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November 10, 2014

Racism. What will it take to end it?

We are pleased to announce the release of Senior Associate Cynthia Silva Parker’s TedX talk. Cynthia shares moments she’s witnessed racism, and how she thinks we can end it. We hope you share this talk with your networks.

Cynthia has spent decades helping people understand how the system of racism operates. As Senior Associate at Interaction Institute for Social Change, she designs and facilitates collaborative equity and inclusion initiatives. These initiatives make change in organizations, cities, and networks. Cynthia also trains leaders through our public workshops. Her next appearance is February 24-25, 2015 in Oakland, CA: Fundamentals of Facilitation for Racial Justice Work.


She is a life-long advocate for racial equity and social justice, and for deeper awareness of each in our systems and organizations and the wider society. She focuses her observations, personal stories and career on strengthening collaborative networks by building the will, skill, knowledge and strategies to undo racism together.

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October 29, 2014

Freedom and Unity: VTF2P Network Turns 4

“Our success is built on partnership, sharing success and sharing credit.”

- Sec. Chuck Ross

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“The mojo is in the motto.” With these words, Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross opened the doors and conversation on the fourth annual Vermont Farm to Plate Network convening last Thursday in Killington. Each of the past four years Secretary Ross has brought some critical words of encouragement and motivation to this fall convening, and by invoking the state motto – “Freedom and Unity” – at this year’s opening he seemed to hit the right chords at a critical moment in the evolution of the network.

In 2011, Farm to Plate launched to great excitement and some anxiety as it positioned itself as a cross-sector collaborative network to carry out a strategic plan to double local food production in Vermont in 10 years time, contributing to job and economic growth as well as food access in a state that sees high rates of poverty. Since then, as both Ellen Kahler of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (the backbone organization for Farm to Plate) observed and remarked through a plenary retrospective, it has managed to find its collaborative footing and grow significantly in numbers (more than 300 organizations strong). And importantly, it has seen real results in terms of direct, indirect and induced job growth resulting in 9,000 new jobs in the agricultural and food sector in Vermont. Furthermore, success is evident in individual members using network goals to inform and align their organizational goals. Read More

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October 22, 2014

What is Network Strategy?

Slide1The above graphic is something that I recently created, borrowing heavily from the good work of Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor, to help convey what is meant by engaging in “network strategy.” One of the challenges we’ve encountered in working with different networks is helping people to understand the difference between strategy development and network development. I try to meet this challenge, in part, by showing how they are not so different, or at least, that they are intimately connected. The diagram is also designed to help people get beyond some of the either/or thinking that we encounter. For example, it’s not that we have to choose between decentralized self-organized action and more formally coordinated collective action. It can be both!

So here’s what the graphic is meant to convey. First of all, network strategy is grounded at a fundamental level in creating (strategic) connectivity, by building linkages and trust between key stakeholders and perhaps unusual bedfellows. This can be done by convening people; sharing stories, data and other forms of information; co-creating knowledge; learning together, etc. Part of the value of this connectivity is that it can lead to orthogonal thinking and bolster individual network participants’ efforts in the shared domain where the network is focused. What also may ensue is self-organized action between those who are meeting one another for the first time or getting to know one another better (see the arrow to the left side of the triangle). This is all well and good and is something that networks should try to track. Read More

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October 21, 2014

Why Equitable Networks?

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Readers of this blog know how much promise we at IISC see in networks to bring about greater depth and breadth of change in our country and communities. At the same time, we do not see networks as a panacea. In fact, there are good reasons to be vigilant about “net work” to ensure that it does not exacerbate the very conditions we are trying to remedy, especially when it comes to social inequities.

We have previously referenced the report from the Aspen Institute, The Power Curve Society, which considers the broad implications of a globally networked economy that allows greater ease of transactions. In this technologically accelerated economy, the report states, wealth increasingly and problematically concentrates in the hands of a few rather than spreading itself out across the larger population. This seems to be a natural emergent phenomenon of not just the unchecked networked economy but of many networks. As Kim Taipale notes, this is a paradoxical result of “network effects,”

“Freedom results in inequality. That is, the more freedom there is in a system, the more unequal the outcomes become.”

This is because of something known as the “power-law distribution” that takes hold on open platforms, as wealth flows to the “super-nodes,” a phenomenon sometimes called “preferential attachment.” Read More

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October 20, 2014

Not just all lives. Black lives.

We are just beginning to understand the potency of what is happening in Ferguson.  I have been blown away by the cross-movement solidarity.  Labor has been there this October.  350.org has been there this October.  We are finally beginning to understand the way it’s all interconnected.

Julie Quiroz and our friends at the Movement Strategy Center have just published the beginning of an important reflection.  I was particularly moved by this quote:

We are asking you, our family, to stand with us in affirming Black lives.  Not just all lives. Black lives.  Please do not change the conversation by talking about how your life matters, too. It does, but we need less watered down unity and a more active solidarities with us, Black people, unwaveringly, in defense of our humanity. Our collective futures depend on it.

– Alicia Garza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter

I’m in.  Are you?

Read: From Moment to Movement: Learning From Ferguson October

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Photo by Koran Addo

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October 15, 2014

Ferguson October and #BlackLivesMatter

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Photo source: Democracy Now

Last weekend, thousands of activists converged in Ferguson, Missouri for Ferguson October, a weekend of resistance including marches, panels, creative actions and civil disobedience. The purpose of the weekend was “to build momentum for a nationwide movement against police violence.” Two months ago, an unarmed Black man, Michael Brown, was killed in Ferguson by a white police officer who has not yet been arrested. While Mike Brown’s death was not an anomaly – at least two African American males are killed by law enforcement every week in the U.S. – the energy that is building in Ferguson, the organizing that is deepening there, the connections between Black activists and racial justice advocates of all races across the country that are being forged, and the new level of attention that Ferguson is bringing to this disturbing trend across the nation is new. I believe that we are in the midst of a crisis in this country. I believe that the young people and their allies who are on the front lines in Ferguson are calling all of us to action.

I believe this “movement moment” as many are calling it is about much more than Ferguson. This moment is opening up new opportunities for us to face and undo racism in all of its forms in all corners of this country. Let us finally declare that #BlackLivesMatter, all lives matter, and make this our reality. Read More

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October 15, 2014

Big Data Alone Isn’t Enough to Spark City Innovation

This post was published by E Republic in the City Accelerator Blog.

Cities are complex places that can lack the infrastructure and processes to stitch together their constituencies. Today, cities are innovating, but many times that innovation is laser focused around data, big data and getting more data. This only gives us a glimpse of the reality regarding citizen experiences within a city. In short, big data by itself is insufficient for innovation.

In a guest commentary for the City Accelerator, Ceasar McDowell, President of the Interaction Institute for Social Change and Professor of the Practice of Community Development at MIT, argues we must bring together the public to gain a holistic picture of the problems in our cities and the solutions needed to build communities that are economically healthy.

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October 15, 2014

Innovation in Whose Interest?

This post was published by E Republic in the City Accelerator Blog.

Fiscal scarcity and competing policy demands bring with them a tendency toward favoring utilitarian solutions that do the most good for the greatest number of people. Discussions of urban innovation are sometimes limited by concerns that in an environment of scarce resources, communities cannot afford to focus narrowly on sub groups with unique needs.

In a guest commentary for the City Accelerator, Ceasar McDowell, President of the Interaction Institute for Social Change and Professor of the Practice of Community Development at MIT, argues just the opposite. Not only does the old adage that the measure of civilization is how it treats its weakest members still stand, McDowell contends that designing for people living on the margins can create powerful positive change that flows outward and up.

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October 8, 2014

Networks, Sensing and Surface Area

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In recent work with a couple of different leadership development programs, I shared a few stories about organizations that failed to recognize the value of informal networks within and beyond their formal boundaries by choosing to see themselves primarily through the lens of the “org chart” and fixed roles/job descriptions (what I sometimes call the “stay in your lane” approach).  In these cases what was lost was the ability to access greater organizational potential and intelligence.  If we think of organizations as living entities, then our connections within and beyond those cellular walls might be thought of as vital nerves or sensors.  When we fail to acknowledge or even cut these connections within, which often represent the pathways through which work actually gets done, we may stymie or destroy critical flows and functioning.  And when we fail to see and leverage how people in all roles are connected beyond the organization, then we reduce not only the potential contribution of each individual, but the overall surface area of the organization that might otherwise attune it and help it to respond to larger systemic opportunities or threats.  Which is why increasingly people are seeing mechanistic and fixed organizational roles as “irresponsible” – they do not allow people, individually and collectively, to effectively respond to circumstances and activate around that about which they care most.  So the invitation is to think and act more like a living network.  What are you doing to build greater sensitivity and surface area in your organization or change effort?

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October 2, 2014

How Networks Can Change Systems

At this point a couple of networks with which I am working have reached or are reaching the three year mark in their formalized existence. By many accounts, this is a milestone and inflection point worth noting, as these initiatives have built significant connectivity (depth and breadth) and alignment (shared sense of common identity and direction) among key and diverse actors. Furthermore, there has been a real proven capacity of these networks to meet individual self/ organizational interests in terms of learning, new partnerships, and a broader community/marketplace of support. And there is a growing appetite for and interest in how this all adds up to significant system change. Another way of framing this is people are wondering how they can activate the next level of the system to bring all of their interactions to a place where there is greater abundance, opportunity, and impact. Read More

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September 30, 2014

Poetry for Collective Impact

Image by Dominic Alves

I have a practice in most of the networks and collective impact efforts I support, which is to offer poetry at the opening and closing of convenings. I’m struck by how impactful and important people have said this can be for them. In fact, just recently a very well-respected member of the public health community was compelled to say that this is exactly what is missing from the movement, more poetry and artistic expression!

“Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.”

-Lucille Clifton

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