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
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
“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
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 verydiverse 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.”
The vision in question essentially reads as a series of detailed scenarios pointing the way to alternate futures depending upon how overall contextual factors play out. Conversation about these scenarios has been intense, and occasionally rancorous, as different people/parties in the region have challenged one another’s assumptions and interests. That’s all well and good, to a certain point, as long as there is something larger that holds the whole together. This is where we might assume the more visionary elements of this “vision” might serve, that is, those parts that paint a bold and uplifting picture of what the region might accomplish together. As it turns out, while this has helped to fire some collective imagination, it also is true that there continues to be some reticence and those who have a difficult time seeing themselves in this proposed future. This, I believe, is because the vision does not yet have enough of aninvitational and open quality to it (more “pull” than push).
And so I am suggesting that what may be required is precisely what John Hagel describes when he talks about narrative. In a blog post, Hagel contrasts narrative with story:
“Stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Narratives on the other hand are open-ended – the outcome is unresolved, yet to be determined. Stories are also about me, the story-teller, or other people; they’re not about you. In contrast, the resolution of narratives depends on the choice you make and the actions you take – you will determine the outcome and you are therefore an integral part of the narrative.”
In other words, narrative has a strong quality of engagement, and it leaves room for various and diverse individual stories (and visions) to play out under its open and broad articulation. Hagel goes on to say that the best narratives inspire “exploring and connecting dispositions,” such that people want to figure out how they might fit, contribute, and work with others in the spirit of “crossing the finish line” together. And so I am compelled by this idea that in an age of diverse networks tackling complex issues there is more of a call for narratives that pull.
What might be an example of a network narrative? Something like this (following some institutional cases laid out by Hagel) –“Let’s grow the new (name of region here)! There is burgeoning interest in and activity around local economies in our region and people are tuning into the importance of health, community, and grounding in tangible assets in our work and lives. This comes at a time of both challenge (mounting economic disparity, social inequity and climate change) and opportunity (new technology, social networks, entrepreneurial spirit). It is clear that while local is important, it does not guarantee prosperity across our region. As we do our work, we are called to see the larger (regional) context and ask how we can both be fed by and feed the new (name of region here). Are you ready? Are you willing?”
Curious to get your take on the role of narrative in our networked world and in your network(s) for change. What possibilities and examples can you offer?
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.
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, Racist – “White 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.
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.
Two 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
I posted the following about five years ago on this site, and have been actively thinking about and experimenting with its core lessons ever since. I have only become more compelled by the need to bring a living systems orientation to work for social change. Curious to hear reactions and what you are already doing to apply insights from and living systems.
Last week I was in the presence of a master. For more than 25 years, Lauren Chase-Rowell has skillfully and intuitively cultivated the land around her house in Nottingham, NH to the point that it exists in great harmony with the beautiful farm house, people and fauna occupying that space. Lauren is an ecological landscaper, organic farmer, and permaculture design teacher. Her home, Dalton’s Pasture Farm, is a vibrant classroom and testament to the possibility of practicing “earth-centered living.” Read More
Last week I had an interesting conversation with an evaluator who was curious about some of the networks for food system development we’ve been supporting through IISC. We got to talking about “metrics,” which led into consideration of the role of story in not simply gauging network effectiveness, but also in stimulating network evolution. Communication and social learning are part of the life-blood of human networks. This is something that we’re coming to understand at a more profound level amidst the complexity of food system transformation work at all levels.
As we try to identify “leverage points” to shift regional food system dynamics in New England in the direction of increased local production, food security, economic development, resiliency and equity across the board, we are realizing that more robust connectivity and sharing across boundaries of many kinds is a significant strategy and form of structural change that can allow for critical self-organization and adaptation. Stories become one of the critical nutrients in this work.
Furthermore, we have begun to solicit stories of success and innovation around embracing the FSNE Vision (of 50% self-sufficiency with regards to regional food production by the year 2060) and racial equity commitment. And coming out of this year’s Summit, there is interest in sharing stories of how people are working towards “fair price” across the food chain, in such a way that food workers, producers of varying scales, distributers and consumers have living wages and access to health-promoting and culturally diverse food. The curation of these stories we see as beginning to change the underlying economic narrative.
Stories then become fuel in many ways, providing different points of access, connection, inspiration, education, and meaning-making. Stories are like enriched compost that can be fed back into the network to nurture new growth. Our work as a Network Team, as network gardeners, is to “close the resource loop,” encourage and support more equitable channels for expression, more cross-fertilization, more interest in diverse (and concealed) stories and “processing venues” for these (virtual and in-person).
How are you using story to feed your net work forward?
“Well meaning people are often trying to solve a problem by answering the wrong question.”
In some cases this is because they have not paused long enough, if at all, to consider the underlying question their efforts are trying to solve (risking “active laziness” which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago). Or, as my colleague Cynthia Silva Parker has said, they are “solving for solution,” essentially promoting and/or fighting over their own preferred approaches. And so they continue to offer the same old, ineffective and outdated, approaches or products. This is especially problematic in a time of such change and flux, when we can’t fall back reliably on what we already know. Read More
My friend Adam Pattantyus recently reminded me of the concept of “active laziness”, attributed specifically to the writings of Sogyal Rinpoche. This reminder came at a very opportune moment. It is no secret that there is, at least in a number of circles in which we at IISC operate, a burgeoning culture of busy-ness. Many people seem increasingly pressed for time, and move between the temporal equivalent of sound bites throughout their days. The ensuing “frenzy” and exhaustion, while perhaps seen as necessary (or by some as a status symbol), is also being called out for its dysfunctional nature, including how it detracts from efforts to create positive and lasting social change. This is what Rinpoche calls “active laziness,” the compulsive cramming of our lives with activity that leaves no time to confront “real issues.”Read More
I sometimes use the metaphor of “fire tending” when talking aboutFacilitative Leadership, the approach to leadership and social change we here at IISC practice, model and teach. Facilitative Leadership is grounded in theethic of“creating and inspiring conditions for self-empowerment so that people can work together on a common goal.”It is a form of leadership, rooted ina series of connected and reinforcing practices, that increasing numbers of people, organizations and networks seem to be drawn to in this ever more complex, uncertain and dynamically interconnected world.
Thanks in part to the following inspiration from poet and professorJudy Sorum Brown, I invoke “playing with fire” as a way to think about ways of creating optimal conditions for collaborative change.Read More