The following is a slightly modified post from a little over a year ago. In recent months, the notion of puttingcare at the center of “net work” – to ground it, make it real and people accountable – has surfaced a number of times and strengthened. The original post included the phrase “the empathic turn.” Since that time I’ve come to see “caring” as a more appropriate word, rather than “empathy,” as it evokes for me not simply feeling but action. This re-post is inspired by the activists and thought leaders who are about to gather in Oakland, CA for the “Othering and Belonging” Conference, hosted by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.
In an essay that I continue to revisit, the poet/essayist/novelist/farmer/ conservationist and champion of sanity, Wendell Berry, talks about what he calls “the turn towards affection.” Having spent many years reflecting on and pushing back against the unfortunate demonstrated human capacity to despoil landscapes and demonize “the other,” he takes a strong stand for both deep rooted connection and . . . imagination:
“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.”
In other words, by his assessment, imagination thrives on contact, on an intimate form of knowing that is not simply intellectual, but intimate and holistic. For Berry it is only this kind of knowing that can lead to truly “responsible” action.
Others, past and present, hold the truth and power of this kind of fuller bodied knowing to be self-evident, in environmental conservation and social justice efforts and in what it means to be a responsible human. Professor john a. powell writes in his book Racing to Justice:
“There is a need for an alternative vision, a beloved community where being connected to the other is seen as the foundation of a healthy self, not its destruction, and where the racial other is seen not as the infinite other, but rather as the other that is always and already a part of us.”
“Expertise” is one of those concepts that seems to get vetted every now and then, and in the current climate of complexity, collective impact and networked approaches to change, there is certainly good cause for this. Mark Twain once quipped that what made the expert an expert is being from someplace else. There may be some truth and value to this view when a set of “outside” eyes can lend new perspective to a situation. And certainly it has often been the case that deference is given to this manifestation at the expense of local and other sources of knowledge.
Expertise when left unexamined can create significant problems, especially in diverse multi-stakeholder settings. Typically, expertise has a very intellectual/academic ring to it. If someone says that it’s time to call in an “expert,” who comes to mind? There is time and place for a more formally studied brand of expertise. However, expertise can also be based in other forms of knowing, including lived experience, which can all too easily be marginalized and along with it the voices and engagement of many of those most negatively impacted by an issue/situation. Expertise in many contexts is racialized and gendered to equate, knowingly or not, with predominantly outspoken white male perspectives. See, for example, this piece from Soraya Chemaly on how women’s speech is often granted less authority and credibility than men’s.
So there is a cautionary tale in what Miranda Fricker calls “epistemic injustice.” That is, people can easily privilege something as “expertise” or someone as “expert,” which ends up having much less to do with actual content/value and much more to do with the (privileged) messenger. This can in turn lead to (continued) dismissal or marginalization of equally or more valid perspectives/knowledge, which produces/reinforces inequity and likely leads to erroneous conclusions.
“The power of authoritative knowledge is not that it is correct, but that it counts.”
This is a profound statement and calls out certain leaders, organizations and collective efforts in the way that they validate existing efforts and power structures. In volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) settings, this can spell collective disaster. Complex conditions seem to require balancing considerations of deep knowledge, what constitutes “legitimate” forms of knowing, and who has what kinds of “expertise” with what Holzmer and others refer to as diverse and collaborative “sensemaking.”
This might cause angst among those who just want to “get down to work,” keep some semblance of “control” and/or preserve their expert standing. The counter to this is to insist that there is real systemic diversity “in the room” to start with and to maintain ongoing lines of inquiry around whether people are simply reinforcing the status quo and systems they say they want to change or validating their own knowledge and egos at the expense of long-term success.
How are you seeing, understanding and working with “expertise” in your networks and collective change efforts?
A year ago at this time I had the opportunity to be part of faculty for the launch of the Presidio Institute’s Cross-Sector Leadership Program in San Francisco. My role in representing IISC was to lead conversation around core concepts and frameworks related to the design and facilitation of complex multi-stakeholder changeprocesses. On the last day of the launch I partnered with Jennifer Splansky Juster from the Collective Impact Forum to do a deeper dive around collaborative process design, with Jen offering more guidance around the specifics of taking a “collective impact” approach. During this session, I invited Fellows to step back and consider their cross-sector change work by reflecting on the framework above, the essence of which I have inherited from the thinking and work of Carol Sanford.
This framework starts with the notion that our chosen change methods are grounded in an underlying belief system about what we hold to be true about people, the world and how we know what we know. Not being aware of or open about this can get people into difficulty when it leads to mixing and matching techniques/methods that may contradict one another, or when people are not operating from the same system of beliefs. Here are some questions I offered the CSL Fellows in consideration of their cross-sector work: Read More
I have had many conversations recently about network form and transition, all of which have me thinking of what we often talk about in our practice at IISC: balancing acts. The core approach that informs our work in the world is Facilitative Leadership, which strives to create and inspire the conditions for collaborative and net workthat yields greater, more sustainable and equitable change. In co-creating these conditions, as process designers, facilitators, trainers and coaches, we invoke a variety of practices and frameworks, each of which has its own dynamic range of considerations. Read More
This week I was in a conversation with someone who asked me what the difference is between “networking” and “network building.” I’ve been asked this before, and certainly do not purport to have the right answer, but it became an opportunity to deepen the conversation that has been evolving in my work and head about what it means to develop potential through and in networks. Here is what popped to mind as a response, actually in the form of a series of questions
Are you thinking about others?
If you aren’t thinking about others, and are really leading exclusively with self-interest, then you are most likely networking. That is, you are reaching out to others and making connections to advance your own cause. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s a natural part of opening up opportunities for ourselves. And this may or may not equate with network building, which in the IISC lexicon entails thinking more actively about others, who they are, what they have to offer, and then not simply networking for ourselves, but doing network weaving, “closing triangles” (introducing people who should know each other), and thinking about how different patterns of connection might support others’ and bigger (collective) work.
Are you paying attention to others’ potential?
There is a difference between seeing people as they are and seeing them as they might/want to be. The second, in my own experience, requires more attention and awareness, more focused listening and inquiry, and certainly more imagination. And as Wendell Berry once said,
“Imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection.”
Seeing someone’s potential relies on caring, which entails learning more about someone’s story so as to appreciate how they have evolved over time, as well as asking explicitly about their hopes and dreams. To me, this is outside the realm of what we typically think of as networking, and also takes the work of network building, when viewed simply as making connections, to another level.
By way of an example, I often think of something that happened to me when I was about 13 years old. My father had a friend and colleague of his over to the house, who was someone I really admired. He had been a community organizer and educator and international peace advocate and university administrator who had been places I wanted to go and worked with people that I too wanted to link arms with. We had had a wonderful dinner, during which this man told fascinating stories, and afterward I found myself face to face and alone with him in our living room. I remember thinking, “What do I have to say to him?” Before I had a chance to pursue that line of inquiry much further, he asked me with a huge smile, “And what about you, Curtis? What do you make of this world we live in and what is it calling you to do?” I was completely caught off guard, and smiled a bit bashfully. He prodded warmly with other questions, clearly demonstrating his interest and curiosity. And I responded in turn by sharing thoughts that I hadn’t remembered sharing with others and in some cases was not even entirely aware that I had. Marvelous!
Are you making offerings to others in the spirit of furthering their potential?
Paying attention to someone’s potential, to their deeper (or higher) aspirations, can be taken another step by actually making offers in that direction, providing connections, resources, ideas, opportunities. This does not have to be a big or dramatic offer, but when made in connection to someone’s expressed yearnings, can be tremendously meaningful and impactful.
Again, an example. In the adolescent years following that conversation with my hero, he would send me occasional readings and later would introduce me to interesting people who aligned with my interests. To be held in mind and in a way that was drawing me forward was an incredible gift.
And so I think about the difference between someone doing what we might consider to be traditional “networking” within a given marketplace and then many people within an existing or evolving collaborative network making connections and offers in the spirit of advancing individual and collective potential. To me that’s quite a difference and something worth committing to practice.
It is why at IISC we view the work of network building as not purely tactical or transactional, but at its heart transformational. This is more likely to be so when we create spaces for people to see and appreciate others, consider what they have to offer one another, and to follow-through, to make their humble offerings, which can become expressions of love, and together a force for social transformation.
Two years ago, the Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Network Team, with support from IISC, committed to putting racial equity at the center of its work in trying to bring the six state region together around a vision of a more sustainable food system. Since formalizing that commitment with more than 150 delegates at last year’s annual Food Summit, and taking it to other food system-focused networks by invitation, the FSNE Network Team has faced the big question – Now what? How to deliver on this commitment and in a regional context? At the very least we continue to deepen our learning around and commitment to equity, modeling for and learning from and with others, growing and strengthening our understanding and action. A sub-committee of the Network Team, of which IISC is a part, has put together a racial equity plan consisting of various areas of activity, including education, communication, convening, network weaving/organizing and curating tools and resources for food system advocates at all levels (organizational, community, municipal, state).
One step that has just been launched is a bit of an experiment, and takes the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge from Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White) and Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. (founder of the White Privilege Conference), and turns it into a virtual community of practice. The ongoing challenge of the Network Team is to figure out a variety of means to keep knitting the network, and to keep communication and learning flowing. This is where the proliferation of social media tools and collaboration platforms has been extremely helpful. Read More
“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”
- Toni Morrison
I’ve been re-reading Niels Pfleaging’s short book Organize for Complexity and appreciating how it succinctly captures the current challenges for many groups and organizations trying to navigate complexity while clinging to old tools and beliefs. This can also be the nature of social change work amidst the significant shifts we are seeing. Here’s the trick – as things shift more, and more rapidly,people’s natural inclination may be to try to exert greater control or dig in to what is familiar but does not work. The more one does so, the worse things can get. As Pfleaging writes, we see a “high price for the illusion of control.” Within organizations this takes the form of various gaps – social, functional, and temporal – that make them increasingly irrelevant and ineffective. Responding to complexity requires (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Kim) new muscles and mindsets.
If I could summarize my own reading of Pflaegings’s book, I would put it this way – the world we are living into requires more integrated ways of seeing and doing, and this is hard to do (if not impossible) if people maintain highly differentiated ways of organizing themselves. There is really a baseline call for self-awareness and mindfulness so that one is able to respond not by default or fear, but with perspective and intention, which connects to the idea of “strengthening the network within” at the individual level. And it is important to reach out and connect this self-awareness to others . . .
“Problem-solving in a life-less system is about instruction. Problem-solving in a living system is about communication.”
Throughout his book, Pflaeging notes that in all formal organizations, there are informal structures, and that these are really the life blood of those organisms. They are what contributes maximally to value creation, that is to being more intelligently responsive to needs and opportunities “out there.” Yet formalized structures often stand, by intention or by accident, as impediments to these informal structures. When things are complex, it can be helpful to connect the social system to more of itself so that people are better able to make sense of what is happening. This can sometimes mean getting out of the way of informal structures and inherent self-organizing tendencies, or creating spaces for informal sharing and connecting.
“Self-organization in complex systems is natural. Having “a leader” is not.”
Whether we are in nascent or long-standing organized efforts, there are threats of being pulled to the overly formalized, bureaucratic and centralized side of things. Pflaeging echoes others (including Mila Baker, Carol Sanford, and Frederic Laloux) in some of his recommendations for keeping eyes on and supporting the less formalized and life-affirming prize. These can be of great support generally-speaking in encouraging network ways of working.
Encourage informal knowledge forums, guilds, communities of practice.
Decentralize, rather than delegate, decision-making (delegation still smacks of hierarchy).
This kind of work may be more difficult than what some typically lean towards. And there are those who might question its effectiveness and efficiency. But this is very much intelligent systemic work, organized as social and emergent processes.
One of my mantras around network building and social change is that creating greater (and new forms of) connectivity is not simply a “so that” or a “nice to have” but is really an “as” and critical to the work of systems and structural change. This is echoed is some way, shape or form in many of the posts that appear in this space, and I think it bears repeating. Consider the following:
“Whether we learn how to love ourselves and others will depend on the presence of a loving environment. Self-love cannot flourish in isolation.”
Isolation can kill. Science shows how loneliness and social isolation can ravage the body and brain. As noted in an article in The New Rebublic – “A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer.” And who are the lonely? In many cases the poor, the bullied and oppressed, the “different.” When we consider how isolation can impact genes, we see how the cycles of poverty and oppression can play out at a fundamental psychobiological level. What this calls for, in part, is work that reconnects those who are currently in isolation and on the margins from/of myriad social goods including emotional support, tangible services and other critical resources.
Disconnection breeds irresponsible behavior and prejudice. Science is helping us to understand the role of implicit bias in all of our lives and in society. Furthermore, the work of people like Paul Piff shows how those with considerable privilege who isolate from the rest of society (and keep to their own) tend to lose touch with empathy and any sense of egalitarianism. As my colleague Cynthia Parker notes, “Engaging with people unlike ourselves in situations that involve meaningful activity [and] counter-stereotypic experiences” helps to eliminate biases. In other words keeping and strengthening direct connection is a key part of the work for equity and democracy.
Today the role of the organization is in question. We make things happen through networks. Governance still matters, for both networks and organizations. Most of our models are obsolete; they don’t work so well. It is up to us to re-imagine governance because accountability is important.
I’ve seen Web of Change evolve over the years, and like to think I am part of its evolution. I am consistently impressed by the way this community is willing to transform and to govern itself.
Following is a link to the best board report I’ve ever seen. Can more of us get this good please?
“You have to remember, every boundary is a useful bit of fiction.”
- Buckminster Fuller
One of the more memorable stories about my late father, who passed away 3 years ago this month, happened not long after the Great Recession began in 2008. At the time, he was on the board of a national organization devoted to the study and promotion of human consciousness and the connection between science and spirituality. During a phone meeting of board members, people got to talking about the economic crisis, at which point one member made the following remark: “It’s at times like these that it’s especially important to remember that we are all one.”
“Bullshit!” was my dad’s response (not prone to such outbursts on that board or in general).
After a momentary and no doubt stunned silence, he elaborated – “Clearly we are not one. Some people, a very few people, are making out like bandits from this crisis. Meanwhile of the so-called 99%, some have been much harder hit than others, their wealth decimated. How can we say we are one at a time like this?”
To be fair to my father and full in the storytelling, my dad acknowledged that he believed that it is important to recognize interdependence and shared humanity, and that how and when to do this is an important consideration. Which brings me to the quote from Buckminster Fuller above, a personal favorite and one that I seem to keep sharing recently. Fuller, the eminent systems theorist and design scientist, understood the interconnected nature of reality, as well as the human need and tendency to draw boundaries. Theoretically these boundaries are drawn to be of use to something and/or someone – to name important distinctions, focus attention, aid with analysis, etc. In fact boundaries, or at least difference, might be said to be crucial to life, as dynamic exchange is required to keep living systems alive. Yes, boundaries can be very useful . . . except when they’re not. Read More
Much of the work we do at IISC includes some element of helping to build networks for social change. This entails working with diverse groups of individuals and/or organizations to come together and create a common vision and clear pathway to collective action and impact. I’ve been reflecting on how important it can be to not simply focus on creating or developing networks “out there” and across traditional boundaries, but also “in here,” within different recognized borders.
“When a living system is suffering from ill health, the remedy is found by connecting with more of itself.”
- Francisco Varela
The notion that part of the process of healing living systems entails connecting them to more of themselves is derived, in part, from the work of Francisco Varela, the Chilean biologist, philosopher and neuroscientist. As Varela and others have recognized, living systems are networks, including individual people, groups, organizations, and larger social systems. Furthermore, they have noted that when a living system is faltering, the solution will likely be discovered from within it if more and better connections are created. In other words, as Margaret Wheatley puts it, “A failing system [or network] needs to start talking to itself, especially to those it didn’t know were even part of itself.” I find it interesting in the context of social change work to consider how the process of re-connecting at and within different systemic levels can be beneficial to those levels and initiatives as wholes.