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.”
A couple of months ago we had a meeting of the Food Solutions New England Network’s Process Team, and we spent part of our time checking in around our perceptions of where the network is heading in its next stage of development. For the past 8 years, FSNE has moved through a series of stages that have roughly correspond with the following:
Building a foundation of trust and connectivity across the six states in the region as well as across sectors, communities and identities.
Facilitating systemic analysis of the regional food system, which resulted in the identification of four leverage areas where the network sees itself as poised to contribute most: (1) engaging and mobilizing people for action, (2) connecting and cultivating leaders who work across sectors to advance the Vision and values, (3) linking diverse knowledge and evolving a new food narrative, and (4) making the business case for an emerging food system that encompasses racial equity and food justice, healthy food for all, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.
Developing and beginning to implement a set of systemic strategies to encourage the continued emergence of this values-aligned regional food system, including a narrative and messaging guide; food, farm, and fisheries policy platform; set of holistic metrics to gauge the state of the regional food system; and people’s guide to the New England food system.
Cultivating a “brushfire approach” where, through greater density and diversity of connection, information and calls to action are spread in more timely ways
Making the periphery more of the norm, by moving from just bringing people into the network to making sure we support their aligned efforts “out there”
Moving from “seeding thoughts and cultivating commitments and leaders” to “managing the whole garden,” including supporting a growing team of people who are committed to creating conditions in the region for the Vision and core values to be realized
Creating “bake boxes” that can readily be used and adapted by people and organizations in the region (examples include the regional Vision, the core values, the recently endorsed HEAL policy platform, a soon to be launched narrative/messaging guide, racial equity design toolkit and discussion guide, etc.)
Calling B.S. on those who are “Vision and values washing” (saying they are aligned but acting in contrary ways) or are off point – see for example these recent letters in response to a Boston Globe editorial.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are [people] who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.”
The FSNE Challenge is a remixed and more topically focused form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore (founder of the Privilege Institute), Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White), and Dr. Marguerite W. Penick-Parks (Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh). A small design team saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread conversation about the connection between race, racism and sustainable food systems and ultimately greater action for racial and food justice.
Furthermore, we saw an enhanced on-line version of the Challenge as a way of creating “network effects” around the justice work that many are already doing in our region and beyond. Participation in and the complexity of the Challenge have grown significantly and organically over time. In 2015 we had 200 participants, mainly from the six state region of “New England.” Last year we had over 3,000 people participate from most states in the US and some places in Canada. As of the writing of this post, we already have over 2,000 people registered.
The point of Challenge is not simply to spread but also deepen the commitment to racial equity and food justice. As such, we hope that participants return each year, and many do. Accounting for this, no two Challenges are exactly alike in terms of content, and we are continuously nudging people to go from learning to action. See the image below as one way that we have thought about encouraging people to move up a “ladder of engagement” through their involvement.
Over time, numerous organizations have self-organized to take the Challenge in-house, convening staff colleagues, fellow congregants, community members and classmates to reflect together on learning and making commitments to action. We have heard from groups such as Health Care Without Harm; the Wallace Center at Winrock International; Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems; Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; Southside Community Land Trust (Providence, RI); Agricultural Sustainability Institute at University of California-Davis, Georgia Organics and many others who have convened around the Challenge and are planning to do it for the first time or again.
This year the Challenge is being widely promoted in a variety of places, including through sessions that Karen Spiller and I offered at the White Privilege Conference in Rapids City, Iowa, and at the New Hampshire Food Alliance state-wide gathering. In addition, the Challenge is being promoted campus-wide to students, faculty and staff at the University of New Hampshire, where FSNE’s convening team, the UNH Sustainability Institute, is located.
So what exactly is the Challenge?
It is a self-guided learning journey examining the history and impacts of racism, different kinds of racism, how it is connected to our food systems, examples and tools on how to undo racism and build racial equity and food justice.
How does the Challenge work?
People sign up (YOU can register here) and then starting April 1st, they receive daily email prompts focused on a different theme along with links to related resources (readings, video, audio) that take about 10-15 minutes each day. In addition, there is a robust Resource List for people to look through and continue their learning. Those who register also have access to an online discussion forum for those who want to talk and think out loud about the daily prompts and other learning along the way.
How is the Challenge evolving?
To meet the demands of a growing number of participants and the expressed desire for many to go deeper and to replicate the Challenge in different ways, we have developed a variety of additional supports. This year we again offered an orienting webinar that featured Drs. Moore, Jr. and Penick-Parks along with testimonials to the value of the Challenge, including perspective from Sister Anna Muhammad who works for NOFA/Mass and is on the FSNE Network Team and the FSNE Racial Equity Challenge Committee.
In addition, this year we have produced a Discussion Guide to support groups at schools, colleges, businesses, churches or other organizations that may want to do the Challenge together. The Guide along with the Resource List essentially form a ready-to-use “bake box” that groups could use to run their own exercise if they would like, or to keep the Challenge going 365 days a year!
Another feature this year is a robust Outreach Kit that has been pulled together by FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes. The Kit includes sample communications that can be used to recruit others to participate in the Challenge through email, social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), as well as a one page information flyer.
All of this is in line with how FSNE sees itself evolving as a network into its next 8 years, creating resources that might be shared easily through aligned, diverse and robust connections and adapted by others in the region and beyond (stay tuned for a New Food Narrative Messaging Guide).
Please join us, and spread the word, the invitation, the conversation and the commitment to others!
Photo by tracydekalb, “Redbud Love,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
The following post was originally published in 2014, and has been edited. In many ways it feels even more relevant five years later …
Over the past dozen years or so at IISC (our half-life as an organization, and my whole life as a member of this amazing community), we have seen and experienced some interesting progressions. In our Facilitative Leadership for Social Change trainings and consulting work, we talk about the “interior condition” of effective collaborative and network leadership. When I first joined the organization, we used to say that collaborative leaders and change agents embraced an ethic of “service, authenticity and respect.” Then we made the move of changing “respect,” which came across to some as a bit weak, to LOVE. For the first couple of years after making this switch, when we asked “What’s love got to do with it?” with respect to effective leadership and work for social change, there were definitely some uncomfortable silences. Some participants would ultimately want to rename love as “respect” or “passion.”
Then in 2009 we started noticing a change. More heads nodded in rooms when we mentioned the “L-word,” less nervous laughter and shifting in seats. In one particularly striking instance, during a training with health care and public health professionals, a senior and very respected physician responded,
“What’s love got to do with it? Everything! Beyond my technical skills, I am effective in so far as I am able to really see my patients, students, and colleagues, to make them feel seen for who they are.”
Image by garlandcannon, used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
In a couple of articles that have been re-cycling in different social circles, the reminder is offered that tipping points for social change do not need anywhere close to a majority of actors.
A few years ago, scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute explored what it takes for an idea to spread from few to many, for a minority opinion to become the majority belief. According to their study, the RPI researchers said that the answer is 10%. When one in ten people adopt a stance, eventually it will become the dominant opinion of the entire group, they say. What is required is commitment.
More recently, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of London conducted an experiment that suggests that for activists to achieve a tipping point around change, 25% of a given population is required. They published their study in the journal Science.
Of course there are complicating factors, including the fact that there are often competing factions each vying for their own 10-25% and with social media and disinformation campaigns, confusion can rein and commitment may require an additional degree of diligence. Nonetheless, we might take more heart in the power of the few.
And this is clearly not just about numbers and counting.
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.
“Scarcity alters how we look at things; it makes us choose differently; … our single-mindedness leads us to neglect things we actually value.”
-Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives
Image by geckzilla, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
A few weeks ago, the inimitable Seth Godin wrote a blog post about “the magnetic generosity of the network effect.” In the post, he talks about how a “scarcity mindset” can impact our willingness to share ideas. This can happen, says Seth, when we treat ideas as if we were sharing a pizza. But ideas are not pizza slices. Ideas can grow, inspire, flourish. Ideas when offered freely can give birth to innovation; in dialogue they can create even better ideas. The exchange of ideas can grow energy and enthusiasm among sharers and recipients. This is central to the notion of “network effect” – as a network grows, so does the potential of the network. It’s potential grows. Having connections is only as good as what gets shared through those connections, and in which directions. In other words, networks are made valuable not just through connectivity, but through generosity and mutuality.
I work with some groups, aspiring to be networks for change, that struggle with what I would call an “organizational mindset” in their work. Their tendency is to want to immediately put structure and boundaries on what they are doing – who is in, who is out; how we will make decisions; what committees need to be formed, who has what kind of power, etc. This is not necessarily a bad thing, except when it is driven by a scarcity mindset, an overly protectionist stance that can result in the hoarding and unwillingness to share things that are not scarce – ideas, appreciation, a skill, gratitude, love, an image, a tune – and whose sharing can create the richness of emergence and greater abundance. Read More
“Community exists when people who are interdependent struggle with the traditions that bind them and the interests that separate them so they can realize a future that is an equitable improvement on the past.”
-Carl Moore (quoted by Dr. Ceasar McDowell)
A couple of weeks ago I attended a gathering of network thinkers and doers pulled together by Steve Waddell and Diane J. Johnson, on behalf of the Emerging Network Governance Initiative. Our time together was designed for us to (1) get to know one another better and our respective work (because that’s what network weavers do) and (2) explore possibilities for collaboration to bring different network processes and forms of governance to bear at various scales in the face of the struggle/failure of traditional government to hold and do justice to demographic complexity and address a variety of social and environmental issues.
We spent some time early on unpacking the words “emergent,” “network” and “governance.” While we did not come to final agreement on set definitions, here is some of what I took from those conversations.
Emergent and emergence refer to the dynamic in networks and in life in general through which novelty arises in seemingly unexpected ways.
What is emergent is not planned per se, but rather surfaces through complex interactions between parts of or participants in systems.
The following post originally appeared on the IISC site four years ago. It has been slightly revised and is offered here to help those focused on leveraging “network efforts” with their change efforts to consider how they might shift and align their thinking and actions.
This post builds on another focused on the power of asking “beautiful questions” and inspired by a staff challenge to articulate lines of inquiry stemming from IISC’s collaborative change lens, It distills some of the underlying questions that adopting a “network lens” inspires for social change work. Please add, adjust, edit, and rift!
How does your organization/network/change initiative strive to add value to (rather than duplicate) existing efforts? What do you do best, and how might you then connect to the rest?
What are you doing to support and strengthen connections and alignment within and beyond your organization/network/change initiative?
What current patterns of connection characterize your organization/network/change effort? How do these further or inhibit the change that you are trying to be and to bring about?
What current resource flows characterize your organization/network/change effort? How do these further or inhibit the change that you are trying to be and to bring about?
What current definitions of value (determinations of what and who matters) characterize your organization/network/change effort? How do these align with the change that you are trying to bring about?
Who sits at the core of (decision-making, communication, coordination) in your network/ change initiative? Who is more peripheral? How does this arrangement help to bring about (or not) the kind of change you hope to see?
What would happen if you drew in or out to those currently onthe periphery? How might this happen?
How do you currently engage with one another in your organization/network/change initiative? What constitutes “legitimate” modes of knowing, sharing, and interacting? What does this make possible? What does prevent?
How might you engage with one another in your organization/network/change initiative to facilitate thebest of what everyone has to offer?
How are you balancing collaboration and cooperation in your organization/network/ change initiative? When is it most strategic for all or most participants to coordinate (collaborate) around a given action? When and around what is it best to keep things diffuse and self-directed (sometimes defined as cooperation)?
How have you created opportunities for mutual and continuous exchange in your organization/network/change initiative?
What is the role ofempathy in your organization/network/change initiative? What are you doing to nurture deeper understanding, connection, and trust?
What is the role ofgratitude and generosity in your work? What are you doing to nurture and encourage greater appreciation and abundance?
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.
This post originally appeared on the Health and Environmental Funders Network website. It was co-authored by Fred Brown, The Forbes Funds, President & CEO; Debra Erenberg, Cancer Free Economy Network, Strategic Director; and Ruth Rominger, Garfield Foundation, Director, Collaborative Networks Program. IISC was centrally involved with the launch of the Cancer Free Economy Network, serving as lead process designer, facilitator and network coach from 2014-2017. IISC is currently supporting the development of CFEN’s network strategy.
We can do this! Within the philanthropy sector, there are so many solutions emerging around the world from people coming together to tackle the social, economic and environmental problems challenging humanity right now. We are in a time when connecting solutions together to align and reinforce each others’ progress is the most critical strategy across issue silos.
The Cancer Free Economy Network (CFEN) is one such example, where people with solutions — good ideas, strategies, initiatives, expertise, models, products and passion — are collaborating to build an economy that supports health and well being for all. These types of social change networks are held together with universal core values. In CFEN, the values are framed as simply as:
The water we drink, the air we breathe, and the products we use every day shouldn’t make us sick, cause cancer or any other disease.
The network is an open and flexible way to connect to an extended community of people who are building power together to phase outall toxic chemicals manufactured and put into industrial and consumer products that are making us sick and damaging our environment. Collectively, we know of many solutions that are readily available for moving the economy in that direction.
Like many social change networks that take a holistic, collaborative approach, people come together to connect and multiply actions aimed at shifting mindsets, structures and behaviors in many different aspects of the complex problem.
In the case of CFEN, this means there are teams from many organizations coordinating a variety of actions around toxics that together will:
Change the Story to show how we can prevent many cancers by addressing the toxic chemicals that are currently accepted as part of our environment.
Advance the science supporting health and preventing illness.
Shift the marketfrom toxic chemicals to a market producing safe, healthy, and affordable materials.
Build the power to implement system changes across diverse constituencies.