Network Theory and Social Technology have become so tightly bound that it becomes increasingly difficult to talk about networks for social change without having one of our nonprofit-types freak out about technology, learning curves, accessibility, etc. I have been looking for ways to sift through the distinctions in a way that salvages core network lessons for movement building; here is some of what I’ve come up with:
The network approach works offline as well as online (it is a logic, not a technology)
We should move from an organization-centric paradigm to a network-centric paradigm (our organizational structures can evolve in this direction)
Our leadership models must evolve in order to handle decentralization (deemphasize control and emphasize connection)
I have been using a “rocket building” analogy. Building a rocket is too expensive for us to just start building at random. Instead, we first build a computer model of the rocket, there we adjust for all sort of variables, the pull of gravity, energy needs, the best types of material, etc. We see how it works on the computer, and then we build it.
Similarly, we could not have dared to build an offline world that allows for as much decentralization and self-organization as the online world does. Our current organizational structures – from the state, to the corporation, to the foundation and the nonprofit – are too strongly cemented. Breaking down organizational walls and internal hierarchies would have put too much at risk.
The online world has provided an unprecedented space for large-scale experimentation in new forms of organization. It has become our own computer model and it is showing us amazing things about what is possible not only online but also offline. Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine has gone as far as calling this The New Socialism. And while I’m sure that Marx is turning in his grave, what I continue to argue is that an entirely new paradigm is finally emerging and that it is through our participation that we’ll actually have a chance to shape it.
Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Enterprise 2.0 Conference. It was a fantastic event full of wisdom regarding collaboration in a world where technology is king and we humans are the serfs still struggling with literacy. Though I think when it was all devised, it was supposed to be the other way around. (My analogy, not that of Enterprise 2.0).
Attendees included the CIA, WorldBank, Microsoft, IBM, General Mills, Blue State Digital, and many other companies that work directly with collaborative technology programs. One of the focal points in the four day conference was how to maximize online communities. Accompanied with this topic was the question of whether internal Facebook-like programs to connect employees on projects are an aid to productivity or a distraction. A bigger question however was, can online meetings replace face to face meetings, and if they can, should they? At what point do we need to be face to face? Can a foundation be built and trust gained in the cyber world? By entering more meetings online are we forgoing genuine relationships in the work world? Are genuine relationships dependent on proximity?
Now there is no denying that a lot can be accomplished online and that working online can be very cost efficient. Though in a time when we need to focus on sustaining the world, we must also remember our need to sustain ourselves, and the genuine relationships which make us human. If we can find that balance with techonolgy, then we will really find a strong profit.
One of the benefits I’ve experienced in our social change work as process experts and professional facilitators, is the exposure we get to have in various fields of social change work. Since last October, my colleague Andrea and I have had the pleasure of consulting with an amazing collaborative of stakeholders, the Springfield Health Equity Initiative, who have determined to build a plan to reduce the incidence of diabetes in the black and brown neighborhoods in the city of Springfield, MA. Even more boldly, these dedicated and thoughtful leaders have also chosen to take up an analysis for their work that incorporates how systemic, government sanctioned, racial discrimination has played a direct role in creating the egregious disparities in health outcomes we see today among black and brown folk in the U.S., and regardless of class.
In the 1950s journalist Edward R. Murrow hosted a radio program called This I Believe, in which he invited people from all walks of life to share their personal philosophies.Fifty years later, Dan Gediman revived the show on National Public Radio with the goal of “encouraging people to begin the . . .difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own.”The result has been a growing movement of communities and schools jumping at the opportunity to invite citizens and students to articulate their core beliefs and values, and to align their lives accordingly.For a taste (actually a glimpse and/or listen), check out this link.
Monday, I was working with two different clients, both of whom talked about the great potential technology holds for making their work easier, helping with engaging people and moving the work forward. At the same time, there were deep concerns expressed about what may be another digital divide – that being the divide (within those who have access to technology) between those who naturally gravitate toward the use of technology (the geeks among us) and those who either find it incredibly difficult (or even incomprehensible) and/or those who don’t like technology and find it a totally inadequate substitute for face-to-face conversations. This is on top of the other digital divide – the divide between those who have access to technology and the internet and those who don’t. At the same time, due to climate change and the economic collapse, many groups we work with are cutting back (or even eliminating) travel to meetings and re-thinking how they’re working together.
I knew a few Barr Fellows before I started doing the kind of work I do today. I knew a few of them before they were Barr Fellows, and so I also knew them after. It was in this nonscientific way that I was able to observe some of the subtle and not so subtle shifts that were happening among my friends – the fellowship had an effect on them and on their work. Conceptually, the idea behind the fellowship was something that I could understand, network theory and the power of relationships already made intuitive sense to me.
Check out the Barr Fellows Program for a formal description of the effort. But to risk oversimplification, the fellowship is about taking a diverse group of amazing leaders in Boston’s social sector, rewarding them with a sabbatical, connecting them to one another and exposing them to social innovation in other parts of the world.
Almost forty years ago this month Robert Kennedy was assassinated. His vision and his voice is seared into the hearts and lives of a generation. In this you-tube video listen to his description of the gross domestic product where he talks about how the GDP measures everything except that which makes life worth living. It is timeless and powerful.
You know what they say—the glass is either half full or half empty, depending on your perspective. Well, I say it’s both! And the empty part has a residue, splashed up from the full part of the glass, so it’s not completely empty after all. All of this comes to mind as I mark the 10th anniversary since I was in a car accident that left me with permanent, chronic pain. This is the first time I’ve thought about how to mark the occasion. On one hand, there’s cause for great celebration. I’m alive and so are the two of my three sons who were with me that day. My husband has not spent the last ten years raising our youngest son alone. Hallelujah! The accident paved the way for us to buy a home and move our kids from three school systems into one. That’s been good for us all! And, I’ve had to adjust my understanding of what I’m physically capable of doing. That’s where the half-empty part starts to matter.
Next week I return to work after three blissful weeks of parental leave. Well, perhaps I should say three very full weeks (I’m not sure that nights with little sleep and days filled with constantly changing diapers constitute bliss). I am forever grateful to the Interaction Institute for Social Change for having such a humane parental leave policy, for a father no less. This is certainly not the standard in this country.
The flip side of my gratitude is the sadness that comes from needing to leave my two infant girls, and to leave my wife with her hands full. It is certainly much more than a full time job to raise three children, and considerably more to do it well. And I am sad to think of all the parents in this country who do not have anything approaching the kind of benefit we have at IISC, and hopeful that efforts to enact some kind of federal legislation will be successful.
First things first!We learned last night that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved the nominations of Bonnie Jenkins as State Department Coordinator of Threat Reduction Programs (an Ambassador level position) and Eric Schwartz as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration.IISC has worked closely with both Bonnie (currently at the Ford Foundation) and Eric (currently at Connect US) for a number of years and send our congratulations!Both are highly qualified and deeply connected to the community of nonprofits working on foreign policy and peace and security.Very good news.Now, onto the full Senate for confirmation!
As for reflections on social media, there’s a new Clay Shirky TED video describing the shifts based on the new forms of media – the ways that new media allows for a whole new many-to-many communication.He gives examples of the ways the Chinese government has tried to maintain control (in new ways).He also talks about the Obama campaign demonstrating a new way of operating – encouraging and allowing for participation on its website even when the views and organizing were going against Obama’s position.Take a look:
When was the last time you heard an Executive Director talk about dreaming and mean it?I don’t mean to be cynical, and I do in fact consider myself an optimist, but I don’t have the best perspective on the institutionalization of the nonprofit sector in the United States.I often feel like words such as “vision” and “dreaming” have become the stale objects of grant proposals.But over the last few days here in Brazil I have been reminded that these words speak of an essential power that makes us human, these are faculties inherent in our evolutionary thrust, and it is time to reclaim them.
Led by Edgard Gouveia Júnior and a team of brilliant architects Instituto Elos has set out to make dreams possible again.Over the last few days I have witnessed the underbelly of this global capitalist system and human beings surviving under some of the worst living conditions many of us could imagine.This is where Elos has chosen to work.Edgar told me that he deeply believes in the symbol of the Yin and the Yang, he said that it is where darkness seems immutable that we find the brightest points of light.
Like most of our clients IISC is answering the most daunting of organizational questions: Where are we? Where we do we want to go? And how are we going to get there? In other words, what’s our strategy? What is the roadmap that we can use to guide our collective action in the next three years? And while ever believing that we had a handle on the future was an illusion at best, the next three year time frame poses a level of uncertainty that can just knock your socks off.
The economic crisis in and of itself would be enough to challenge the best of strategic thinkers but the fact that we are moving through a global systems breakdown and the complete rewiring of who we are and how we function in the connected age takes the challenge to the 10th power.
And, so we are experimenting on ourselves in the hope that we can create a strategy development process that is short, sweet and doable and that we can bring to the sector.
“There are some people who begin the Zoo at the beginning, called Way In, and walk as quickly as they can past every cage until they come to the one called Way Out, but the nicest people go straight to the animal they love the most, and stay there.”
We are in the open fields and looking for the animal we love the most. We will share our journey as it continues to unfold.
The American economy wasn’t created in a race-blind way and the current recession isn’t race-blind in its impacts. It stands to reason, then, that we won’t get out of the current recession fairly without paying attention to the impact of race as we create solutions.
Listen to this summary of an Applied Research Center report on the issues of race, recession, and recovery.
“Ecological design competence means maximizing resource and energy efficiency, taking advantage of the free services of nature, recycling wastes, making ecologically smarter things, and educating ecologically smarter people. It means incorporating intelligence about how nature works . . . into the way we think, design, build, and live.” -David Orr
The Nature Conservancy’s “Design for a Living World” Exhibition, which recently opened (May 14th) at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, features ten designers exploring the relationship between the natural world and the products we use. Each designer was asked to develop new uses for sustainably grown and harvested materials and the results are quite beautiful in a number of different ways.
I find the idea of designing for a living (or livable) world to be a powerful invitation for those of us engaged in creating experiences to bring out the best in others (innovation, collaboration). I hear the call to be mindful and respectful of the cultural and ecological contexts in which I find myself, to work with (not against) the surrounding social/natural environment, and to think in restorative (as opposed to extractive) ways. As David Orr, environmental philosopher and author of The Nature of Design, suggests, sustainable design is all about creating harmony between intentions and “the genius of particular places” (we might add particular people). The standard for Orr is not so much efficiency or productivity, but health. So here’s to ours, fellow designers.
Two weeks ago, some of us at IISC had the great fortune of participating in a WTC training called Leading From Spirit.During the training, we had some great conversations about busyness – the ways in which we, as social change activists, process designers and facilitators, find ourselves sometimes being overly busy, taking on too many responsibilities and running from one thing to the next.Some of us mentioned noticing that our ability to do things well sometimes seems impaired by this overly busy approach.(I would add that this is not something confined to those of us working for social justice and social change – but has a special twist when it’s combined with this work, which so requires us to bring forth our best selves.)
Emergence is an interesting thing; one might even argue that it is the most naturally occurring of all things – couldn’t we say that the universe itself just emerged and keeps emerging?As we approach the limits of the best laid out planning processes we could come up with we begin to face the fact that a world of increasing complexity cannot be managed like it is a big machine that will produce predictable and measurable outcomes.In this increasingly complex world some of us are seeking ways to align ourselves with the process of emergence, to foster and facilitate it, to serve it with sharp intentionality and to let go of command and control fantasies.
Here is where “The Hub” comes in.I had the pleasure of visiting “The Hub” in São Paulo and I find myself deeply inspired.Emergence Theory demands locality, it proposes that local micro-interactions are foundational to the emergence of new systems.“The Hub” is about co-location, it provides a physical space that is meant to “facilitate unlikely encounters” among people concerned with social change and social innovation.“The Hub – São Paulo” provides a beautiful creative space that is open, flexible and stimulating.Small teams or individual social entrepreneurs can make it their full-time home, or they can arrange to rent space there anywhere from 5 to 100 hours per month.
These social innovators may be focused on anything, and ideally on different things.In fact, given that the “The Hub – São Paulo” is still in start-up mode, I have learned that some of its tenants do not even have an explicit social mission.A space like this, without walls or fixed desks is a space where previously unthinkable projects can emerge, it is an ideal space for the intersection of fields that makes “The Medici Effect” possible – this is how innovation happens.
Hub Hosts are a lot like network weavers.Yes, they take care of details like shared printers and internet connections, but they also work to interconnect tenants using the space.Tenants are encouraged to host events and information sessions where they can share what they are working on and what they are learning.“The Hub” is a truly vibrant space where socially committed individuals can experience life in a network and begin to shed their organizational constraints.“The Hub” is just one response to the need for new forms of human organization, but it certainly is a great one, it is the sort of place from which a new world can emerge.
What other efforts to apply network theory do you know about?
It is Sunday morning and the last day of a conference that I have been attending called Deep Change: Transforming the Practice of Social Justice. We are at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the beautiful state of North Carolina. The South is a perfect location for this convening for as one of the participants said, “I long for the South to heal because if the South heals the United States heals and if the United States heals the world will heal”.
Eighty frontline organizers, intermediary organizations and funders have gathered here to learn together, deepen their connections to one another and thereby create a shared sense of identity and an expanded field of spiritual activism. This coming together is a fractal, a small slice of a movement renewed and re-grounded in “an ethic of sustainability, spirituality and a broader understanding of freedom’ committed to infusing spiritual practice into the pursuit of social justice.
I am one of the veterans here. My own activism launched 40 years ago as an anti-poverty community organizer on the Mexican border town of Laredo, Texas. Movement work at that time was inspired by and rooted in the spirituality of the civil rights, farm workers and anti-war movements. Many activists were animated by their Jewish understanding of social justice or of their Christian roots in the social gospel. As the movement and sector evolved political analysis and spirituality became disaggregated as the movement turned its attention to building effective organizations and leaders. This detour was probably an important leg of the journey but one that needs to be left behind as we seek new ways to build a just and sustainable world.
My own experience during that time had the wilderness quality of wandering and confusion for I could never understand how or why we had created this kind of oppositional thinking. I am so very grateful and inspired by this new generation of activists who are committed to re-integrating inner and outer transformation in the pursuit of social justice and transformative change.
As part of this extraordinary gathering we were enchanted and changed by our encounters with the artistry and talent of two of North Carolina’s best: Spoken Word poet, Glenis Redmond, and bluegrass musicians, Baby Cowboy.
I’ve never been much of a feminist. In the crucible of my political coming of age, I internalized a strong message. I could either be a ‘race woman,’ devoting myself to improving the conditions of black people, or I could ally myself with bourgeois white feminists. There were no other choices, and clearly only one was acceptable. A small group of female African American seminary students was working out a ‘wymist’ theory that took gender, race and poverty seriously but I didn’t take them seriously at the time. I constructed my identity primarily around race. Like many African American women who’ve played a prominent role in the struggle for freedom and justice, I would advocate for the community as a whole—no particular emphasis on women. Focusing on women, and especially highlighting sexism and misogyny within the black community, was an especially hard row that I didn’t want to hoe.
In the final chapter of “What Would Google Do?” (recently referred to by Marianne), Jeff Jarvis makes a provocative statement about the future and promise of a networked world. Many of the points Jarvis makes appear to turn things on their head, at least compared to the way that many of us might first react to developments in our ever more densely connected and information-rich world.
A few things to ponder:
1. This current generation is growing up with an ability to stay in touch with nearly everyone they meet throughout their entire lives. Whereas those of us who grew up pre-Facebook may have lost track of old childhood friends and college buddies, this generation has the possibility of always being more directly in touch with the different chapters of their lives. Scary? This seems profound to me, and yet I don’t really know exactly how. What might this do to the very nature of relationship?
2. The flip side of TMI (too much information) is greater transparency. Young people are putting so much more of themselves and their lives out for public consideration. Often this gets construed as risky and/or a kind of exhibitionism. However, if more people are playing the same game, then perhaps the rules will enforce greater overall acceptance and safety of full and liberating self-expression. Jarvis quotes author David Weinberger – “An age of transparency must be an age of forgiveness.” Wow.
3. And what about all of that apparently inane information that people share about their bunions or the mold growing on the bathroom tile? Well, how about the benefit of “ambient intimacy” (Jarvis quoting blogger Leisa Reichelt -www.disambiguity.com), swapping the small details of our daily lives? This may just help us to develop stronger relationships as we come to know more about people who would otherwise be just acquaintances, or grease the wheels for the next time we physically see one another or talk by phone (less catch up time).
Throughout these and multiple other points, Jarvis seems to be suggesting that more integrated lives and more widespread trust are a result of living in the Google age. Given that collaboration thrives on trust, and that collaboration may be our saving grace as a species (see Charles Darwin and my post “The Group Effect” – ), shouldn’t we all be striving to be fully exposed and (wireless) card carrying members of Generation G?
Yesterday was my birthday – and I’ve established a ritual I love on my birthday. Every year for MANY years, I’ve spent the day in a spirit of curiosity. I don’t plan it ahead, but spend the day noticing things that I’ve never done and trying at least one. It’s a way of spending the day being open to possibility. And I usually wonder, at the end of the day, why I don’t live every day that way. It has uncovered for me the magic of yoga, of bleacher seats at Fenway Park, of a manicure and pedicure, of many kinds of food and many other things.
So today, I started thinking about my little birthday ritual in a new way. I started wondering about all the things I do (and we do) because I know them. And started wondering what would happen if I spent more time in this curious unknown place. What if I didn’t spend as much time keeping ground under my feet? What if design and facilitation didn’t fall on the old tried and true quite so much? What if the stories I tell myself about why people (or groups) do the things they do weren’t true – or were only one version of what’s true? What if I spent the day noticing situations and what I normally do – and playing around with something else? What might emerge then?
I’m not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But merely wondering what would happen if every day was a little more fresh – and grew out of a spirit of curiosity? I think, as well, about the post Marianne made recently, in which she talked about our need to approach the current situation with new thinking, with a paradigm shift. In that spirit, I’m wondering what habitual ways of thinking and acting I have as an individual – and also what habitual ways of thinking and acting that we have as organizations and as a community working toward social justice and social change. What would happen if we paid attention, noticed what we usually do – and strategically tried something different?
“The explosion of creativity in the Renaissance was intimately tied to the recording and conveying of a vast body of knowledge in a parallel language: a language of drawings, diagrams, and graphs-as, for instance in the renowned diagrams and sketches of Galileo.”
So I’m not Galileo, but there is something very powerful about the use of images in seeking a common language to work with complexity. Check out the set of drawings we used in a recent learning meeting. We are trying to understand the relationship between advocacy coalitions, local groups, the State, and investing in Network Building capacity. Can you put the story together?
I was one of the lucky Bostonians to see Leonard Cohen (famed poet, folksinger and Zen monk) perform to a sold-out Wang Center audience this weekend. He is seventy five years old and noted that the last time he was in Boston was fifteen years ago when he was sixty and just “a kid with a dream”.
There was a tremendous sense of the sacred in his performance, from the way in which he interacted with his back up singers and his band to the care and honor that he showed to the audience. In a New York Times article Cohen was quoted as saying: “There’s a similarity in the quality of the daily life on the road and in the monastery. There’s just a sense of purpose in which a lot of extraneous material is naturally and necessarily discarded, and what is left is a rigorous and severe routine in which the capacity to focus becomes much easier.
And it was that sense of purpose and level of focus that was experienced in the concert hall and that monastics have been modeling through the ages: get rid of the extraneous; focus on the moment like a laser beam and you will be fully alive…hmmmmm…must try that…again and again and again!
After the concert, I was prompted to go back to a Shambala Sun interview with Leonard Cohen that I read and that has stayed with me, it is about love and a very Zen understanding of life.
In fact, Mr. Cohen appears to see performance and prayer as aspects of the same larger divine enterprise. That may not be surprising, coming from an artist whose best-known songs mingle sacred concerns with the secular and the sexual and sound like “collaborations between Jacques Brel and Thomas Merton,” as the novelist Pico Iyer put it.
One of Cohen’s most quoted verses captures it all:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.