Forest for the trees: reflections on a decade of systems change.

Fiona David

I was first introduced to Andrew and Nicola Forrest back in February 2012.

As employee number one of (then unnamed) Walk Free, what came next included a journey from Perth to Port Hedland to London and then back to Darwin, to fall asleep with exhaustion on a park bench, having finishing preparing briefing for Bill Gates on the proposed new organisation.

And that just was the first weekend.

Having been exposed to the heady world of start-ups, there was no going back. I had no idea just how transformative this experience would be, personally and professionally.

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Photo: Fiona David and Andrew Forrest, Co-Chair of Minderoo Foundation, appearing before a NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into a Modern Slavery.

What are some of the lessons I learnt, in the past decade, about "what works" to drive systems change?

How do we move from an approach that is bogged down in detail to make systems level change? In a world where everyone has an opinion, how might we cut through the noise and find ways to make some actual positive social change?  

Following are some personal reflections on key steps in the change process that really matter. 


Co-Chair of Minderoo Foundation, Nicola Forrest with (L-R) Shelley Cable, Bree Fraser and Fiona David. Photo credit: Benjamin Horgan, Minderoo Foundation.
Co-Chair of Minderoo Foundation, Nicola Forrest with (L-R) Shelley Cable, Bree Fraser and Fiona David. Photo credit: Benjamin Horgan, Minderoo Foundation.


Step 1: Straddle the barbed wire fence.

In every social movement I have ever been involved in, there have been deep divisions and “sides” within those movements – camps fiercely pitted against each other, while also being apparently all in service of the same cause. Sex worker rights vs prostitution as an abuse of rights. Ecology vs single species approaches. Rights of paid union members vs rights of all workers. And so on.

Collectively, we need to hear the noise but not get lost in it. Is there a way we can shift our focus to a higher level in the debate, where it is possible to be reminded of what everyone does agree on about the nature of the problem, and start there?

A clever colleague once described this rather uncomfortable role as "straddling the barbed wire fence".

People working on sex worker rights will disagree with anti-prostitution reformers about what sort of law reform will make women safe. But both will agree that all people have human rights to safety, self-determination and decent work. No one should be murdered or violently assaulted at work.

Start there.

Step 2: Open the gates.

In every social movement, there are gate keepers. They want you as a new player to work with them - and only them. They will tell you how bad the other camp is and that you shouldn’t trust them. When this happens, take it as your cue to look up and around, and find ways to step up and over the artificial gates that people seek to create.

Gate keeping takes many forms. Language. Tribes. Access to money and power. Personality politics. In the very early days of Walk Free, we experienced gate keeping via terminology linked to mandates – the language we used, such as ‘forced labour’, or ‘slavery’ or “human trafficking” implicitly decided who would and wouldn’t work with us. So somewhat controversially, we decided to start using the term “modern slavery” - not a term of art in law, but as an umbrella term to catch all of the above and enable us to work with everyone.

Step 3: Unblock the system.

In every social issue, there will be blockers in the system. Everyone agrees "the issue" is a problem but no-one agrees how to solve it. Everyone agrees that change is needed but the cost is simply too high to get support. While not always the solution, this is where research can be incredibly powerful.

When Walk Free was created back in 2012, the blocker was a lack of clear evidence about the scale of modern slavery. “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist”. So, we did our best to estimate the scale of modern slavery.

This involved a lot of personal knocks and criticism in the early days. And there was good reason. Our early efforts were a bit like the rough maps that explorers used to create when they sailed to the new world - with rough shapes far from the precision of today's mapping.

But we stuck with it. We listened to critics where criticism was constructive and not simply personal, and every time we repeated the exercise, the maps got clearer.

Recently, Walk Free heads produced an outstanding fifth edition of the Global Slavery Index.  The estimates of modern slavery are going up not down, reflecting the compounding challenges of climate change, COVID and rising inequality. Between 2016 and 2021, the estimated number of people living in situations of modern slavery on any given day rose by 10 million to 50 million.

But we are increasingly equipped with a much sharper picture of where modern slavery occurs, who it affects, how, and why.  Instead of focusing on whose numbers are right or wrong, business, government and civil society can focus on addressing the underlying structural and social issues that enable this crime to persist.

Looking forward

It was an absolute privilege to be part of finding the path and helping grow Walk Free, Minderoo Foundation and more recently, Forrest Research Foundation.  

In 2023, I'm charting a new course but still with a strong focus on social change. I've founded Fair Futures, a solutions focused consultancy, in response to the urgent need to help businesses work out how to embed human rights in the race to net zero. While many are talking about "just transitions", we don't yet have the infrastructure or policy environment to enable this.   

That is where Fair Futures comes in. In 2023, we'll be publishing our own research that helps unpack some of the policy changes needed, to help better integrate human rights into the sustainability agenda. We are also working with organisations that are looking to build new ways of working that respect human rights in the transition process.

If you are a philanthropist, investor or business leader looking to drive social positive impact through your work, I'd love to hear from you. Lets see if there are ways we could work together, to help drive a fairer future for all.