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May 8, 2017

Honeybees Build Consensus so Why Can’t We?

One of the many things I appreciate about adrienne maree brown’s new book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, are the questions she asks over and over again: what are you learning from nature? how does nature inform your organizing and movement building efforts?Autumn Meghan Brown, interviewed in this book, talks about consensus. Building consensus is one of my favorite practices to teach in IISC’s Facilitative Leadership for Social Change workshop. People love consensus and people hate it; I’ve seen many people struggle with when and where consensus is the appropriate decision making method, and with how to facilitate an effective consensus decision making process.

IISC’s Framework: “Levels of Involvement in the Decision Making Process,” above. © 2013 Interaction Institute for Social Change. All rights reserved.


I believe two reasons for this are that we live in a society with an unhealthy relationship to time, and with a low level of skill for collaborative group process. Autumn says these wise things about consensus:

  • The history of consensus is deeply rooted in feminist and Indigenous movement work
  • Building consensus is the work of collective liberation
  • People want consensus to be an antidote to power, but it is not! Consensus does not require equal status; it requires equal voice.

So back to brown’s question, where does consensus happen in nature? What might we learn from nature about consensus?

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May 8, 2017

Facing Dynamics of Othering and Belonging in a Sustainable Food System Network

“Clearly, we made some people uncomfortable. Good. For too long, our comfort has come on the backs of many who have been uncomfortable for a long, long time.”

Niaz Dorry, FSNE Process and Network Team Member

Food Solutions New England (FSNE) is a regional, collaborative network organized to “support the emergence of a New England food system that is a resilient driver of racial equity and food justice, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.”

For the past 5 years, IISC has supported FSNE to launch and structure itself as a formal network, as well as to concretize and evolve its core commitment to racial equity as it has become more diverse and inclusive and focused on systemic transformation. Over the winter, editorial staff from the Othering and Belonging Journal at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society solicited an article submission from FSNE to tell the story of why and how the network has operationalized its commitment to racial equity and food justice.

“While Othering processes marginalize people on the basis of perceived group differences, Belonging confers the privileges of membership in a community, including the care and concern of other members. As [john a.] powell has previously written, ‘Belonging means more than just being seen. Belonging entails having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of social and cultural structures. Belonging means having the right to contribute to, and make demands on, society and political institutions.'”

Andrew Grant-Thomas, from Othering and Belonging Editors’ Introduction

The article was published last week under the title “Equity as Common Cause,” co-authored by El Farrell, Tom Kelly and Joanne Burke of the UNH Sustainability Institute (the convenor of FSNE), Karen Spiller of KAS Consulting and the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (Karen is lead FSNE Ambassador) and myself, as network facilitator, with input and voices of many others, including Connecticut Senator Marilyn Moore, Julius Kolawole of the African Alliance of Rhode Island and Niaz Dorry of North Atlantic Marine Alliance. Read More

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April 26, 2017

Moths to the Flame of Simple

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?       ~Terry Tempest Williams

In Turkey, voters just granted the Prime Minister additional powers. In the US, many people have long been fond of simple solutions. Today that plays out with support of a bombast who is inconsistent and offers solutions that exacerbate underlying problems.

When we work with clients, it also seems like there is a pull to simplicity, especially around issues of diversity and equity.

We field many calls from organizations and networks eager to address issues of racism. In its caricature state, which is all too common, the request is for a two-hour workshop for staff. The hope is that with a few hours of filling smart brains with a new understanding—of the history of racism, or of implicit bias, or levels of oppression—that then things will be okay.

This is false. A two-hour workshop can open some new understanding or potentially be used to make a case for change, but in no way does not even put you on the road to okay.

How is it that smart people believe that a little more in the way of “smarts” will undo a complex historical reality routed in policy, cultural narrative and economics?

Some of it seems to be a wish for easy and for ease. Many white people want the magic bullet or the easy solution to our own racism and that of our country and our organizations. We are not used to acknowledging that it took a lot of work to dig the hole that we are in and that it will take even more work to get out. Hoping that two hours or one day can give a diverse group the knowledge, tools, and understanding to create systemic change is simply a wish for simple.

In addition, there are systems that support the quest for this to be simple. For example, funders may offer relatively small dollars for organizational change efforts or not prioritize learning about systems of oppression at all. The push is almost always for fast outcomes and it seems risky to slow down and support the harder efforts that will ultimately be successful. Many leaders of our organizations, foundations, and government institutions have ourselves benefitted from the structures of racism and are content (wittingly or unwittingly) not to rock the boat.

For people working on systemic change, our job is to communicate that change is both hard and worthy. To want change requires more than a workshop; it is a commitment to put in the time, the dollars, and the effort. We know that effective equity efforts require work on multiple levels.

It may not be easy but it is fun and powerful to see the changes along the way. Change can beget more change. Change includes:

  • New and deep relationships that expand what is possible and build new ways of being
  • More equitable hiring and purchasing policies, investing in long term economic change
  • Policies in an organization that are constructed to undo the bias that is both implicit and explicit in our minds and our organizations.

I will write more in the coming weeks about examples of change as a motivation for those moments when we think oppression, racism, and inequity are solvable in a two-hour workshop. IISC is interested in working with groups that choose to avoid the simple and invest with their hearts and time the work that can lead to meaningful change.

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April 25, 2017

Strategic Questions From and For Liberating Structures

With inspiration from Nancy White – thank you! (and make sure to check out Nancy’s blog) – I have been returning to and reviewing the list of Liberating Structures created and collected by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless for application to some strategy development work with a couple of social change networks. As described on the website:

Liberating Structures are “easy-to-learn microstructures that enhance relational coordination and trust.

Liberating Structures are meant to foster enlivening participation in groups of all sizes, making it possible to truly include and unleash everyone.”

In reviewing the various structures, I’ve pulled out and added to a list of strategic questions that could be offered in concert with different group processes (World Cafe, Open Space, pair shares, fishbowls, individual reflection, etc.) to open up possibilities … Read More

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April 19, 2017

Cultivating Connectivity: Understand the Soil Before You Till

In sustainable agriculture you hear talk about no and low-till farming. These are approaches that emphasize minimal disturbance of soils to preserve their structural integrity and also to keep carbon in the ground. No-till increases organic matter, water retention and the cycling of nutrients in the ground. As a result it can reduce or eliminate soil erosion, boost fertility and make soils more resilient to various kinds of disruptions. This flies in the face of mainstream approaches that recommend ongoing and significant intervention, “fluffing” soil and digging down to considerable depths to get rid of weeds and aerate the ground. What actually happens can be quite destructive to the long-term productive and regenerative capacity of the soil.

“When we harvest, weed, rake or trim gardens and landscapes, we remove the organic material that feeds the soil.”

Elizabeth Murphy, soil scientist

I like this as a metaphor for what can happen when there is failure to see and respect the networked structures that already exist in communities, organizations and other living systems. Read More

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April 4, 2017

Liberation and Self-Organization for Social Change and Life

“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”

– Toni Morrison


Once again, I’ve been re-reading Niels Pfleaging’s short book Organize for Complexity (and eager for the release of the English version of Complexitools) amidst the growing demand we are hearing at IISC from people who want to liberate their organizations and themselves to be able to intelligently respond to change and to come back to life! Here’s the gist – as things shift more, and more rapidly, some people’s inclination may be to try to exert greater control or dig in to what is familiar, but does not work. The more one does so, the worse things can get. As Pfleaging writes, we see a “high price for the illusion of control.” Within organizations this takes the form of various gaps – social, functional, and temporal – that make them  increasingly irrelevant, ineffective and irresponsible.

Responding to complexity requires (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Eric Kim) new muscles and mindsets.

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March 22, 2017

Network Innovation 3.0: The 2017 Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge

“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

James A. Baldwin

For the third year in a row, IISC is working with Food Solutions New England to design and facilitate the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge (April 9-29) as an extension of our mutual commitment to racial justice. The challenge is a virtual and networked remix of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. and Debby Irving, offered as a way of spreading and deepening commitment to learn about, talk about and take action to solve racial injustices in the food and other related systems.

This year, we are adding additional tools and prompts to create a rich environment for learning, conversation and action. This includes:

  • a more extensive resource page with readings, tools, videos and organizational links,
  • a new list of daily prompts with links to resources and room for participants to offer written reflections,
  • a series of original blog posts on the FSNE website committed to relevant topics and themes
  • a Twitter hashtag (check out #FSNEEquityChallenge)

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February 27, 2017

Network Development Tools: Connection Stories

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

– Gibran Rivera

For the past five years, Food Solutions New England has been building a regional collaborative network organized to support the emergence and sustainability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities. This network was formally launched with support of IISC in response to a shared sense that greater connection, trust, deep collaboration and innovation were needed across food system efforts throughout the region. To create this connectivity, we have engaged in a number of structural and procedural innovations, including creating an Ambassador Team to do network weaving and the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge, which will happen again this year from April 9-29.

Along the way, we have been witnessing some important boundary-crossing and new partnerships emerging. One example in particular stands out, stemming from a field visit a number of us did to a fishing community in the region to learn more about the challenges to and innovations among small scale fishermen. Our tour was organized by a network team member and community organizer of color who focuses on fisheries who has many deep connections in that community. One of the attendees of the tour was an older white man who does policy work in another state. Personality-wise, these two individuals are quite different, along with their chosen points of intervention in the food system. And yet on the heels of that tour, the organizer and the policy wonk became good friends and colleagues who continue to learn from one another and coordinate more around fisheries and policy analysis/development, creating new opportunities in and across their respective worlds. Read More

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February 21, 2017

Practices for Personal Resilience and Development

resilience

Photo by Elade Manu. Found on Flickr and shared under Creative Commons Attribution 2.o license.

This is a slightly edited version of a post from about 3 years ago, and it feels more timely in light of current events. Many groups with whom we work at IISC are trying to find a way to stay resilient amidst onslaughts and uncertainties. I have found my own need for personal practice to have grown accordingly. 

When I take time to slow down my interest is always refueled in practices that support my and others’ ability to maintain perspective and a sense of effective agency in the world. My line of inquiry is not simply focused on what can keep me energized, pull me back from the edge, or deal with burn-out, but also how I can align my internal state with external aspirations in an integrated way. My thinking and reading often takes me back to the work of Barbara Fredrickson, the emotions scientist based at the University of North Carolina, as well as to others in the fields of positive and social psychology. Having revisited some of these writings again recently, here are 10 recommended practices for personal and social resilience: Read More

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February 9, 2017

What we are learning about building peace

Last year we organised a Peacebuilders Workshop to create space for practitioners involved in peacebuilding work locally to come together and critically appraise our practice and identify the lessons learned about peacebuilding in conflict/post-conflict contexts. The discussion at that workshop calls to mind a number of important aspects of peacebuilding work that align with our approach at IISC.

Peacebuilding requires at its core the kinds of human principles or values which resonate with those required for other kinds of social change work. These include creativity, relationship building, and networks. Read More

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February 7, 2017

Thinking in Systems, Through Sayings and Quotes

“Systems thinking without systems thinkers will change nothing.”

Derek and Laura Cabrera

A few months ago, Andrew Grant-Thomas of EmbraceRace and I presented an interactive session at the Facing Race Conference in Atlanta on systems thinking tools to address structural racism. We had offered a similar session at the 2014 conference in Dallas with our colleague Cynthia Silva Parker, and as it turns out, both sessions were done in a standing-room-only situation. Clearly there is a hunger for these skills and tools among racial justice advocates.

Systems thinking as a field has been around for a few decades, but its direct application to structural racism has not been widespread. Even where racism has been discussed systemically, activists have often craved practical skills and tools to identify and align strategically around areas of intervention that will yield the greatest return for effort.

In our session in Atlanta, we spent some time talking about and exploring the “thinking” side of systems thinking. We presented a few systems thinking sayings and quotes from different writers and practitioners, and invited participants to read and reflect on them and talk with others about the ones that most caught their attention. A specific request was to pay to attention to how the words impacted their thinking and perspectives. There were, in just the span of about 10-15 minutes, some remarkable insights reported. And so I invite you to do the same, to share any impacts, and also to add your own favorite systems thinking sayings. Read More

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