Author Archives for Curtis Ogden

April 1, 2020

Bringing a Network Theory Perspective to These Times, Part 1

“While a network, like a group, is a collection of people, it includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties, and the particular pattern of these ties, are often more important than the individual people themselves. They allow groups to do things that a disconnected collection of individuals cannot. The ties explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And the specific pattern of the ties is crucial to understanding how networks function.”
Nicholas A. Christakis

At the Interaction Institute for Social Change, we have a collaborative change lens that includes the facets of (1) naming and building power and working for equity and inclusion; (2) seeing and advancing networks as the unit of action and analysis and (3) embracing love as a force for social transformation. With respect to networks, we have noticed that there are a lot of different takes on what networks are, why they matter, and how to “leverage” them for positive social change. Part of this may be due to the fact that network science and approaches span a variety of schools of thought and practice, including sociology, psychology, mathematics, political science, communication, anthropology, economics, and epidemiology.

I recently came across an article by Nancy Katz, David Lazer, Holly Arrow, and Noshir Contractor (2004) that names some of the commonalities that exist across these different schools and approaches that we’ve been experimenting with to advance social change networks, support resilience, and to shift patterns and flows in “systems as networks” to create regenerative communities and equitable wellbeing. The article, entitled “Network Theory and Small Groups,” refers to the work of Barry Wellman (1988), which lifts up five core principles of network theory that might provide some more coherence and alignment to “network approaches.”

  1. People’s behavior is best understood and predicted by the web of relationships in which they are embedded. These webs present opportunities and impose constraints on people’s behavior. So working with connections and flows can facilitate, inhibit and shape possibility.
  2. Nothing can be properly understood in isolation or in a segmented fashion. The focus of analysis should be the relationships between people or groups, rather than the units themselves or their intrinsic characteristics. So the quality of relationship matters and needs tending.
  3. Methods of “analysis” should not assume independence, but rather interdependence. People should be understood relationally. So think in terms of “collisions and ripples” as one network we are working with likes to say, characterizing network effects.
  4. The flow of information and resources between two people depends not simply on their relationship to each other but on their relationships to everybody else. Or in network science speak, “Understanding a social system requires more than merely aggregating the dyadic ties.” So focus not just on one-to-one exchanges, but one-to-many and many-to-many (scale-linking).
  5. Groups have fuzzy rather than firm boundaries. The building blocks of organizations and communities are not discrete groups but rather overlapping networks. Individuals generally have crosscutting relationships to a multitude of groups. So focus not simply on the impacts of bonding within groups but bridging across, and what this manifests.

Webs, relationships, flows, interdependence, intricacy, scale-linking, bonding and bridging. This is certainly not a full list of what network mindsets make visible to us, but hopefully lifts up some of what can help us better understand and work with reality, in these and at all times.

And more to come on this …

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March 20, 2020

Network(ed) Adaptations: A Regional Food System Network Responds to COVID19

Image from K. Kendall, “Fragile Resilience,” used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Yesterday I was on a call with the Food Solutions New England Network Team, meeting virtually instead of in-person, to do some checking in and also to move forward ongoing efforts focused on strengthening our collective work towards the FSNE Vision. This included talking about ways to use the current moment to strengthen resilience, even as so many in-person convenings, including the FSNE 2020 Summit, are being cancelled or postponed.

Many of us feel like there is an opportunity to take the network to another level in this time, to deepen connectivity, to ramp up exchanges, to facilitate greater alignment, to engage in much more mutual support. Evidence of this came from a round of sharing announcements, updates, requests and needs (riffing on the “network marketplace” that we have adapted from Lawrence CommunityWorks), among the nearly 20 participants on the call (representing all 6 New England states, different sectors and perspectives in the food system). I think we were all heartened to hear about the adaptations, creativity, and care happening in so many places amidst COVID19.

Image by sagesolar, “Mesmerized by murmuration,” used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Examples of emerging activity, which came up during our call and in email exchanges since, include:

  • Various mutual aid initiatives (see Big Door Brigade for resources on this front)
  • A coordinated call for stimulus funds to invest in communities to build out critical infrastructure between local and regional food producers and families in need of healthy food
  • More robust activity around the upcoming 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge to advance equity considerations and actions especially in these times (see and register here)
  • Advancing research and work on regenerative food and economic hubs in western Massachusetts and in Connecticut (see Regenerative Communities Network)
  • Rapid response grassroots funding (see The New England Grassroots Environment Fund and opportunities to donate)
  • Farmers opening up farm stands, home delivery, etc.
  • Food delivery route adjustments to ensure people who are most vulnerable have food
  • Rapid responses around work visas for farm workers to keep farms working
  • Work to reimburse private childcare centers for caring for the children of essential workers, including grocery store workers
  • Just and sustainable food organizers digitizing campaigns (see Migrant Justice and Real Food Challenge)
  • Efforts to meet current needs amidst COVID19 with needs to address climate change (see some reflections from Otto Scharmer on this front, which have been making their way through the network)
  • Food funders revising guidelines and getting money out the door quickly and for general operations
  • Innovations around education in food system programs through universities
  • Rallying support for small food-related businesses
  • Re-galvanized food policy council activity
  • Getting food to children who are now out of school and otherwise depend on schools for breakfast and lunch
  • Open forums on institutional needs around providing food during COVID19 (see Farm to Institution New England)
  • Collecting COVID related resources and reporting on impacts on the food system (see this Google doc started by FSNE Network Leadership Institute alum Vanessa García Polanco)
  • Free virtual/video cooking demonstrations
  • Leveraging online platforms to connect people across geographies and systems to talk about taking action around systemic alternatives (see Now What? 2020)
  • Utilizing virtual tools creatively to advance strategic thinking under changing and challenging conditions (there was also good discussion about the importance of considering issues of inclusion and equity, given uneven access to certain tools, dependable wi-fi, and supports that allow more focus when working virtually, etc.)

There are others that I’m sure we did not hear. That said, beyond the warmth of the personal connection time during our call, which we always make time for, and the emails of mutual support since, there is a hopeful sense that in what we are sharing are the seeds of systemic alternatives to the system that is failing some more than others and all of us in the long run. All of this needs more tending, more care, more connecting, more inclusion, always more considerations of equity, and more coordination. And more time and space for wisdom and innovations to emerge …

Please share with us what else you are seeing emerge and adapt for the good and the better in these times!

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February 20, 2020

Network Analysis for Change: Collaborations, Clusters, Champions and Coach-Weavers

“Thinking in terms of networks can enable us to see with new eyes.” 

– Harold Jarche

A couple of years ago I teamed up with Bruce Hoppe, a very skillful and savvy network mapper, to do a network capacity building and analysis engagement with a national education organization comprised of a growing number of member schools. While the organization referred to itself as a “network,” leadership recognized that it did not necessarily intentionally leverage itself as such, or do so with great consistency. Furthermore, there was reported unevenness of understanding among member schools of what it meant to be a member of this network. So Bruce and I were invited in to work with the leadership team to see what might be done to grow network awareness, intention and activity.

In addition to doing some “thinking like a network” training and coaching with the core leadership team, we put together a network survey that yielded some interesting results. The survey was intended to surface how people in the network currently took advantage of the network, what they valued about it, and what other value they would like to see come from their membership and participation.

In analyzing both the pattern of responses and the network map that Bruce constructed, we were interested to see stories emerge of mediated and self-organized collaborations between schools. This included reports of information sharing, staff exchanges, and coordinated learning. This raised a few questions – Was network leadership aware of these collaborations? Were others in the network familiar with them? The answer was that there was some awareness, but this was not at all widespread. The hypothesis emerged that if examples of collaboration were more widely shared and celebrated, this might become both license and motivation for others to do so.

Something else that emerged from the network map were signs of various geographic clusters of schools where there was relatively robust and/or growing communication and coordination. At the same time, there were schools that were in relatively close geographic proximity (in a state or sub-region of a state) where there was little if any interaction and exchange. Clusters in a network can become very powerful engines of collaboration, innovation and influence, both for members of the cluster and also the rest of the network. Leadership was invited to look more closely at the conditions that might be supporting interactivity in some clusters as opposed to others, and also to share examples of robust cluster activity with the rest of the network to inspire curiosity and connectivity.

Another take-away from the survey analysis was that there were clear (what we called) “champions” in the network, individuals who participated in many different virtual and in-person network activities at a relatively high degree of frequency. These super-users were identified as an asset to be further engaged to the extent that they might be ambassadors for the network as a whole, given their apparent enthusiasm. In addition, we raised the idea of creating a cluster of the champions, or a community of practice, that might exchange and prototype promising practices for network engagement.

Also related to this notion of champions was the discovery that the formal school coaching role that existed within the network could play a potentially powerful weaving function within the network. That is, coaches worked with multiple school leaders and often saw opportunities to make connections for the sake of peer exchange. However, this was not a formally condoned aspect of the coaching role. Leadership was invited to consider what it might look like to move coaches out of the role of highly customized support for individual schools and to do more generalized workshops and connecting of peers to ramp up interactivity, and support capacity, in the network.

Collaborations, clusters, champions and coaches-as-weavers – helpful isights from a network survey and map that we look forward to continuing to build upon and learn from, including how to leverage both virtual and in-person convenings to energize the network.

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February 17, 2020

The Evolving Story of a Network Innovation: FSNE’s 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge

“I believe that the struggle for racial and social justice provides an unparalleled lens through which to visualize – and achieve – more honest, just, and positive interrelationships in all aspects of our lives together.”

– john a. powell, from Racing to Justice

On March 30, 2020, the 6th Annual Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge will launch. IISC is excited to continue our partnership 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 sector-specific 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). After FSNE formalized its commitment to racial equity in its sustainable food system work about 7 years ago (more on our journey in this article), a small design team saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread (networked!) conversation about the connection between race, racism and food systems and ultimately greater action for racial and food justice.

We also see the 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 through small world reach, rapid dissemination, adaptation, etc. Participation in and the complexity of the Challenge continue to grow – in 2015 we had 200 participants, mainly from the six state region of “New England,” and in 2019 we had some 5,000 people participate from all 50 states in the US, Canada, Mexico and other countries outside of North America.

The point of the Racial Equity Challenge is not simply to spread but also deepen the commitment to racial equity and food justice. So we hope that participants return each year, and many do, and also continue the work in between. Because of this, we make sure that the Challenge continues to evolve in content and format, increasingly with a bias towards action. A couple of years ago, seeing how things were developing, we created the “ladder of engagement” below to think about how to continue to move people along a continuum from “not paying attention” to “organizing.”

It has been inspiring to see numerous organizations self-organize to take the Challenge in-house, convening colleagues, fellow congregants, community members and classmates to reflect together on learning and making commitments to action. This has included 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.

Last year we responded to these organic efforts and some specific requests by creating a discussion guide for facilitators to design and steward conversations in their organizations/communities. In 2019, the Challenge also went deep in the home institution of Food Solutions New England, the University of New Hampshire (the Sustainability Institute serves as the network’s “backbone”). With the support of a Professorship that I shared with Karen Spiller, we did considerable “in-reach” to staff, faculty and students, including a launch event and campus presentations, which resulted in more than 500 people participating in the Challenge from UNH. We also turned the Challenge into workshops that we offered at gatherings such as the White Privilege Conference.

Last year, we heard for months after the Challenge many appreciations from different parts of the country and how participation is moving people from learning to action

  • to create a community equity summit
  • to bring equity centrally into organizational strategy
  • to shift one’s job so that they can focus more centrally on issues of injustice
  • to bolster people’s courage to have courageous conversations
  • to bring an equity focus to food policy work

We hope these ripples will continue to be amplified this year!

So what exactly is the Challenge?

It is a self-guided learning journey examining the history and impacts 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 March 30th, 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 in 2020?

To meet the growing demands of participants and the expressed desire for many to go deeper and to replicate and extend the Challenge in different ways, we have developed a variety of additional supports.

  • In addition to an orienting webinar for participants, this year we will offer a webinar specifically for people who want to facilitate groups around the Challenge. This will happen on May 9th.
  • We will also offer a one day in-person training for people who are interested in facilitating groups to prepare themselves for that undertaking.
  • Another feature this year is a more 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 an outreach flyer.
  • Related to outreach, and a late-breaking development, a US Representative in our region (whose name we cannot reveal yet) has agreed to tweet out daily prompts to her constituents via social media. How about inviting your elected officials to do the same!
  • New this year – in collaboration with the New England Grassroots Environment Fund and the Garfield Foundation, we are excited to offer mini-grants up to $1,000 to organizations and groups based in any of the six New England states who need some financial support to meaningfully convene discussions or group conversations around this year’s Racial Equity Challenge. Funding can be used to cover expenses such as printing, room rental, refreshments, childcare and travel reimbursements for attendees of session(s), language translation/interpretation, etc. More information is available here.
  • Also new this year, organizations (such as non-profits, agencies, schools, businesses and other groups) can register to be listed as “organizational participants” of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge! Each individual should still register with their own email address in order to receive the daily prompts during the Challenge, but organizations can now indicate to the world their support for the work of building equity and dismantling racism in our food system! Contact FSNE with any questions about this.

All of this is in line with how FSNE sees itself evolving as a network into its next decade, creating accessible and supportive resources that might be shared and easily adapted through aligned, diverse and robust connections in the region and beyond.

What next?

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

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December 2, 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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October 28, 2019

A Taste of “Team Human”

I just finished reading Douglas Ruskoff’s Team Human and found it very provocative and timely. As I find myself in more spaces where it feels like there is a tendency towards breaking as opposed to bridging, I and others with whom I work are asking, (1) What is really going on here? and (2) What we can do to better hold things together, while respecting diversity and difference? Team Human offers some insights by lifting up how the digital-age technologies in which many of us are engaged are making dangerously simplistic abstractions of our world (and of people) and appealing to the worst of our humanity.

Rushkoff uses 100 aphoristic statements in what amounts to a manifesto that speaks to how forces for human connection have turned into ones of isolation and repression. This includes algorithms that constantly direct our attention to what outrages us and sound bite biased social media undermining democracy by encouraging people to spread incendiary partial and untruths (because they outrage us!).

The book is certainly a wake up call to understand the manipulation behind digital media and to go beyond false appearances and reductionist reactivity to embrace prosocial behavior and make contributions towards regenerative patterns and flows. I highly recommend the book and have pulled some of my favorite quotes, which you will find below:

“Whoever controls media controls society. … Social control is based on thwarting social contact and exploding the resulting disorientation and despair.

“Engineers at our leading tech firms and universities tend to see human beings as the problem and technology as the solution.”

[Under capitalism] “people are at best an asset to be exploited, and at worst a cost to be endured.”

“We’ve got a greater part of humanity working on making our social media feeds more persuasive than we have on making clean water more accessible.”

“The internet reinforces its core element : the binary. It makes us take sides.”

“Memetic warfare, regardless of the content, discourages cooperation, consensus, or empathy.”

“If we don’t truly know what something is programmed to do, chances are it is programming us. Once that happens, we may as well be machines ourselves.”

“There is no ‘resistance’ in a digital environment/ only on or off.”

“We reduced ideas to weaponized memes, and humankind to human resources. We got carried away with our utilitarian capabilities, and lost touch with the reasons to exercise those capabilities in the first place.”

“The long-term danger is not that we will lose our jobs to robots. … The real threat is that we lose our humanity to the value system we embed in our robots, and that they in turn impose on us.”

“We must learn that technology’s problems can’t always be solved with more technology.”

“Might the apparent calamity and dismay around us be less the symptoms of a society on the verge of collapse than those of one about to give birth?”

“The first step toward reversing our predicament is to recognize that being human is a team sport.”

“Happiness is not a function of one’s individual experience or choice, but a property of groups of people.”

“Evolution may have less to do with rising above one’s peers than learning to get along with more of them.”

“Challenging the overt methods of separation is straightforward: reject that hate speech of racists, zero some economics of oppression, and the war mongering of both tyrants and neoliberal hawks.”

“We can be utterly in charge of the choice not to be utterly in charge. We can be fully human without being in complete control of our world.”

“It’s neither resistance nor passivity, but active participation: working in concert with what’s happening to make it down river in one piece.”

“New experiments have revealed that after just a few moments of awe, people behave with increased altruism, cooperation and self-sacrifice.”

“True awe is timeless, limitless, and without division. It suggests there is a unifying whole to which we all belong – if only we could hold onto that awareness.”

“If we are not going to follow the commands of a king, a CEO, or an algorithm, then we need unifying values in order to work together as a team to work toward mutually beneficial goals.”

“Unless we consciously retrieve the power inherent in our collective nature, we will remain unable to defend ourselves against those who continue to use our misguided quest for individuality against us.”

“The future is not a discontinuity or some scenario we plan for so much as the reality we are creating through our choices right now. We just need to observe the flows, recognize the patterns, and apply them everywhere we can.”

“Find the others. Restore the social connections that make us fully functioning humans, and oppose all conventions, institutions, technologies, and mindsets that keep us apart.”

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October 7, 2019

Participatory Methods and Approaches for Equitable Food Systems Work

“Nothing about us without us is for us.”

South African slogan

“What is missing from the policy analyst’s tool kit – and from the set of accepted, well-developed theories of human organization – is an adequately specified theory of collective action whereby a group of principals can organize themselves voluntarily to retain the residuals of their own efforts.”

Elinor Ostrom (1996) Governing the Commons

“…there’s no real evidence that one can become expert in something as broad as ‘decision making’ or ‘policy’ or ‘strategy.’ Auto repair, piloting, skiing, perhaps even management: these are skills that yield to application, hard work, and native talent. But forecasting an uncertain future and deciding the best course of action in the face of that future are much less likely to do so. And much of what we’ve seen so far suggests that a large group of diverse individuals will come up with better and more robust forecasts and make more intelligent decisions than even the most skilled ‘decision maker.’”

James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds

Last week I had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop for one of the sub-networks of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network focused on food access (including food justice and racial equity). Farm to Plate is moving into a second decade of work and looking to refresh its strategic work and structure (version 2.0). As part of this move, various members are interested in how they can engage others more robustly and/or responsibly in their work, including those who are negatively impacted by the current system (those living with hunger and in poverty, struggling farmers, farm workers, indigenous people, etc.). The workshop was designed around some core IISC collaborative frameworks, which participants applied to their work in pairs and small groups, and it also elicited different participatory methods that those in the room were already using or aware of.

One of the operating assumptions in the workshop was that engagement and participation can and should look different in different situations, and that more is not necessarily better. Rather, it is important to get clear on the aims of an initiative, carefully consider who the key stakeholders are, weigh various factors (time, complexity, readiness, power dynamics, etc.) and think about timing and different phases of the work. Doing this kind of due diligence can help to clarify when and where on a spectrum of engagement options different individuals and groups might fall (see below for some examples).

For the last segment of the workshop, we explored a variety of participatory models and methods, and here is some of what came up (specifically considering the context of Vermont food systems work).

Organizational/Network Models:

Tools, Techniques, Roles:

Governance/Decision-Making:

Participatory Planning and Assessment Approaches:

Of course there are many others out there. Please feel free to suggest additional models, examples, techniques and tools!

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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 5, 2019

An Ecosystem of Resourcing for Racial Equity Culture Change Work

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

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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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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