Networks seem to be all the rage these days, as more and more people come to understand that we live in a vastly inter-connected world. This is wonderful news, and it can be challenging in many ways, as we grapple with complexity to build new muscles and mindsets to deliver on the promise of so-called “network effects.” These effects have a breadth dimension to them (i.e. small world reach, rapid dissemination). They also have a depth dimension, which can sometimes be overlooked and/or minimized. Networks are not just about the quantity of connections and flows, but also quality.
The experiences of “net weavers” in various fields suggest that the extent to which people are able to connect deeply and authentically with one another increases trust, possibility, commitment and impact. They are learning that especially in a world that can feel like it is fracturing and unraveling, love matters!
What follows are excerpts of an interactive session I led at this year’s Network Leadership Training Academy held at the University of Colorado-Denver and co-hosted in partnership by The CU-Denver School of Public Affairs’ Center on Network Science and Visible Network Labs. Through sharing story, science and wisdom, we explored how love can bolster our “net work” for more just, healthy, and sustainable communities.
Excerpt 1. Love Through a Collaborative Change Lens
And we really see these facets as being dynamically connected. That is, it’s hard to have one without the others to be maximally impactful – we know that when collaborative “net work” is done without serious considerations of power and equity we can subsequently perpetuate or exacerbate injustice. Equity work done without net work can remain small and exclusive. And either of these without love … Well, Michael Edwards of Open Democracy may have said it best in a talk he gave a number of years ago called “Love and Networks” –
“Only by operating from the space where we are joined together in some deeper sense are we likely to find common ground in facing up to the collective problems that confront us, with some of our differences intact.”
Excerpt 2: Love in Action: The Barr Fellowship
I want to share a couple of network stories that I am intimately familiar with that have a lot to do with love as a force for social transformation. The first is from Boston and is about the Barr Fellowship. For a little bit of back story – Boston is home to a high concentration of non-profits with relatively few funding sources compared to that number and an historically competitive culture. Also, like many cities of its size, it is plagued by social disparities that play out along lines of race, ethnicity and class.
The idea for the Barr Fellowship grew, in part, out of a desire to cultivate deeper relationships (and presumably a greater sense of abundance) among experienced leaders, as well as to help them rejuvenate, reflect, and re-engage with their work in new ways. It was also intended to see if a more deeply connected network of committed leaders might bring more systemic impact across a variety of issues in the city.
The Fellowship began in 2005, in partnership with IISC process designers and facilitators, with an inaugural cohort of 12 Fellows from a variety of fields and neighborhoods, and representing a diversity of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds and perspectives. There were really few expectations put on Fellows, other than that they take a break, connect authentically with one another, and open themselves to different experiences and perspectives, and then … see what emerged.
“We add value to society-at-large when we dare to connect.”
The Fellows start their experience by taking a three-month sabbatical. They spend the first two weeks of their sabbatical traveling together outside of the country (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Haiti, for example). These trips immerse fellows as a group in an entirely disruptive learning context, which gives them space to think differently and also opportunity and impulse to turn to one another. Following the sabbatical, fellows gather on semi-annual overnight retreats for three years. These gatherings continue to deepen the peer network of learning, support, and accountability.
Gatherings are also held each year for the entire network (bridging cohorts) and these sometimes also include travel. The learning journey, sabbatical, and periodic retreats are designed to help fellows develop deep, authentic, trusting relationships (i.e., social capital). What have the results been? See for yourself in this short video, and ask yourself, “What’s love got to do with this” …
Excerpt 3: Netweaver Wisdom
The importance of cultivating a “love ethic” (in the words of bell hooks) was echoed repeatedly in a recent conversation convened by Bruce Evan Goldstein and Lynn Decker of the Netweaver Network, with a few network coordinators and facilitators focused on food justice, regenerative agriculture and community fire resilience. Without planning to do so, we fell into talking about the role of love in advancing and cohering networks. Practices to cultivate love showed up in the following ways in these and other networks:
Building trust with one another through informal conversation/breaking bread
Sharing our truths and stories with one another
Connecting more holistically through mind/heart/spirit
Cultivating a shared sense of purpose
Honoring difference and the complexity of our selves and one another
Developing collective courage to challenge entrenched power and internalized oppressive behaviors
Staying curious about what different people need and what they have to offer
Displaying an ongoing ethic of welcome, hosting and care to all
Cultivating creativity and vulnerability – singing and dancing, improv(ising)
Working/talking/meeting equitably outside of cultural comfort zones
Leaning into deep mutual learning, saying “I don’t know,” staying open to change
Celebrating/appreciating one another and one another’s successes
Which of these tacks are you taking to cultivate a “love ethic” in your network? What others have you taken or would you consider taking?
Excerpt 4: Bringing It Home
So [in closing] what’s love got to do with the work of weaving networks for social change? Increasingly, we at IISC and many of our partners are seeing and saying … everything! In many ways, we have created and can reinforce dominant systems and a society that constrain us, that make us into objects, cogs, consumers, abstractions and stereotypes. And this is devastating, certainly most for those who suffer under the heel of oppression and violence, but also for those with privilege. There’s a collective de-humanization going on.
Barbara Holmes, president emerita of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and author of Race and the Cosmos, reminds us that there is a vastness out there, that reality is so much more than we think and often experience it as being. We are each of us so much more than we think we are, than others may think we are. Yet we forget this, or have it denied by the flattening powers of oppression, commodification and homogenization.
The key to unlocking vastness, to re-membering and reclaiming who we are and choosing something else, Holmes says, is not simply through our heads, but through our hearts. This happens when we experience deep connection – to our full selves, to others’ authenticity, to Life and the universe. This kind of connection will often take us to vulnerable and uncomfortable places – to sadness, to regret, to tenderness, to the necessary work of atonement and forgiveness, to uncertainty … but also and ultimately to joy, to awe, to gratitude, to a grounding in something firmer. And this is really what feeds us in regenerative ways.
“Cooperative and pro-social behaviors and emotions cascade in human social networks.”
The same could be said, of course, of negative emotions and activity. Fear begets fear and shrinks who we are and possibility. Love begets love, and expands who we are and possibility, and it can seemingly work magic through the vast and often invisible or unacknowledged connections and flows of which we are a part. So heeding the wisdom of scientists and sages, let’s boldly go forth across boundaries and barriers and sow seeds for justice, liberation and flourishing.
“We learn to love by loving. We practice with each other, on ourselves, in all kinds of relationships. And right now we need to be in rigorous practice, because we can no longer afford to love people the way we’ve been loving them. This year, commit to developing an unflappable devotion to yourself as part of an abundant, loving whole. Make a commitment with five people to be more honest with each other, heal together, change together, and become a community of care that can grow to hold us all.”
Image by Graylight, used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
As I was just starting work at IISC, back in 2005, our founding Executive Director Marianne Hughes, introduced the staff to the work of John Paul Lederach, and specifically his book The Moral Imagination. As I recall, she did this as a result of a sabbatical during which she explored the power of networks and of art in social change. These two things show up centrally in Lederach’s work. Lederach has spent years doing peace and reconciliation work in some of the most intense and entrenched conflicts in the world. And he writes not really as a master technician, but as a poet, which is very much by intention.
I thought of The Moral Imagination a couple of months ago, when I began to realize how starved many people I meet seem to be for alternatives to what we currently have as mainstream systems in this country. Many are speaking up against and resisting what is not working, has long been unjust, and is fundamentally sustainable, which is crucial. And in the absence of clear alternatives (see “reimagine” and “recreate” in Spirit in Action’s image below), what can ensue is … conflict. Entrenched conflict, with no creative point of release.
I also thought of Lederach’s book, because he writes how central networks, human webs, and authentic human connection is to the work of peacebuilding and reconciliation. Up until recently I had thought about peacebuilding as a field as having more to do with what goes on in “other places” like Ireland, Sudan, Colombia, Tajikistan. If nothing else, these past couple of years have provided a need to adjust that understanding – peacebuilding is needed at home.
So I’ve been scouring Lederach’s writings, and there is a lot that resonates. Lederach was recently featured on a powerful program of On Being with actress and activist America Ferrera (no doubt another reason he has been on my mind). There is much to say about The Moral Imagination, but for now I am offering some passages and quotes that struck a chord and I’m curious to hear what reactions those reading have … Read More
What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.
When we are able to build
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible. …
simply because the space is there,
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.
– “Fire,” Judy Sorum Brown
Change does not tend to happen through piling on, through simply adding to what we are already doing or whatever heap we have in front of us.
Change happens, say scientists and sages, through some kind of release, through letting go. Not of everything, but of something. Something that will create enough space for creativity (something else!) to happen.
Changing the way we do work, behave, and treat one another and the planet doesn’t mean dumping new techniques on top of old ways of working. It means carving out creative niches that are given space for the breath of life to reach them. So they can grow. So that they can find their way.
Change does not tend to happen in isolation (the proof of re-treat is ultimately in re-engagement). It happens through connection, through webs (no one is an island). It happens through collective care and nurturing. Too much space – distance, disconnection – can kill the spark of change.
I have been working with a national environmental health and justice network for the past few years, and at a recent retreat, the core leadership team wrestled with a set of criteria for guiding the creation of equity-grounded, whole network-mobilizing and systems-shifting strategies. This is where we landed:
If successful, the strategy will move us towards our long-term systemic goal.
The strategy is fundamentally collaborative in nature.
The strategy is consistent with network’s values.
The strategy does not advance the network at the expense of other key constituencies, partners, or social justice movements.
The strategy is worth the expenditure of time, resources and opportunity costs of pursuing it.
IISC exists to bring the best of collaborative practice to the work of social justice and sustainability. In the early years, some of our detractors felt we were too apolitical, that our call to “get the whole system in the room” was naïve at best and dangerous at worst. Without a power analysis, collaboration across traditional lines of authority, role and identity was of limited interest to some of the organizers and activists we knew. Collaboration might be a good idea for the allies, they thought, but it was silly to think that bringing the power brokers or counterproductive actors in the system into the room with those most affected would lead to meaningful results. That was the early and mid 1990s.
In some ways, our critics were right and we knew it. By the late 1990s, we began to bring diversity and cultural competency explicitly into our framework. After all, collaboration is about working together, and working together across race, class, culture, and role are part and parcel of that kind of work. We stretched our core methodology. We expanded the boundaries of cultural competency to include understanding historic and present-day structural dynamics of oppression and taking action to address structural factors. By the early 2000s we were crystalizing an understanding of power, network theory, and love as critical dimensions of collaboration. Since the late 2000s, we’ve been building tools and methods to bring power, equity, and inclusion into the center of our practice. The next stage of this evolving practice has been an increasingly sharp focus on racial justice in particular, to the point where the pursuit of racial equity is part of our stated mission. And, I’m excited to see how many people see the value of bringing that enriched understanding of collaborative practice to their work for racial justice. At the same time, I’m struck by the continuing importance of protest and civil disobedience to the pursuit of justice.
In this particular moment brings a question into sharp relief in this particular moment. When is it necessary to completely disrupt life or business as usual in order to shine a light on injustices and pursue justice? Can that kind of disruption be done in a collaborative way? What’s the role for confrontation?
I am indebted to Linda Stout and her colleagues at Spirit in Action for their 4Rs approach to social change. They recognize that there are times for Resisting violations of shared values and human rights; Reforming existing systems; Reimagining alternative futures; and Reinventing communities, organizations, and societies from the ground up to reflect the kinds of values we hold dear. If ever there was a time to resist, it’s now. And those who are resisting courageously in ways large and small need spaces of refuge and restoration. It’s exhausting and dangerous work. Reimagining is often led by artists, and the movie Black Panther highlighted the power of reimagining alternative futures. I think that much of our work centers on reforming existing systems, supporting people who are working to transform their institutions from the inside out. And, in a few cases, there are genuine efforts to focus energy and attention on recreating ways of being and doing together that bring the imagined future into reality.
I’ve been sensing a growing desire for a lot more reimagining and recreating. What’s the mix in your work and your world?
Many articles have been devoted to running effective meetings that build collaboration among teams, yet many fail to discuss the hidden element that can destroy a meeting almost without fail.
Power dynamics – the ways in which power works in a setting – can either sink a meeting and negatively impact relationships for years, or produce more shared power and capacity to get things done. A lot of the difference comes down to how we attend to power dynamics in meetings, how well we plan our meetings, how well we determine what happens within and outside of meetings, and how well we facilitate in the moment.
In every organization, there are people who hold formal power and informal power. Formal power is attributed to someone by virtue of their title or position in the organization. People carry informal power if they have influence over others or their organization, either because of their experience, force of personality or persuasion, unearned privilege, or because they have strong relationships with decision-makers and peers. Power is also deeply influenced by diversity and equity dynamics. In most Western societies today, many decisions in organizations are still controlled by people with certain backgrounds: over 40, male, white/European, heterosexual, and middle class and wealthy people. Many feel empowered to lead, speak, and make decisions by virtue of the standing society gives to them on the basis of their background. They get a lot of practice leading and people are acculturated to following and respecting them.
Power — the capacity to get things done — is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. It’s all about how we construct, reconstruct, and practice power. Individuals can exercise their power in healthy ways if they stay focused on making space for others and growing power to achieve positive outcomes by building “power with” others. Individuals and groups can exercise their power in unhealthy ways if they are focused on establishing “power over” others or concentrating power in a few.
At IISC we have made some key observations about power in meetings:
Power dynamics are always present in meetings whether we see them or not.
Every meeting is a chance to build a group’s power and transform power dynamics. It’s important to design and facilitate meetings to create opportunities for power to be shared and openly discussed.
Meeting designers and facilitators must attend to formal and informal power and the dynamics that come along with it.
Meeting facilitators should be mindful of and acknowledge their own power and enact it in a way that builds the power of the group.
Every element of meetings needs preparation to make power and decision-making transparent. Consider questions like: Who is at the meeting and who is not? Why or why not? What’s on the agenda and what’s not on the table for discussion that should be? Who will be making the decisions that flow from what will be discussed (both in the room and beyond)? Who plays which roles and why? What work will happen outside of the meeting? What information from the meeting should be shared and with whom?
So, what are some ways to attend to power dynamics in meetings?
Assume power dynamics are always present in meetings. Design your meeting agenda to include multiple voices and perspectives. Lightly encourage people to step forward to lead and participate, especially if they have less power in the organization either because of role, positional status, race, gender, or other factors. Encourage people with traditional forms of formal power to do more listening than speaking.
Build a culture of collaboration in meetings. Think of meetings as an opportunity for a team to build relationships, learn leadership, design good processes, and counteract unhealthy uses of power. Design your meetings for relationships, joy, and creativity. Good things will follow! Always build an agenda that allows people to first interact on a human basis, such as starting with opportunities for people to do a “check-in” to share how their day or week is going or to learn more about each other on a personal level. Ask people a question that surfaces their personal and professional purpose. Encourage honesty, vulnerability, and calling people “in”, instead of calling people “out”. Spread a little business love around the room, creating openings for people to feel heard and noticed, and to experience a sense of belonging and interconnectedness.
Openly discuss power in meetings. Discuss openly with your team the question, what would be the benefits to our group if we shared power? Remind them that power is not a finite pie; rather, it can be infinite, expanded, and shared among people and leaders. Prompt them to explore how they can share “power with” each other instead of “power over.” Make a list of meeting agreements the group will use to share power. Ask people to monitor the agreements and be brave enough to intervene if people are not practicing them. Make a list of “power over” moves, so people learn the behaviors that reinforce dominant voices and power and exclude others. Have people take mental note of who is speaking the most and who is not. Make sure your discussions of power go beyond yourselves as colleagues to the people or communities you serve. How are they “at the table?” How are their priorities, assets, and skills driving the discussion?
Remember that power is a social construct. We can design spaces where individuals and groups experience their own and others’ power differently. Be proactive about ways to amplify the power of people who are typically at the margins of the conversation. Challenge the group to pay at least as much attention to the expertise that comes from lived experience (say, of poverty) as from formal theories and data. Flip questions on their head by asking “why not do things differently?” instead of “how can we work within given boundaries?” Ensure that people who are affected by the issues you’re working on are at the center of the conversation and have meaningful roles in the work over time (inside meetings and beyond).
Use your role intentionally and thoughtfully if you’re the meeting facilitator. Don’t dominate the discussion. Don’t come up with all the ideas. Stay as impartial as possible, even though you can never truly be completely neutral. If you want to contribute an idea or experience, tell the group you are switching from facilitator role to express your view as an individual and then step back into your facilitator role. Examine who gets to facilitate meetings and who doesn’t. Meeting facilitators can change the outcome of the meeting just by how they design and run it. Rotating facilitation and supporting people to learn how to facilitate and run meetings distributes power and makes meetings more dynamic.
The skills of meeting facilitation with a lens to share power are teachable and replicable. At IISC, we share some of those skills through training and consulting. We have learned that meetings that are both well facilitated and that attend to power dynamics can transform groups into highly functioning teams with deeper purpose and intention for social change.
Image by tarotastic, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
This is the third in a series of blog posts that appear in their entirety on the Education Week website. In the previous post we considered how structure has implications for the extent to which a network or networked activity is able to leverage different kinds of net effects and create value for diverse participants. We also considered how structure has implications for both equity and how power is distributed. Another important consideration in how to create equitable benefit is what leadership looks like and how it plays out in and around networked activity.
The concept of leadership seems to be undergoing a rapid evolution lately. Especially in this “network age” there appears to be both a growing appreciation that leadership has always been about more than the singular and highly visible heroic individual, and that going forward, leadership must be upheld as much more of a shared and multi-dimensional endeavor.
“Leadership for this era is not a role or a set of traits; it is a zone of inter-relational process. Step in, step out.”
In much of the collaborative consulting work that we do through the Interaction Institute for Social Change, leadership (or what we at IISC often call Facilitative Leadership) is about “holding the whole.” That is, there is a need for groups, teams, organizations and communities to think more expansively about the state of a given complex system (community, economy, food system, organization, school, school district) and pay attention to what is required to support resiliency and/or change for more equitable and sustained benefit.In these situations, the traditional top-down images of leadership fall short.
In education, for example, we have seen hopes often pinned on seemingly superhuman teachers and principals who are brought in to “rescue failing kids and schools.” The assumption underlying such moves is that these extraordinary individuals will of their own drive and volition beat the odds and dramatically reverse the downward trajectory. This story may be the making of a box office smash, but in reality is met with mixed results at best. This is not to say that individuals cannot provide crucial sparks at important moments in organizations and communities. But holding out for heroic singular leadership ignores the systemic reality of what got us to where we are in the first place, and denies the more complex and connected response that is actually required.
“Leadership is helping to make the network smarter.”
Indications are that network leadership is at its best a dynamic, diverse, and multi-dimensional phenomenon.Many of those with whom IISC partners in the work of social and systems change understand this implicitly, and we have found it important to help them externalize and be more explicit about this by naming some of the roles that leadership can embody in a collaborative/networked world. Read More
I mentioned in a previous post how much I love Twitter, for a variety of reasons, including how it helps me to see networks at work and can help create a variety of great network effects. Well I have reason to yet again appreciate it, as a recent blog post I put up inspired Claudio Nichele, who is located in Brussels, Belgium and works at the European Commission, to create the great sketch above of the network principles I wrote about (see below).
Just like that, an unexpected gift and enhanced visual value! I asked for Claudio’s permission to post, which he granted, and we both agree it is a wonderful example of what happens when you work out loud (see principle #9 below). Enjoy, and please feel free to rift on these images and the principles below, and if you do, let both of us know what you create. 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.
“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
“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.