EP7: What is Your Role? Understanding the Ecosystem of Social Change and Where You Fit In with Deepa Iyer

A group in deep thought during the Accelerator in 2019.

We’ve all heard the phrase “stay in your lane,” an admonition that can actually cause paralysis for people just stepping into social change work. When thinking about activism, I wanted to share a framework that holds the concept of “lanes” more loosely and graciously.

Deepa Iyer, author of We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future and creator of the podcast Solidarity Is This, created a tool, “Mapping our Roles in Social Change Ecosystems” in 2017.  Deepa describes the framework as a tool that “can help individuals, networks, and organizations align and get in right relationship with social change values, individual roles, and the broader ecosystem.”

It is a framework that can deepen our understanding of the many necessary roles that people play in social change. The Social Change Ecosystem Map can be a mirror we hold up to ourselves, prompting necessary introspection. Looking at the wheel of roles I might ask myself: Is my “occupation” of multiple roles actually harming the success of this organization? Is there someone else who might step into a role I’ve traditionally held onto? Is the role I play the best use of my interests and skills? Does it give me joy?

A map is also a tool that helps us understand the nuance and dynamism of social change organizations. Importantly, it can help each of us respond more confidently to the question “Where do I fit in? What is my role?”

Like most frameworks, the Social Change Ecosystem allows for fluidity and change. For example, we might find that in one organization or area of social change, we play one role. In another organization, we may find we fit most comfortably into another role. In addition, our roles may change over time. 

The beauty of this framework is that it compels us to see these roles as equally important, even though traditionally, we may hold up Frontline Responders or Disruptors as more important than, say, the Caregivers or Storytellers. It is interesting to consider the ways that white patriarchal supremacy has infiltrated the social change ecosystem, causing us to hold certain roles as more or less valuable.

Deepa and I begin the conversation by talking about co-liberation and the importance of centering anti-Black liberation as a means of liberation for all. At the same time, centering anti-Black liberation does not mean that understanding other forms of oppression is not important. Again, we must be on the lookout for the ways that supremacy divides us even in our anti-racism work.

We’d be delighted to hear what questions this conversation raises for you and encourage you to take advantage of the Roles for Social Change Map and Reflection Guide (see below). Consider not only your role in your organization but also in your family and community.

In this podcast, Deepa and I talked about:

  • How galvanizing moments invite us to integrate action into our lives;
  • What solidarity means: a bridge between our internal commitment and an active commitment to end anti-Black racism;
  • Why a commitment to ending anti-Black racism is a commitment to ending racism altogether against everyone;
  • Why social change work is at its core relationship building;
  • Deepa’s Social Change Ecosystem and its roles;
    • How to use it personally and within organizations
    • How it can push a person to step more deeply into a role, or let go of outgrown or less aligned roles;
    • How organizations can use it as a tool for analysis about its ecosystem
  • Why the Ecosystem of Social Change disrupts the concept of hierarchy in social change



Deepa Iyer is a South Asian American writer, strategist, lawyer, and racial justice advocate.

Currently, Deepa is a Strategic Advisor at Building Movement Project and Director of Solidarity Is, a project that provides trainings, narratives, and resources on building deep and lasting multiracial solidarity. Deepa’s areas of expertise include the post 9/11 America experiences of South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh immigrants, immigration and civil rights policies, and racial equity and solidarity practices.

Deepa has worked at various national and local organizations with a focus on immigrant and racial justice. She served as executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) for a decade, and has also held positions at Race Forward, the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, and the Asian American Justice Center. Deepa has received fellowships from Open Society Foundations and the Social Change Initiative, and in 2019, she received an honorary doctoral degree from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Iyer serves on the Advisory Council of the Emergent Fund, which resources grassroots organizing and power building in communities of color who are facing injustice based on racial, ethnic, religious and other forms of discrimination.

Deepa’s first book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (The New Press 2015), received a 2016 American Book Award and was selected as a top 10 multicultural non-fiction books of 2015 by Booklist.  Since We Too Sing America was published, Deepa has been part of over 50 community conversations around the country on the themes in the book, at college campuses, non-profit organizations, faith-based institutions among others.

Deepa hosts a podcast called Solidarity Is This, available on iTunes, and provides trainings on racial equity and solidarity to non-profits, government agencies, public and private stakeholders, educators, and institutions of higher learning.  Iyer also regularly facilitates group gatherings and strategy sessions.

 An immigrant who moved to Kentucky from Kerala (India) when she was twelve, Deepa graduated from the University of Notre Dame Law School and Vanderbilt University. Follow her on Twitter @dviyer.  



Deepa Iyer’s Social Change Ecosystem, including the Map, the Roles and the Reflection Guide

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