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July 11, 2018

Power Dynamics: The Hidden Element to Effective Meetings

Many articles have been devoted to running effective meetings that build collaboration among teams, yet many fail to discuss the hidden element that can destroy a meeting almost without fail.

Power dynamics – the ways in which power works in a setting – can either sink a meeting and negatively impact relationships for years, or produce more shared power and capacity to get things done. A lot of the difference comes down to how we attend to power dynamics in meetings, how well we plan our meetings, how well we determine what happens within and outside of meetings, and how well we facilitate in the moment.

In every organization, there are people who hold formal power and informal power. Formal power is attributed to someone by virtue of their title or position in the organization. People carry informal power if they have influence over others or their organization, either because of their experience, force of personality or persuasion, unearned privilege, or because they have strong relationships with decision-makers and peers. Power is also deeply influenced by diversity and equity dynamics. In most Western societies today, many decisions in organizations are still controlled by people with certain backgrounds: over 40, male, white/European, heterosexual, and middle class and wealthy people. Many feel empowered to lead, speak, and make decisions by virtue of the standing society gives to them on the basis of their background. They get a lot of practice leading and people are acculturated to following and respecting them.

Power — the capacity to get things done — is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. It’s all about how we construct, reconstruct, and practice power. Individuals can exercise their power in healthy ways if they stay focused on making space for others and growing power to achieve positive outcomes by building “power with” others. Individuals and groups can exercise their power in unhealthy ways if they are focused on establishing “power over” others or concentrating power in a few.

At IISC we have made some key observations about power in meetings:

  1. Power dynamics are always present in meetings whether we see them or not.
  2. Every meeting is a chance to build a group’s power and transform power dynamics. It’s important to design and facilitate meetings to create opportunities for power to be shared and openly discussed.
  3. Meeting designers and facilitators must attend to formal and informal power and the dynamics that come along with it.
  4. Meeting facilitators should be mindful of and acknowledge their own power and enact it in a way that builds the power of the group.
  5. Every element of meetings needs preparation to make power and decision-making transparent. Consider questions like: Who is at the meeting and who is not? Why or why not? What’s on the agenda and what’s not on the table for discussion that should be? Who will be making the decisions that flow from what will be discussed (both in the room and beyond)? Who plays which roles and why? What work will happen outside of the meeting? What information from the meeting should be shared and with whom?

So, what are some ways to attend to power dynamics in meetings?

  • Assume power dynamics are always present in meetings. Design your meeting agenda to include multiple voices and perspectives. Lightly encourage people to step forward to lead and participate, especially if they have less power in the organization either because of role, positional status, race, gender, or other factors. Encourage people with traditional forms of formal power to do more listening than speaking.
  • Build a culture of collaboration in meetings. Think of meetings as an opportunity for a team to build relationships, learn leadership, design good processes, and counteract unhealthy uses of power.  Design your meetings for relationships, joy, and creativity. Good things will follow! Always build an agenda that allows people to first interact on a human basis, such as starting with opportunities for people to do a “check-in” to share how their day or week is going or to learn more about each other on a personal level. Ask people a question that surfaces their personal and professional purpose. Encourage honesty, vulnerability, and calling people “in”, instead of calling people “out”. Spread a little business love around the room, creating openings for people to feel heard and noticed, and to experience a sense of belonging and interconnectedness.
  • Openly discuss power in meetings. Discuss openly with your team the question, what would be the benefits to our group if we shared power? Remind them that power is not a finite pie; rather, it can be infinite, expanded, and shared among people and leaders. Prompt them to explore how they can share “power with” each other instead of “power over.” Make a list of meeting agreements the group will use to share power. Ask people to monitor the agreements and be brave enough to intervene if people are not practicing them. Make a list of “power over” moves, so people learn the behaviors that reinforce dominant voices and power and exclude others. Have people take mental note of who is speaking the most and who is not. Make sure your discussions of power go beyond yourselves as colleagues to the people or communities you serve. How are they “at the table?” How are their priorities, assets, and skills driving the discussion?
  • Remember that power is a social construct. We can design spaces where individuals and groups experience their own and others’ power differently. Be proactive about ways to amplify the power of people who are typically at the margins of the conversation. Challenge the group to pay at least as much attention to the expertise that comes from lived experience (say, of poverty) as from formal theories and data. Flip questions on their head by asking “why not do things differently?” instead of “how can we work within given boundaries?” Ensure that people who are affected by the issues you’re working on are at the center of the conversation and have meaningful roles in the work over time (inside meetings and beyond).
  • Use your role intentionally and thoughtfully if you’re the meeting facilitator. Don’t dominate the discussion. Don’t come up with all the ideas. Stay as impartial as possible, even though you can never truly be completely neutral. If you want to contribute an idea or experience, tell the group you are switching from facilitator role to express your view as an individual and then step back into your facilitator role. Examine who gets to facilitate meetings and who doesn’t. Meeting facilitators can change the outcome of the meeting just by how they design and run it. Rotating facilitation and supporting people to learn how to facilitate and run meetings distributes power and makes meetings more dynamic.

The skills of meeting facilitation with a lens to share power are teachable and replicable. At IISC, we share some of those skills through training and consulting. We have learned that meetings that are both well facilitated and that attend to power dynamics can transform groups into highly functioning teams with deeper purpose and intention for social change.

 

 

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June 18, 2018

A Network Learning Lab: Centering Story, Love and Emergence

“Words are how we think, stories are how we link.”

– Christina Baldwin

Last week I had the privilege of facilitating a two-day Network Learning Lab for a remarkable group of conservation leaders and network weavers. I co-designed the session with Olivia Millard and Amanda Wrona of The Nature Conservancy (and at the instigation of Lynn Decker of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network) to connect and strengthen the capacity of those working at the intersection of ecosystem health and human/community development while building networks at local, state, regional, national and global levels. Our design was informed by input given by the participating network weavers themselves about their core challenges and learning objectives, while leaving room for the unexpected – enough spaciousness for the network magic of emergence to happen.

As with other network leadership institutes that we at IISC have had a hand in designing and facilitating, the experience last week had as its foundation plenty of opportunities for the cohort to authentically connect, to get to know one another on both professional and personal levels. And as with both leadership development sessions and ongoing network development initiatives that we support, we turned to storytelling as a way to create bonds and understanding. This included time for the participants to tell brief stories about their networks, doing so in 5 minute informal bursts sprinkled throughout the two days (which could also have been done as Pecha Kucha or Ignite presentations). The intent was to create a bit more understanding of what might make each network unique in its aspirations, attributes and accomplishments and to whet people’s appetites for further conversation at breaks, meals and into the evening.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

– Maya Angelou

We also set up a couple of exercises within the first hour of the lab for people to hear more about one another’s paths to the work they currently do, not by ticking off their resumes, but by telling stories about what happened to and moved them to be where they are now. Time and again, when I facilitate this kind of exercise, it shifts the tone of the gathering in the direction of greater openness and trust. And as we touched on in our debrief of those exercises, inviting that kind of storytelling into our work can send a signal about what is validated with respect to forms of knowing, expression and parts of ourselves to bring to the table. Along these lines, we also drew from poetry and other forms of creative expression, including a stanza from a favorite William Stafford piece, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” which, to me, gets at the heart of network building … Read More

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May 24, 2018

Network Ripple Effects of an Equity Challenge

“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”

Grace Lee Boggs

As referenced in a previous post, the Food Solutions New England 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge wrapped up about a month ago. This was the fourth offering of the Challenge, which was a remixed and enhanced virtual network form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore (founder of the Privilege Institute) and Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White). A small design team of which I am a part originally saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread conversation about the connection between race, racism and sustainable food systems and ultimately greater action for racial justice. No one presumed that the Challenge in and of itself would be sufficient, but rather saw it as a way of creating “network effects” around the work that many are already doing in our region.

And there is evidence that there have been impacts happening as a result. Participation in the Challenge has grown from 200 to 3,000 from 2015 to 2018. This year the Challenge was launched, in a sense, at the Wallace Center’s National Good Food Network Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico (gratitude to the Center’s staff for the invitation to do so!). We have heard stories since the beginning that various groups in the region and increasingly around the country have participated in the Challenge and invited others to do so, including Farm to Institution New EnglandIowa State University Extension, The Interdependence Project, and The Fellowship of Intentional Community. Read More

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May 22, 2018

Gleanings From the 2018 Network Leadership Training Academy

Connection is a social determinant of health.

 

 

Last week I participated in the Network Leadership Training Academy hosted by the University of Colorado at Denver’s Center on Network Science. It was wonderful to meet fellow network geeks and enthusiasts from around the country and Canada and to hear about diverse applications of network theory and practice, from public health to public transportation, from early childhood education to after-school programming, from housing to firefighting.

I was invited to share some of what we at the Interaction Institute for Social Change are learning as we work at the intersection of networks and equity, which included telling the evolving story of Food Solutions New England. There seemed to be resonance with and appetite for going deeper to unpack how networks can be forces for truly equitable liberation from dysfunctional and damaging systems.

And there were many other presenters over the course of the couple of days I was able to attend. Here are some of my take-aways.

From network scientist Dr. Danielle Varda:

  • In networks, less is often more with respect to personal connections. Given that people can only manage a certain number of social connections, a good question to ask is “How can we cultivate and maintain the fewest number of connections that are valuable?”
  • Closed networks do not lend themselves to novelty. For innovation (and presumably for both resilience and adaptability) it is important to pay attention to “structural holes” in networks.

From community engagement leaders and network weavers Lah Say Wah, Maria Saldana and Brenda Mendoza Ortega with the Campus Community Partnership at UC-Denver:

  • Effective engagement rests on authentic listening, informal exchanges and meetings (lunch, coffee), identifying and honoring strengths and assets, thinking of people as people and not projects, constantly showing up and closing loops.

From network scientist Phil Wilburn:

  • In order to activate a network you have to have established sufficient trust and reciprocity.
  • Effective networks for individual “leaders” are open (distributed), diverse and deep.

From conversation and reflection with participants:

  • Connection is a social determinant of health.
  • Increasingly healing needs to be viewed as a foundational goal of developing networks.
  • Effective networks for individuals are not necessarily effective networks for collectives and social change. We have to be clear about what our scale and intentions are. (ON this front, check out this wonderful post by Christine Capra – “Networking Does Not Equal Network WEAVING“)

Additional resources to consult:

  • The Partner Tool, a social network analysis tool designed to measure and monitor collaboration among people/organizations.
  • Person-Centered Network App, for use by a provider to first screen a person to assess their gaps and strengths in their personal support systems and then, based on the results, link them to available community resources.
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May 17, 2018

25 Behaviors That Support Strong Network Culture

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

E.M. Forster, from Howard’s End

Photo by eflon, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

This is an excerpt from the final post in a series of five focused on networks for change in education and learning that have appeared on the Education Week and Next Generation Learning Challenges websites.

In this series on network design and network thinking, I explored the power and promise of networks as residing in how connection and flow contribute to life, liveliness and learning. See, especially, Connection is Fundamental.

In Why Linking Matters, I looked at how certain networks can more optimally create what are known as “network effects,” including small world reach, rapid dissemination, resilience, and adaptation.

I also noted, in Structure Matters in particular, that living systems–including classrooms, schools, school districts, and communities–are rooted in patterns of connection and flow. That’s why shifts in connections–between people, groups, and institutions–as well as flows of various kinds of resources can equate with systemic change, and ideally they can lead to greater health (in other words, equity, prosperity, sustainability).

Networks can also deliver myriad benefits to individual participants, including: inspiration; mutual support; learning and skill development; greater access to information, funding, and other resources; greater systemic or contextual awareness; breaking out of isolation and being a part of something larger; amplification of one’s voice and efforts; and new partnerships and joint projects.

It’s also true, however, that not every network or network activity creates all of these effects and outcomes. The last two posts looked at two factors that contribute to whether networks are able to deliver robust value to individual participants and the whole, including network structure and what form leadership takes. Networks are by no means a panacea to social and environmental issues and can easily replicate and exacerbate social inequities and environmentally extractive practice. So values certainly have a place, as does paying close attention to dynamics of power and privilege.

It is also the case that individual and collective behavior on a day-to-day basis have a lot to say about what networks are able to create. The following is a list of 25 behaviors for you to consider as part of your network practice as an educator:

  1. Weave connections and close triangles to create more intricacy in the network. Closing triangles means introducing people to one another, as opposed to networking for one’s own self, essentially a mesh or distributed structure rather than a hub-and-spoke structure.
  2. Create connections across boundaries/dimensions of difference. Invite and promote diversity in the network, which can contribute to resilience and innovation.
  3. Promote and pay attention to equity throughout the network. Equity here includes ensuring everyone has access to the resources and opportunities that can improve the quality of life and learning. Equity impact assessments are one helpful tool on this front.
  4. Name and work with power dynamics and unearned privilege in the direction of equity.
  5. Be aware of how implicit bias impacts your thinking and actions in the network. Become familiar with and practice de-biasing strategies.
  6. Think, learn, and work out loud, in the company of others or through virtual means. This contributes to the abundance of resources and learning in the network.
  7. Don’t hoard or be a bottleneck. Keep information and other resources flowing in the network.
  8. Identify and articulate your own needs and share them with others. Making requests can bring a network to life as people generally like to be helpful!
  9. Stay curious and ask questions; inquire of others to draw out common values, explicit and tacit knowledge, and other assets.
  10. Make ongoing generous offers to others, including services, information, connections.

For behaviors 11-25, see this link.

“… Keep reaching out, keep bringing in./This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,/for every gardener knows that after the digging, after/the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”

Marge Piercy, from “The Seven of Pentacles”

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May 14, 2018

Offerings From the Fourth Annual 21 Day Racial Equity Challenge

On April 22nd, the fourth annual 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge wrapped up. This project with Food Solutions New England was originally conceived as a “network innovation” to spread and deepen the conversation about and commitment around addressing race and racism in food and related systems. This year the organizing team sought to go deeper, noting how much the national conversation has evolved in the past year. And we were heartened by the numbers (over 3,000 people from all 50 states and parts of Canada signed up) and by the quality of the conversation on-line and in different in-person venues where we met people who were participating. Certainly no one is under the illusion that the Challenge is enough, but we have heard that it is changing the way many see their work in food systems. Below you will find some of what was generously offered on-line in response to the daily email prompts and associated resources (readings, videos, audio clips). 

History of Race and Racism in the Food System: What is the history you hold in your head (and heart and body) about our current food systems?

“In my work at a non profit in the ‘good food’ movement, we constantly use language like ‘fix the broken food system.’ Reading these pieces on the historical underpinnings of racism in our food system illuminated for me just how much that statement (almost a throw away now) is situated within a racial caste system. To presume that ‘we’ must ‘fix’ a system ignores (by not naming) the racism present in that system. It lumps the goals of racial and food justice in with other, non-racialized issues (like soil health) also plaguing our current system, thereby continuing to perpetuate injustice through silence.”

“The consistent glorification of a food system, broken or fixed, imagined or real, that has systematically ignored the people that make it function, throughout the past and yet still in the present, is something I think I unknowingly participate in. Will naming this, calling it out, help us to change the structural racism that fuels this reality? How? I hope that by learning, studying, reflecting, and communicating that this group can indeed be somehow change-making, but it’s challenging to see a positive horizon when the change to be had is so large and primarily resides in legal, political and social institutions and structures. Forgive me for being still inside a state of feeling overwhelmed.”

The Colonization of Indigenous Land Rights and Food Ways: How does colonization continue to exist in our food systems and how can you support decolonization and celebrate indigenous rights and food ways?

“I just finished listening to The True History & Foods of Thanksgiving. My immediate reaction is shock and shame. I accepted Thanksgiving as an American celebration without ever wondering about its history. The podcast is a great conversation that educated me about how interwoven food, land, location, spirituality and culture are for some traditions within Native Americans. I wish we treated our lands and environment with the same care that many people were able to do before they were colonized.”

“In my state, treaties still continue to be broken with Native American communities, the most recent agreement being broken in 2015. State programs aimed to “help” are rooted in white supremacist ideologies. I think of Audrey Lorde when she declared, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”
Read More

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April 18, 2018

Leadership in a Network Age

“Network entrepreneurs are keenly aware that they are few among many working across the larger system, and in this way they embody a special type of … leader[ship].

Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman & David Sawyer, “The Most Impactful Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of”

Image by tarotastic, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

This is the third in a series of blog posts that appear in their entirety on the Education Week website. In the previous post we considered how structure has implications for the extent to which a network or networked activity is able to leverage different kinds of net effects and create value for diverse participants. We also considered how structure has implications for both equity and how power is distributed. Another important consideration in how to create equitable benefit is what leadership looks like and how it plays out in and around networked activity.

The concept of leadership seems to be undergoing a rapid evolution lately. Especially in this “network age” there appears to be both a growing appreciation that leadership has always been about more than the singular and highly visible heroic individual, and that going forward, leadership must be upheld as much more of a shared and multi-dimensional endeavor.

“Leadership for this era is not a role or a set of traits; it is a zone of inter-relational process. Step in, step out.”

– Nora Bateson from Small Arcs of Larger Circles

In much of the collaborative consulting work that we do through the Interaction Institute for Social Change, leadership (or what we at IISC often call Facilitative Leadership) is about “holding the whole.” That is, there is a need for groups, teams, organizations and communities to think more expansively about the state of a given complex system (community, economy, food system, organization, school, school district) and pay attention to what is required to support resiliency and/or change for more equitable and sustained benefit. In these situations, the traditional top-down images of leadership fall short.

In education, for example, we have seen hopes often pinned on seemingly superhuman teachers and principals who are brought in to “rescue failing kids and schools.” The assumption underlying such moves is that these extraordinary individuals will of their own drive and volition beat the odds and dramatically reverse the downward trajectory. This story may be the making of a box office smash, but in reality is met with mixed results at best. This is not to say that individuals cannot provide crucial sparks at important moments in organizations and communities. But holding out for heroic singular leadership ignores the systemic reality of what got us to where we are in the first place, and denies the more complex and connected response that is actually required.

“Leadership is helping to make the network smarter.”

Harold Jarche

Indications are that network leadership is at its best a dynamic, diverse, and multi-dimensional phenomenon. Many of those with whom IISC partners in the work of social and systems change understand this implicitly, and we have found it important to help them externalize and be more explicit about this by naming some of the roles that leadership can embody in a collaborative/networked world. Read More

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April 16, 2018

Dayenu: What is enough? White people confronting racism and privilege.

At Passover, there is a song about being thankful for each thing we are blessed with. Dayenu means “it would have been enough.” It is a call to appreciate the small things and to recognize that they are enough. And yet, within the “enough” there is a simultaneous recognition that the first gift or step is not enough without the next one.

In a world where racism is rampant, and where the impacts are real – often deadly, even – is there an “enough” in terms of being collaborators for change? It feels like it is never enough when lives are at stake.

On the one hand, there is never enough until we have envisioned and called into being the liberated and equitable and pleasing community that allows us all to thrive. This reality requires a commitment that is bone deep. It is the kind of commitment that requires constant thinking and action to live into new ways. It is held knowing that upending racism and racist systems is something to die for.

On the other hand, each action, each change to the individual and to the system, needs to be celebrated. For that one moment, it is enough. As long as we know that a new moment emerges when more is needed, and the past action is certainly no longer enough.

What is the first step and what is the next one? For many white people striving to be collaborators, the work begins with learning and knowing and then shifting awareness, then teaching, then ultimately embodied anti-racism practice in relationship with other white people and people of color. Perhaps a move from external to internal; from pointing out the faults of others to seeing how, despite best intentions, we are each implicated in racist systems; from tight vigilance to looser living and correcting.

  • Reading books and learning by black artists and intellectuals who have created parts of the world we want Dayenu
  • Understanding the history of racism and how it got institutionalized in the US and globally Dayenu
  • Bringing a new consciousness to my actions as I walk through the world Dayenu
  • Naming racism in all-white spaces Dayenu
  • Building authentic relationship across difference Dayenu
  • Helping other white people along the journey through openness and kindness Dayenu
  • Showing up as a vulnerable person who can acknowledge my mistakes and own my racism Dayenu
  • Ongoing learning through books, workshops, conversation, community Dayenu
  • Contributing to and investing in multi-racial community at work and at home Dayenu
  • Putting my life on the line Dayenu

The work of a white ally or accomplice is never ending, to be sure. It requires a lot of effort. And yet, it should not be a slog. We are doing this for ourselves as much as for anyone else. We recognize that ending white privilege and white supremacy allows us to be full human beings as we disrupt the notion of superiority on which this country was founded.

In my work in trainings and coaching, I encourage both the ongoing effort and the need to celebrate.

Maybe this is one way to be gentle and joyful in our work for liberation – to celebrate each small step as if it were enough while also knowing that it is never enough until we are all free and that we need to want and to create more.

What does it mean to you to do equity work with both insistence and gentleness, step by step?

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach…  What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.”      – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

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April 13, 2018

We will be Undone: A View on Achieving Racial Equity

Everything grows.

Everything changes.

And you will be undone forever.

Pursuing racial equity and systems change is a forever equation. I am noticing that our clients and friends believe that if we just implement racial equity, diversity, and inclusion “the right way,” our organizations, movements, and networks will immediately become effective multiracial ecosystems that produce transformative results.

We will always be undone. People and systems – the very world we live in – are ever changing and reverting and that’s why I have to be honest that the work of racial equity will always be unfinished.

People are always coming in and out of our organizations, some with knowledge of our path to create racial justice and others completely unknowing and beginning the discovery of systemic racism. Even if we root out systems of injustice and racism in specific institutions or sectors, they will exist in other places and invariably slip back into our ecosystem. The world is encased in racial stratification. We can dismantle racism in one territory and it can spread elsewhere as people and their ideas travel.

Oppression cannot be fixed. It’s not a linear proposition. It swarms, grows, gets attacked at moments, dissipates, and then finds its way back into our systems as fearful ways of thinking and unproductive ways of doing. And because we are a species and planet dependent on each other, the chronic patterns of racism can reenter our minds and societies. We are imperfect people in deeply imperfect systems.

We are making progress but it’s not the kind where there’s a clear end in sight. We’re learning together. We’re trying new practices of shared power. We’re rooting out racist policies in our laws and organizations. Our systems are feeling the pressure because of our joint actions.

But we won’t do it “right” and we won’t get it “right.” We will be undone.

But don’t let this disappointment get in the way of persistent bold action.

We will have moments of clarity. Moments of seeing new possibilities. Months of progress in our leadership for equity and justice. Years of growth and learning. Examples of power shifting and sharing all around us. Detrimental laws defeated. It will feel like freedom, like less damage is around and inside of us.

Let’s see ourselves as equilibrium makers, re-introducing people to see the problem of racism once again, re-balancing power as the dynamics return, re-calibrating systems when they revert, revisiting change in ourselves and others with humility, and re-birthing our best nature and ideas toward liberation.

Each of us are needed to extricate the roots of racism. We can still be a constant catalyst for change all the while knowing that we will be undone.

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April 4, 2018

Equity and Power in Network Structures

The following is an excerpt from the third in a series of posts on networks, education and learning. The full post and series are published on the Education Week website. This post builds on two previous ones –  Connection is Fundamental and Why Linking Matters – and looks at the importance of structure in supporting network effects while considering equity and power dynamics. 

Networks are not necessarily easy to control in terms of their overall structure, especially when they are large and complex (diverse and widely distributed). And it is important to note that there are network phenomena that may tend to pull a networked endeavor in a certain structural direction.

For example, homophily is a phenomenon where social networks tend to form clusters of nodes with similar properties or attributes. This is captured by the adages, “Birds of a feather flock together,” and “Those close by form tight ties.” The result can be self-segregation along various lines of difference, for example racial, cultural, or class divisions in schools. Or consider the current pronounced political polarization in our country. The key to confronting homophily is to be both aware of the tendency and diligent about creating structures and incentives for bridging across boundaries.

“Opportunity … depends, at least in part, on our inherited networks.” 

-Julia Freeland Fisher, from “Disrupting Opportunity Gaps Will Hinge on Networks”

One of the great hopes and marvels of networks is that they can be liberating, especially in the face of bureaucracy and various barriers (see more about “network effects” in the previous post in this series). While this is worthy of celebration, another important phenomenon to be aware of is that networks can be deeply inequitable.

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March 27, 2018

Why Linking Matters: Network Effects and Other Benefits

“We cannot live for ourselves alone.  Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along those sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” 

– Herman Melville

Image by David Amano, shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

In an earlier post in this series on networks and education, we explored the underlying vitality of connection and flow in our world and how this can create opportunity and health in our lives and in learning. According to network theory and practice, it can make a big difference when we are aware of who is and is not connected and then act intentionally to build and leverage relationships in both number and quality. Stories from a variety of fields illustrate the phenomenon of small and great change being rooted in creating ties and flows between different actors and elements in a system.

Now let’s take a step back and ask, “What is a network?” A basic definition is that networks are nodes and links. That is, they are elements of different kinds (people, schools, other kinds of organizations) that are tied together (consciously or unconsciously) in some larger pattern by one or more types of connectedness–values, ideas, friends and acquaintances, likes, exchange, transportation routes, communications channels. Social networks, comprised of individual people or groups, can be experienced in person and also virtually.

In the world of education and learning, here are some of the ways networks show up:

  • Open classrooms – Digital technology is used to connect students to a wide array of information and a diversity of community partners and real-world learning experiences both within and beyond a classroom’s walls. (e.g., CommunityShare)
  • Communities of practice –  Students, teachers, and school or district leaders connect their learning, engage in inquiry, and refine practice through learning webs within or across schools and districts.
  • Community schools/schools robustly connected to local community ecosystem – Connections create opportunities for authentic learning, job readiness, and student resilience; wrap-around services ensure fuller suite of supports for students. (e.g., Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative)
  • Networks of schools – Schools are connected by their alignment to a model or philosophy, influencing a culture shift within the broader field of education.
  • Movement networks/”networks of networks” – Collectives of schools or education organizations push for transformation in the field toward greater equity, democracy, “education as a public good” (e.g., National Public Education Support Fund).
  • You (yes, you!) as a network (student, teacher, leader … all learners) – As individuals, we are (or can be) internally connected to multiple intelligences and ways of knowing–analytical/intellectual, embodied/somatic, emotional, spiritual.

The Value of Networks for Education and Learning

So what is the big deal about networks? Is there really anything new here? These are questions that come up, though seemingly less often over the past five years or so with the proliferation of various social media. On the one hand, networks have always existed as long as life has existed, so there is not anything new here. On the other hand, the various digital tools and technologies that have evolved to rapidly and dramatically shrink the world are showing us what more intricate and efficient forms of communication and exchange can make happen.

And while it is true that virtually all collaborative forms of social organization meet the basic definition of being a network (coalitions, alliances, organizations, communities), not all such forms leverage to the same extent what are called “network effects.” … To continue reading this post on the Education Week website, go to this link.

“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”

– Toni Morrison

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March 22, 2018

Love While Challenging Racist Behavior

This post was originally published on this date in 2016 and we find it enduringly relevant today. It contains a true story and a Facilitator’s Guide for handling situations like this. 

A True Story

At a recent training I was leading for an all queer and multiracial group, an older white man “John” took offense to my use of the word queer.  As an icebreaker, I had asked the group to share in a pair, when did you first know you were queer?  During the debrief, John took time to explain how the Q-word brought back painful memories of the many ways he was shamed growing up.  As he explained, he got emotional and then said “using the Q-word is like using the N-word for me.”  And he actually said the N-word.

The air in the room suddenly got heavy and many people shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The three black men in the group looked stunned, and the rest of the people of color in the circle turned to me to do something. The white man kept talking, completely unaware of that this micro-aggression had caused a change in the room. I waited for a white person to address what happened. But folks remained silent, so just as the next person began sharing, I stopped the process.

“I want to stop and check something out with you and the group. Is it ok if I do that?” I asked John and turned to the group to seek their approval. “John, thank you for sharing the impact that I had on you when I used the Q-word in this circle. I want to account to you for that. I also heard you use the N-word and I am wondering if you would be open to hearing the impact that that word could have had in the space?”

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