© Nazario Graziano

Dismantling Inherited Systems of Oppression

The Inheritance Project
7 min readJan 15, 2021


A letter from Inheritance Project co-founder Katya Stepanov

Dear Reader,

In her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Pema Chodron wisely teaches us, “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Such is the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

As the U.S. faces a time of great upheaval and division, I get the sense that people want to skip a critical step in this natural cycle and find unity, now.

However, the process of radical change begins with allowing what isn’t working to fall apart. Instead of panicking, pointing fingers or jumping to extremes, allow it to happen while drawing plans to rebuild, better. We must first dismantle systems of inequity and injusticesystems that for centuries have upheld and allowed for manipulation, patriarchal nepotism, sexism, homophobia, racism and white supremacy to become the status quo.

The origin of the word “dismantle,” or to destroy the defensive capability of a fortification, is derived from the Old French desmanteler, des- expressing reversal and manteler meaning to “fortify,” from the Latin mantellum, or “cloak”.

To dismantle something is to pull back the defensive “cloak” so you can deconstruct the operating system behind the powerful veils we call, “societal norms”.

Dismantling doesn’t begin with addressing external systems, however. Dismantling begins within. In order to dismantle a system, you must first address how you uphold that system with your behavior, body, language and thoughts.

You may intellectually disagree with, and even hate, a system that you unconsciously perpetuate because the scariest and hardest part about dismantling something that holds power is admitting the ways in which it holds power over you.

© Nazario Graziano

This is usually when resistance kicks in, because in order to get real with ourselves, we need to be ready for our perception as we knew and grew comfortable and complacent with itto completely change.

What does that look like? That looks like befriending disruption.

Disruption is not negative. In fact, I’d argue, it’s necessary. You know disruption when you feel activated, challenged or even triggered by something that contradicts your current world view. You have an opportunity to learn from disruption when you think, “How could this happen?”

The key is to turn the desire to point fingers at others into attention and focus on yourself. Instead of asking, “How could they do that?” or, “How could this happen?” ask yourself, “How am I complicit in this?” “How did I let this happen?”

When looking at images of violent white supremacists emblazoned in fascist apparel, the greatest fallacy and most seductive choice is to stop your process at your feelings of hatred and denial.

Hate and denial are antithetical to progress and breakthrough. When we blame, shame, or hate others, we give away our power to make change. We make ourselves powerless. When we recognize that the only actual change we can control is the change within, we become powerful.

It all begins and ends with you. When you realize that what you hate in others is what you hate and are most ashamed of about yourself, you reclaim your power and have real agency to do something revolutionary about it.

© Adam Hale

Once we turn our attention to how we perpetuate and uphold systems of dysfunction in our society we will begin to heal.

The good news is, we’re all in this together. We have all no matter our color, country, creed, culture or class inherited the society we were born into.

Our society was dysfunctional long before our birth, so it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the weight of our collective inheritance. We have inherited a broken, racist, unjust world that perpetuates violence and rewards supremacy and colonialist ideals.

Each and every one of us learned how to believe and live in this inherited world. That means that each of us, with enough courage, has the opportunity to unlearn and dismantle these systems within ourselves.

© Waldemar Strempler

For the last two years, I’ve been working with my team at the Inheritance Project to create a process and methodology to help in this great undoing and un-learning.

The process begins with identifying, naming and accepting the ways in which you have inherited and embody the very aspects of society that you so ardently want to change. By identifying the influences and situations that helped teach you to uphold these systems, you gain the autonomy and power to create a real plan of action.

As Bessel van der Kolk teaches in “The Body Keeps the Score”, memory is stored in our body, not our mind, so we have designed physical exercises in addition to mental tools to help you integrate your learning holistically. You’re bound to feel physically triggered and defensive when you first shine light upon your shadow. The only way to work with a physical response is to practice a new way of behaving in the body.

I wish I could offer you a simple 12-step guide to dismantling inherited systems of oppression, but I would be offering you an incomplete, fabricated guide which would further contribute to monolithic thinking. This type of reductive thinking no longer serves us. Nothing is a monolith, and in specificity, we find humanity.

The most important thing people need are communities with whom they can do this challenging, painful, joyous, rewarding work.

The journey itself is unique to every individual. We have myriad layers of inherited beliefs and different learning styles. There is no one-size-fits all approach to this work and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. Don’t buy it.

© Adam Hale

Instead, we are designing a powerful container to help you dismantle inherited systems in your community, whether that be an office, boardroom, classroom, congregation or home.

Like a caterpillar entering the chrysalis, we are creating a vessel where you will be safe to deconstruct your DNA and fall apart, so that you can rewrite your own internal operating code and come together stronger, ready to author new systems within yourself that are grounded in inclusion and awareness, equipped with practical tools to support the ongoing work for years to come.

Remember, until we do the work to change ourselves, we cannot change the world. So put down the scroll, the phone, the laptop and pick up a pen.

Begin by writing down which systems you want to change, as this will be your roadmap for the work ahead.

When we own our responsibility, we reclaim our power. The door is open. Cross the threshold. Your future is waiting for you.

You are history in the making,

Katya and Inheritance Project

P.S. Space in our programs is always available, and we offer sliding scale pricing. Discounts and scholarships are available for BIPOC and those of marginalized identities. Send us an e-mail to hello@inheritanceproject.org and let us know how you want to be a part of this work so we can make it work for you.

If you’re interested in hearing more about our programs, please subscribe to our monthly letter.

© Adam Hale

About the Author

Katya Stepanov is a co-founder and CEO of the Inheritance Project.

She is a facilitator, speaker, writer, artist and immersive experience designer who trains and works with leaders, individuals and organizations to build understanding across cultural divides and guide authentic social change. Educated at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, she translates advanced techniques in storytelling and communication for diverse audiences.

A Russian-Jewish refugee from Belarus, she was inspired to create the Inheritance Project through dialogue about her own complex identity. Katya has facilitated team events for over 100 diverse companies across sectors including Deloitte, Lockheed Martin and HBO. Her mission is to connect people across divides through storytelling and creating containers for transformation and belonging.