April 22, 2015

Network Building as Change: Caring Through Connection

The following is a slightly modified post from a little over a year ago. In recent months, the notion of putting care at the center of “net work” – to ground it, make it real and people accountable – has surfaced a number of times and strengthened. The original post included the phrase “the empathic turn.” Since that time I’ve come to see “caring” as a more appropriate word, rather than “empathy,” as it evokes for me not simply feeling but action. This re-post is inspired by the activists and thought leaders who are about to gather in Oakland, CA for the “Othering and Belonging” Conference, hosted by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society

In an essay that I continue to revisit, the poet/essayist/novelist/farmer/ conservationist and champion of sanity, Wendell Berry, talks about what he calls “the turn towards affection.”  Having spent many years reflecting on and pushing back against the unfortunate demonstrated human capacity to despoil landscapes and demonize “the other,” he takes a strong stand for both deep rooted connection and . . . imagination:

“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.”

In other words, by his assessment, imagination thrives on contact, on an intimate form of knowing that is not simply intellectual, but intimate and holistic. For Berry it is only this kind of knowing that can lead to truly “responsible” action.

Others, past and present, hold the truth and power of this kind of fuller bodied knowing to be self-evident, in environmental conservation and social justice efforts and in what it means to be a responsible human. Professor john a. powell writes in his book Racing to Justice:

“There is a need for an alternative vision, a beloved community where being connected to the other is seen as the foundation of a healthy self, not its destruction, and where the racial other is seen not as the infinite other, but rather as the other that is always and already a part of us.”

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April 16, 2015

Regenerative Thinking for Social Change

“Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge.”

-Howard Thurman

Spiral Fern

Spring seems to have finally arrived in New England after a long and very hard winter. For me this brings with it gratitude and utter amazement at the regenerative power of life. To have seen the mounds of snow and ice only a month ago, and along with it many frozen hearts and souls, I find it amazing as I watch the colors and sounds and spirit of this new season come forward with what almost feels like reckless abandon. Such is life and its regenerative nature, the ever present “growing edge.”

This is cause for me to reground in the teachings of mentors I’ve had who have introduced me to the power of “regenerative thinking,” an approach that aligns with a living systems view of life. Regenerative thinking can stand in contrast to mechanical approaches, which assume a rather linear, predictable and controlled environment. The very notion of regeneration is an invitation to examine some of the underlying assumptions of our actions, to lift up for closer inspection how our thinking may or may not be in alignment with what we are really after, what we are trying to bring to life, in the realm of social change. Read More

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April 8, 2015

Networks, Collective Impact and the Place of Expertise

“Too many of us … feel pressure to be experts. But the most valuable thing you can do is to express vulnerability, to listen to people working things out.”

- John Hagel

Expert“Expertise” is one of those concepts that seems to get vetted every now and then, and in the current climate of complexity, collective impact and networked approaches to change, there is certainly good cause for this. Mark Twain once quipped that what made the expert an expert is being from someplace else. There may be some truth and value to this view when a set of “outside” eyes can lend new perspective to a situation. And certainly it has often been the case that deference is given to this manifestation at the expense of local and other sources of knowledge.

Expertise when left unexamined can create significant problems, especially in diverse multi-stakeholder settings. Typically, expertise has a very intellectual/academic ring to it. If someone says that it’s time to call in an “expert,” who comes to mind? There is time and place for a more formally studied brand of expertise. However, expertise can also be based in other forms of knowing, including lived experience, which can all too easily be marginalized and along with it the voices and engagement of many of those most negatively impacted by an issue/situation. Expertise in many contexts is racialized and gendered to equate, knowingly or not, with predominantly outspoken white male perspectives. See, for example, this piece from Soraya Chemaly on how women’s speech is often granted less authority and credibility than men’s.

So there is a cautionary tale in what Miranda Fricker calls “epistemic injustice.” That is, people can easily privilege something as “expertise” or someone as “expert,” which ends up having much less to do with actual content/value and much more to do with the (privileged) messenger. This can in turn lead to (continued) dismissal or marginalization of equally or more valid perspectives/knowledge, which produces/reinforces inequity and likely leads to erroneous conclusions.

In his recent post “The Collapse of Expertise and the Rise of Collaborative Sensemaking,” David Holzmer references sociologist Bridget Jordan’s observation that

“The power of authoritative knowledge is not that it is correct, but that it counts.”

This is a profound statement and calls out certain leaders, organizations and collective efforts in the way that they validate existing efforts and power structures. In volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) settings, this can spell collective disaster. Complex conditions seem to require balancing considerations of deep knowledge, what constitutes “legitimate” forms of knowing, and who has what kinds of “expertise” with what Holzmer and others refer to as diverse and collaborative “sensemaking.”

This might cause angst among those who just want to “get down to work,” keep some semblance of “control” and/or preserve their expert standing. The counter to this is to insist that there is real systemic diversity “in the room” to start with and to maintain ongoing lines of inquiry around whether people are simply reinforcing the status quo and systems they say they want to change or validating their own knowledge and egos at the expense of long-term success.

How are you seeing, understanding and working with “expertise” in your networks and collective change efforts? 


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April 1, 2015

Aligning Tactics and Beliefs for Collective Impact

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

-The Talmud

A year ago at this time I had the opportunity to be part of faculty for the launch of the Presidio Institute’s Cross-Sector Leadership Program in San Francisco.  My role in representing IISC was to lead conversation around core concepts and frameworks related to the design and facilitation of complex multi-stakeholder change processes. On the last day of the launch I partnered with Jennifer Splansky Juster from the Collective Impact Forum to do a deeper dive around collaborative process design, with Jen offering more guidance around the specifics of taking a “collective impact” approach. During this session, I invited Fellows to step back and consider their cross-sector change work by reflecting on the framework above, the essence of which I have inherited from the thinking and work of Carol Sanford.

This framework starts with the notion that our chosen change methods are grounded in an underlying belief system about what we hold to be true about people, the world and how we know what we know.  Not being aware of or open about this can get people into difficulty when it leads to mixing and matching techniques/methods that may contradict one another, or when people are not operating from the same system of beliefs. Here are some questions I offered the CSL Fellows in consideration of their cross-sector work: Read More

March 26, 2015

Collective Impact: Equity, Community and Network Thinking

Learning Wall

Just returning from the Champions for Change gathering in Washington, DC hosted by the Tamarack Institute and the Collective Impact Forum. I was in attendance with a couple of others from the Food Solutions New England Network Team to learn more about people’s experiences with creating and developing a “backbone” function in their “collective impact” efforts, and also had the opportunity to do a couple of skills sessions around IISC’s “Dimensions of Collaborative Success” framework from Facilitative Leadership for Social Change. Read More

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March 20, 2015

Networks: Balancing Acts for … Life


I have had many conversations recently about network form and transition, all of which have me thinking of what we often talk about in our practice at IISC: balancing acts. The core approach that informs our work in the world is Facilitative Leadership, which strives to create and inspire the conditions for collaborative and net work that yields greater, more sustainable and equitable changeIn co-creating these conditions, as process designers, facilitators, trainers and coaches, we invoke a variety of practices and frameworks, each of which has its own dynamic range of considerations. Read More

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March 19, 2015

Big Democracy and Protest

Image credit: The Guardian

Here is the fact: one segment of the population suffers daily humiliation from the sanctioned authorities. These humiliations too often lead to the most tragic of outcomes – murder by police. Another segment of the population, a much larger and dominant segment, does not have any direct experience of this sort of injustice. So they deny that it exists or that really matters that much. And here is where we find ourselves. Read More

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March 16, 2015

Deep Work Culture

I’ve long said that the ways in which work and organizational life are changing should be advantageous to those of us committed to social movements. Our organizational imperatives should never supersede our movement’s imperative. We should be willingly able to discard any organizational structure that does not serve our ultimate purpose. Read More

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March 12, 2015

Developing Potential Through Networks

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

- Gibran Rivera

This week I was in a conversation with someone who asked me what the difference is between “networking” and “network building.” I’ve been asked this before, and certainly do not purport to have the right answer, but it became an opportunity to deepen the conversation that has been evolving in my work and head about what it means to develop potential through and in networks. Here is what popped to mind as a response, actually in the form of a series of questions

Are you thinking about others?

If you aren’t thinking about others, and are really leading exclusively with self-interest, then you are most likely networking. That is, you are reaching out to others and making connections to advance your own cause. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s a natural part of opening up opportunities for ourselves. And this may or may not equate with network building, which in the IISC lexicon entails thinking more actively about others, who they are, what they have to offer, and then not simply networking for ourselves, but doing network weaving, “closing triangles” (introducing people who should know each other), and thinking about how different patterns of connection might support others’ and bigger (collective) work.

Are you paying attention to others’ potential?

There is a difference between seeing people as they are and seeing them as they might/want to be. The second, in my own experience, requires more attention and awareness, more focused listening and inquiry, and certainly more imagination. And as Wendell Berry once said,

“Imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection.”

Seeing someone’s potential relies on caring, which entails learning more about someone’s story so as to appreciate how they have evolved over time, as well as asking explicitly about their hopes and dreams. To me, this is outside the realm of what we typically think of as networking, and also takes the work of network building, when viewed simply as making connections, to another level.

By way of an example, I often think of something that happened to me when I was about 13 years old. My father had a friend and colleague of his over to the house, who was someone I really admired. He had been a community organizer and educator and international peace advocate and university administrator who had been places I wanted to go and worked with people that I too wanted to link arms with. We had had a wonderful dinner, during which this man told fascinating stories, and afterward I found myself face to face and alone with him in our living room. I remember thinking, “What do I have to say to him?” Before I had a chance to pursue that line of inquiry much further, he asked me with a huge smile, “And what about you, Curtis? What do you make of this world we live in and what is it calling you to do?” I was completely caught off guard, and smiled a bit bashfully. He prodded warmly with other questions, clearly demonstrating his interest and curiosity. And I responded in turn by sharing thoughts that I hadn’t remembered sharing with others and in some cases was not even entirely aware that I had. Marvelous!

Are you making offerings to others in the spirit of furthering their potential?

“Love liberates, it doesn’t bind.”

- Maya Angelou

Paying attention to someone’s potential, to their deeper (or higher) aspirations, can be taken another step by actually making offers in that direction, providing connections, resources, ideas, opportunities. This does not have to be a big or dramatic offer, but when made in connection to someone’s expressed yearnings, can be tremendously meaningful and impactful.

Again, an example. In the adolescent years following that conversation with my hero, he would send me occasional readings and later would introduce me to interesting people who aligned with my interests. To be held in mind and in a way that was drawing me forward was an incredible gift.

And so I think about the difference between someone doing what we might consider to be traditional “networking” within a given marketplace and then many people within an existing or evolving collaborative network making connections and offers in the spirit of advancing individual and collective potential. To me that’s quite a difference and something worth committing to practice.

It is why at IISC we view the work of network building as not purely tactical or transactional, but at its heart transformational. This is more likely to be so when we create spaces for people to see and appreciate others, consider what they have to offer one another, and to follow-through, to make their humble offerings, which can become expressions of love, and together a force for social transformation.

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March 10, 2015

Justice in Alabama

gorgeous banner by #acij showing black lives matter marchers over the EP Bridge and an ICE official watching... #selma50 #selmaistoday

Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on 3/8/15 by Jen Wilsea

The news channels have been flooded for the last few days with photos of the Obama family crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the very bridge that Alabama state troopers and local police would not allow peaceful voting rights activists to cross as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. That day is remembered as Bloody Sunday because police attacked the marchers with tear gas and billy clubs, resulting in the hospitalization of many protestors, including John Lewis.

Hour after hour ticked by as I stood on the main street in Selma on March 7, 2015. The sun was hot and I was getting sunburned. I stood in the middle of a sea of overwhelmingly Black Southerners waiting for our Black president to arrive. Words can’t describe the calm yet electric feeling in the air. It was powerful to wait, and to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge just a few blocks ahead, knowing that at any moment President Obama would stand there and speak to this crowd, this mostly Black, Southern crowd.

Every single one of us doing social and racial justice work in 2015 owes a great deal of gratitude to the freedom fighters, the ones whose names we know and the ones whose names we don’t, whose blood stained the pavement in Selma and whose feet marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were brave, they were creative and strategic, and they held a deep faith that justice would prevail. And yet we do these freedom fighters a disrespect if we simply say (as I have too often done) “nothing has changed in 50 years” and if we don’t acknowledge that they laid the ground work from which we now build. And we do these freedom fighters a disrespect if we don’t realize that “Selma is now” as Reverend William Barber says. Alabama is facing a triple threat of racist violence now that much of the rest of the nation is sorely uninformed about:

  • Immigration: HB56 is the harshest anti-immigrant legislation passed in any US state, making it a crime for undocumented immigrants to get library cards, housing, medicine and more; passed at a time when the majority of the fastest growing Latino and Asian immigrant populations are in Southern states 
  • Healthcare: 300,000 Alabamians are currently being denied their right to health care because they don’t qualify for Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act (AL chose not to expand Medicaid even though it would have been completely paid for by the federal government for three years); it is estimated that 700 people will die each year as a result
  • Voting Rights: Protections of voting rights won in 1965 as a direct result of activism in Selma and elsewhere are under threat, and disproportionately in the South

Selma is now because racist violence continues to manifest in insidious ways across the U.S.; and the South is where some of the harsher policies are being tested by legislators. Selma is now because some of the fiercest organizing is happening in the South in 2015 just as it was in 1965 while the rest of the country too often sees the South as backwards or ignores the South altogether. One of the most powerful movement building and Black&Brown power building stories I’ve heard in a long time is the story I heard this weekend of the mobilizing immigrants are leading across the state of Alabama with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice. I was moved by the work the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama is doing, fighting for the right of Alabamians to health care. And I was moved by Reverend William Barber, founder of the Moral Mondays movement who is leading a North Carolina based Southern movement for voting rights, Medicaid expansion and more. 

As a white woman driving to Alabama for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I couldn’t stop thinking about Viola Liuzzo, an Italian American woman who drove from Detroit to Selma a few weeks after Bloody Sunday for the much larger march that successfully crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and ended in Montgomery, AL. Viola was shot by the KKK as she drove African American marchers home after the march. I drove past her memorial on the side of the highway as I drove home to Atlanta after the march in 2015. As a white Northerner making my home in the South in 2015, I am humbled by the depth of faith and fierceness of the fight and the warmth of heart that defines the long tradition of Southern organizing. Selma was a strategy by civil rights leaders in 1965 to make the nation uncomfortable about racial injustice, just like Ferguson is today. What risks am I willing to take? What sacrifices are we willing to make? Our time is now! May we honor those who came before, and may we fight with fierceness, joy and faith in the 21st century to end racial violence once and for all!

“With less than we had, they beat Jim Crow.
With less than they had, they were able to overcome.
If they did more with less, we can do more with more.

We must know who we are!

This is our Selma. Right now. Right here. Right now! Right here!

If you know who you are,
and you act like you know who you are,
then God will show up.

I believe that if we know who we are,
If we fight for voting rights,
If we refuse to take down,
If we stand up in this moment,
If we honor the memory of those who believe,
God will show up.

The Lord will make a way, 

Some how.
The Lord will,
Make a way,
Some how!

Selma is right now.
If we know who we are,
If we stand up,
the Lord Will,
The Lord will,
The Lord will,
Make a way,

— Reverend Barber, Dallas County Courthouse, Selma, AL 3.7.15


To learn more about what happened on Bloody Sunday, the context surrounding that day and the significance of it in the struggle for voting rights, read this piece and watch the film Selma

March 5, 2015

Racial Equity Habit Building, Networked


Two years ago, the Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Network Team, with support from IISC, committed to putting racial equity at the center of its work in trying to bring the six state region together around a vision of a more sustainable food system. Since formalizing that commitment with more than 150 delegates at last year’s annual Food Summit, and taking it to other food system-focused networks by invitation, the FSNE Network Team has faced the big question – Now what? How to deliver on this commitment and in a regional context? At the very least we continue to deepen our learning around and commitment to equity, modeling for and learning from and with others, growing and strengthening our understanding and action. A sub-committee of the Network Team, of which IISC is a part, has put together a racial equity plan consisting of various areas of activity, including education, communication, convening, network weaving/organizing and curating tools and resources for food system advocates at all levels (organizational, community, municipal, state).

One step that has just been launched is a bit of an experiment, and takes the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge from Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White) and Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. (founder of the White Privilege Conference), and turns it into a virtual community of practice. The ongoing challenge of the Network Team is to figure out a variety of means to keep knitting the network, and to keep communication and learning flowing. This is where the proliferation of social media tools and collaboration platforms has been extremely helpful. Read More

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March 4, 2015

(Self)-Organize for Complexity

“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


I’ve been re-reading Niels Pfleaging’s short book Organize for Complexity and appreciating how it succinctly captures the current challenges for many groups and organizations trying to navigate complexity while clinging to old tools and beliefs. This can also be the nature of social change work amidst the significant shifts we are seeing. Here’s the trick – as things shift more, and more rapidly, people’s natural 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 and ineffective. Responding to complexity requires (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Kim) new muscles and mindsets.

If I could summarize my own reading of Pflaegings’s book, I would put it this way – the world we are living into requires more integrated ways of seeing and doing, and this is hard to do (if not impossible) if people maintain highly differentiated ways of organizing themselves. There is really a baseline call for self-awareness and mindfulness so that one is able to respond not by default or fear, but with perspective and intention, which connects to the idea of “strengthening the network within” at the individual level. And it is important to reach out and connect this self-awareness to others . . .

“Problem-solving in a life-less system is about instruction. Problem-solving in a living system is about communication.”

-Niels Pflaeging

Throughout his book, Pflaeging notes that in all formal organizations, there are informal structures, and that these are really the life blood of those organisms. They are what contributes maximally to value creation, that is to being more intelligently responsive to needs and opportunities “out there.” Yet formalized structures often stand, by intention or by accident, as impediments to these informal structures. When things are complex, it can be helpful to connect the social system to more of itself so that people are better able to make sense of what is happening. This can sometimes mean getting out of the way of informal structures and inherent self-organizing tendencies, or creating spaces for informal sharing and connecting.

“Self-organization in complex systems is natural. Having “a leader” is not.”

-Niels Pflaeging

Whether we are in nascent or long-standing organized efforts, there are threats of being pulled to the overly formalized, bureaucratic and centralized side of things. Pflaeging echoes others (including Mila Baker, Carol Sanford, and Frederic Laloux) in some of his recommendations for keeping eyes on and supporting the less formalized and life-affirming prize. These can be of great support generally-speaking in encouraging network ways of working.

  • Let purpose [not incentives] drive behavior.
  • Cultivate [guiding] principles, not rules.
  • Emphasize roles, not [fixed] positions.
  • Support and practice maximum transparency.
  • Encourage informal knowledge forums, guilds, communities of practice.
  • Decentralize, rather than delegate, decision-making (delegation still smacks of hierarchy).

This kind of work may be more difficult than what some typically lean towards. And there are those who might question its effectiveness and efficiency. But this is very much intelligent systemic work, organized as social and emergent processes.