“We must make just and liberated futures irresistible.”
Toni Cade Bambara (via Adrienne Maree Brown)
At IISC, we are asking ourselves what we are trying to accomplish by helping the ecosystem of organizations, networks, and leaders pursue racial equity. Are we clear what we are fighting for? I believe we need to imagine what a society without oppression would look like in order to be able to explore this question. If oppression were a thing of the past, what would the world be like? If white supremacy and the drive to dominate didn’t ravage our cultures and minds, what would be available to us?
At IISC, we talk about the “Fourth Box,” the box that remains after we have eliminated inequities and achieved human liberation. I believe equity will exist when enough people and structures in societies have successfully dismantled the tools and ideology of oppression. But what is the liberation that follows after the breakdown of oppression? The word “liberation” can get a funny reaction in some quarters because it sounds like a 1970’s throwback civil rights expression, but it’s a deeply important concept.
What if liberation is the personal and transformational freedom that comes when our society is no longer rigged for the few – those who share similar characteristics or benefit from systems to concentrate their power?
What if liberation instead created a society that is centered on the notion that all human beings naturally belong in this universe? A society in which people live with autonomy, resources, creativity, inspiration, love, and human connectivity that makes life joyful, meaningful, and in alignment?
If we were to be fully liberated, what would that look like? I believe we would simply have time for being human. We would naturally spend time with those around us, appreciating their gifts and uniqueness. We would create play, laughter, and art in the ways we did as children but with the knowledge and insights acquired from our adult experiences. We would bring to human beings around us the power of presence – the relaxed unrehearsed connectivity that brings forth love and harmonious existence with all things living. We would build a fortified earth that yields food, sun, beach, ocean, sky, moon, mountains, lakes, clouds, and a vibrant and healthy climate to all.
We will soon be spending time at IISC examining our racial justice approach and methodology. It is my hope that we will start from the premise of the world without oppression and then think about how we can best help our clients and networks discover what that looks like, feels like, tastes like, and sounds like. Let’s suspend time and give people the opportunity to imagine themselves free from oppression and the tools they were taught to dominate others so they can live into practices that transform our world.
What would it look like to design racial equity interventions by helping people envision the end of oppression?
A couple of weeks ago I was in Michigan to do a presentation and discussion with representatives from a number of inspiring networks focused on local food production, food access and public health. I was invited by my gracious hosts at the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University to share a bit of network theory, tell a few stories and cover key concepts around network thinking and action to help advance and cohere some of the good work happening around the state.
Towards the end of that morning session, a couple of the participants mentioned that their heads were swimming and a few acknowledged that along with their excitement, they were struggling with how complex and difficult “net work” can be.
I felt their pain and was moved by their honesty, and offered something along these lines, with a bit of post-event embellishment. … Read More
Increasingly, social sector organizations are applying collaborative change frameworks and tools to engage in racial equity transformation. In a pattern reflective of the broader movement for racial justice, employees, often women of color in particular, are challenging organizational commitment to racial equity internally and programmatically. Often people who are ready to take action want to know what they can do to create space for the conversations needed to catalyze racial equity transformation.
I slept in a platform tent hearing the burbling brook, the food at the progressive retreat center was delicious and made with love, we learned life-shifting somatics exercises with wise teachers,* and I meditated each day. And yet, in the time since I left this beautiful restful setting, I have been more agitated than is my norm.
I first understood it as a principal of physics. While I slowed down physically, my cells and mental functioning continue to operate at their usual faster pace, and are hitting against a now constrained container. While I may be moving into alignment, it is not a simple shift of all systems at the same time. It will take patience to live into focused and productive energy.
Then I read a wonderful piece on creativity and connection by Elissa Sloane Perry at MAG. She helped me to understand this agitation in a metaphysical way as well. In her article, she reminds us that at a time of instability and insecurity, agitation might be a sign of alignment. She quotes Jiddhu Krishnamurti: “It’s no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Today I am choosing to practice embodiment – the work of aligning myself, attending to the spiritual, intellectual, and physical manifestations of myself and my work as the interconnected sphere that it is—as an ongoing activity as the word “practice” implies. I don’t leave a retreat aligned. I choose to take steps toward alignment each day. I choose to slow down and to rest when my body reminds me I am tired. I choose to pause and think about how my actions impact others. I choose to listen better to feedback, be it from my son or a coworker. I choose to take in the emotion of a movie about liberation and not just intellectualize the political activity.
Today I recommit to aligning, knowing that does not mean that I will always feel grounded or that I am acting with my fullest purpose. I choose to acknowledge how off-kilter our world is and allow that to affect me, not just to plough on as if all is normal. I then keep trying to align internally, and to work to make the world one I want to be aligned with.
This balance is critical to our social change work; as participants and leaders in change, we need to attend both internally and externally. What are the ways you are experiencing this tension?
“We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand.”
– URSULA K. Le GUIN
Image by Stephen Bowler, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
A note on the quotes below (and the Le Guin quote above): I am grateful for the beautiful piece by Evan Bissel, “Frames for Life, Liberation and Belonging,” which appears in the Othering and Belonging Journal. This piece lifts up some central elements of an emerging and humanizing narrative for our times, with focus on themes such as transition, liberation, belonging, commons, interconnection, abundance, sacred, curiosity, play, and place. I strongly encourage readers to check it out, to sit with the piece and let it soak in, and to share it.
This post follows the thread of a conversation that has been evolving across events I have been involved with the past few months, and a bigger and broader conversation that is clearly informing it. This is certainly not a new conversation, but there seems to be a renewed or perhaps more public vigor to it, at least in multi-racial and multi-generational social change groups and initiatives with which I have been involved.
It has cropped up in a network leadership program where a discussion about the difference between working for equity and working for justice pointed in the direction of the need to pursue liberation, and not simply inclusion and accommodation in fundamentally harmful systems. Read More
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge. Where is the knowledge we have lost in information.”
– T.S. Eliot
For the past few weeks I have been re-reading the book Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Christian Wahl. I am deeply grateful for Daniel’s gift, a rich distillation of his PhD thesis that points in the direction of a more sane, hopeful and health-promoting future. Regenerative development is a broad body of study and practice that informs much of my own thinking about and practice around social change. A fundamental recognition of the regenerative lens is that in order to live we harvest from the larger living systems (communities, ecosystems) of which we are a part in such a way that can weaken them, and can put us at risk. Regenerative thinking and practice then asks:
What might we do not simply to wreck less havoc or do less harm, but to leverage the natural connections we have with living systems to contribute to the integrity, resilience and long-term viability of people, places, and ecosystems?
Over the past several years of supporting networks for social change, we at IISC have been constantly evolving our understanding of what is new and different when we call something a network, as opposed to a coalition, collaborative or alliance. On the surface, much can look the same, and one might also say that coalitions, collaboratives and alliances are simply different forms of networks. While this is true, it is also the case that not every collaborative form maximizes network effects, including small world reach, rapid dissemination, adaptability, resilience and system change. In this regard, experience shows that a big difference maker is when participants in a network (or an organization, for that matter) embrace new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. The following revised list continues to evolve as our own practice and understanding does, and it speaks to a number of network principles to guide thinking and action:
A secret I don’t share with many people is that I have trouble reading books. When I went to law school, they made us read so many dense pages of legal reasoning I lost my love of story – until I discovered the podcast. In the comfortable confines of my car I stand witness to stories of personal accomplishment, quirks in our daily lives, and social commentary about our world. The other day one really caught my attention.
It was about Toys R Us, the biggest toy store in America. I love toys and I thought everyone else did, too. So I was surprised to learn that Toys R Us had filed for bankruptcy. Turns out, Toys R Us had invested in bricks and mortar without seriously expanding into the internet sales market. And at the same time, they kept those physical spaces disorganized, stale, and predictable. Amazon swooped in and sold toys at a record pace.
A toy and business analyst said if Toys R Us could have jumped in early and creatively into internet sales they would have avoided their decline. And if they had made their stores places of experience, fun, mystery, and discovery, they could have saved their business that way. He believed they should have created large and open areas where kids could ride around on bikes and play with other toys. He thought another miss was not thinking about how to combine physical toys with technological interactions.
As I was driving on the highway heading into traffic, I started thinking about lessons IISC or our network of clients and partners could learn from this story. Are we missing opportunities for integrating our knowledge and expertise with web-based learning and social media? Are we creating experiences in physical rooms and meetings that kick leaders and participants out of the norm and into experiences of fun, exploration, and surprise? Are we combining online and in-person strategies to more effectively and creatively share learning and ideas around collaboration, leadership, equity, and network building?
IISC is not a for-profit corporation like Toys R Us, and we have different values and approaches from them, but we can benefit from understanding that the way we do our work now and how we do our work may not be the standard for the decades to come.
IISC has started piloting some unique approaches in our workshops, in our consulting work, and through our experimentation with public engagement that use web-based learning, social media memes, and narrative. We are cooking up ways to fashion our training and consulting expertise in modular and less expensive ways so we can share it more broadly. I think that’s an early sign of us growing and stretching. We are pushing ourselves to domore experimenting and I know it’s going to help us stay relevant and live into the power of the future.
What experiments might you try out that will help you live into your future? What’s the risk of not doing so? Supporting leaders, organizations, systems, and networks to engage in social change is never out of date, but the way we as consultants and leaders approach that work might be. We may know at a gut level that something new and different is called for, but are we leaning into what’s necessary to make the leap?
Check out how Toys R Us plans to turn around: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-toysr-us-bankruptcy-brandon/toys-r-us-ceo-sees-future-with-smaller-shops-idUSKCN1BV2Y7
“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along those sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”
– Herman Melville
2017-2018 NLI cohort members engage in a team building exercise focused on the dimensions of collaborative success.
Last week I worked with the Backbone Team of Food Solutions New England to launch the second cohort of the Network Leadership Institute (NLI) at Ohana Camp in Fairlee, Vermont. This initiative has grown out of FSNE’s commitment to cultivating both thought leadership and network leadership“to support the emergence and viability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” Another impetus for the NLI was a year spent doing system mapping and analysis that revealed four leverage areas for advancing a just, sustainable and democratically-owned and operated regional food system, including cultivating and connecting leadership (see image below). Read More
These days, it’s hard not to drift into apocolyptic thinking. With the fires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, mud slides, ongoing flirtation with nuclear war, rising visibility of virulent white supremacy, ending of DACA, daily dismantling of federal level protections of civil rights and the environment, and the list goes on, it’s easy to despair. I keep saying to myself and my colleagues that a strong spiritual core is the only thing that keeps me moving! That, and the reality that it’s actually possible to make some progress within my sphere of control.
I’m reminded of two poems …
I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
— Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909) Unitarian Universalist minister
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
In spite of the times, I hope you are looking for and encouraged by the acts of resistance, reform, recreating and reimagining that are all around us. There is much we can do to advance justice and sustainability, even in these trying times. Think carefully. Love fully. Work together. Practice community care. While each of us is only one, together, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“It’s great that I’m learning all of these practical leadership and facilitation skills, but what happens when I’m not the one leading or facilitating?”
How can we keep things rolling when we aren’t formally in charge and when formal leadership is perhaps not so skillful? My answer: There’s usually some opportunity to lead, ask good questions, and to facilitate from the chair! Read More
Collaboration Lab participants discuss social and economic resiliency at The Point CDC.
The following post and pictures appeared recently on the Hunts Point Resiliency website. Since 2015, a team of us at IISC have been working with the New York Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resilience (ORR) to design and facilitate a robust public engagement process around a HUD-funded resiliency planning effort in the Hunts Point community of the South Bronx.
The Hunts Point Resiliency Project builds off of Hunts Point Lifelines, one of six winning proposals from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Rebuild by Design competition in 2013. The City has $45 million of Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding to advance resiliency in Hunts Point through further study and implementation of a pilot project. In March 2016, the City selected HDR, Inc. to lead two feasibility studies for energy resiliency and flood risk reduction, as well as conceptual design and environmental review for a resilient energy pilot project. IISC has taken the lead in designing an engagement structure and process for community organizations, business owners, elected officials, City agencies, and local residents to identify resiliency priorities, do public eduction outreach, and provide feedback that informs the project.
The Collaboration Lab was designed in partnership with The Point CDC to help deepen these conversations, looking at resiliency in more holistic terms (economic, social, cultural) and also strengthen connections between community members and organizations and City agencies.