How can we make real change? Reflecting a year after George Floyd’s death

Femke Bartels
Article by: Femke Bartels
How can we make real change? Reflecting a year after George Floyd’s death

Like many of you, I will never be able to unsee the video of George Floyd being murdered on May 25, 2020. The gruesome video shows now-former police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and Mr. Floyd begging for his life, continuously repeating, “I can’t breathe.” Derek Chauvin was found guilty of Floyd’s murder last month. 

American outrage about the murder of the 46-year-old black man sparked a global outcry, debate, and soul searching. When some people presented the killing as an incident and spoke about a bad apple in law enforcement, others pointed at the many black victims of police violence to show that this was not an isolated incident, but a consequence of systemic racism. It is not a race problem of one brutal police officer, nor is it a simple race problem in policing, but a race problem in society reflected in policing. Rotten apples keep falling from a rotten tree.

These events have opened the eyes of many: Over 60% of Americans say that racial injustice is a bigger problem than they thought a year ago. We are witnessing a societal mindset shift and an increased collective understanding that racism is a systemic issue. This is huge in and of itself. To quote Einstein, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Understanding we are dealing with a systemic problem helps us to address the root causes. I can’t help thinking, however, that our 55 minutes are up and it is time for solutions.

Being part of the solution

Unfortunately, I have seen in the two decades that I have been working to address systemic issues, many people feel daunted and disempowered when they realize they are dealing with a systemic problem. It feels too big – something that we cannot influence or change.

The good news is that nothing could be further from the truth. We are the system. We can change it. In democracies, we can vote for politicians who bring about the change we need. As employees, entrepreneurs, and leaders, we can decolonize our institutions. As consumers, we can support companies that are doing the work. We can have courageous conversations in our families and with our friends. Understand your agency – it’s usually stronger than you think. When working together, collaboratively and thoughtfully, a new reality can emerge.

As a teenager in a small town in the Netherlands, I remember watching the news when I saw a Greenpeace campaign. The banner warned, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” This had a tremendous impact on me.

How can we become part of the solution? A great tool that we use at THNK to create solutions for systemic issues is the iceberg:


It helps to understand that there is more than meets the eye. It reinforces that the murder of George Floyd is not an incident as some might think by only looking at it on an event level. Instead, the iceberg lets us explore the patterns in police brutality against African Americans in the US. On the structure level, inequities in wealth, health, and opportunities are built into the fabric of our society. Underlying all of this is how we understand the world around us: our mental models. Mental models are the attitudes, beliefs, morals, expectations, and values that we learn, often subconsciously, from our society or family. Racist stereotypes and assumptions infiltrate our subconscious because they are so ingrained in our culture. Deconstructing mental models helps us to become aware of our unconscious biases and to tackle them.

Transformative change

To make a real change in society, you must transform mental models. At THNK, we support leaders to change their mental models and shift their mindsets. We use experiential learning to help you truly understand who you are and what has shaped you. This will allow you, instead of being triggered and defaulting to your reactive mindsets, to choose your response to a situation and to check your bias. Being more self-aware and better able to self-regulate helps to make space in me for you.

Transforming mental models opens up possibilities to do different things – changing our institutions and our laws. With tools such as the iceberg, we help leaders design solutions in how businesses are run and politics are conducted, driving social innovation to create a society that is just and fair. Take, for instance, THNKer Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a powerful force who helps to ensure the climate movement encompasses a diversity of voices, especially women and people of color. Another example is Kate Mackintosh, who leads the Promise Institute, focusing on the intersection of human rights with migration, race and indignity, technology, and the protection of the environment.

All the initiatives that we are undertaking individually and collectively will help shape a more equal society. At THNK, we’ve been making a conscious effort to build an inclusive, equitable culture – and to think about how we want to live these values in our work. Within the team, we’re having conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and trying our best to practice courageous dialogue.

With the THNK Foundation, we are offering scholarships in our EMERGE and THRIVE programs, to leaders who have the potential to make a huge positive societal impact, but who would not have access to leadership programs otherwise.

THNK will continue making space for others, to learn and grow, and be part of the solution. It has been an extraordinary year in so many ways. How have you sought to survive and thrive? What key insights have you generated and what practices have helped?

Learn to lead for systems change in THRIVE: Lead With the World in Mind.