Author Archives for Curtis Ogden

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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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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December 27, 2018

2018, The Year of Love: A Retrospective

“I need love
Not some sentimental prison
I need god
Not the political church
I need fire
To melt the frozen sea inside me
I need love.”

– Sam Phillips

Image by Luke, Ma, “Love by Nature,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

I started this year with a post focused on love, and this idea that 2018 would be the year of love. This thinking wasn’t offered through rose-colored glasses, but from a shared sense and conviction that love would be required to see the year through. And not just any kind of love. In that original post there were a few definitions and quotes that we have been playing with at IISC, including these:

“All awakening to love is spiritual awakening… All the great social movements for freedom and justice in our society have promoted a love ethic.” 

– bell hooks

“Justice is what love looks like in public.”

– Cornel West

“To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him [sic] an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.”

– William Sloane Coffin

“Love is seeing the other as a legitimate other.”

– Humberto Maturana

“The ultimate act of love is allowing ourselves and others to be complex.” 

– Nora Bateson Read More
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December 17, 2018

Weaving Webs of Possibility: The Moral Imagination in Social Change

Image by Graylight, used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

As I was just starting work at IISC, back in 2005, our founding Executive Director Marianne Hughes, introduced the staff to the work of John Paul Lederach, and specifically his book The Moral Imagination. As I recall, she did this as a result of a sabbatical during which she explored the power of networks and of art in social change. These two things show up centrally in Lederach’s work. Lederach has spent years doing peace and reconciliation work in some of the most intense and entrenched conflicts in the world. And he writes not really as a master technician, but as a poet, which is very much by intention.

I thought of The Moral Imagination a couple of months ago, when I began to realize how starved many people I meet seem to be for alternatives to what we currently have as mainstream systems in this country. Many are speaking up against and resisting what is not working, has long been unjust, and is fundamentally sustainable, which is crucial. And in the absence of clear alternatives (see “reimagine” and “recreate” in Spirit in Action’s image below), what can ensue is … conflict. Entrenched conflict, with no creative point of release.

I also thought of Lederach’s book, because he writes how central networks, human webs, and authentic human connection is to the work of peacebuilding and reconciliation. Up until recently I had thought about peacebuilding as a field as having more to do with what goes on in “other places” like Ireland, Sudan, Colombia, Tajikistan. If nothing else, these past couple of years have provided a need to adjust that understanding – peacebuilding is needed at home.

So I’ve been scouring Lederach’s writings, and there is a lot that resonates. Lederach was recently featured on a powerful program of On Being with actress and activist America Ferrera (no doubt another reason he has been on my mind). There is much to say about The Moral Imagination, but for now I am offering some passages and quotes that struck a chord and I’m curious to hear what reactions those reading have … Read More

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December 10, 2018

Change Is About Letting Go, Creating Space … and Connecting

What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.
 
When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible. …
A fire
grows
simply because the space is there,
with openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

–  “Fire,” Judy Sorum Brown

 

Change does not tend to happen through piling on, through simply adding to what we are already doing or whatever heap we have in front of us.

Change happens, say scientists and sages, through some kind of release, through letting go. Not of everything, but of something. Something that will create enough space for creativity (something else!) to happen.

Changing the way we do work, behave, and treat one another and the planet doesn’t mean dumping new techniques on top of old ways of working. It means carving out creative niches that are given space for the breath of life to reach them. So they can grow. So that they can find their way.

Change does not tend to happen in isolation (the proof of re-treat is ultimately in re-engagement). It happens through connection, through webs (no one is an island). It happens through collective care and nurturing. Too much space – distance, disconnection – can kill the spark of change.

Sharon Salzberg and Ethan Nichtern ask an important question –

“What are we holding onto about this system [ways of doing and being] that, if we trusted the other people around us, we actually could practice letting go of?”

Image by Orchids love rainwater, shared under provisions for Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

 

Connection, deep connection, also helps us to let go. … And to let something else come.

Connect. Let go. Create space. Connect. Let come.

Like breathing.

How are you connecting (and to what and to whom) in order to let go of what no longer serves?

What are you letting go of in order to create spaces for the new and desperately needed?

What new connections (and old) are you making to fuel the fires of possibility?

 

Image from Daniel Christian Wahl, The adaptive cycle (adapted & expanded from Gunderson & Holling 2001)

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December 3, 2018

Net Work: Overcoming Scarcity Mindsets and Practice

“Scarcity alters how we look at things; it makes us choose differently; … our single-mindedness leads us to neglect things we actually value.”

-Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives

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

A few weeks ago, the inimitable Seth Godin wrote a blog post about “the magnetic generosity of the network effect.” In the post, he talks about how a “scarcity mindset” can impact our willingness to share ideas. This can happen, says Seth, when we treat ideas as if we were sharing a pizza. But ideas are not pizza slices. Ideas can grow, inspire, flourish. Ideas when offered freely can give birth to innovation; in dialogue they can create even better ideas. The exchange of ideas can grow energy and enthusiasm among sharers and recipients. This is central to the notion of “network effect” – as a network grows, so does the potential of the network. It’s potential grows. Having connections is only as good as what gets shared through those connections, and in which directions. In other words, networks are made valuable not just through connectivity, but through generosity and mutuality.

I work with some groups, aspiring to be networks for change, that struggle with what I would call an “organizational mindset” in their work. Their tendency is to want to immediately put structure and boundaries on what they are doing – who is in, who is out; how we will make decisions; what committees need to be formed, who has what kind of power, etc. This is not necessarily a bad thing, except when it is driven by a scarcity mindset, an overly protectionist stance that can result in the hoarding and unwillingness to share things that are not scarce – ideas, appreciation, a skill, gratitude, love, an image, a tune – and whose sharing can create the richness of emergence and greater abundance. Read More

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November 6, 2018

Emerging Network Governance: An Evolving Conversation

 

“Community exists when people who are interdependent struggle with the traditions that bind them and the interests that separate them so they can realize a future that is an equitable improvement on the past.”

-Carl Moore (quoted by Dr. Ceasar McDowell)

A couple of weeks ago I attended a gathering of network thinkers and doers pulled together by Steve Waddell and Diane J. Johnson, on behalf of the Emerging Network Governance Initiative. Our time together was designed for us to (1) get to know one another better and our respective work (because that’s what network weavers do) and (2) explore possibilities for collaboration to bring different network processes and forms of governance to bear at various scales in the face of the struggle/failure of traditional government to hold and do justice to demographic complexity and address a variety of social and environmental issues.

We spent some time early on unpacking the words “emergent,” “network” and “governance.” While we did not come to final agreement on set definitions, here is some of what I took from those conversations.  

Emergent and emergence refer to the dynamic in networks and in life in general through which novelty arises in seemingly unexpected ways. 

What is emergent is not planned per se, but rather surfaces through complex interactions between parts of or participants in systems.

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