Leading the Way in Next System Studies

From Communities to the Mason Campuses

by Kellie Wilkerson

“Any number of departments, programs, or centers could have instigated this process, we just happen to be the ones taking initial steps,” remarks Dr. Ben Manski, a new member of the Sociology faculty at Mason.  

The process in question? The introduction of a new field of research, teaching and learning that engages with communities in building and studying, “next system design, systemic movements, and system change.” In other words: next system studies. 

Mason introduces next system studies on April 21stThis introduction  takes place on a large stage on Wednesday, April 21st with, “The Next System and the Academy: Systemic Crises, Movements, and Change in the 2020s,” an event keynoted by Congressman Mark Pocan and featuring panelists Kali Akuno (Cooperation Jackson), Dr. Gar Alperovitz (Democracy Collaborative), Dr. Amy Best (George Mason University), Dr. Diane Fujino (UC Santa Barbara), Peter Knowlton (UE General President, retired), Dr. Ben Manski (George Mason University), and Mike Strode (U.S. Solidarity Economy Network). 

At Mason, next system studies involve a series of new programs, including new courses, engaged research, and a new undergraduate “Next System Fellows” program in the Spring of 2022. Mason’s engaged research in this area began in the Fall of 2020 with the Democratizing NoVA (DNoVA) project, a new initiative housed at the Center for Social Science ResearchDNoVA’s team of six PhD students are hard at work with Dr. Manski and other faculty, producing an assessment of initiatives for economic, community, and political democracy in northern Virginia. Beyond DNoVA, adds Manski, “We begin classroom teaching next month with ‘Social Change and the Next System,’ a cross-listed course that challenges graduate students and upper division undergrads to translate the experiences and ideas of community-based practitioners into an interdisciplinary set of practices in the academy.” 

The basic idea of next system studies, explains Manski, is that:  

“We are experiencing the symptoms of systemic decay all around us in the forms of political, economic, ecological, and social crises. The 2020s have been a long time coming, but they’re here with us now. When systems enter this kind of a period, we know that some kind of systemic transition is looming. The question this knowledge poses to any scholar concerned with contributing to the betterment of the human condition is that of what it is that we need to learn in order to assist society in transitioning to a system that works better than the old one. To borrow from Lev Tolstoy, ‘What then must society do?’ Or to paraphrase Gar Alperovitz, ‘system change is coming; what kind of system do we want and how do we get there?’ These are the questions at the center of next system studies.” 

The April 21st launch event is designed as an extended panel discussion and will feature a keynote speaker, a major panel and an academic response panel. Major panelists include what Manski describes as “doer-thinkers” - practitioners who are also intellectual leaders in the field, often doing and thinking on the front lines of the major crises of today.  

The keynote speaker is U.S. Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin. Long a leader among congressional progressives, Rep. Pocan is the co-founder of the congressional Labor Caucus and the co-chair of the Cooperative Business Caucus.  

Panelist Kali Akuno is a long-term organizer in Jackson, Mississippi rooted in the black radical tradition and widely admired for his work in building Cooperation Jackson. Manski notes “he’ll bring lessons and perspectives from the experience of building cooperative infrastructure owned and operated by the people in Jackson – people involved in resisting and responding to immediate harms while also building themselves a new future.”  

Another panelist, Mike Strode serves on the boards of the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network, Dill Pickle Food Co-op, Co-op Power and is a founding coordinator of the Kola Nut Collaborative in southeast Chicago.  

Recently retired United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) General President Peter Knowlton will speak to lessons from UE's efforts to build democratic ownership of workplaces and the relevance of those lessons to the climate crisis. 

Rounding out the main panel is Gar Alperovitz, who has, “for a long, long time been an extremely important player in the social movements and policy reforms that still impacted community development, environmental policy, and civil rights today.” A former federal policymaker, activist, and academic, Alperovitz can be considered a primary author of the intellectual framework of next system studies.  

The academic response panel features Dr. Diane Fujino, professor and chair of Asian American Studies, as well as former director of the Center for Black Studies Research at UC Santa Barbara, and also Dr. Amy Best, the interim director of the Center for Social Science Research and professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology here at Mason.