While my name was on the invitation and my personal passage was the catalyst for this celebration, it really is an acknowledgement of the work of each and every one of you in this room. As you look around it is important to know that you are in the company of people who have answered that powerful question posed in the Mary Oliver poem, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” by deciding to spend their every day making the world a better place. And for this I honor you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
There is a lot of conversation in our sector about the generations…the boomers, the x’s, the y’s, the millenials now all working together. Someone recently mentioned they read that four generations can now be found in our organizations. This phenomenon is often presented as a problem to be overcome rather than an opportunity to be seized. In fact, combining the openness and technological know-how of youth with the patience and experience of older folks may finally be just the right ingredients for real social transformation.
As the founding Executive Director of IISC and the matriarch ( I am widowed) of my family, I am continually enriched and enlivened by the young people in my life. I have always found my children to be among the most interesting people I know; Kristen Hughes, Joe Hughes, Brendan Hughes, Christa Scharfenberg, David Scharfenberg.
It is early Easter Sunday morning before the ham and scalloped potatoes go in the oven but after sunrise and meditation. This particular holy day/holiday brims with meaning and metaphor about death and resurrection: the suffering and darkness that always precedes awareness and light, the old giving way to the new, the biblical nature of the times within which we live.
This famous E.M. Forster quote takes on new meaning in this age of quantum waves and particles, Twitter, and Facebook. But the depth of what he was saying is timeless: connect with one another through old and new means to realize that we are one family, one world, one universe.
At IISC, we are committed to deepening our connections, fostering collaborative efforts, and learning together in service of social transformation. And so it is that IISC is formally announcing the launch of our blog, as another way that we can connect and learn from you in our common quest to build a more just and sustainable world.
In that spirit, I want to share with you some of what we have been learning across the three areas that we believe are foundational to the work of social transformation: network building; diversity, equity and inclusion; and, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “the love that does justice.” Read the rest of this entry »
Today I am inspired to write about the hag. This is timely in that I am staring right into my 63rd birthday, born in 1946, the year that ushered in the baby boomers for better or for worse (depending on your point of view). It is also timely because like many others in the social sector, I am a founding executive director seeking to make room for the next generation of leaders (see future blogs) and challenged to re-imagine my continued contribution to social justice.
Not to be a caricature but again like so many of my cohort who were called to service by President Kennedy and came of age in the civil rights era, my life’s work was initiated as one of the first Vista Volunteers stationed in the border town of Laredo, Texas. It was there that I learned first hand about oppression, racism and injustice as well as hope, change and activism. I knew the work I wanted to do in the world. I was young then, not yet a hag.
We are delighted to share an article with you that was just published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review this week. The article, Networking a City, tells the story of the evolution of the Barr Fellows Network, launched by the Barr Foundation, and its impact on the City of Boston.
Dear IISC Clients, Colleagues and Friends,
After nearly twenty years leading the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC)—and loving every minute of it—I will be transitioning from my role as IISC’s executive director as of July of this year. After a couple of months off, I will return as an independent consultant to continue doing this work that I love so much—both on my own and on behalf of IISC.
It has been an honor and a privilege to work shoulder to shoulder with people like you—extraordinary change agents who labor every day to make the world a better place.
IISC is now in search of someone to take what might be one of the best jobs on earth—leading IISC as it partners with organizations, communities and networks to move from shared vision to collective action toward building a more just and sustainable world. Please pass the word along. View the job listing here.
With love and gratitude,
Elena Letona is the former Executive Director of Centro Presente a member-driven, state-wide Latin American immigrant organization dedicated to the self-determination and self-sufficiency of the Latin American immigrant community of Massachusetts and that works for immigrant rights and for economic and social justice.
IISC worked with Centro Presente’s staff in the year leading up to Elena’s transitioning out of her role as Executive Director. Both Elena and the staff were determined to bring the organization through this period with grace and to grow together by deepening their own capacity.
The process was launched with a Facilitative Leadership program that focused on creating a culture of collaboration. No one describes the impact on the organization more eloquently than Elena in this video testimonial. Both Elena and Centro are thriving.
Our Organizing Model
Leadership development is a very important component of our mission and our work. We recognize that the members of our community bring to this country their personal experiences and capabilities and in return we provide them the space to build opportunities to develop and exercise leadership. Our leadership development model focuses on community organizing around specific themes like immigrants’ rights, workers’ rights and civic participation.
The model engages, internally, our staff, board, members, and program volunteers, and externally, allies and other community stakeholders. For example, our Board is composed of Latino immigrant workers and youth members. Through participation in our committees, the members of Centro Presente have the opportunity to be actively engaged in leading campaigns and activities that impact their own lives, as well as the lives of their families and the broader community.
I first met Kip Tiernan in 1970. Her reputation for no-nonsense, wise-cracking productivity had preceded her. We were all a little bit intimidated. She was older than we were and had already had a successful career as a pianist and an advertising executive. Still, she always treated us with the utmost respect…as if we, too, knew what we were doing.
We were organizing the first political sanctuary to ever have been held in a catholic church. The sanctuary was for our friend Paul Couming who was a conscientious objector and draft resister at the Paulist Center church in Boston. Kippy was handling the press, the FBI was outside the building and we were singing Amazing Grace. It was the beginning of my life-long admiration for Kip Tiernan, who died on Saturday. Kip went on to found the first homeless shelter for women and worked tirelessly with and on behalf of the poor of our city.
In her obituary, her wife Donna Pomponio is quoted as saying:
“The tragedies in the world continued to propel her to fix things and make them better. She knew that as human beings, we could do better for each other. There was a support and strength that came from that woman, and having her by your side and in your life, you knew that you could do it, too.’’
The New York Times ushered in 2011 with a front page story (below the fold, at least) titled: Boomers Hit New Self Absorption Milestone: Age 65 in which the author notes that in the next 10 years 26% of the population will redefine what it means to be older. As a member of this graduating class of boomers born in 1946, I am always humbled to be swept up by the statistics and perceptions of the generation. My own experience reflects part of its story: heeding the call of JFK to service, I was one of the first VISTA volunteers, followed by years of activism and organizing and finding myself today transitioning from my role as a nonprofit executive director.
My colleagues and I went to see Daniel Pink when he came to speak in Cambridge. We had all read his book “A Whole New Mind- Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future,” and found that it gave us a framework and vocabulary to describe what we were finding in our work, which is that we are not only straddling era’s, we are straddling between the sides of our brains. We are discovering that in the work of social change most of the ideas, the data and the numbers are all available to solve many of our most intractable problems. What’s missing in our approach as outlined by Pink in “A Whole New Mind” resides in the right side of our brain: inventiveness; empathy; meaning and our capacity to design our way to wholeness.
Last week one of my heroes died. The first time I remember being with Howard Zinn was at an anti-war meeting at Boston University in 1970. Even then his strong presence guided so many of us by providing a deep historical perspective on activism and resistance and their rightful place in a healthy democracy.
He figured large in my life in the years since then. Through his writing and speaking he articulated a thoughtful rationale for an alternative point of view to traditional mainstream media analysis.
Check out this great Ted Talk by Paola Antonelli on design.
Every year at this time, like most of you, I make several commitments which are generally to increase my health and well-being, deepen my spiritual life and learn myself a few inches back from the learning edge. This years’ learning commitment is to learn all things technological i.e. everything from powerpoints to Twitter and everything in between. As it stands now I know just enough to get by, develop bad habits and to be dangerous across multiple platforms.
And, like the book falling off the shelf as if guided by some cosmic know-it-all, I picked up the latest Orion Magazine the other morning to find an interview with Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine where he puts forth the idea that technology is holy. Read the rest of this entry »
It is our tradition at IISC at the beginning of every year to send out one of our “classic” postcards to all of our constituents reflecting on the year past and the year to come as well as to announce our upcoming training schedule. As I was writing the introductory paragraph for this years’ I happened to stumble across what I had written last year. With the exception of last years’ reference to “renewed hope for reinvigorating civil society” (this was before the inauguration), I was struck by the similarities and the focus on the ultimate paradox. Read the rest of this entry »
There is a dangerous and ultimately very confusing trend emerging in our sector. In the wake of the financial meltdown and its impact on funding, foundations and others are proposing organizational mergers and strategic alliances as a solution to the problem. The danger is that they are calling this “collaboration” and giving collaboration a really, really bad name!
For many years at IISC we have been trying to overcome what is often the very bad taste left in people’s mouths after some horrendous experience that they have had in a poorly executed and therefore failed collaboration. In many cases these were marriages forced by foundation funding or coalitions of individual organizations coming together but unable to detach from their own identities and agendas.
Recently I was asked for a quote about the messiness of collaboration. In response to the request, I noted that because at IISC we are “Collaboration R Us” we tend not to think about the messiness of collaboration (though we do view messiness as part of any emergent and creative process). Rather we focus on the elegant design and facilitation that will ensure success. The quote that I submitted is the following:
“Collaboration takes more than well-meaning people with good intentions coming together to determine a set of outcomes. Successful collaboration requires solid process design and skillful facilitation. This is what builds the scaffolding for multiple and diverse stakeholders to create a shared vision of impact, agreement on goals and strategies for achieving that impact and a plan for collective action. The process itself is what catalyzes the critical shift of mind and heart from believing that the right answers and expertise are held by a few to an understanding that it is the collective wisdom of the group that determines right action and greater impact.”
Mirabai Bush founded the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society in 1997. While no longer the Executive Director, Mirabai is steeped in the work. I had an opportunity to both see her in action and to have lunch with her and talk about bringing contemplative/transformative practice into our organizations and the work of social justice. The title of her talk was Bringing Mindfulness into Public Life where she looked back to the seventies as the moment of the great divide between spirituality and politics; the inner and the outer, the personal and the professional. Ironically it was the same decade when many great teachers from the east came to the United States to introduce the west to the power of meditation. The tool of meditation and mindfulness was quickly adopted by leaders in the alternative medicine field like John Kabat Zinn and Dr. Herb Benso and then taken out to the world.
Every October in Camden, Maine, 700 remarkable change agents from across all sectors, issue areas and the world come together to share their breakthrough social innovations that they believe will build a just, sustainable and positive future. The gathering is hosted by PopTech a truly unique innovation network “known for its thriving community of thought-leaders, breakthrough innovation programs, visionary annual conferences and deep media and storytelling capabilities”.
This year’s conference was titled America Re-Imagined and again proved that while the media covers only catastrophe and great suffering there is a parallel reality, a great force, that is building, creating and innovating our way forward. The effects of this movement are seen everywhere and some of its most talented members can be seen and heard through the PopTech video link.
Take heart and enjoy!!!!
In last week’s New Yorker, John Cassidy wrote a must-read article entitled “Rational Irrationality – The real reason that capitalism is crash-prone”. It is about the complexity of the financial market and brings to mind another classic book written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “The Black Swan – The impact of the highly improbable“.
Both the article and the book deal with what Nassim Taleb describes as the characteristics of a black swan (i.e. a highly improbable event), which are: it is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact and after the fact we concoct an explanation that makes it more predictable than it was. The near financial collapse (saved from complete collapse by government intervention), the astonishing success of Google and 9/11 are all black swans. Both authors speak directly to our human limitations in explaining our inability to see what’s coming whether opportunity or disaster. A major reason according to Taleb is that humans are hard-wired to focus on specifics when we should be focused on generalities. We concentrate on what we know and simplify, narrate and categorize. And, we simply do not reward those who can imagine the impossible. Read the rest of this entry »
In the September Shambala Sun magazine there is an article written about Huston Smith, the renowned philosopher, now ninety, who introduced Americans in the fifties to “The World’s Religions” through his writing and his teaching. This was territory completely unknown to the culture at the time.
In this article he remembers another famous spiritual adventurer, his friend, Aldous Huxley. He quotes Huxley as saying: “It’s a little embarrassing to have spent one’s entire life pondering the human situation and find oneself in the end with nothing more profound to say than…try to be a little nicer”. When I read this quote I remembered being equally struck by something the Dalai Lama said: kindness is my religion. And, of course, from the Bible, “do unto others what you would like them to do unto you”.
And as is often the case, I sit here on this Sunday morning sort of dumbstruck, as if I’d been given the most complicated of Zen koans, pondering the depth of these words that are so profound, so demanding and so completely, utterly and entirely simple.
It is difficult on this Labor Day 2009 not to worry and fret about our collective ability in this country to do what is best, even in our own best interest. The two major policy debates of the day – health care and unemployment – came together this weekend in a heap of statistics, misinformation and just plain rage that leaves me, like so many, wondering: how will we move in the right direction? What is right action?
Heartbreaking stories of financial ruin and despair from job loss and crushing unemployment caused by the recession or untreated illness and bankruptcy from the effects of a completely broken health care system. And, at root of both issues we find the profit motive and really bad policy choices over the last two decades. Read the rest of this entry »
“The Work Goes On, The Cause Endures, The Hope Still Lives, And The Dream Shall Never Die.”
The debate about how to reform health care in the United States rages across the country in a series of town hall meetings, constant cable coverage and apparent confusion and misinformation. I have been watching all of this from the distance that you can only gain by being on vacation. And, because my family has vacationed in Wellfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod for the last 25 years, I have been reflecting on the messiness of democracy while walking the dunes of the national seashore and riding the waves on the protected beaches of this part of the Cape.
It is a powerful reminder of how advocacy, policy and structural change is at the heart of creating a more just and sustainable world. Had President John F. Kennedy not signed a bill in 1961 authorizing the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore, (the goal of which was “to preserve the natural and historic values of a portion of Cape Code for the inspiration and enjoyment of people all over the United States”), I could be meandering through condominiums, McMansions and strip malls. Read the rest of this entry »
My son, David, recently wrote an article for the Providence Phoenix about John Maeda, President of Rhode Island School of Design and author of The Laws of Simplicity, The Laws of Simplicity – The MIT Press.
Maeda embodies and articulates facilitative leadership and has embarked on building the collaborative organization which he calls an “open source administration”. Web2ExpoSF 09: John Maeda, “Open Source Administration“ Interestingly, even today, the idea of an accessible, communicative and transparent leader is seen as unusual and breakthrough telegraphing just how hard it is to move from the old to the new.
What is so unique to John Maeda is his combination of talents that are so apt for this moment in time. He is an artist, a designer, a techie; an educator and an MBA not to mention young and hip with a “genuine ability to distill, simplify and inspire”. Like President Obama he models what it means to lead today from a place of thoughtful creativity, wholeness and…..joy.
While John Maeda and Barack Obama are among the famous there are so many leaders across the generations, the sectors and the world that are showing the way simultaneously changing the world one individual, one family, one organization and one community at a time.
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.
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.
Strategy guru, Henry Mintzberg, dedicates his book, Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour Through The Wilds of Strategic Management, to people interested in open fields rather than closed cages by quoting the introduction to Winnie-the-Pooh (Pooh Original Edition):
“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.
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.
How do we apply THAT to Social Change?
What Would Google Do? is a question that I have been asking myself for a number of reasons lately, not the least of which is because I am reading the book right now. I am reading this book and multiple blogs (Meg Hourihan, Clay Shirky, Deb Kantor, Kris Krug, Z Plus) really in the hopes that I can locate myself, our organization and the clients with whom I work squarely in the “new paradigm, “the quantum age” repeating the mantra as I go, “do what you do best and link to the rest”.
This mantra was ever-present for me as I worked this week with a group of folks who are at a most critical juncture in their effort to build a field, the goal of which is to increase awareness and funding to address the root causes not the symptoms of social injustice. A core of the larger global network has been convened, knowledge and product gaps identified, and a commitment to moving forward together has been made. This group was then tasked with figuring out “whither next?” Now what?
Their task is to create a road map that will involve the appropriate people and resources to increase the knowledge and expand the network. As the collaboration-centered process “experts” building collaborative road maps that creates the container for creative engagement, emergent thinking and right action for greater social impact is what we at IISC do but the question remains: what would Google do?
As in most of my life-long searches, I look for some basic princples: the Ten Commandments; the Four Noble Truths; the six articles of faith; burn more calories than you eat and I found some. Here are a few (and like all basic principles have the quality of…..duh…until of course you really, really contemplate their meaning and worse, their implications for your life)
- make mistakes well – admit them, share them, learn from them;
- life is beta – everything is a work in progress and can always be improved; when you make a mistake iterate your way out of it, learn your way;
- be hon est - be direct, authentic, say what you mean;
- be transparent – make your process explicit; hand over control through openness and information
- collaborate – include, include, include….co-create
- don’t be evil – well, here we’re back to the Ten Commandments, the Four Noble Truths etc….
My own answer to the question is: learn, connect and of course, Google!
A beautiful example of the collaborative spirit through song.
Must be seen beginning to end!
“Change you can believe in”, “Be the change”, “Yes we can”…words to live by but what about the how? As I work with so many diverse groups across so many issues I’ m struck by the similarity of the struggles. It all centers around trying to bring their system into more coherence for greater impact. Whether it’s bridging the so-called divide between grassroots and advocacy organizations, public and private foundations or the larger more recalcitrant divide across the public, private and nonprofit sectors. And, what kind of change are we seeking? Let’s start there.
In an article written by Don Beck, founder of the Spiral Dynamics Group, he articulates the many dimensions of change in the following way
First Order Change has several variations: make minor adjustments or tweak the system; re-align the elements within the system; upgrade the givens within the present modis operandi; adjust by hunkering down and going back to basics; push the envelope.
Second Order Change: attack the barriers, remove the status quo (revolutionary rather than evolutionary); transform to the next level of complexity (subsume the old into the new); quantum shifts of epochal proportions i.e. modern to post-modern -integral, change across the entire landscape.
Important, it seems, for all of us working for transformational change to locate the specific change efforts with which we’re involved to be clear on the kind of change they are seeking. Assuming there is no right way, but what is right at this time is for this system to move forward toward greater health and wholeness.
I have been boning up on systems theory and thinking because of an upcoming presentation that I will be delivering and because I am so interested in applying its wisdom to our own organization.. Oh to find the trim tab!!!!!
So, I am seeing everything through the systems lens when I stumble across this article on positive emotions and there it is in black and white with systems sprinkles to go. See below!
As background: Two distinct psychological states are positive emotions which are triggered by our interpretation of our current circumstances and pleasure which is what we get when we give the body what it needs right now!! Positive emotions tell us what we need emotionally, what our future selves might need. They help us broaden our minds and build our resources…they have that go-forward quality.
Happiness is the overall outcome of many positive emotions which are more narrow, more day to day, moment to moment. It’s not about being happy in general but focusing on being positive day to day which ends up building up our resources so that we can become the best version of ourselves.
It’s one thing for individuals to build their resilience through focusing in the day to day on their strengths and assets, practicing kindness, expressing gratitude, staying in the moment but how does this work in groups?
In a study of 60 work teams conducted by mathematician Marcial Losada it was shown that the really high performing teams had a ratio of 6:1 positive to negative statements where as the low-performing teams had ratios of less that one to one i.e. more than half of what was said was negative. The high performers had an even balance between asking questions and advocating for their own point of view and an equal measure of focusing outward and focusing within the group. The low-performers were essentially not listening and simply waiting for their turn to talk.
He then looked at the behavioral data and wrote algebraic equations that related the positive and negative behaviors to each other and discovered that these equations matched the very famous equations called the Lorenz system. Familiar to us from our reading on systems, Edward Lorenz is the scientist who identified the famous “butterfly effect” the idea of an attractor…an identifiable pattern or hidden coherence that appears in all that is incoherent. Some attractors are strong and some are weak. In this case Losada discovers that underneath the dynamics of the high-performing team was a “complex chaotic attractor” which produces unpredictable or novel outcomes. Underneath the structure of the low-performing teams was a “fixed pint attractor” that caused the team to spiral to a dead end.
And, p.s. there is research that shows that when married couples are in a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions they are in a solid relationship.
It seems that no matter what corner one turns…you come up against the same wise messages be still, be focused, be grateful and breathe.
I am currently working with a client who is focusing on an issue that illuminates all of our recent blogs about this great moment of transition. They are seeking to influence the international community to make the issue of fragile states, a first order root cause in creating an unjust and disordered world. And, here’s the problem…the U.S is still working out of its cold war script i.e. that “most transnational problems like terrorism or piracy can be linked back to an enemy state with an irredeemable ideology” though most recently there are signs that a new understanding is beginning to emerge. The Obama administration is talking about “smart power” and the need for multilateral action. And, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair recently testified to Congress that ‘In recent years, it seems that we’ve had more security problems from states that have been in trouble than we have from strong states that have been an adversary to us in the traditional way” And, hello…we’re making friends with Cuba!
In Donella’s Meadows book, “Thinking in Systems”, she talks about the greatest leverage point, or place to intervene in a system to make change is at the level of paradigm, the mind-set. She describes this as the shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions about how the world works. So, here we are with a front row seat as so many of these great big unstated assumptions are being examined opening the door for real change. Let’s be aware and awake and contribute where we can!