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September 12, 2019

Racial Equity Inside IISC: Doing What We Say We Do

I often think the biggest quest for IISC is to mirror our mission internally. We work to build collaborative capacity for social justice and racial equity with our clients and partners in the field, but how do we practice that inside of our organization with intention and action?

Unconsciously or consciously what leaders show, allow, and choose to grow are the things that people either imitate or support inside their organization. IISC is a leader in the field of racial equity and social justice so it follows that we should mirror transformational practices for racial equity and justice at home. It’s not about being perfect but it is about taking deep ownership of our own racism and other forms of oppression. It’s about bringing to an end comments, behaviors, and practices that call into question even subtly the worth, intelligence, experience, and dignity of people of color or other targeted groups. It’s about making sure that all of our policies are informed by a racial equity lens by asking ourselves how a decision, policy, or practice negatively impact people of color or other groups at the margins.

This graphic builds from materials that were adapted by George Friday
from the Dismantling Racism workshop.

At different points in IISC’s history we have paid deep attention to our own culture and practices to align them more closely with the just world we want to create. In recent times that has meant examining the personal, interpersonal, and institutional interactions that may perpetuate racial inequity in our relationships and inside our culture and system.

We have examined and adjusted our pay scales to bring them more in line with our values and to ensure there is parity based on race and gender. We have restarted the practices of caucuses, in which white staff gather separately to learn about white privilege and fragility in our workplace so that they can support one another and take accountability for their beliefs and actions. In the people of color caucus, staff support each other around instances of racism by staff and clients and challenge each other to show up more fully at IISC so that we can challenge the status quo. Both caucuses then come together in staff meetings to explore our learnings, give each other feedback, and discuss our aspirations and challenges. We are constantly in dialogue and discovery.

As the leader of IISC, I have made it known that it’s not enough to do your functional job at IISC – the tasks of a particular role for example – but that it is equally as important if not more so to walk the talk of collaboration, racial belonging, equity, and justice.

In the future, we will be offering individual equity coaching to staff so that they can have a resource to impact and grow as leaders. We will also be deeply infusing equity expectations into our performance management process.

Some of the questions I think we need to explore going forward are:

  • How do we disrupt and interrupt unconscious and conscious racism in our organization? In our thoughts, behaviors, and interactions, and in those of others? And how do we still reach for each other to collaborate when we are in the middle of tough conflicts across difference?
  • How do we move this internal work into our relationships and practice with the board of directors and with our affiliate consultants? What is the most authentic and powerful way to do that?
  • In what ways we do expect our clients to treat people of color staff and affiliates with deep respect and on the same level as their white peers? There are many stories of white consultants working in client systems receiving better or different treatment than people of color.

Clients pay IISC to design and facilitate processes for racial equity change in their organizations. If we do that which we say we do, IISC will always be in an equity change process itself. There may be fits and starts, victories and back slides, but we will be in it.  Embracing discomfort like our clients, making changes despite setbacks, and taking on tough battles and decisions to uproot the influence of racism and oppression that surrounds and penetrates the IISC living system.

We will be undone as I shared in a recent blog, but we will be practicing what we preach and that alignment and clarity will give us the strength and resilience to keep transforming IISC and of course transforming ourselves.

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September 5, 2019

What’s Your Thread?

Over the past couple of months I have brought the poem below into a few different gatherings. Amidst flux, uncertainty, volatility, and pending collapse, it can be difficult to figure out how to orient, what to hold onto. So leave it to the poets to throw us a life line. Or in this case a thread.

William Stafford is a source of consistent solace and sanity to me, and “The Way It Is” I have found particularly grounding …

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Colleagues and I have used this as an opening check-in with various groups and then invited people to name their thread. Here is some of what has come up:

  • People, those that I care for and who care or me.
  • The moral arc that bends towards justice.
  • Courage to hold on to what is possible.
  • Grace.
  • Tenderness.
  • Imagination.
  • The fire of passion.
  • Love, love and love.

What is the thread you hold that guides and grounds you in these times?

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August 9, 2019

Leadership: Stepping Back to Let Others In

As I watch the Democratic Party presidential debates, I am particularly struck by the large number of white males and males of color who insist they must be candidates for president in November 2020.

Why do they feel it’s their time to step in when there are plenty of women – including women of color – who could lead this country as well if not better than they could? When do people with privilege understand and appreciate that they need to step back so others can step in? A defiant and powerful act against racism and sexism is to say to yourself, “I have experienced what it’s like to govern, to lead, and to hold power. It’s now time for me to support others who have not yet had that chance so we can experience a different kind of America.”

I have a fantasy that sometime in the fall of this year, all the male candidates – yes all – will host a press conference and relinquish their nominations. If the male candidates actually ceded power, it would change the course of this country because a woman would be elected as president of the United States for the first time in our history. Our culture would see power explicitly and transparently shift to those who don’t typically have it. Policies would undoubtedly look very different if approached through a gendered and intersectional lens.

But I don’t want to just make this a challenge to presidential candidates. It’s a challenge I want to make to us all, especially those of us in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. There are many great leaders holding onto their positions, titles, or spheres of influence, not realizing that doing so comes at the price of denying others these opportunities.

Some provocative considerations include:

  • If you have been in your position for at least five to seven years and think it’s yours until you leave the role or retire, you aren’t ceding or sharing power.
  • If you aren’t sharing your relationships with people who have power and resources with others who have less privilege, you aren’t ceding or sharing power.
  • If you are reading this thinking you don’t have power, ask yourself if you have ever been in a position of authority or responsibility. Are you in one now? Do your decisions affect others as well as institutional or organizational policies? You may not feel powerful but chances are you have power.

There’s reward if we step back to make room for others to step in. We will get to observe and follow the leadership of others and learn new ways of doing things. We will know that we proactively and willingly contributed to shifting power unlike some of our ancestors or predecessors. We will feel the sense of relief and humility that comes from knowing that we are not the only ones who can answer the call of duty or lead an organization. And if we allow others to lead and to lead fully, we will be able to restore our energy for other ways we can contribute to the work that remains so important to us all.

I think about this as a woman of color leading IISC. Although I am female and a person of color, I am older and I have had the opportunity to hold many positions of authority. I think about how I can support younger people to lead IISC. It scares me to think about leaving my role one day, what I might do next, how I would make it financially. But then I remember all the privilege I have earned over my fifty years. I have gained connections to money, connections to recruiters and other opportunities, and I have many family members who love and can help me.

I breathe and I remember I will be perfectly fine.

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August 5, 2019

An Ecosystem of Resourcing for Racial Equity Culture Change Work

Image by Nicolos Raymond, “Vibrant Hot Air Balloons,” used under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Over the past several years we at IISC have had to opportunity to work with colleagues to go deep over a relatively short period of time (2-3 years) with a few organizations facilitating internal culture change for race equity and inclusion. The intensity of this work has offered up opportunity and a number of important lessons, perhaps first and foremost that it is critical to have in place an ecosystem of support and resources to do this work for everyone involved, facilitators included.

IISC President Kelly Bates wrote wisely in a blog post that the work for racial equity is about undoing as much as it is about doing. We do not simply build new culture or behavior on top of old, especially in situations that are characterized by oppression. Some things must be released, and this letting go does not come easy.

There is power and identity and comfort and resources of various kinds invested in the status quo, including in chronic busyness that does not make space for the work or for much of substance to happen. In some cases, there is a preference for existing discomfort that is familiar and that for some is better than uncertainty and instability (the devil you know). But this is exactly what this work calls for  – stepping boldly, and together, into the unknown and unknowing and being open to changing who we think we are, how we relate to ourselves and one another.

This can get quite fraught, opening up hard feelings, mistrust, suspicion and trauma. The diagram above from DismantlingRacism.org highlights the “liminal” space in racial equity processes that groups enter when they move beyond the familiar, including “familiar dysfunction,” to unfamiliar dysfunction. This phase is described in the following way:

The stage of “not knowing,” [is] a place where many experience frustration and/or fear. Many if not most people want the process to offer clarity and quick fixes; when the process does not, both POC and white people give into the tendency to identify people and actions as “right” or “wrong.” Some people in the organization move into positions of high righteousness, believing that race equity is based in “one right way” of doing things; energy goes into identifying who or what is “right” and who or what is “wrong.” People can feel very unsettled because this righteous judgment can either lead to significant self-doubt and/or a desire for the organization to address personal ego needs. At the same time, in the middle of this “not knowing,” relationships may begin to subtly shift as some individuals within the organization work to negotiate conflict with heightened personal awareness and increased accountability to the mission. In addition, the organization as a whole begins to recognize ways in which racism is tending to reproduce itself and attempts are being made to address those. 

SOURCE: “Racial Equity Stages” from DismantlingRacism.org

Here, while ideally we would hope to be able to lean on one another, it is the reality that other supports are going to be necessary, and beyond what external change facilitators and coaches are able to provide. On the way to achieving more relational trust with and commitment to one another, there are a variety of handrails that can be helpful.

For one of our engagements, my colleague Jen Willsea put together the diagram below to sketch out some of the systemic supports that can be useful for organizations going through race equity change work.

A few notes about what appears in the diagram:

  • Contemplative and embodiment practices can be done alone or in groups and include things like meditation, prayer, general somatics, and focusing. This Self-Care Wheel, which I learned about from my colleague and IISC Racial Equity and Training Practice Lead, Aba Taylor, has many great suggestions of practices that can contribute to well-being. Another good resource is the Tree of Contemplative Practices from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.
  • There are many rich places to find resources for learning. Consider Racial Equity Tools as a place to start. Also consider the Healing Justice podcast and community. The Perception Institute offers cutting edge research on the science of implicit bias, racial anxiety and stereotype and identity threat. In addition, the Food Solutions New England 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge website has a lengthy resource list.
  • Mental health professionals may or may not have experience around race-based trauma, racial identify formation, internalized superiority and inferiority, etc. It is good to do your homework around this.
  • There are growing numbers and revelations of spiritual teachers and teachings that can serve as resources for this work. Some that we have come to appreciate include angel Kyodo williams, Ruth King, Barbara A. Holmes, Howard Thurman, Sherri Mitchell, and Father Richard Rohr.
  • Human resource professionals can be key to providing support especially when they are trained in dealing with racism and white supremacy. A helpful resource on this front is this guide from RoadMap.
  • The board of directors of an organization is an important lever for change and support, provided it has an unwavering commitment to racial equity, ideally is collectively trained in the history/shared language/key concepts around race and racism, and has people who bring some relevant lived experience and expertise around healing, organizational change and political action.
  • There are more and more resources that address the reality of trauma and intergenerational transmission of suffering that results from racism and white supremacy. Consider books such as Trauma Stewardship and My Grandmother’s Hands.
  • Some of our favorite conferences include Facing Race, the Equity in the Center Convening, and the White Privilege Conference.
  • There are many powerful workshops and on-line trainings out there, including Undoing Racism, PACE trainings from Visions, Inc., unconscious bias trainings, equityXdesign, and our own Fundamentals of Facilitation for Racial Justice Work and Advancing Racial Justice in Organizations (thank you, Cynthia Silva Parker and Nyantara Sen!).
  • For more political and historical education, consider books such as Stamped from the Beginning, White Rage, Under the Affluence, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Waking Up White, The New Jim Crow, The Fire Next Time, White Fragility, Who We Be; and videos such as Race: The Power of Illusion, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity.
  • For more on the what, why and how of racial affinity groups and caucuses, check out the resources on this page.
  • Thanks to the guidance of Melinda Weekes-Laidlow and inspiration of Christine Ortiz, prototype teams are increasingly a feature of our work with organizations doing race equity and inclusion culture change work. What this looks like is that departmental and other cross-functional teams each create a small testable and scalable experiment at strategic “choice points” to address internalized and institutional racism and white supremacy. When well-facilitated and guided, these are powerful engines of learning and relational trust-building. We are are happy to share more about our experience with these teams, how they operate and what they produce.
  • Race equity design, planning and implementation teams are a feature of the work we do around culture change in organizations and networks. These teams are ideally diverse (with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, seniority/tenure, age, function … ), process-savvy and invested in the long-term success of this work. Again, we are happy to share more about these vital teams.

And we certainly welcome additions! What have you found to be helpful, if not crucial, to the work of race equity culture change?

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July 27, 2019

Getting With the Flows: “Net Work” As Change

Image from Cordelia Chew, “Flow,” used under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

For a number of years now I have been digging into network approaches to social change, including supporting collaborative network formation and development at national, regional, state and local levels around a number of issues, from food insecurity to health inequity to environmental conservation to economic decline and stagnation. While there have been promising advances made in many spaces and places to build trust and connection across various lines of difference (geographic, sectoral, cultural, ethnic, racial) and also to achieve alignment around shared goals and shared identity, significant change has been slow to come and while I know it is important to be realistic about time, I keep feeling that there is a missing link between the work of network development and what is often held up as the goal of “system change.”

I will admit that increasingly I find the stated goal of “system change” a bit hollow and too big, too abstract. Change from what to what? For the sake of what and whom? Increasingly I am more interested in looking at the work of system change as being about working with living systems (neighborhoods, communities, organizations, economies, democracies, etc.) to be equitable, salutogenic (health-promoting) and regenerative (self-renewing). Arguably many of the systems that change agents are focused on are in a state of crisis and/or impending collapse, putting significant portions of the human population, if not the entire species, at risk.  And, of course, the extent to which many of these systems have been “functional,” it has often been at the expense of certain people and the planet (parts or the entirety thereof).

As I hear more talk about the need to come together, connect and collaborate across boundaries (build networks), I keep wanting the conversation to get to another step. Instead of saying that we are here to build networks to work on systems, I want more people to realize that the networks that we are trying to create and that already exist are part and parcel of those systems. That is, neighborhoods, communities, economies, political and health systems, are also networks, or networks of networks – patterns of connection and of flow. They are characterized not just by elements (including people) that are in relationship (that we might see in a typical network map) but also by the resources that move through those channels of relationship (money, information, nutrients, etc.). This realization takes us into the realm of what are called the “energy network sciences” and the idea that evolving patterns and the quality of connection and flow changes and/or creates new systemic possibilities.

Image from Marco Nuernberger, “Flow,” used under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

“New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”

My friend and mentor Sally J. Goerner, quoted above and throughout the rest of this post, recently published a paper entitled “The Collapse of Oligarchic Capitalism and the Rise of Regenerative Learning: How the science of energy systems clarifies what’s happening today and what comes next.” In this paper she builds on her previous and robust work to illustrate how “flow networks” have a lot to say about our current political, economic and climate disruptions and crises.

She begins by reframing our view of evolution from one that is mechanical and accidental to one that is dynamic and quite intelligent. As she writes – “The new logic of life comes most clearly from the new story of growth, development and evolution emerging from an energy-driven process called self-organization.” Self-organization, a phenomenon that is recognized and valued by many network weavers, occurs through the ongoing process of life meeting life and creating new patterns of vitality. Sally writes –

“Instead of improbable accidents in a universe running downhill, we are probable products of energy-flow and binding forces … that connect us in an all-embracing ever-evolving web moving inexorably toward increasing intelligence, complexity, integration and balance.”

In order for this process of complex evolution to occur, there is a need to keep energy flowing and cycling and recycling through an “ever-growing meshwork of connective tissue” so that new patterns of organization can form that are resilient in an ever-changing environment. This flowing energy can exist in the form of information, learning, money, and other crucial resources. When this flow is stunted or fails to happen, certain parts of the system in question can be put at risk, and over time, especially if energy makes it to only a small part of the overall system (through disconnection, blockage, hoarding, extraction) the whole system faces the prospect of collapse. What this means is that the system loses its capacity to regenerate.

Image from tinyfroglet, “Energy Flows,” used under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

“Regenerative systems maintain their existence by constantly channeling critical flows back into nourishing their internal processes and organization and other forms of revitalization.”

Sally spends the bulk of her paper showing how non-regenerative patterns apply to the logic and playing out in the US and globally of economic neoliberalism and oligarchic capitalism. “Neoliberal economies under-invest in human capacities, encourage extractive and speculative practices, promote concentration over circulation; and extol corporate gigantism instead of proper balance.” This is all exacerbated by the accompanying dynamic of the concentration of significant influential decision-making power in fewer and fewer hands (elites) that are self-serving. And this makes the entire system (economy, political system, organization, community) unstable because it violates the rules of “regenerative vitality” – it is less “intelligent” in its ability to respond through diverse sensors and actors to environmental signals.

The counter to where we are and are heading is to be found, in part, through bringing an energy or flow networks perspective which encourages us to keep evolving “constructive, synergistic human networks, linked by mutual benefits, energized by common-cause, and fueled by the robust circulation” of energy/resources. This means embracing a different set if values than those offered by neoliberalism, for example – uplifting a full accounting of human and planetary “externalities” (oppression, theft, pollution, ecological degradation); the care, inclusion and feeding of entire and diverse networks of interconnected individuals, organizations, businesses, communities, cities, governments and the biosphere; and a commitment to robust social learning across all kinds of difference.

This is where I want to take the conversation with more and more social change agents and network weavers going forward. Let’s not focus simply on the structural form of our networks and net work. Let’s focus on what is moving and what facilitates flow through those connections; from where and from whom, to where and to whom; as well as what and who flow supports in terms of resilience, thriving, as well as adaptive and regenerative capacity.

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June 25, 2019

IISC’s 25th Anniversary Celebration: Lessons Learned

On June 11, 2019, IISC successfully celebrated twenty-five years of building collaborative capacity for social justice and racial equity. It was a beautiful and soulful party with over 200 supporters at the historic Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a largely Black and working-class community in the heart of Boston. It was IISC’s first time planning an event of this magnitude, let alone celebrating such a major milestone as our quarter-century birthday.

As you know, part of IISC’s core and signature contribution to the field is that we bring people together to collaborate, lead, and design processes for social change and racial equity. Therefore, like a true IISC’er, I have been pondering some questions. What did we learn about collaboration, racial equity, process, and leadership through this event? What did this event teach or re-teach us about collective planning for change?

There are five observations that come to mind. Not so much about the mechanics of the event (get a great event coordinator is the short answer to that!), but rather about the important intentions around the event.

  1. Clear collaboration got us through every challenge. It was important for us to have a clear purpose for our event, a set of shared values to guide our planning, and a collective vision for our success. Our willingness to share leadership brought wisdom and effective action to our task. We also understood that our collaboration could be efficient. At IISC we remind people that not every decision needs to be made by consensus and this was true in our process. In the case of our event, we delegated the role of planning the event to a committee of diverse stakeholders by role, age, and race that could work nimbly with a relatively small number of constraints such as budget. Other than that, the sky was the limit. We solicited input from each other and other stakeholders as we went along so that we could harness the collective genius and perspectives needed to make this a truly special and unique event. When we hit a block or wall, we would ask the group, what do you think?
  2. Women of color leadership makes the difference. At IISC we are challenging our clients and ourselves to make and honor spaces for women of color to share their voices, to lead, and to flourish. Our event coordinator was a Black woman and at any given time, 70% of the event committee was comprised of women of color. These women of color brought intersectional approaches to everything, making connections between IISC’s equity values and our event vision and execution. We ensured that we had diverse voices on our event stage, and that we hired people of color, women, and Boston residents as vendors. Women of color have often had to make do with very little and to work on every task from bottom to top. With that, our skills kicked in, helping us to nail the small and big details. Collectively, we turned over every stone to solve every challenge along the way.
  3. Set an inspiring goal. At IISC, we promote facilitative leadership, and a major facet of this kind of leadership is inspiring people with vision. We decided to set a fundraising goal that was a stretch but not one that would strike fear in us if we didn’t meet it. We chose a goal that if reached, would allow us to accomplish what had otherwise seemed impossible: a goal that would provide long imagined funding for innovation and product development. And we not only met our fundraising goal, we shattered it!
  4. RPR works. At IISC, we talk about the three dimensions of success in any collaboration. Tending to relationships, designing artful and meaningful process, and achieving results. At each stage of our work as an event committee, we made space for each event committee member to personally check in about their lives and to learn about non-IISC interests and pursuits. We made sure to have focused and detailed meeting agendas with strong facilitation so that we could process all the event details before us and achieve our desired outcomes. We focused on achieving results. We set targets of $125,000 in fundraising and 150 event participants, and we exceeded both our goals. All three dimensions were essential to our event’s success.

5. Speak and show your values. At IISC our values include equity, networks, shared power, and love and we made sure our event program directly reflected these values. Event participants not only walked away knowing something about IISC’s historical accomplishments and what we do here at IISC, but also about the values that hold our work. Our special 25th anniversary video and program speakers spoke to racial equity, the value of networks, and of love as a force for social change. We had three tiers of event ticket prices along with scholarships, so that we could meet our fundraising goal and still make the event accessible to everyone. Our values were also displayed by hugs, laughing, dancing, and making connections between people around the room. It’s no fun to work on racial equity and social justice if you don’t get to live out and experience those actions and values.

There are many more lessons to learn, but this I know: love, commitment, collaboration, adaptability, connection, and ambitious goals had everything to do with our success. It’s actually hard to accept that our planning has come to an end. Our event planning committee members loved working with each other and experienced a sense of accomplishment that we hope to replicate throughout the organization in the next twenty-five years!

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June 10, 2019

Taking the Interaction Method Home

The Parker Clan

IISC is about to celebrate 25 years of service and my husband and I just celebrated 27 years of marriage. One of my colleagues asked how being part of IISC has influenced my marriage. I tell workshop participants all the time that using at home the collaborative methods and mindset that we teach will make it easy to use them at work. They will also make your home life better because they are rooted in values that are all about building up others and working together toward important common goals. Sounds like family life to me!

When I’m on my best behavior at home (as a mom, wife, sister, daughter, daughter-in-law) I use lots of what I have learned and teach at IISC. It’s also true that when I’m on bad behavior, I’ve usually forgotten or laid aside what I’ve learned. Here’s a sampler …

  • Distinguish content and process. Use appropriate processes for the outcomes and people you’re working with. Pay special attention to process and how people are relating to one another.
  • Be clear about my role in the conversation. Am I participating? Just facilitating? Coaching?
    • When I am a participant, bias toward asking questions that build understanding and help ideas to emerge. Engage with what others are saying rather than just advocating for my own ideas.
    • When coaching, ask questions and share observations that help the coachee to gain insight. Before giving advice, be sure the person wants it.
    • When I’m just facilitating, don’t do the work for the group or turn the conversation toward me or my ideas. Help them to think it out.
  • In all cases, inquire before advocating. And then inquire some more!
  • Be clear about who’s the decision maker and involve others appropriately in the process. Remember that even when I have the authority to make a decision, I will still want to consider ways to involve others who will be affected by that decision. And, be sure to explain my rationale.
  • Remember that big agreements are often built through a series of small agreements.
  • Remember IISC’s collaboration lens:
    • Networks – Remember that my family is part of a broader network. Cultivate relationships, build the capacity of everyone in the network to be strong, contributing members, build a gift culture.
    • Exercise “power with” rather than “power over.” Again, even when I do have power over (as with a small child), bias toward building the person’s power to discern and act on their best motivations rather than just imposing my will.
    • Work for equitable outcomes, matching my strategies to the individual needs. Recognize that people will experience the family and the world differently based on their identity.
    • Nurture the love that does justice. Deeply honor the humanity of everyone, even people we disagree with.
  • When in conflict, don’t be overly wedded to my position. Reveal and encourage others to reveal the underlying interests and look for common ground. Explore options without commitments before trying to move toward an agreement.
  • Be clear and specific about feedback. And only offer it when you are genuinely committed to the other person’s improvement. Make sure to give reinforcing feedback as well as constructive feedback.
  • Remember where you are in the open-narrow-close stages of building an agreement. Don’t start to narrow (analyze options) too early or good ideas may not emerge. Don’t close (make an agreement) until you’ve got all the ideas on the table and have thought them through together.
  • And, of course, many of our norms for collaboration:  Remember it’s ok to disagree. Listen for understanding. Enable empathy and compassion. Take space/make space. Keep it real. Keep it here. Take responsibility for impact, regardless of intent.

I’m curious about what’s on your list folks!!

Years ago, I used to joke (only half kiddingly) with Ron and Susan Kertnzer, who were affiliates and former staff of Interaction Associates who were married to each other. After participating in a workshop that they facilitated, I thought we should create a workshop called “The Learning Marriage and the Facilitated Family.” The skills we teach could strengthen some basic building blocks of our society. And, if we would learn and use these skills at home, using them at work would be second nature! That idea never got out of the discussion phase. Who knows whether it’s an idea whose time will eventually come!?!

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April 23, 2019

Social Change Networks: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Networks seem to be all the rage these days, as more and more people come to understand that we live in a vastly inter-connected world. This is wonderful news, and it can be challenging in many ways, as we grapple with complexity to build new muscles and mindsets to deliver on the promise of so-called “network effects.” These effects have a breadth dimension to them (i.e. small world reach, rapid dissemination). They also have a depth dimension, which can sometimes be overlooked and/or minimized. Networks are not just about the quantity of connections and flows, but also quality.

The experiences of “net weavers” in various fields suggest that the extent to which people are able to connect deeply and authentically with one another increases trust, possibility, commitment and impact. They are learning that especially in a world that can feel like it is fracturing and unraveling, love matters!

What follows are excerpts of an interactive session I led at this year’s Network Leadership Training Academy held at the University of Colorado-Denver and co-hosted in partnership by The CU-Denver School of Public Affairs’ Center on Network Science and Visible Network Labs. Through sharing story, science and wisdom, we explored how love can bolster our “net work” for more just, healthy, and sustainable communities.

Excerpt 1. Love Through a Collaborative Change Lens

At IISC we uphold three integrated lenses for our collaborative capacity building work for social change:

  • power/equity/inclusion,
  • networks, and
  • love as a force for social transformation

And we really see these facets as being dynamically connected. That is, it’s hard to have one without the others to be maximally impactful – we know that when collaborative “net work” is done without serious considerations of power and equity we can subsequently perpetuate or exacerbate injustice. Equity work done without net work can remain small and exclusive. And either of these without love … Well, Michael Edwards of Open Democracy may have said it best in a talk he gave a number of years ago called “Love and Networks” –

“Only by operating from the space where we are joined together in some deeper sense are we likely to find common ground in facing up to the collective problems that confront us, with some of our differences intact.”

Excerpt 2: Love in Action: The Barr Fellowship

I want to share a couple of network stories that I am intimately familiar with that have a lot to do with love as a force for social transformation. The first is from Boston and is about the Barr Fellowship. For a little bit of back story – Boston is home to a high concentration of non-profits with relatively few funding sources compared to that number and an historically competitive culture. Also, like many cities of its size, it is plagued by social disparities that play out along lines of race, ethnicity and class.

The idea for the Barr Fellowship grew, in part, out of a desire to cultivate deeper relationships (and presumably a greater sense of abundance) among experienced leaders, as well as to help them rejuvenate, reflect, and re-engage with their work in new ways. It was also intended to see if a more deeply connected network of committed leaders might bring more systemic impact across a variety of issues in the city.

The Fellowship began in 2005, in partnership with IISC process designers and facilitators, with an inaugural cohort of 12 Fellows from a variety of fields and neighborhoods, and representing a diversity of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds and perspectives. There were really few expectations put on Fellows, other than that they take a break, connect authentically with one another, and open themselves to different experiences and perspectives, and then … see what emerged.

“We add value to society-at-large when we dare to connect.”

Gibran Rivera

The Fellows start their experience by taking a three-month sabbatical. They spend the first two weeks of their sabbatical traveling together outside of the country (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Haiti, for example). These trips immerse fellows as a group in an entirely disruptive learning context, which gives them space to think differently and also opportunity and impulse to turn to one another. Following the sabbatical, fellows gather on semi-annual overnight retreats for three years. These gatherings continue to deepen the peer network of learning, support, and accountability.

Gatherings are also held each year for the entire network (bridging cohorts) and these sometimes also include travel. The learning journey, sabbatical, and periodic retreats are designed to help fellows develop deep, authentic, trusting relationships (i.e., social capital). What have the results been? See for yourself in this short video, and ask yourself, “What’s love got to do with this” …

Excerpt 3: Netweaver Wisdom

The importance of cultivating a “love ethic” (in the words of bell hooks) was echoed repeatedly in a recent conversation convened by Bruce Evan Goldstein and Lynn Decker of the Netweaver Network, with a few network coordinators and facilitators focused on food justice, regenerative agriculture and community fire resilience. Without planning to do so, we fell into talking about the role of love in advancing and cohering networks. Practices to cultivate love showed up in the following ways in these and other networks:

  • Building trust with one another through informal conversation/breaking bread
  • Sharing our truths and stories with one another
  • Connecting more holistically through mind/heart/spirit
  • Cultivating a shared sense of purpose
  • Honoring difference and the complexity of our selves and one another
  • Developing collective courage to challenge entrenched power and internalized oppressive behaviors
  • Staying curious about what different people need and what they have to offer
  • Displaying an ongoing ethic of welcome, hosting and care to all
  • Cultivating creativity and vulnerability – singing and dancing, improv(ising)
  • Working/talking/meeting equitably outside of cultural comfort zones
  • Leaning into deep mutual learning, saying “I don’t know,” staying open to change
  • Celebrating/appreciating one another and one another’s successes

Which of these tacks are you taking to cultivate a “love ethic” in your network? What others have you taken or would you consider taking?

Excerpt 4: Bringing It Home

So [in closing] what’s love got to do with the work of weaving networks for social change? Increasingly, we at IISC and many of our partners are seeing and saying … everything! In many ways, we have created and can reinforce dominant systems and a society that constrain us, that make us into objects, cogs, consumers, abstractions and stereotypes. And this is devastating, certainly most for those who suffer under the heel of oppression and violence, but also for those with privilege. There’s a collective de-humanization going on.

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

Barbara Holmes, president emerita of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and author of Race and the Cosmos, reminds us that there is a vastness out there, that reality is so much more than we think and often experience it as being. We are each of us so much more than we think we are, than others may think we are. Yet we forget this, or have it denied by the flattening powers of oppression, commodification and homogenization.

The key to unlocking vastness, to re-membering and reclaiming who we are and choosing something else, Holmes says, is not simply through our heads, but through our hearts. This happens when we experience deep connection – to our full selves, to others’ authenticity, to Life and the universe. This kind of connection will often take us to vulnerable and uncomfortable places – to sadness, to regret, to tenderness, to the necessary work of atonement and forgiveness, to uncertainty … but also and ultimately to joy, to awe, to gratitude, to a grounding in something firmer. And this is really what feeds us in regenerative ways.

Father Richard Rohr, a regional neighbor here in the Southwest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation over in Albuquerque, reminds us that:

“Love as flow goes in the direction of ever more life and ever-more creative life.”

Image by Bold Frontiers, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

Network scientists would agree, looking at how “network effects” can amplify positive emotions and actions. See for example, the work of Christakis and Fowler who say, in a more scientific way:

“Cooperative and pro-social behaviors and emotions cascade in human social networks.”

The same could be said, of course, of negative emotions and activity. Fear begets fear and shrinks who we are and possibility. Love begets love, and expands who we are and possibility, and it can seemingly work magic through the vast and often invisible or unacknowledged connections and flows of which we are a part. So heeding the wisdom of scientists and sages, let’s boldly go forth across boundaries and barriers and sow seeds for justice, liberation and flourishing.

We’ll end with this from adrienne maree brown and her new book Pleasure Activism,

“We learn to love by loving. We practice with each other, on ourselves, in all kinds of relationships. And right now we need to be in rigorous practice, because we can no longer afford to love people the way we’ve been loving them. This year, commit to developing an unflappable devotion to yourself as part of an abundant, loving whole. Make a commitment with five people to be more honest with each other, heal together, change together, and become a community of care that can grow to hold us all.”

Image taken at Red Rocks outside of Denver, CO.
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April 7, 2019

As a Network Matures: Brushfires, Bake Boxes and (Calling) B.S.

A couple of months ago we had a meeting of the Food Solutions New England Network’s Process Team, and we spent part of our time checking in around our perceptions of where the network is heading in its next stage of development. For the past 8 years, FSNE has moved through a series of stages that have roughly correspond with the following:

  1. Building a foundation of trust and connectivity across the six states in the region as well as across sectors, communities and identities.
  2. Fostering alignment around a cohering vision (the New England Food Vision) and a set of core (non-negotiable) values, including a commitment to racial equity and food justice
  3. Facilitating systemic analysis of the regional food system, which resulted in the identification of four leverage areas where the network sees itself as poised to contribute most:  (1) engaging and mobilizing people for action, (2) connecting and cultivating leaders who work across sectors to advance the Vision and values, (3) linking diverse knowledge and evolving a new food narrative, and (4) making the business case for an emerging food system that encompasses racial equity and food justice, healthy food for all, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.
  4. Developing and beginning to implement a set of systemic strategies to encourage the continued emergence of this values-aligned regional food system, including a narrative and messaging guide; food, farm, and fisheries policy platform; set of holistic metrics to gauge the state of the regional food system; and people’s guide to the New England food system.

All of this effort, including the work of other regional networks (Farm to Institution New England, New England Grassroots Environment Fund, Northeast Farm to School Collaborative, Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, a community of practice of state-level food planning efforts, among others), has moved the region from a state of relative fragmentation, or disconnected clusters, to more of a multi-hub network.

With greater intricacy and diversity in this network of networks, the Process Team talked about the work of the next several years as being the following:

  • Continuing to support foundational connectivity and alignment
  • Moving from rooting to branching by creating more visible actions and assets beyond the underlying connectivity and alignment
  • Shifting and sharing “backbone functions” currently held by one entity (the UNH Sustainability Institute)
  • Cultivating a “brushfire approach” where, through greater density and diversity of connection, information and calls to action are spread in more timely ways
  • Making the periphery more of the norm, by moving from just bringing people into the network to making sure we support their aligned efforts “out there”
  • Moving from “seeding thoughts and cultivating commitments and leaders” to “managing the whole garden,” including supporting a growing team of people who are committed to creating conditions in the region for the Vision and core values to be realized
  • Creating “bake boxes” that can readily be used and adapted by people and organizations in the region (examples include the regional Vision, the core values, the recently endorsed HEAL policy platform, a soon to be launched narrative/messaging guide, racial equity design toolkit and discussion guide, etc.)
  • Calling B.S. on those who are “Vision and values washing” (saying they are aligned but acting in contrary ways) or are off point – see for example these recent letters in response to a Boston Globe editorial.

We also talked about what we see not changing:

And of course all of this is subject to adjustment and adaptation given complexity, uncertainty and the network nature of emergence. #humility

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March 24, 2019

A Networked Racial Equity Challenge Grows Up, and Out

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are [people] who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.”

– Frederick Douglass

On April 1, 2019, the 5th Annual Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge will officially launch. We at IISC are excited to once again partner with FSNE in offering the Challenge as a tool for advancing the conversation about and commitment to undoing racism and white supremacy in our food and related systems.

The FSNE Challenge is a remixed and more topically focused form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore (founder of the Privilege Institute), Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White), and Dr. Marguerite W. Penick-Parks (Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh). A small design team 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 and food justice.

Furthermore, we saw an enhanced on-line version of the Challenge as a way of creating “network effects” around the justice work that many are already doing in our region and beyond. Participation in and the complexity of the Challenge have grown significantly and organically over time. In 2015 we had 200 participants, mainly from the six state region of “New England.” Last year we had over 3,000 people participate from most states in the US and some places in Canada. As of the writing of this post, we already have over 2,000 people registered.

The point of Challenge is not simply to spread but also deepen the commitment to racial equity and food justice. As such, we hope that participants return each year, and many do. Accounting for this, no two Challenges are exactly alike in terms of content, and we are continuously nudging people to go from learning to action. See the image below as one way that we have thought about encouraging people to move up a “ladder of engagement” through their involvement.

Over time, numerous organizations have self-organized to take the Challenge in-house, convening staff colleagues, fellow congregants, community members and classmates to reflect together on learning and making commitments to action. We have heard from groups such as Health Care Without Harm; the Wallace Center at Winrock International; Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems; Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; Southside Community Land Trust (Providence, RI); Agricultural Sustainability Institute at University of California-Davis, Georgia Organics and many others who have convened around the Challenge and are planning to do it for the first time or again.

This year the Challenge is being widely promoted in a variety of places, including through sessions that Karen Spiller and I offered at the White Privilege Conference in Rapids City, Iowa, and at the New Hampshire Food Alliance state-wide gathering. In addition, the Challenge is being promoted campus-wide to students, faculty and staff at the University of New Hampshire, where FSNE’s convening team, the UNH Sustainability Institute, is located.

So what exactly is the Challenge?

It is a self-guided learning journey examining the history and impacts of racism, different kinds of racism, how it is connected to our food systems, examples and tools on how to undo racism and build racial equity and food justice.

How does the Challenge work?

People sign up (YOU can register here) and then starting April 1st, they receive daily email prompts focused on a different theme along with links to related resources (readings, video, audio) that take about 10-15 minutes each day. In addition, there is a robust Resource List for people to look through and continue their learning. Those who register also have access to an online discussion forum for those who want to talk and think out loud about the daily prompts and other learning along the way.

How is the Challenge evolving?

To meet the demands of a growing number of participants and the expressed desire for many to go deeper and to replicate the Challenge in different ways, we have developed a variety of additional supports. This year we again offered an orienting webinar that featured Drs. Moore, Jr. and Penick-Parks along with testimonials to the value of the Challenge, including perspective from Sister Anna Muhammad who works for NOFA/Mass and is on the FSNE Network Team and the FSNE Racial Equity Challenge Committee.

In addition, this year we have produced a Discussion Guide to support groups at schools, colleges, businesses, churches or other organizations that may want to do the Challenge together. The Guide along with the Resource List essentially form a ready-to-use “bake box” that groups could use to run their own exercise if they would like, or to keep the Challenge going 365 days a year!

Another feature this year is a robust Outreach Kit that has been pulled together by FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes. The Kit includes sample communications that can be used to recruit others to participate in the Challenge through email, social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), as well as a one page information flyer.

All of this is in line with how FSNE sees itself evolving as a network into its next 8 years, creating resources that might be shared easily through aligned, diverse and robust connections and adapted by others in the region and beyond (stay tuned for a New Food Narrative Messaging Guide).

What next?

Please join us, and spread the word, the invitation, the conversation and the commitment to others!

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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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