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March 6, 2019

For the Sake of Change: Consider the Vastness Not Entered

Image by Adam Meek, shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

Two pieces of art have been working me over lately. And I have been sharing them with others in different social justice spaces. One is a poem by Simon J. Ortiz, “Culture and the Universe,” shared with me by Mariana Velez Laris of The Nature Conservancy’s Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Network. The second is the book Race and the Cosmos by Barbara A. Holmes, that I know through the good people at the Center for Action and Contemplation. Both works invite the reader to stretch and open in different ways for the sake of change and … evolution.

Here is Ortiz’s poem:

Two nights ago
in the canyon darkness,
only the half-moon and stars,
only mere men.
Prayer, faith, love,
existence.
                       We are measured
by vastness beyond ourselves.
Dark is light.
Stone is rising.
 
I don’t know
if humankind understands
culture: the act
of being human
is not easy knowledge.
 
With painted wooden sticks
and feathers, we journey
into the canyon toward stone,
a massive presence
in midwinter.
 
We stop.
                       Lean into me.
                       The universe
sings in quiet meditation.
 
We are wordless:
                       I am in you.
 
Without knowing why
culture needs our knowledge,
we are one self in the canyon.
                                                                    And the stone wall
I lean upon spins me
wordless and silent
to the reach of stars
and to the heavens within.
 
It’s not humankind after all
nor is it culture
that limits us.
It is the vastness
we do not enter.
It is the stars

we do not let own us.

Very recently I brought this poem to a group of community organizers from a state-wide political action network, and after hearing it, many said they were really touched by this notion of there being a vastness they do not enter, and are therefore limited by. References were made to systems of oppression, to antagonism, to fear and lack of love. There is so much more to this world and by extension to ourselves that we do not tap into that keeps us repeating patterns of behavior and systems that do not serve our fuller humanity.

“We use language not so much to convey factual information as to construct worlds.”

– Barbara A. Holmes

Image by NASA Goddard, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

Holmes’ book extends this same theme of vastness, drawing from the fields of quantum physics, cosmology and ethics as a way of inviting a broader perspective and creating new language and thinking that points in the direction of a world where everyone belongs. She writes, for example, about “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which is pervasive and cohesive in the universe, the essentially creative energy that holds things together. Considering this profound and primordial force, Holmes says, we can only wonder at and celebrate “darkness,” not fear or denigrate it.

Holmes also invites us to consider that physics and cosmology point to the fundamental nature of reality as existing in relationship and interdependence and that systems of oppression go against the grain of the unfolding cosmos. She writes, “Our desire for justice is deeply rooted in systems that are holistic and relational. We have not forced, created, or dreamed this shared destiny; it seems to be the way of the universe.”

In times of breakdown and cynicism, both Ortiz and Holmes tell us that creativity and hope are to be found by looking more deeply into nature and more widely into the heavens to re-member who we are and that there are so many more possibilities than what we have created and perpetuate.

What vastness have you not yet entered, what wonders in our world and beyond have you not allowed to grab hold of you that might liberate and generate new possibilities in your change agency?

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February 19, 2019

Networks for Social Change: A Love Story

Photo by tracydekalb, “Redbud Love,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

The following post was originally published in 2014, and has been edited. In many ways it feels even more relevant five years later … 

Over the past dozen years or so at IISC (our half-life as an organization, and my whole life as a member of this amazing community), we have seen and experienced some interesting progressions. In our Facilitative Leadership for Social Change trainings and consulting work, we talk about the “interior condition” of effective collaborative and network leadership. When I first joined the organization, we used to say that collaborative leaders and change agents embraced an ethic of “service, authenticity and respect.” Then we made the move of changing “respect,” which came across to some as a bit weak, to LOVE. For the first couple of years after making this switch, when we asked “What’s love got to do with it?” with respect to effective leadership and work for social change, there were definitely some uncomfortable silences. Some participants would ultimately want to rename love as “respect” or “passion.”

Then in 2009 we started noticing a change. More heads nodded in rooms when we mentioned the “L-word,” less nervous laughter and shifting in seats. In one particularly striking instance, during a training with health care and public health professionals, a senior and very respected physician responded,

“What’s love got to do with it? Everything! Beyond my technical skills, I am effective in so far as I am able to really see my patients, students, and colleagues, to make them feel seen for who they are.”

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February 11, 2019

Inspiring Systemic “Thinking”

Image by Clearly Ambiguous, “Solar System,” shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Last week, I was invited to a convening held by the Social Impact Exchange to do some work with funders who are considering and/or investing in systems change (as opposed to say programmatic) strategies. The invitation was to kick the convening off by helping to “open minds and hearts to new ways of thinking and doing.”

At IISC, we have been playing with what it means to “think,” given what can tend to predominate in many maintstream settings is highly analytical, disembodied and heart-dismissing approaches. Our belief is that we need to (re)claim the fullness of our intelligence in order to create the more beautiful world we know is possible. As our friends at Management Assistance Group have written:

“Too often, we stay in generalized and practical knowing, rarely dipping into foundational knowing or artistic knowing in meaningful ways. By not intentionally drawing on these, our theories and action plans are often disconnected from our values and beliefs, and the bedrock experiences of our lives.

Moreover, privileging one way of knowing over others marginalizes and ignores other truths that people bring from other ways of knowing. This marginalization often lies at the core of conflicts, systemic barriers to change, and inequity.”

To support people in this direction of more holistic knowing, we are creating more space to explore our individual and collective interiors, sit in and with spaciousness and silence, explore reality and possibility in more embodied ways (movement!) as well as engage in deeply relational interactions that can be heart and soul expanding.

At one point during our opening, I offered a collection of systems-oriented quotes and sayings and invited people to do a self-organized group read of them (whoever felt so moved to speak, though only one quote to a person). People were asked to pay attention to what moved inside of them as they read and heard these quotes. This was done, in part, to help dislodge people from unexamined thought patters. I was explicit about this and introduced the exercise with these words from quantum physicist David Bohm:

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” 

When the group was over, and after a moment of silence, people were invited to share with a partner what they were most struck by and why. You are invited to do the same with the words below, to read in silence or aloud, to share any reactions and resonance and also to offer other systems-focused quotes/sayings that you have found to help open and expand some aspect of your thinking.

Image by Matthias Ripp, “Planetary System,” shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

“A system cannot fail those it was never intended to protect.”

– W.E.B. DuBois

“The problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint.”

Nora Bateson

“We act as if simple cause and effect is at work. We push to find the one simple reason things have gone wrong. We look for the one action, or the one person, that created this mess. As soon as we find someone to blame, we act as if we’ve solved the problem.” 

– Margaret J. Wheatley

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” 

– H. L. Mencken

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January 22, 2019

Confronting the (White Supremacist/Hyper-Capitalist) “Frenzy of Activism”

“The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.”

– Thomas Merton, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Image from Charles Patrick Ewing, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0,

The quote above has been cited every now and then over the past dozen years or so that I have been with IISC, including a later line – “The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace.” Some combination of these words seem to come to mind and lips more frequently as many of the organizations and networks with which we work are are dealing with oppressive dynamics of overwork and urgency, whether they identify as activist or not.

These dynamics are increasingly recognized as an aspect of white dominant and supremacist culture and hyper-capitalist fervor that reduces many people to “producers” in the workplace and extracts as much labor as they can give. In our race equity and social change work, we see this as part and parcel of the structures that must be named and addressed for justice, liberation and sustainability to be realized.

In a recent workshop with an organization we are supporting through a two-year race, equity and inclusion transformation process, we invited the predominantly white staff into a dialogue circle to unpack their self-identified culture of overwork and urgency, to look more deeply at what they are gaining from this (and who in particular gains most), what they are losing (and who loses most), and what it would take to do commit to creating something different. Here is some of what we have heard, aspects of which are being echoed in various other organizations, networks and communities (curious to know what resonates): Read More

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January 15, 2019

Evolution of a Network Leadership Institute: Third Time’s the Charm

“We are the living conduit to all life. When we contemplate the vastness of the interwoven network that we are tied to, our individual threads of life seem far less fragile.”

– Sherri Mitchell, from Sacred Instructions 

Photo by Marie Voegtli, “network” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

 

Last week, we wrapped up the third annual Food Solutions New England Network Leadership Institute. For three years, we have been partnering with FSNE to cultivate and connect people in this region where IISC is based, who are committed to supporting the emergence of just, sustainable, collaboratively stewarded and self-determined food futures for all who live here. This network and leadership development initiative grew out of system mapping that FSNE undertook to identify four main areas of leverage to shift extractive, oppressive, oligarchic and life-depleting patterns of the dominant food system.

From the start, we and our partners at FSNE (including the backbone team at the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute, the FSNE Ambassadors, and members of the FSNE Process Team) knew that the main value of any kind of leadership development program would be in the people that came together and the relationships they built with one another. From there, we were interested in creating opportunities for those involved in the program to cultivate connections with other values-aligned change agents in the region. In addition, we looked at giving people an experience of different and diverse places in our region (rural, urban, coastal) and to see their work in a regional context. Lastly, we wanted to offer an opportunity for participants to hone their skills as collaborative/network leaders and equity champions.

Here is our working and ever-evolving definition of network leadership:

Network leadership operates from the understanding that connection and flow is fundamental to life and liveliness and that the nature and pattern of connection in a system underlie its state of health (including justice, shared prosperity and resilience). Network leadership strives to understand, shift and strengthen connectivity; facilitate alignment and resource flows; and create conditions for coordinated and emergent action in the direction of greater health and belonging at different systemic levels.

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January 7, 2019

The Rising of the 10-25%: Weaving Critical and Love-Bound Connections for Change

“That which counts, can rarely be counted.”

-Albert Einstein

Image by garlandcannon, used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

In a couple of articles that have been re-cycling in different social circles, the reminder is offered that tipping points for social change do not need anywhere close to a majority of actors.

A few years ago, scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute explored what it takes for an idea to spread from few to many, for a minority opinion to become the majority belief. According to their study, the RPI researchers said that the answer is 10%. When one in ten people adopt a stance, eventually it will become the dominant opinion of the entire group, they say. What is required is commitment.

More recently, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of London conducted an experiment that suggests that for activists to achieve a tipping point around change, 25% of a given population is required. They published their study in the journal Science.

Of course there are complicating factors, including the fact that there are often competing factions each vying for their own 10-25% and with social media and disinformation campaigns, confusion can rein and commitment may require an additional degree of diligence. Nonetheless, we might take more heart in the power of the few.

And this is clearly not just about numbers and counting.

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