March 10, 2018
“Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance.”
The following is a segment from the first post in a series focused on network theory and its actual and potential applications to education and learning. This series appears on the Education Week website and was invited by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) as it explores the potential of networks to advance equity, adaptability and excellence in public education …
Network theory is on the one hand a new and emerging interdisciplinary science and on the other hand it is ancient, grounded in indigenous and experiential ways of knowing about the reality of interconnectedness. Another important element of “network science” is imagination–the use of creative expression and metaphor that recognizes and works with relationship and relatedness that can help to guide our minds, hearts, and hands. These posts will draw insight from this broader understanding of network theory. This first post offers a larger view of the nature and potential of networks in our lives.
There is a lot of talk about networks these days. And there is considerable hope and effort being put into more interconnected ways of working and learning in order to bring about much needed innovation and change in multiple fields, including education. This is exciting, and at the same time I am concerned that the conversation can be relatively narrow, or leap ahead of some deeper insights of network theory and practice. In so doing there is a risk of not getting to the more promising potential of networks.
Connection is fundamental. This is a core observation of network theory (and various wisdom traditions). Network theory starts by pointing to the fact that we often talk about the world in terms of individual things and their properties. This kind of approach may work in situations and in systems that are fairly simple and relatively static. But when the interactions and the complexity of the elements in a system increase, it is the connections that determine the characteristics of the elements in the system and its overall health. This holds true for any kind of dynamic living system–ecosystems, human communities, economies, etc.
“Network theory suggests that what a system becomes emerges from the complex, responsive relationships of its members, continuously developing in communication.”
Life is at base a network. It thrives on connection. We all know this, experientially, because we are alive! And when we are not feeling alive or lively it is often because we are disconnected, cut off in some way–from other people, from the natural world, from our selves (feelings, bodies, values), from power or a sense of purpose. (See the UK’s recent move, incidentally, to appoint a Minister of Loneliness to address the multiple ills stemming from growing social isolation). Life thrives on connection. …
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February 20, 2018
I am becoming pretty good at compartmentalizing – focusing on the work that is right in front of me, even as more tragedy surrounds us and more outrage wells up within me. It’s certainly functional to be able to do that. But I don’t know that it’s always good. Part of me despairs. How many more people – and especially children – have to die needlessly? How is it that in other countries, people experience mental illness, firing from a job, expulsion from school, and all manner of personal tragedy without turning to mass killings? I want to be in the streets. I want to raise my voice with others in ways that will make a big and immediate difference. I want an end to politicians offering “thoughts and prayers.” I know there is power in prayer, and I also know that powerful prayer motivates powerful, compassionate action.
In a workshop the other day, we were exploring the ways that collaborative leadership practices support organizations and networks in pursuing broader diversity, deeper inclusion, and expanded equity and justice. Someone asked me if I really thought we would ever get closer to justice in this country, given the recent sharp turn we’re taking in the opposite direction. I offered two thoughts in response: (1) I think things are getting much better and much worse at the very same time. There is an expanding consciousness of the sacredness of human life and the interconnectedness of people and the planet; and many people who suffer under oppression are finding ways to resist and to build alternatives. That is all advancing and it’s good. And, the forces of racism, sexism, homophobia, zealotry, and more are also advancing, most recently with tacit and explicit support from the White House. (2) As a woman of faith, what keeps me going is anticipating that in 50 years, when people look back on this era, they will see it as the last moments of flailing by a dying beast. May it be so!
Our friends at Spirit in Action remind us that there are four interdependent ways to transform society: “reimagine culture, resist domination, reform institutions and recreate society.” Whichever of the “Rs” are in the center of your work, go forth with strength and power!
February 19, 2018
“It’s not knowing what to do that counts, it’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.”
Last week I had the privilege of co-leading a three day Facilitative Leadership for Social Change training for a group of health equity advocates in Springfield, Massachusetts. It had been a while since I had done a training of that length, and it was a nice opportunity to not only cover more material, but to deepen the conversation and practice. Along the way there were many good questions about what to do around various challenges when one is co-leading a collaborative change effort. And a common response was, “It depends.”
Every group is different, every circumstance is different, and while it might make sense to take some cues from what has been successful in other situations, the caution is not to assume that it will work, or work in the same way, in other situations. This is one reason that I personally do not like the phrase “best practice” when talking about collaborative and facilitative change work. Given the complexity of people and social systems, I find it more helpful to think about “promising practices.”
That said, a promising practice that came up time and time again in our three day training, was the practice or practicing, of ongoing devotion to muscle-building in leadership skills such as process design, facilitation, coaching (leading with listening and inquiry), systems thinking, visioning/imagining, mutual learning and collaborative decision-making/governance. And in undertaking such practice, we at IISC would suggest this is not about achieving perfection. The humbling and exciting thing about collaborative leadership, in my humble opinion, is that it is a life-long learning pursuit and an endless opportunity to deepen understanding of ourselves, others and living systems. For this reason, one of my mantras is:
Practice for presence, not for perfection.
That is, practice can help practitioners get beyond being caught up in simply “learning the scales” of collaborative leadership, in trying to get the skills “right.” Practice at its best can contribute to a state of being more fully present to what is happening in any given situation and being able to work with that in powerfully improvisational ways.
Furthermore, over the past year, there has been a clear call for practice and practices that are explicitly about cultivating spaces to hold difference and tension and trauma. That may be another order of presence characterized by a deeper tuning in and movement away from more transactional processes to ones that are emergent, co-created and geared towards supporting moral courage and imagination. What that can require is vulnerability and a humble sense of “being with.” What it stands to make possible, as opposed to business-as-usual, is growth and real movement forward, together.
February 2, 2018
February 5, we launch a connection/productivity experiment called Rays. It derives from a critical piece of team infrastructure we invented while working at IISC, the secret ingredient to our team’s performance. Without it, we noticed a gap and with it, the work (and our team) flowed more smoothly. That makes us think our little practice could benefit others. So we’ve decided to do an open call for participants.
The practice is a short, daily meeting: Rays. For less than 30 minutes, you will join an online call and share three things:
- RAY: something you are grateful for
- TASK: something you are doing that day
- BLOCK: something literal or existential in the way
There is no solving. It’s just reporting and listening.
We are inviting people to join us in February (starting as early as the 5th!). You commit to showing up to an online call for 5-days, up to 30 minutes, and sharing.
January 31, 2018
Power. Networks. Love. These three aspects of the IISC’s Collaborative Change Lens were not the official theme of the Victory Institute’s 2017 International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Leaders Conference, but they were woven throughout everything that happened there.
The Victory Institute works to get LGBTQ people into elected and appointed office. Their annual conference brings together elected officials, leaders, and advocates for three-days. The content of the conference focuses on skill-building, information sharing, and formal and informal networking.
The first gathering of this group took place in 1984 with about a dozen people. Attendee John Heilman, city council member of West Hollywood, described the gathering as “more like a support group” than a conference. It has now grown to a convergence of over 500 attendees from all over the world.
The reclaiming of power is central to the mission of the Victory Institute: “LGBTQ Victory Institute works to increase the number of LGBTQ people in public office and to provide programming, service and other support to help ensure their success.”
Why do we need more LGBTQ people in public office? With characteristic wit and bluntness, former U.S. Representative Barney Frank, the first person in Congress to come out voluntarily, said, “If you are not at the table, you are likely on the menu.”
The data tells the story this way: there is a direct correlation between the number of LGBTQs in elected office and the inclusion and equality of a jurisdiction’s policies.
In traditional ways, conferences tend to have a strengthening effect on networks. At plenaries and breakouts, attendees of the Victory conference had opportunities to connect around shared interests and maybe even to flirt a little. But the conference used the opportunity of the traditional schmoozing times to amplify traditionally marginalized voices. There was a “Leading in Color” reception which lifted up people of color, an International reception, and a Women Out to Win reception. The Institute also strengthened their pipeline for young leaders with the Victory Congressional Internship Meet & Greet.
The feeling of love was palpable throughout the conference. Because of the bullying and harassment we’ve experienced, no one knows better than the LGBTQ community how much humans need to be celebrated and cheered. Whenever someone announced they were running for elected office, the audience burst into applause.
The spirit of love and humility was also present in a frequently repeated quote from Danika Roehm, the transgender metalhead stepmom, elected as the first openly transgender person to the Virginia Assembly – the first to serve in any state legislature actually. Roem won against Robert Marshall, the sponsor of a bill to restrict public bathroom use by transgender people, who referred to himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe.” After the election, when asked if she had anything to say about Marshall, Roem said, “I don’t attack my constituents. Delegate Marshall is my constituent now.”
Pretty lucky constituent.
January 29, 2018
I migrated to the United States in 1998 via the F1 visa application process. This process allows a family member who is a citizen to apply for immediate relatives to become permanent residents. The premise of this process is one of family reunification and the applicant (citizen) must be a resident in the United States during the greater part of the application period. In my case, my mother was the applicant so this meant that during the better part of two years while I was in high school my mother had to live in the United States while my brother and I lived in Trinidad. Being separated wasn’t the only thing we all/each sacrificed; there are several ramifications of this process that go along with the privileges of becoming a US citizen. And, I don’t make light of those privileges, especially as my particular immigration story is indeed one of great privilege relative to the experiences of those who are currently under direct attack by the federal government and by the right wing media. (I say “currently” not to say that undocumented immigrants were not under attack by previous administrations, but to say that I do not know when naturalized citizens and permanent residents will be under direct attack, as well. We’ve already seen it begin with the “Muslim Ban.”) But this reflection isn’t about the politics of migration, although we would do well to continue to reflect deeply on that. Rather, I am contemplating the state of my heart as an immigrant.
One thing I have noticed over the time that I have been in the US is that my heart is always torn in two. As someone who straddles two different ways of being, two different nationalities, two different ways of looking at the world, it has been a doozy for reconciling identity. On the one hand, this is stressful, but on the other, like so many other third culture people I know, it is actually a great super power. I can see the world from different perspectives and can necessarily integrate them in a way that produces something better than the sum of the parts. Immigrants have super powers, y’all. We can take the best of many different worlds and create beautiful, delicious, vibrant expressions of what liberatory futures look like.
Today, one of the experiences that I’m yearning for that comes from my culture is the annual ritual of liberation we call Jouvay or J’ouvert. I won’t go into all the history of colonialism and slavery that gave rise to this tradition, but I will say that in the modern era it is a great spiritual cleansing and a public ritual of liberation that takes over the streets of Port of Spain during the climactic second-to-last morning of the Carnival season. (This year it will take place in mid-February.) Carnival itself is a letting go, a festival of liberation based on the pre-Lenten Catholic festivals of the French and Spanish when they gave one last hurrah to the vices and proclivities of the flesh before engaging in the 40-day long period of fasting beginning on Ash Wednesday. During our Jouvay, participants adorn themselves in handmade costumes, and in mud, oil, paint, and cocoa or baby powder, and they chip through the streets in great abandon under cover of darkness in the early hours of the morning until just after sunrise. Jouvay begins at 2:00 a.m. and ends around 7:00 a.m.! I am watching friends in Trinidad prepare for this day by gathering mud, by gathering the friends they want to be with on the road, and by beating the drum of anticipation for the ritual that allows for release and rebirth.
I crave this ritual or any other ritual of liberation that allows us to let go, to be free, without trappings and accoutrement, without fear. To experience what it is like to just have love, and music, and dance, and laughter, and spirit…and rum. I am craving stories of the feeling of liberation here in the US. I am craving a liberation praxis. So often when we are asked about liberation as activists, we describe the struggle, the fight, the organizing, the process towards liberation. But I want to know…what elements of liberation are people experiencing right now even in the midst of the struggle? Even if it is for just a moment or an hour, when do you feel free? What are the experiences we want to expand in our liberatory future because they make us feel a little bit free now?
January 24, 2018
“The most robust and resilient networks are those that create additional value for each participant while strengthening a community or ecosystem as a whole.”
Return-on-investment (ROI) is not a term that I love, especially given how militantly utilitarian and narrowly it is often considered and applied. My friend, mentor, business consultant and holistic thinker Carol Sanford refers to ROI as “the future increase in value that is expected when the initial capital contribution is made.” Carol is quick to point out that capital can take many forms (financial, intellectual, social, spiritual, natural, etc.), and for network participants (or let’s call them “co-creators”) this often takes the form of investments of time, money, knowledge, creativity, and social connections.
Why would co-creators in networks take the time and risk to make such an investment? What is the expected return? Presumably, when we are talking about networks for social change, the principle driver is the desire to make a meaningful difference for people, places and purposes they care about and that they sense will be more positively impacted through network activity. Co-creators are also “kept in the network game” if participation enhances their own capabilities, grows and deepens their connections, and gives them increased opportunities to be creative, and perhaps even find a place of belonging! Read More
January 9, 2018
“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”
– Albert Schweitzer
During virtual meetings with the groups and networks we support at IISC, a regular practice is to begin each call with a personal check-in and often an offering of some kind (poem, quote, video). We do this to set a tone for our meetings, to hear and honor each and everyone’s voice, and to move beyond “business as usual,” which can take the form of a certain kind of doing (“getting down to business”) that may not make room for relationship-building and tapping into other sources of support and inspiration for collective and long-term work.
On a recent IISC staff call, a few of us noted that in recent months many of those with whom we work seem to really crave these check-in times and are willing and even eager to spend more time there, hearing from one another and soaking in the exchange. I was particularly struck by a call last week with the leadership team of a national advocacy network and both the quality of and appreciation for what was shared. Our check-in question was “What did you get from your break that you are bringing into 2018?” As each person shared, there was a palpable sense of tuning in to and gratitude for one another. I had taken notes of the check-ins as they were happening and was contemplating what might be done with them beyond that time of sharing when one of the team members shared the following poem via email, comprised of a mash-up of the various answers:
Uncompromising fierce love of babies
Glittering opportunities for happy hospitality
Calling things what they are
Seeking power out of loss
Listening with attention
Fighting back with sincerity and strength
Focused energy and collective emotional health for real change
Prompting rest and relaxation and playfulness
As I read these lines, I was reminded of the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s observation that what many of us crave in these challenging times is nothing short of “radiance,” “words that shimmer,” and “light in the spiritual darkness.” It was inspiring to see how this light was shared, passed from one to another and grew during our call.
I also thought of one of my favorite lines from William Carlos Williams:
It is difficult to get the news
yet [people] die miserably every day
of what is found there.
I sense that to be very true. How about you?
How are you creating room for radiance and poetic connection in your social change work?
What does this look like and what is the result?
January 3, 2018
“We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside.”
– Lin Manuel Miranda
We know we are not alone at IISC when we say that 2017 left many of us a bit exhausted and breathless, if not somewhat dumbfounded. What occasionally felt like the wheels coming off of our country’s management and morality caught us by varying degrees of surprise, which is not to say that the underlying frustration and ongoing dynamics of “othering” were necessarily shocking. Rather, the unabashed in-your-face tenor of it all got to points where it was all I could do to stay even minimally tuned in to have at least a fingernail on the pulse of things (but really, there were few places to hide!).
I am grateful that as an organization we take a break at the end of the year to rest, restore and reflect. And while some of us may feel like we could use another week (or two), I for one feel ready and resolved to step boldly into 2018 with an open heart and humble sense of not knowing (what will happen, what is in others’ hearts and minds, what the answers are). I would characterize this as a stance of love or loving kindness. Read More