Last week I participated in the Network Leadership Training Academy hosted by the University of Colorado at Denver’s Center on Network Science. It was wonderful to meet fellow network geeks and enthusiasts from around the country and Canada and to hear about diverse applications of network theory and practice, from public health to public transportation, from early childhood education to after-school programming, from housing to firefighting.
I was invited to share some of what we at the Interaction Institute for Social Change are learning as we work at the intersection of networks and equity, which included telling the evolving story of Food Solutions New England. There seemed to be resonance with and appetite for going deeper to unpack how networks can be forces for truly equitable liberation from dysfunctional and damaging systems.
And there were many other presenters over the course of the couple of days I was able to attend. Here are some of my take-aways.
In networks, less is often more with respect to personal connections. Given that people can only manage a certain number of social connections, a good question to ask is “How can we cultivate and maintain the fewest number of connections that are valuable?”
Closed networks do not lend themselves to novelty. For innovation (and presumably for both resilience and adaptability) it is important to pay attention to “structural holes” in networks.
Effective engagement rests on authentic listening, informal exchanges and meetings (lunch, coffee), identifying and honoring strengths and assets, thinking of people as people and not projects, constantly showing up and closing loops.
In order to activate a network you have to have established sufficient trust and reciprocity.
Effective networks for individual “leaders” are open (distributed), diverse and deep.
From conversation and reflection with participants:
Connection is a social determinant of health.
Increasingly healing needs to be viewed as a foundational goal of developing networks.
Effective networks for individuals are not necessarily effective networks for collectives and social change. We have to be clear about what our scale and intentions are. (ON this front, check out this wonderful post by Christine Capra – “Networking Does Not Equal Network WEAVING“)
Additional resources to consult:
The Partner Tool, a social network analysis tool designed to measure and monitor collaboration among people/organizations.
Person-Centered Network App, for use by a provider to first screen a person to assess their gaps and strengths in their personal support systems and then, based on the results, link them to available community resources.
In this series on network design and network thinking, I explored the power and promise of networks as residing in how connection and flow contribute to life, liveliness and learning. See, especially, Connection is Fundamental.
In Why Linking Matters, I looked at how certain networks can more optimally create what are known as “network effects,” including small world reach, rapid dissemination, resilience, and adaptation.
I also noted, in Structure Matters in particular, that living systems–including classrooms, schools, school districts, and communities–are rooted in patterns of connection and flow. That’s why shifts in connections–between people, groups, and institutions–as well as flows of various kinds of resources can equate with systemic change, and ideally they can lead to greater health (in other words, equity, prosperity, sustainability).
Networks can also deliver myriad benefits to individual participants, including: inspiration; mutual support; learning and skill development; greater access to information, funding, and other resources; greater systemic or contextual awareness; breaking out of isolation and being a part of something larger; amplification of one’s voice and efforts; and new partnerships and joint projects.
It’s also true, however, that not every network or network activity creates all of these effects and outcomes. The last two posts looked at two factors that contribute to whether networks are able to deliver robust value to individual participants and the whole, including network structure and what form leadership takes. Networks are by no means a panacea to social and environmental issues and can easily replicate and exacerbate social inequities and environmentally extractive practice. So values certainly have a place, as does paying close attention to dynamics of power and privilege.
It is also the case that individual and collective behavior on a day-to-day basis have a lot to say about what networks are able to create. The following is a list of 25 behaviors for you to consider as part of your network practice as an educator:
Weave connections and close triangles to create more intricacy in the network. Closing triangles means introducing people to one another, as opposed to networking for one’s own self, essentially a mesh or distributed structure rather than a hub-and-spoke structure.
Create connections across boundaries/dimensions of difference. Invite and promote diversity in the network, which can contribute to resilience and innovation.
Promote and pay attention to equity throughout the network. Equity here includes ensuring everyone has access to the resources and opportunities that can improve the quality of life and learning. Equity impact assessments are one helpful tool on this front.
Name and work with power dynamics and unearned privilege in the direction of equity.
Be aware of how implicit bias impacts your thinking and actions in the network. Become familiar with and practice de-biasing strategies.
Think, learn, and work out loud, in the company of others or through virtual means. This contributes to the abundance of resources and learning in the network.
Don’t hoard or be a bottleneck. Keep information and other resources flowing in the network.
Identify and articulate your own needs and share them with others. Making requests can bring a network to life as people generally like to be helpful!
Stay curious and ask questions; inquire of others to draw out common values, explicit and tacit knowledge, and other assets.
Make ongoing generous offers to others, including services, information, connections.
“… Keep reaching out, keep bringing in./This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,/for every gardener knows that after the digging, after/the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”
I’ve been observing the role of Mercury’s retrograde on my systems. Paying attention to my thoughts and feelings, the shifts and entrenchments. Lately I’ve been feeling a bit stuck. Or to use another metaphor, a bit ungrounded. It’s easy given the flow of information, the speed of communication, and the function of social media to feel pulled in many different directions. In addition, as a consultant, balancing the priorities of several clients at a time can often make it difficult to focus. When this happens I try to strengthen the consistency of my meditation practice and focus on my personal and professional goals to provide a guidepost for my actions.
I realized as I sat in meditation the past few mornings that my sense of purpose had been unattended to for a while. No wonder I felt scattered or ungrounded. Having a clear sense of purpose, an understanding of what I feel committed to and associated goals provides an important filter or straight line through all of the choices I face daily and helps to ground and retain focus. So I’ve been reflecting on purpose, leaning in to what is resonating for me in my conversations with colleagues and what is I am feeling called to in the movement. I’ve also been thinking about what threads together the work I am doing at IISC and my cultural work with Intelligent Mischief.
My commitment, or purpose, is to engage in transformation of myself and others towards liberation. This work aligns with what I do at IISC by supporting the self-empowerment of transformational leaders and by creating possibility for liberatory organizations that can really bring about the social transformation…that world, that speaks of, that “on a quiet day we can hear her breathing.” It also aligns with my work at Intelligent Mischief by cultivating a cultural shift that makes this transformation irresistible through the use of popular culture.
I reflected on what principles underscore this transformation for me…principles we can embody now at all levels to move us in the direction of liberation.
I see this transformation being underscored by a shift from isolation to interdependence, from exploitation to love, from extraction to regeneration & healing, from disconnection to community, from competition to collaboration, from exclusive ownership to the commons, from othering to belonging…and there are certainly many more.
These principles exist currently in practice but are overshadowed by the dominant culture especially at macro levels of society. Capitalism, our current dominant economic system, has been built on the principles that we are transitioning away from. The transformation of this system thus requires creating new systems based on the principles that we are transitioning towards. The question is, how do we expand these principles?
What can be our role at IISC in supporting leaders to develop practices that embody this transformation? In building structures that prefigure this transformation? And what is the transition in alignment with those principles that we ourselves must make as an organization?
“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
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out, and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
In the late spring, we had an unseasonably sticky stretch of days where I live, and after school one day, my wife and I took our girls to a local swim hole to cool down. As we eased into the cold water, one of our seven-year-old twins clutched desperately to my torso, not yet willing to put more than a toe or foot in. As the sun beat down, I began to feel both the weight of her body and the ebb of my patience, and I managed to negotiate her to a standing position in water that came to her waist. She continued to clutch my arm vice-like with both of her hands.
After another few minutes it was definitely time for me to go under water. But Maddie was unwilling to release me. I continued to encourage her to let go first, to get her head and shoulders wet. Initially totally reluctant, she got to a point where she was in just up to her neck but was still anxiously squeezing my hand. We did a bit of a dance for a few minutes where she would get to the end of my finger tips with her right hand, seemingly ready to take the plunge, and then the same part-anticipatory part-terrorized expression came to her face and she was back against me.
I kept coaxing her, and then let her know that whether she let go or not, I was going under, and if she was still holding on to me, that she would be doing the same. “Okay, okay!” she yelled, stamping her feet and once again got to the tips of my fingers while breathing rapidly. And this time … she let go. She pushed off and immersed her entire body in the water. She came up shrieking but with a big smile on her face, a bit shocked but also more at home in the water, moving around quite gracefully, actually. She splashed me and laughed and then I dived in. A few minutes later she was swimming along next to me.
Photo credit: Ginko biloba leaves by James Field (Jame). Ginko trees are considered endangered even though they are cultivated worldwide, because so few live in the wild. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unportedlicense.
I’ve often said that language is difficult, but it’s all (or at least most) of what we have to communicate complex ideas. I can remember when doing “diversity work” was seen as cutting edge, relevant, and powerful. It was an effort to change historic structures of exclusion, to change outcomes for people of color and women who suffered the brunt of racism and sexism. It was a chance to speak truth to power, and it seemed for a while that power was listening. Until it wasn’t. Or, more precisely, until the listeners started to hear “diversity” and think only about “heterogeneity.” With the stroke of a pen checking off boxes, the work was domesticated, watered down, simplified, and downsized into simply getting different faces in the place. And folks who were thinking bigger thoughts had to find new ways to talk and to get others to think and act on inclusion and equity.
I remember in the mid-2000s when I started saying “We don’t do diversity work, but if you want to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we might be the right people for you.” Now, I’m afraid, that equity might be running its course. I’m encouraged, on the one hand, by how many more people and organizations are asking questions about equity. And about how the equity conversation focuses on what we want, not what we don’t want. I’m all about the positive vision of life chances fulfilled without barriers based on any aspect of identity. And it’s also clear to me that some of those folks are using the language of equity precisely to avoid talking about racism, sexism, and other -isms that produce and sustain inequities. Somehow “equity” and even “inequities” are more comfortable rolling off the tongue than racism, classism, sexism, or homophobia. I wonder if “equity” as a concept is headed the way of “diversity.”
Still, if we are going to advocate for equity as the superior growth model for our country, as our friends from PolicyLink have so aptly argued, I wonder what language will help to keep our attention focused on dismantling the drivers of inequity in order to increase the odds that we’ll actually achieve something approaching equity. The science surrounding the origins, consequences, and remedies for unconscious bias or implicit association seem to be promising entry points for some people who are reluctant to enter a discussion doorway marked “racism” or “privilege.” And, research and practice around communications and messaging gives us other avenues to pursue. In these days of particularly fraught racial discourse, what are you finding useful in your practice? What are you finding gets in the way?
One recent night, my son stomped out of the house, hurt, telling me that I should stop defining who he is and what he can do. My daughter followed after him, asking that I think about what I had done to cause the blow out. I meditated, cooked dinner, and two hours later we were eating a great puttanesca together.
That evening – and other parenting moments – have led me to recognize that my best liberation and change work these days is mothering. While there is so much to write and share about parenting, here I will glean what I can from my children about ways to improve work.
Here are five things I do with or learned from my kids that might work for you as well.
Just do it. Be silly, open up new parts of the brain, laugh, release endorphins. Do it at home and do it at work. Brain science tells us that laughter and play opens us and what flows is much more effective than working from worry and constriction. It does not mean that there are not real-life worries and real dangers everywhere—poor health and racism, for starters—but it is an invitation to play along the way. I re-learned how to play from my kids. I invest time in being as goofy with them as possible and bringing some of that spirit of laughter and fun into my work. We work a lot, it should be fun and fun generates new possibilities. What is the work equivalent of running through the fountain or blowing bubbles? What do you do at work to create fun and be creative?
Honor who they are and not only what they do or how well they do it
In work settings and movement building efforts we of course need to keep our eye on results. In racial equity work, that focus is particularly important as we have seen how changes in laws do not necessarily lead to changes in heart, nor does understanding lead automatically to reducing disparities. And yet, we know from parenting that honoring who a person is and valuing them for that is so much more important for long term well-being and success than a good grade or accomplishment. How can we keep our eye on the big changes as we honor ourselves and our co-workers for who we are and the spirit and talents we bring and not just what we produce?
Walking down the street, it is often the adults walking with children—holding hands or skipping or watching the trains – who seem most present and look happiest. It is a reminder that of how critical presence is for all of us. At a recent convening, The Confluence sponsored by MAG, someone offered this gem: “less prep, more presence.” Let’s make sure that we bring impeccable presence to our workplaces. Whether at large gatherings, staff or member meetings, or one-on-one conversations, bring your full presence. How do you stay present, planting seeds that flourish in the moment and over the longer term?
Show love and caring
While this may be an “of course” in family, it needs to be just as much so in the workplace. At a network gathering last week, I went to the bathroom, tired, after facilitating a challenging session on health equity. I found someone there in tears, having just lost a family member. I was able to show her some tenderness. The next day she reminded me how important the care I offered was for her and, in fact, opened her to learning. These moments, large and small, present themselves daily. What is the workplace equivalent of the schnuggle? Can you find more moments to show love to your co-workers and partners? What might that elicit?
I don’t need to be in something with my kids to know how incredible it is for my kids.
While my daughter plans a social justice orientation program for students at her college, I can simply watch her and her peers create and experiment; I can stand aside and watch it blossom. I have to let my kids experiment in the world and experience their ups and downs. I don’t have to help or be in it to know it will be an incredible learning experience. This is a good reminder to allow people to try new things and to flourish and stumble with their work, and learn from it all along the way. How do you practice standing aside?
People in organizations – just like in our families – need this level of tending and love. We all need play, space, and autonomy to create great things. It is a truism that change starts at home. Perhaps it is less clear that home can improve our work. Let’s garner those lessons.
(I want to give a BIG shout out to Marsha Boyd for helping to inspire this post with her words and spirit. Thank you, Marsha, for your collegiality, mentoring, and leadership by example!)
For the past couple of weeks, I have been savoring a book by Nora Bateson entitled Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns. Bateson is a filmmaker, writer and activist, and also the daughter of Gregory Bateson, ground-breaking anthropologist, philosopher, systems thinker, cyberneticist and author of Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Small Arcs of Larger Circles is a mind-stretching and heart-opening amalgamation of essays, poetry, personal stories and excerpts of talks. Throughout Bateson offers a ranging exploration of systems theory and complexity thinking with an invitation to embrace a broader epistemological lens (what people think of as sources of legitimate knowledge) including embodied knowing and aesthetic experience.
In an essay entitled “The Fortune Teller,” Bateson explores the human tendency to stave off consciously or unconsciously anticipated disaster and decline by trying to keep things stable or as they have been. Think the most recent financial crisis. A recent article on the site Evonomics entitled “It Takes a Theory to Beat a Theory” reminds us of the story of former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, a champion of unfettered capitalism. Greenspan fought against initiatives to rein in derivatives markets even as there were signs of turbulence and calls to make substantial changes. On October 23, 2008, Greenspan admitted he was wrong, making the following statement to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform: “Those of us who have looked to the self- interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.” But what has significantly changed? Or consider a very recent article about local government efforts in Ventura County, California to site a new fossil fuel plant on a beach starting in 2020 that ignore protests from organized low-income residents concerned about air quality and lack of access to the beaches, and environmental organizations pointing out the real danger stemming from underestimations of sea level rise.
While in some ways understandable (few of us probably like the idea of collapse and chaos), actions taken to preserve a certain kind of order and direction (not to mention power and privilege) can be particularly perverse when they reinforce the very patterns that are leading us down the road to collective ruin. And what more people are beginning to sense is that many social, economic and political patterns that have been established and gotten us to where we are must change for the sake of long-term survival and thriving. Read More
I believe two reasons for this are that we live in a society with an unhealthy relationship to time, and with a low level of skill for collaborative group process. Autumn says these wise things about consensus:
The history of consensus is deeply rooted in feminist and Indigenous movement work
Building consensus is the work of collective liberation
People want consensus to be an antidote to power, but it is not! Consensus does not require equal status; it requires equal voice.
So back to brown’s question, where does consensus happen in nature? What might we learn from nature about consensus?
I along with some other colleagues was recently approached by a networks researcher and thought leader about any emerging lessons and what we perceive to be current gaps in the “networks for social change” field around knowledge and practice. We were also invited to share any blog posts that speak to these lessons and growing edges. Below is the gist of the response that I sent, and I am curious to hear any reactions, extensions, etc.
Below are links to three blog posts that I would say speak to the growing edges in my own thinking and what I am seeing as important considerations for the field going forward. To summarize, these all have to do with how to get at deeper systemic change purpose and potential (which is not always the presenting purpose or initially perceived potential when networks form), and related to that, surfacing andworking with issues of power, privilege and identity.