October 6, 2015

Going Slow and Going Farther: Collective Impact and Building Networks for System Change


A recent report out of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University highlights a number of food systems change efforts that have adopted a collective impact approach. Two of these are initiatives that IISC supports – Food Solutions New England and Vermont Farm to Plate Network. The report distills common and helpful lessons across eight state-wide and regional efforts. Here I want to summarize and elaborate on some of the article’s core points, which I believe have applicability to virtually all collaborative networks for social change.

First off, the authors note the importance of context. They quote Margaret Adamek from the Minnesota Food Charter, who points out that “borrowing from other states and initiatives only goes so far as ‘the unique features of each place are what dictate the strategy.'” At IISC, we could not agree more. Complex systems suggest that we cannot bring a cookie cutter approach to change. As such, there is not one single appropriate model for food systems change. That said, the authors discuss common practices that can undergird a diversity of approaches.

  • Investing time – It always takes longer than you think or want. While this may not be the best marketing pitch for collective impact and network building, it is good to manage people’s expectations. This work is a marathon, not a sprint. Undoing and shifting years of practices, layers of institutional structures and fixed mindsets does not happen over-night. Furthermore, it takes time to build alignment among key players.
  • Building trustA recent blog post in the Stanford Social Innovations Review says it all – “In our research and experience, the single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants. Many collaborative efforts ultimately fail to reach their full potential because they lack a strong relational foundation.” Trust is what binds the efforts together and creates longer-term and more emergent potential.

Change begins and ends with relationships, and a big part of systems change is rewiring and bringing greater depth (trust) to existing patterns of relationships.

  • Being strategic about communication – Communication really is the lifeblood of networks. It’s what contributes to transparency, trust, social learning and adaptive capacity. Communication is not simply about one-way or one-to-many channels. Having myriad ways for people to connect and find one another helps to deliver value to more people in more ways.
  • Using stories as strategy and evaluation – In complex systems, stories become an avenue for sense-making as well as a means of capturing diverse human experiences in a system. Stories can also provide qualitative data about how systems are changing, and they tend to have stickiness and staying power that can keep people motivated and coming back.

Powerful stories are like enriched compost that can be fed back into the network to nurture new growth.

  • Tracking economic impact and other metrics – Arguably, economics underlies every kind of social change needed in this country. What I mean by this is that access to/ownership of resources of various kinds is key to power and self-determination, and affecting every system is the concentration and consolidation of power in ever fewer elite hands. Without tracking whether resources are growing in local communities and flowing and owned in more equitable ways, it is hard to say that we are making truly systemic change.
  • Engaging diverse stakeholders – Another underlying factor in every systemic issue in this country is the growing crisis of democracy. From small towns to big cities, the composition of the public is becoming increasingly complex. At IISC, we see all of our work as striving in some way, shape or form to answer the question: “How can we build the will and develop the skill of the diverse public to collectively create just and sustainable societies?” We see a future in which we are “all in;” all in providing the information and knowledge needed to understand the issues that affect us; all in making decisions that impact us; all in, and especially those who are most often left out and are most negatively impacted. This push for more inclusive processes and structures is what we call Big Democracy. In this sense, engaging diverse stakeholders is not simply a means but an end in and of itself.

Photo by Symphony of Love



Leave a comment
September 24, 2015

Networks for Change: Generosity is Key to Generativity

“A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming.”

– bell hooks

shutterstock_121720933-topswirl rainbow wecan -crop

For the past month I’ve been in conversation with David Nee, former Executive Director of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, to reflect on some of our shared experiences in advancing the Memorial Fund’s collaborative work for equity in the early childhood system in Connecticut. The impetus for these reflections was an invitation to co-author a blog post for a series on “network entrepreneurship” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The introductory post, written by Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman and David Sawyer, is entitled “The Most Impactful Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of.” While it is true that many of the leaders featured are not necessarily household names, this does not preclude focus on those with formal authority who are visible in their own respective domains. That said, emphasis is on what people often don’t see or appreciate about what these “network entrepreneurs” do, including making space for others (see this post for some of the key network and collaborative leadership roles that are not always appreciated).

As David and I have worked on our piece, I’ve been thinking about four different positional leaders with whom I’ve partnered over the last few years in building networks for social change, all of whom we at IISC would call “facilitative leaders.” These four individuals are collectively diverse with respect to race, gender, age, change focus (civil rights, food system resilience, education reform, ecosystem sustainability) and, to a certain extent, personality. Beyond these differences, it strikes me that they all bring a common ability to navigate between being directive when needed but generally very open, inclusive and eager to follow the lead of the committed crowd in question. Even more striking is what I and others see these four embodying as a core ethic in their approach to the work. This was named by a participant in a recent network assessment interview as “generosity of spirit.” Yes, I thought when I heard it said, that is precisely a core and critical commonality. Generosity. And it can be such a difference maker.

“In our research and experience, the single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants. Many collaborative efforts ultimately fail to reach their full potential because they lack a strong relational foundation.”

– Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman and David Sawyer

In my experience, in some collaborative/network building efforts, especially as they launch, there can be something I call “folded arms syndrome.” This occurs when people come to the table and there is (for good and not so good reasons) an overall air of standoffishness. People tend to be cautious and/or skeptical, they want proof that this is going to be worth the time. While some kicking of the tires is understandable, the truth of the matter is that when it comes to networks, people will see the value they want to see only when they invest themselves. Seemingly knowing this, these four leaders, or “network guardians” as June Holley might call them, do not wait for others to make the first move. They authentically reach out, adopting an invitational, hosting and appreciative stance. And they continue to model generosity that over time becomes generative. That is, it helps to contribute to “net effects” and greater abundance (see this study on h0w generosity can cascade in social networks). Their offerings include, but are not limited to:

  • Courage – bringing vulnerability, willingness to take risks and leap of faith, often in the very form and process of emergent network building
  • Space – literally creating space to host others, helping others feel at home and also being clear that the network building endeavor is very much a shared one, honoring others’ experiences, opinions and knowledge
  • Doubt and resolve – saying “I don’t know (the answer, how to do this … ), but I’m willing to work hard with you to figure this out”
  • Attention – seeing others, showing interest in them, making time to get to know them
  • Resources – access to money, yes, as well as other supports to maintain and protect the collective space for relationship-building, deliberation, creating alignment and taking action
  • Truth – being authentic, and demonstrating a willingness to name “real issues” (elitism, racism, inequality, climate change) and in so doing inviting others to do the same

Clearly these individuals cannot and do not do it alone. They are surrounded by other facilitative leaders and network guardians. That said, as visible champions for the network building prospect, the way in which these leaders show up matters and can help set a tone for generativity and re-generativity which is one of the core promises of “net work” for social change.

“True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nurture false charity.”

– Paolo Freire

Image by Isaac Mao

Leave a comment
September 18, 2015

Notes from the field as a White racial equity facilitator and trainer, or what the heck I do every day


These three moments with these three individuals in recent months have stuck with me. Each of them is part of a multicultural group of folks working to integrate racial equity in their work – whether it be for youth in the juvenile justice system, for children and adults to get quality and affordable dental health care, or for people with HIV. They got me reflecting about what it takes to move racial equity work forward in multiracial, mostly white, collaboratives and institutions. And about how much I love the challenge of moving this work forward in settings where talking about race and racism is NOT the norm.

“I was taught not to say the word ‘white’ in front of white people; you’re the first white person I’ve heard talk about being white and challenging racism.”
— Youth activist (Native woman) in New Mexico

Read More

September 16, 2015

Defying Fermi: Sci-Fi Wisdom for Our Survival and Thriving

“We are … interested in generating stories, visions and futures that are hard and realistic and hopeful.”

-Adrienne Maree Brown, from “Science fiction and social justice: giving up on utopias


Image from

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to sit in on a session in Detroit with Adrienne Maree Brown, writer, editor, facilitator and consultant to social movement organizations. Adrienne’s offering was on the potential of “radical science fiction” to realize empowering visions of a just and sustainable future. After sharing some of her own writing, she encouraged participants to play with a sense of imagination grounded in realistic projections of current social and environmental conditions and trends. Read More

Leave a comment
September 10, 2015

Networks for Change: Skill, Will, Attitude and Structure

A couple of weeks ago I joined a panel of presenters on a webinar hosted by Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future focused on collective impact and network building for food policy councils. Other panelists included Ellen Kahler from Vermont Farm to Plate Network, Jennifer Obadia from Health Care Without Harm, and Whitney Fields from Indianapolis Food Council. My role was to provide an overview of collective impact, giving credit to FSG and the Collective Impact Forum for codifying and advancing research and practice in this arena, as well as network building principles as applied to collaborative efforts to realize more local, just and sustainable food production, distribution and access. Read More

Leave a comment
September 4, 2015

Are You an Evolutionary?

“Innovation is as much a function of the right kind of relationships as it is of a particular kind of individual vision.”

-Carter Phipps

evolve1I generally cap off the summer with a post about some of my summer reading. I am still working on something to capture take-aways from one of my favorite reads – The New Science of Sustainability: Building a Foundation for Great Change – and am offering here a revised post from a few years back that focuses on a still very timely book.

I ended my summer reading with what was for me a fascinating book – Evolutionaries by Carter Phipps.  Phipps is the editor of EnlighteNext magazine and enthusiastic about what we calls “the evolutionary worldview” and how it is showing up in many different fields, from biology to sociology to philosophy and theology. He sees this perspective as transforming understandings of just about everything. Evolutionaries does a great service by deepening and broadening as well as bringing much more nuance to what I see as a very important perspective for the work of social change.  Read More

Leave a comment
August 21, 2015

From Inspiration to Development

podium view

Photo by Chris Dag

The following is a slighted edited version of a post that first appeared on this site about three years ago. IMHO, its core question remains essential to work for social change.

“Are you a sophist?” This remains a very live question for me, ever since Carol Sanford offered it to me. Carol points out how many in the “helping professions” fall into the habit of trying to provide well-intended inspiration and advice to others at the expense of diminishing their capability. She likes to tell the story of Socrates’ awakening. Socrates observed what often happened to those in Athens who listened to the Sophists preach. Members of the audience would often leave full of wisdom and inspiration, and they kept coming back for more. At a certain point, however, many of these “followers,” after seeing no further progress in their lives, became demoralized and convinced that they would never be able to reach the heights that were suggested in the speeches they heard. Watching this, Socrates took a different tack. He sought to help others grow by asking questions that helped them to move and take control of their own development and destiny. Read More

Leave a comment
August 14, 2015

Imagine Boston 2030


IISC is honored to have been a finalist in the bid for Imagine Boston 2030, the first city-wide plan in 50 years. The RFP was inspired by public engagement efforts already underway, including Mayor Walsh and the Boston Transportation Department’s Go Boston 2030 initiative, for which IISC is leading the way to new standards of participation.

IISC submitted a proposal to bring these methods to Imagine Boston 2030 with Sasaki Associates and Inkhouse, emphasizing the importance of both design and democracy for a unified, bold future vision. We call this Big Democracy, or building new infrastructure for people to participate in city-wide decisions and increasing the capacity of leaders to harness public feedback. This missing infrastructure for democratic decision-making will change how cities develop in the 21st century, inspiring investment by people in the place where they live.

Highlights of our proposal include an emphasis on equity and tapping already existing networks for participation. For city-wide engagement to take hold, all feedback must be considered expert feedback, whether from lived or professional experience.  Efforts must also directly address complicated racial dynamics in productive, direct, and honest ways. We know that public engagement must be fun to overcome planning fatigue and bring out unusual participants. 

Mike Ross celebrated Go Boston 2030’s creative thinking and public input in the Boston Globe, noting: “Gone are the days when a city engineer slapped a traffic counter on a road and made infrastructure decisions that would affect several generations of residents.”

Imagine Boston 2030 signals a new era of public engagement in the city. We applaud the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and Mayor Walsh for leading this two-year process. This will have major consequence for everyone who lives, works or plays in the city and we encourage all partners to join us in supporting this effort.

Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC) calls the new infrastructure and processes for civic involvement Big Democracy. This fall, IISC President Ceasar McDowell will deliver two Ted X talks on pressing Big Democracy issues and design solutions for cities. IISC is also co-convening national thought leaders on design and democracy. Media inquiries for Dr. McDowell and thought leaders at IISC, please contact Danielle Coates-Connor: 617-535-7159

Stay updated on IISC top stories:

1 Comment
August 12, 2015

Narrative Knitting Networks

“Narratives can create a very different world, one where pressure evolves from a source of stress to a source of excitement, calling us to achieve even more of our potential, both as individuals and collectively.”

 – John Hagel

Sunflower in desert

What follows is a slightly edited version of a post from a little over a year ago. It remains timely in terms of conversations I am currently having with a few different networks about the interest in engaging in not just communications work, but in changing consciousness. As abstract as it may seem to some, the power of robustly connected and distributed networks to create and promote new stories of who “we” are and what we might become can be critical to the work of social change. 

Today’s post gives a tip of the hat and bow of gratitude to John Hagel for his work on narrative, which I believe has much to offer networks for social change.  First a little story . . .

A regional network with which I have been working has been wrestling with what has to this point been called “a vision” for the region’s future. Part of this struggle owes to attempts to create something that can speak to a very diverse and complex range of interests.  And part of the struggle, from my perspective, stems from what I see as the need to parse out and accentuate different elements that to this point have fallen under the rather broad heading of “vision.” Read More

Leave a comment
August 6, 2015

Networks, Collective Impact and Waking Up to Whiteness

“Processes aimed at racial equity change can overlook the privileged side of inequity.”

-Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk, “Paying Attention to White Culture and Privilege: A Missing Link to Advancing Racial Equity”

In a number of social change networks that I support, racial equity is being put at the center of the work, whether or not that was the initial impetus for coming together. This is not seen as ancillary to the change effort, but now understood as foundational, in that systemic inequity around race is a significant part of the water in which we swim. In a few of these networks where there is a majority of white participants, increasing numbers of people are asking what they can do about structural racism, and one response is that there is important work to be done around whiteness and white privilege. As Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk point out, this is often a critical missing link in racial equity work.

A first step is to understand what “white culture” is. Again, Gulati-Partee and Potapchuk:

By ‘white culture,’ we mean the dominant, unquestioned standards of behavior and ways of functioning embodied by the vast majority of institutions in the United States. Because it is so normalized it can be hard to see, which only adds to its powerful hold. In many ways, it is indistinguishable from what we might call U.S. culture or norms – a focus on individuals over groups, for example, or an emphasis on the written word as a form of professional communication. But it operates in even more subtle ways, by actually defining what ‘normal’ is – and likewise, what ‘professional,’ ‘effective,’ or even ‘good’ is. In turn, white culture also defines what is not good, ‘at risk,’ or ‘unsustainable.’

This can be difficult for white people to take in or accept (speaking from personal experience), because white privilege is hard to see, because we may not want to see it and/or we don’t like the idea of giving it up. This lays out the necessarily multi-dimensional work of helping more of us to see and understand white privilege, deal with some of the emotions that come up around it (without lapsing into unhelpful defensive behavior – see “white fragility“) and lift up what is to be gained from doing this work.


In the year since Ferguson and with the growing #BlackLivesMatter movement, it has been heartening to see increasing numbers of white people talking and concerned about racism and white privilege. This has taken some more mainstream and public forms, including an ongoing column in the New York Times hosted by George Yancy in which he interviews a variety of thinkers about race, racism and privilege (see Naomi Zack and Judith Butler below). As a practice I regularly circulate these writings to the networks I support as a way of helping to normalize the conversation, which feels like a signifcant part of the work. In this same spirit, here are a few I have shared with selected excerpts:

  • What “White Privilege” Really Means“The term ‘white privilege’ is misleading. A privilege is special treatment that goes beyond a right. It’s not so much that being white confers privilege but that not being white means being without rights in many cases. Not fearing that the police will kill your child for no reason isn’t a privilege. It’s a right. But I think that is what ‘white privilege’ is meant to convey, that whites don’t have many of the worries nonwhites, especially blacks, do.” – Naomi Zack
  • 11 Ways White America Avoids Taking Responsibility for its Racism“When you understand racism as a system of structured relations into which we are all socialized, you understand that intentions are irrelevant. And when you understand how socialization works, you understand that much of racial bias is unconscious. Negative messages about people of color circulate all around us. … The societal default is white superiority and we are fed a steady diet of it 24/7. To not actively seek to interrupt racism is to internalize and accept it.” – Robin Diangelo
  • What’s Wrong With “All Lives Matter”? – “Whiteness is not an abstraction; its claim to dominance is fortified through daily acts which may not seem racist at all precisely because they are considered ‘normal.’ But just as certain kinds of violence and inequality get established as ‘normal’ through the proceedings that exonerate police of the lethal use of force against unarmed black people, so whiteness, or rather its claim to privilege, can be disestablished over time. This is why there must be a collective reflection on, and opposition to, the way whiteness takes hold of our ideas about whose lives matter.” – Judith Butler
  • I, RacistWhite people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about ‘I, racist’ and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.” – John Metta

In addition, at IISC we have found sharing film clips, including the one above from Shakti Butler’s Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, to be helpful in deepening understanding among white people of white privilege and how white privilege being aware of itself can be leveraged in productive ways, towards equity.

And a few additional recommended resources, a number courtesy of my colleague Cynthia Silva Parker:

Also check out the World Trust module below, which features the work of Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White.

Eager to hear reactions, stories and other resources/ideas.

How are you considering whiteness and white privilege in your networks and collective impact efforts for change?


Click on image for more information on this module on “Raced in America White Culture, Privilege and Bias Facilitator’s Guide”

Leave a comment
July 28, 2015

Networks: Don’t Wait, Animate!


Just coming off of co-delivering a 2 day Pathway to Change public workshop at IISC with Maanav Thakore, and I’m continuing to think about how important context is to the work of social change. In particular, I’m thinking about how seeing the foundation of all change efforts as being fundamentally networked can yield new possibilities throughout the work. There is the change we plan for, and the change that we don’t plan for and perhaps cannot even imagine – emergence. This is the stuff of networks, of living systems, of decentralized and self-organized activity, which can be encouraged and supported but not often predicted or controlled. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

How do I have to be for you to be free?

Orland Bishop

Read More

Leave a comment
July 22, 2015

Network Development: Social Learning as Social Change

“We are actually waiting for civilization both to learn and reorganize itself with more intricacy, more collaborative coherence and greater social intelligence.”

– Sally J. Goerner, The New Science of Sustainability

social learningTwo weeks ago I wrapped up Harold Jarche’s on-line course on social learning and am committing to practicing some of what I learned through blogging as “learning out loud.” This is not an entirely unusual practice for me, but Harold has helped me to better appreciate the value of turning off the critic and putting “rough draft thinking” out there, as a way of crystalizing and mastering my own knowledge but also (possibly) connecting it to others who may be on the same wavelength/ have similar lines of inquiry and (perhaps) contributing to social change. Preposterous? Maybe.

But consider how our understanding of how the world works is shifting through our ability to see connections, appreciate the social creation of knowledge and grasp the emergent nature of change. Seeing reality through a living systems lens helps us to understand ideas as seeds, expression as sowing, interaction as fertilizer and social networks as the metabolic infrastructure to bring new things fully to fruition. Read More

Leave a comment