groups, providing the tools and knowledge necessary for the realization of participatory change in every aspect of their work. The NSPC is committed to catalyzing transformational change within individuals, organizations, and communities, as they become active drivers of their change and development efforts. This entails a shift from merely reacting to change to proactively shaping policies, programs, and initiatives that reflect community needs and aspirations.

Through our offerings, the NSPC seeks to nurture leaders and collective leadership, long-term resilience, and a drive to create an impact that outlasts the initiators of the change. It’s about equipping people to be not just recipients, but co-creators of change, building stronger and more sustainable futures within their own communities.


In conclusion, participatory change is more than an approach; it’s a philosophy that guides how participatory leaders live, think, and practice. Participatory change helps foster inclusive decision-making, shared learning, and long-term regenerative ability in any system. It represents a fundamental shift in how we think about and work towards systems change and what that change means for our homes, communities, schools, and organizations. It offers a comprehensive, inclusive, and sustainable approach to addressing the complex challenges of our time.

By integrating popular education, systems thinking, regenerative design, and community organizing, participatory change offers a roadmap towards a future where everyone shares in the prosperity of their community. The New School of Participatory Change invites you to join us in this journey, as we strive to turn theory into practice – transforming systems, building power to create equitable change, and cultivating conditions for radically-imagined, regenerative futures.

In the next blog post, we will delve deeper into the New School’s model of participatory change and explore how these theories can be applied in practice. Stay tuned!

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Rural Support Partners equips changemakers, organizations, and networks to cultivate lasting, equitable, participatory change in rural areas.

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