October 2, 2018
I have been working with a national environmental health and justice network for the past few years, and at a recent retreat, the core leadership team wrestled with a set of criteria for guiding the creation of equity-grounded, whole network-mobilizing and systems-shifting strategies. This is where we landed:
- If successful, the strategy will move us towards our long-term systemic goal.
- The strategy is fundamentally collaborative in nature.
- The strategy is consistent with network’s values.
- The strategy does not advance the network at the expense of other key constituencies, partners, or social justice movements.
- The strategy is worth the expenditure of time, resources and opportunity costs of pursuing it.
- The strategy aligns with the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing.
- The strategy connects to a clear pathway on our systems map.
- The strategy plays to the strengths and capacities of current network members.
- The strategy broadens and deepens connections with impacted communities and constituencies.
- The strategy will build leadership within the network, with a particular emphasis on building leadership among the most directly impacted communities and constituencies.
- The strategy is likely to bring new funding and capacity around the network’s goals.
- The strategy will increase our learning and understanding of promising practices for systems-based collaborative networks.
- The strategy is likely to attract media attention to network members and/or advance our network narrative.
- The strategy would leave the network better positioned to move forward future initiatives.
- The strategy will increase the network’s reputation for innovation and/or effectiveness.
- The strategy will increase the network’s standing with key thought leaders and/or policymakers.
- The strategy presents an opportunity to collaborate with desirable new partners.
What resonates? What would you add that you have used as criteria for determining systemic strategies for collaborative networks?
September 12, 2018
Image from Sharon Mollerus, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
As I’ve worked with a variety of social change networks to launch or transition from one stage to another, I’ve been guided by the following formula:
Form follows function follows focus
My experience is that many groups and initiatives can get very concerned about structure – How will we make decisions? Who will be members? What is expected of them? What do they get in return? These are important questions, and they deserve a fair amount of time tending to them. What can bog many groups down at this stage, however, is that they have not sufficiently sorted out the functions of the network, how it creates value, if you will, which has important implications for form. And if the group is not clear on its focus (purpose, animating goal, mission), this can be that much more perplexing.
So I’m spending more and more time with networks sorting out their core “jobs,” with a few additional guiding mantras, including:
Do what you do best and connect to the rest.
The value proposition of change networks in my mind is that they add value to a broader landscape of activity, not that they come in and try to take over. Even if this is not the intent, groups can spend little time figuring out what already exists “out there,” what efforts are underway, what other collective efforts are operating. This lack of awareness risks creating unnecessary and unhelpful duplication and competition. Read More
August 24, 2018
This post originally appeared on the Health and Environmental Funders Network website. It was co-authored by Fred Brown, The Forbes Funds, President & CEO; Debra Erenberg, Cancer Free Economy Network, Strategic Director; and Ruth Rominger, Garfield Foundation, Director, Collaborative Networks Program. IISC was centrally involved with the launch of the Cancer Free Economy Network, serving as lead process designer, facilitator and network coach from 2014-2017. IISC is currently supporting the development of CFEN’s network strategy.
We can do this! Within the philanthropy sector, there are so many solutions emerging around the world from people coming together to tackle the social, economic and environmental problems challenging humanity right now. We are in a time when connecting solutions together to align and reinforce each others’ progress is the most critical strategy across issue silos.
The Cancer Free Economy Network (CFEN) is one such example, where people with solutions — good ideas, strategies, initiatives, expertise, models, products and passion — are collaborating to build an economy that supports health and well being for all. These types of social change networks are held together with universal core values. In CFEN, the values are framed as simply as:
The water we drink, the air we breathe, and the products we use every day shouldn’t make us sick, cause cancer or any other disease.
The network is an open and flexible way to connect to an extended community of people who are building power together to phase out all toxic chemicals manufactured and put into industrial and consumer products that are making us sick and damaging our environment. Collectively, we know of many solutions that are readily available for moving the economy in that direction.
Like many social change networks that take a holistic, collaborative approach, people come together to connect and multiply actions aimed at shifting mindsets, structures and behaviors in many different aspects of the complex problem.
In the case of CFEN, this means there are teams from many organizations coordinating a variety of actions around toxics that together will:
July 18, 2018
Change the Story to show how we can prevent many cancers by addressing the toxic chemicals that are currently accepted as part of our environment.
Advance the science supporting health and preventing illness.
Shift the market from toxic chemicals to a market producing safe, healthy, and affordable materials.
Build the power to implement system changes across diverse constituencies.
This is a repost of a fourth in a series of postings written by former IISC Senior Associate Linda Guinee about power and group facilitation processes, based on research she completed a number of years ago. Today’s post is about how power is built into group narrative. Also check out these other posts on power: “What is Power Anyway?” “Power Dynamics: The Hidden Element to Effective Meetings“
As I was doing research, I came across a batch of work about narrative theory by Sara Cobb and Janet Rifkin (cited below). Cobb and Rifkin researched how a narrative is constructed and what impact it has on the ultimate outcome of mediation sessions. They found that the first story told tends to be privileged and “colonize” later stories told. By framing the discussion to come, this initial story tends to narrow and define the direction of the ensuing conversation. Later versions are generally tied to the initial story and thus are unable to be fully developed. And the outcome of mediation is generally tied to the initial story.
This can also play a role in group facilitation. If the first version told in a group becomes the frame under which all other discussion happens, a facilitator must pay attention to who tells the first story – or to how to reinforce different versions. Read More
July 12, 2018
Building on the theme of our recent blog post, Power Dynamics: The Hidden Element to Effective Meetings, we are reposting a series of posts written by our former IISC colleague Linda Guinee. Linda wrote a masters’ thesis on addressing power dynamics in collaborative process design and facilitation. She did this study based on questions raised over the years by another former IISC colleague, Cyndi Suarez (current Senior Editor at NonProfit Quarterly and author of The Power Manual: How to Master Complex Power Dynamics) – and as she put it, “with the belief that if power dynamics are not well understood and addressed, group process facilitators are likely to unknowingly reinforce the status quo – a scary thought for those of us working on social justice and social change!”
As Linda wrote in her opening post in 2010:
“One thing that woke me up at two in the morning – one of those notorious ‘aha’ moments – was that when doing an extensive literature review of group facilitation literature and conflict resolution literature at that time (2005), I found that conflict resolution/engagement literature is packed full of discussions about addressing power dynamics – while group facilitation literature rarely (if ever) talks about power I only found a very small handful of references to power (as in two or three) anywhere in the very extensive group facilitation literature – and only in reference to people with positional power. There is, in fact, an assumption built into group facilitation methodology that collaboration on its own somehow balances power dynamics.”
Here is her second post in the series …
One of the first questions you might ask when thinking about looking at power dynamics in group facilitation is what IS power anyway? This seemingly simple question, of course, is not really all so simple after all. What do you think? How would you describe power?
When I first started trying to answer this question for myself, I found that I was overwhelmed with material – literally hundreds and hundreds of books about what power is, where it comes from, how it operates, etc. For many, a definition of power has to do with the ability to force something to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise – a coercive definition of power. Feminist psychologist Jean Baker Miller described power as “the capacity to produce a change.” Others (and in fact, our common terminology) talks about power as a “thing” that can be divided, shared, owned, and transferred.
June 18, 2018
“Words are how we think, stories are how we link.”
– Christina Baldwin
Last week I had the privilege of facilitating a two-day Network Learning Lab for a remarkable group of conservation leaders and network weavers. I co-designed the session with Olivia Millard and Amanda Wrona of The Nature Conservancy (and at the instigation of Lynn Decker of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network) to connect and strengthen the capacity of those working at the intersection of ecosystem health and human/community development while building networks at local, state, regional, national and global levels. Our design was informed by input given by the participating network weavers themselves about their core challenges and learning objectives, while leaving room for the unexpected – enough spaciousness for the network magic of emergence to happen.
As with other network leadership institutes that we at IISC have had a hand in designing and facilitating, the experience last week had as its foundation plenty of opportunities for the cohort to authentically connect, to get to know one another on both professional and personal levels. And as with both leadership development sessions and ongoing network development initiatives that we support, we turned to storytelling as a way to create bonds and understanding. This included time for the participants to tell brief stories about their networks, doing so in 5 minute informal bursts sprinkled throughout the two days (which could also have been done as Pecha Kucha or Ignite presentations). The intent was to create a bit more understanding of what might make each network unique in its aspirations, attributes and accomplishments and to whet people’s appetites for further conversation at breaks, meals and into the evening.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
– Maya Angelou
We also set up a couple of exercises within the first hour of the lab for people to hear more about one another’s paths to the work they currently do, not by ticking off their resumes, but by telling stories about what happened to and moved them to be where they are now. Time and again, when I facilitate this kind of exercise, it shifts the tone of the gathering in the direction of greater openness and trust. And as we touched on in our debrief of those exercises, inviting that kind of storytelling into our work can send a signal about what is validated with respect to forms of knowing, expression and parts of ourselves to bring to the table. Along these lines, we also drew from poetry and other forms of creative expression, including a stanza from a favorite William Stafford piece, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” which, to me, gets at the heart of network building … Read More
May 24, 2018
“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”
Grace Lee Boggs
As referenced in a previous post, the Food Solutions New England 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge wrapped up about a month ago. This was the fourth offering of the Challenge, which was a remixed and enhanced virtual network form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore (founder of the Privilege Institute) and Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White). A small design team of which I am a part originally saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread conversation about the connection between race, racism and sustainable food systems and ultimately greater action for racial justice. No one presumed that the Challenge in and of itself would be sufficient, but rather saw it as a way of creating “network effects” around the work that many are already doing in our region.
And there is evidence that there have been impacts happening as a result. Participation in the Challenge has grown from 200 to 3,000 from 2015 to 2018. This year the Challenge was launched, in a sense, at the Wallace Center’s National Good Food Network Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico (gratitude to the Center’s staff for the invitation to do so!). We have heard stories since the beginning that various groups in the region and increasingly around the country have participated in the Challenge and invited others to do so, including Farm to Institution New England, Iowa State University Extension, The Interdependence Project, and The Fellowship of Intentional Community. Read More
May 22, 2018
Connection is a social determinant of health.
Last week I participated in the Network Leadership Training Academy hosted by the University of Colorado at Denver’s Center on Network Science. It was wonderful to meet fellow network geeks and enthusiasts from around the country and Canada and to hear about diverse applications of network theory and practice, from public health to public transportation, from early childhood education to after-school programming, from housing to firefighting.
I was invited to share some of what we at the Interaction Institute for Social Change are learning as we work at the intersection of networks and equity, which included telling the evolving story of Food Solutions New England. There seemed to be resonance with and appetite for going deeper to unpack how networks can be forces for truly equitable liberation from dysfunctional and damaging systems.
And there were many other presenters over the course of the couple of days I was able to attend. Here are some of my take-aways.
- In networks, less is often more with respect to personal connections. Given that people can only manage a certain number of social connections, a good question to ask is “How can we cultivate and maintain the fewest number of connections that are valuable?”
- Closed networks do not lend themselves to novelty. For innovation (and presumably for both resilience and adaptability) it is important to pay attention to “structural holes” in networks.
- Effective engagement rests on authentic listening, informal exchanges and meetings (lunch, coffee), identifying and honoring strengths and assets, thinking of people as people and not projects, constantly showing up and closing loops.
- In order to activate a network you have to have established sufficient trust and reciprocity.
- Effective networks for individual “leaders” are open (distributed), diverse and deep.
From conversation and reflection with participants:
- Connection is a social determinant of health.
- Increasingly healing needs to be viewed as a foundational goal of developing networks.
- Effective networks for individuals are not necessarily effective networks for collectives and social change. We have to be clear about what our scale and intentions are. (ON this front, check out this wonderful post by Christine Capra – “Networking Does Not Equal Network WEAVING“)
Additional resources to consult:
May 17, 2018
- The Partner Tool, a social network analysis tool designed to measure and monitor collaboration among people/organizations.
- Person-Centered Network App, for use by a provider to first screen a person to assess their gaps and strengths in their personal support systems and then, based on the results, link them to available community resources.
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
E.M. Forster, from Howard’s End
This is an excerpt from the final post in a series of five focused on networks for change in education and learning that have appeared on the Education Week and Next Generation Learning Challenges websites.
In this series on network design and network thinking, I explored the power and promise of networks as residing in how connection and flow contribute to life, liveliness and learning. See, especially, Connection is Fundamental.
In Why Linking Matters, I looked at how certain networks can more optimally create what are known as “network effects,” including small world reach, rapid dissemination, resilience, and adaptation.
I also noted, in Structure Matters in particular, that living systems–including classrooms, schools, school districts, and communities–are rooted in patterns of connection and flow. That’s why shifts in connections–between people, groups, and institutions–as well as flows of various kinds of resources can equate with systemic change, and ideally they can lead to greater health (in other words, equity, prosperity, sustainability).
Networks can also deliver myriad benefits to individual participants, including: inspiration; mutual support; learning and skill development; greater access to information, funding, and other resources; greater systemic or contextual awareness; breaking out of isolation and being a part of something larger; amplification of one’s voice and efforts; and new partnerships and joint projects.
It’s also true, however, that not every network or network activity creates all of these effects and outcomes. The last two posts looked at two factors that contribute to whether networks are able to deliver robust value to individual participants and the whole, including network structure and what form leadership takes. Networks are by no means a panacea to social and environmental issues and can easily replicate and exacerbate social inequities and environmentally extractive practice. So values certainly have a place, as does paying close attention to dynamics of power and privilege.
May 14, 2018
It is also the case that individual and collective behavior on a day-to-day basis have a lot to say about what networks are able to create. The following is a list of 25 behaviors for you to consider as part of your network practice as an educator:
- Weave connections and close triangles to create more intricacy in the network. Closing triangles means introducing people to one another, as opposed to networking for one’s own self, essentially a mesh or distributed structure rather than a hub-and-spoke structure.
- Create connections across boundaries/dimensions of difference. Invite and promote diversity in the network, which can contribute to resilience and innovation.
- Promote and pay attention to equity throughout the network. Equity here includes ensuring everyone has access to the resources and opportunities that can improve the quality of life and learning. Equity impact assessments are one helpful tool on this front.
- Name and work with power dynamics and unearned privilege in the direction of equity.
- Be aware of how implicit bias impacts your thinking and actions in the network. Become familiar with and practice de-biasing strategies.
- Think, learn, and work out loud, in the company of others or through virtual means. This contributes to the abundance of resources and learning in the network.
- Don’t hoard or be a bottleneck. Keep information and other resources flowing in the network.
- Identify and articulate your own needs and share them with others. Making requests can bring a network to life as people generally like to be helpful!
- Stay curious and ask questions; inquire of others to draw out common values, explicit and tacit knowledge, and other assets.
- Make ongoing generous offers to others, including services, information, connections.
For behaviors 11-25, see this link.
“… Keep reaching out, keep bringing in./This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,/for every gardener knows that after the digging, after/the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”
Marge Piercy, from “The Seven of Pentacles”
On April 22nd, the fourth annual 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge wrapped up. This project with Food Solutions New England was originally conceived as a “network innovation” to spread and deepen the conversation about and commitment around addressing race and racism in food and related systems. This year the organizing team sought to go deeper, noting how much the national conversation has evolved in the past year. And we were heartened by the numbers (over 3,000 people from all 50 states and parts of Canada signed up) and by the quality of the conversation on-line and in different in-person venues where we met people who were participating. Certainly no one is under the illusion that the Challenge is enough, but we have heard that it is changing the way many see their work in food systems. Below you will find some of what was generously offered on-line in response to the daily email prompts and associated resources (readings, videos, audio clips).
History of Race and Racism in the Food System: What is the history you hold in your head (and heart and body) about our current food systems?
“In my work at a non profit in the ‘good food’ movement, we constantly use language like ‘fix the broken food system.’ Reading these pieces on the historical underpinnings of racism in our food system illuminated for me just how much that statement (almost a throw away now) is situated within a racial caste system. To presume that ‘we’ must ‘fix’ a system ignores (by not naming) the racism present in that system. It lumps the goals of racial and food justice in with other, non-racialized issues (like soil health) also plaguing our current system, thereby continuing to perpetuate injustice through silence.”
“The consistent glorification of a food system, broken or fixed, imagined or real, that has systematically ignored the people that make it function, throughout the past and yet still in the present, is something I think I unknowingly participate in. Will naming this, calling it out, help us to change the structural racism that fuels this reality? How? I hope that by learning, studying, reflecting, and communicating that this group can indeed be somehow change-making, but it’s challenging to see a positive horizon when the change to be had is so large and primarily resides in legal, political and social institutions and structures. Forgive me for being still inside a state of feeling overwhelmed.”
The Colonization of Indigenous Land Rights and Food Ways: How does colonization continue to exist in our food systems and how can you support decolonization and celebrate indigenous rights and food ways?
“I just finished listening to The True History & Foods of Thanksgiving. My immediate reaction is shock and shame. I accepted Thanksgiving as an American celebration without ever wondering about its history. The podcast is a great conversation that educated me about how interwoven food, land, location, spirituality and culture are for some traditions within Native Americans. I wish we treated our lands and environment with the same care that many people were able to do before they were colonized.”
“In my state, treaties still continue to be broken with Native American communities, the most recent agreement being broken in 2015. State programs aimed to “help” are rooted in white supremacist ideologies. I think of Audrey Lorde when she declared, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”
April 18, 2018
“Network entrepreneurs are keenly aware that they are few among many working across the larger system, and in this way they embody a special type of … leader[ship].
Image by tarotastic, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
This is the third in a series of blog posts that appear in their entirety on the Education Week website. In the previous post we considered how structure has implications for the extent to which a network or networked activity is able to leverage different kinds of net effects and create value for diverse participants. We also considered how structure has implications for both equity and how power is distributed. Another important consideration in how to create equitable benefit is what leadership looks like and how it plays out in and around networked activity.
The concept of leadership seems to be undergoing a rapid evolution lately. Especially in this “network age” there appears to be both a growing appreciation that leadership has always been about more than the singular and highly visible heroic individual, and that going forward, leadership must be upheld as much more of a shared and multi-dimensional endeavor.
“Leadership for this era is not a role or a set of traits; it is a zone of inter-relational process. Step in, step out.”
In much of the collaborative consulting work that we do through the Interaction Institute for Social Change, leadership (or what we at IISC often call Facilitative Leadership) is about “holding the whole.” That is, there is a need for groups, teams, organizations and communities to think more expansively about the state of a given complex system (community, economy, food system, organization, school, school district) and pay attention to what is required to support resiliency and/or change for more equitable and sustained benefit. In these situations, the traditional top-down images of leadership fall short.
In education, for example, we have seen hopes often pinned on seemingly superhuman teachers and principals who are brought in to “rescue failing kids and schools.” The assumption underlying such moves is that these extraordinary individuals will of their own drive and volition beat the odds and dramatically reverse the downward trajectory. This story may be the making of a box office smash, but in reality is met with mixed results at best. This is not to say that individuals cannot provide crucial sparks at important moments in organizations and communities. But holding out for heroic singular leadership ignores the systemic reality of what got us to where we are in the first place, and denies the more complex and connected response that is actually required.
“Leadership is helping to make the network smarter.”
Indications are that network leadership is at its best a dynamic, diverse, and multi-dimensional phenomenon. Many of those with whom IISC partners in the work of social and systems change understand this implicitly, and we have found it important to help them externalize and be more explicit about this by naming some of the roles that leadership can embody in a collaborative/networked world. Read More
April 4, 2018
The following is an excerpt from the third in a series of posts on networks, education and learning. The full post and series are published on the Education Week website. This post builds on two previous ones – Connection is Fundamental and Why Linking Matters – and looks at the importance of structure in supporting network effects while considering equity and power dynamics.
Networks are not necessarily easy to control in terms of their overall structure, especially when they are large and complex (diverse and widely distributed). And it is important to note that there are network phenomena that may tend to pull a networked endeavor in a certain structural direction.
For example, homophily is a phenomenon where social networks tend to form clusters of nodes with similar properties or attributes. This is captured by the adages, “Birds of a feather flock together,” and “Those close by form tight ties.” The result can be self-segregation along various lines of difference, for example racial, cultural, or class divisions in schools. Or consider the current pronounced political polarization in our country. The key to confronting homophily is to be both aware of the tendency and diligent about creating structures and incentives for bridging across boundaries.
“Opportunity … depends, at least in part, on our inherited networks.”
One of the great hopes and marvels of networks is that they can be liberating, especially in the face of bureaucracy and various barriers (see more about “network effects” in the previous post in this series). While this is worthy of celebration, another important phenomenon to be aware of is that networks can be deeply inequitable.