What Wakanda Forever Can Teach Us About Power in Systems Transformation

TULSA, OK – By now, I hope you have had the opportunity to view Ryan Coogler’s follow up to the  international blockbuster Black Panther. There are light spoilers ahead for “Wakanda Forever”– be advised. The fictitious nation of Wakanda has sparked discourse on the built environment, public health, technology, and the potential of a community, a people, and a nation unencumbered by oppression. On a third rewatch of the sequel, I thought of the role of power in achieving systems transformation. 

StriveTogether defines systems transformation in communities as places where ‘the civic infrastructure exists where all Black, Indigenous, Latine and Asian youth and families and those experiencing poverty have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential, from cradle to career. This is a result of partnership with system leaders in making fundamental and institutionalized shifts in policies, practices, resources and power structures to eliminate structural racism and advance equitable outcomes.’ 

ImpactTulsa serves as a backbone organization that leverages data to help people, communities, organizations, and institutions intervene at the roots of systemic inequity for continuous improvement and ultimately, meaningful, sustainable change. Collective impact relies on people at varying levels of power and influence working together while centering the voices and perspectives of those most proximate to the issues, the problem, or the pain. 

In Wakanda Forever, we see Queen Ramonda, leader of the most powerful nation in the world, in the crosshairs of King Namor of Talokan. His undersea nation is at risk of being discovered after a government entity found Vibranium beneath the ocean. Much of the film’s plot centers on the Talokan-Wakanda war and the carnage that ensues as a result. After a deadly battle where we see both the hero and anti-hero nearly fall, they finally come to an agreement to align in the event Talokan is threatened by other countries. I couldn’t help but wonder how outcomes may have been different for their citizens had the leaders of Wakanda and Talokan convened to align on mutually beneficial strategies to keep Vibranium under lock and key. For example, King Namor wanted to neutralize Riri Williams (Ironheart) because her invention jeopardized Talokan. Queen Ramonda and Princess Shuri refused to turn her over. While both felt justified in their decisions, what might have happened (titillating plot notwithstanding) if they came together with Riri to discuss their concerns, their own interests, and co-developed a path moving forward? We might have missed out on a compelling storyline and gripping action sequences, but a stronger alliance might have been formed with a substantially less loss of life for either country. 

In systems transformation work, institutions and people in power coming together can aid in making things happen through the allocation of resources, shifts in legislation, and other processes that historically exclude voices of those most impacted by socio economic issues. Unlike the fictitious characters in the Marvel Comic, we have an opportunity in Tulsa to continue working together across institutions and power to achieve things we might only do as a collective. Alignment for equity requires proximity, communication, and a persistent willingness to collaborate with shared benefits being prioritized over wins for a select few. 

Namor wanted an immediate result–destroy the outside threat. Shuri believed they could mitigate outside threats without harming RiRi Williams. A systems transformation approach would have these leaders thinking about the long term and asking,

  • How might we ensure that decades from now, Vibranium will be secure behind our borders?
  • What policies currently exist or must be created to ensure this?
  • What countries or global entities might support this effort (advocacy)?

There are several other questions that they might generate, but the key point is there is power in coming together and thinking about what policies, practices, resources, and relationships must shift, evolve, or be created for long term, sustainable change. The consequences of not doing so perpetuate the status quo or worse. It is important for power to be at the table when working towards systems transformation, and it is critical that people be willing to think with a long term view that includes multiple perspectives.

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Written by Ashley Philippsen, Interim Executive Director of ImpactTulsa.

Photo by Marvel Comics and Empire: https://www.empireonline.com/movies/news/empire-world-exclusive-black-panther-wakanda-forever-covers-revealed/