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.
“As long as it remains invisible, it is guaranteed to remain insoluble.”
Margaret Heffernan, from Willful Blindness
Photo by Marie Aschehoug-Clauteaux
As I look back on 2014 through the lens of the work we have done at IISC supporting networks and movements for social justice and system change, one of the most significant themes that I’ve distilled is the value of “making the invisible visible.” This month I’ve facilitated a number of reflection sessions with diverse groups to gauge the development and impact they have felt and observed from our work over the course of the year. I tend to ask people how they see change happening at different levels: self, group, larger systems (organization, neighborhood, community, state, region, etc.). I also like to ask them to reflect via the use of stories, which I find often help to capture and convey developmental processes.
What has come from this sharing is that even though some of the big goals around equity and sustainability remain elusive, there has been movement and a significant part of this development comes down to seeing what had previously been unseen. While the methods for getting to this recognition have varied – from system mapping and analysis to network mapping to structural and power analysis to learning journeys to dialogue and tackling difficult conversations- by creating ample space to see, share and suppose, there has been significant deepening of relationships (to self, other, the work), change processes, and potential impact.
Last week’s New England Food Summit was a unique opportunity to bring a conversation that had begun in the northern more production-oriented parts of the region to a place where access, equity and urban ag are leading edges of the conversation. Food Solutions New England (FSNE) is leading a charge that challenges the imagination of people in six states to see and work together for a day in 2060 when we are able to produce (farm and fish) at least 50% of what is consumed here. This challenge takes on unique dimensions in different parts and communities of the region. In Rhode Island, where this year’s Summit was held, this means working with the highest unemployment rate in the country, an ever more diverse population and the reality of very limited space in which to place new food operations.
But as Ken Payne, member of the Rhode Island delegation and chair of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, reminded Summit attendees, a central call is to creatively go about the work of “repurposing space” – physical, moral and economic.
The structural vs. transformational debate is alive and well. I’m glad that Curtis and Cynthia have been dipping back into it over the last few weeks. It is good to start at the end: the answer is a both/and, it’s not a good idea to get stuck in binaries.
The print pictured above captures it for me. It is Nelson Mandela’s drawing of the view from his cell at Robben Island, where he was imprisoned for 30 years.
Take that in for a second.
Thirty years in jail for daring to stand up for freedom.
The print’s beauty is undeniable.
How is this perspective possible?
There was something in Mandela’s mind, something in his soul, that could not be subjugated. Oppression doesn’t get more structural than four walls and a padlock. But they could not take away his freedom. This is the freedom that breaks chains. It is the freedom that inspires the world and liberates a whole people.
Nelson Mandela is the icon that destroys the binary. Structural and transformational integrate in his lifetime.
I agree with Curtis and Glanzberg that “The pattern most in need of shifting is not out there in the world, but in our minds.” And I agree with Cynthia that our mind changes when we become aware that others share in our condition and that our condition is the product of a very specific structure.
But there is something else happening here.
We have an interior condition. This interior condition is significantly affected by our thinking, but it is more than our thinking. This interior condition is significantly affected by our objective conditions, but it is more than our objective conditions. This interior condition is profoundly individual, but it is greater than the individual – our interior is “inter-subjective.” We have a collective interior.
Bringing our care and attention to what is inside. Nurturing, cultivating, developing, evolving what is inside. Connecting to one another there. Actively engaging a mutual awakening – that is the key to changing our thinking and to transforming our structures. It is the next step to liberation.
This post continues a conversation that Curtis Ogden started last week. (Process is Where Change Happens) It’s a conversation we’ve been having for years at IISC. On one hand, we recognize the importance of understand how thinking shapes the systems we produce and reproduce. And it’s important to understand that inequities and oppression are not just a matter of thinking that can be changed simply by changing our minds. I’ve often been impatient with the “change your thinking, change the world” discourse because I’ve seen it used as an excuse for avoiding discussing the systems dynamics and the resulting inequities they produce. Still, I think there are a few ways in which focusing on the change “in here” can provide power for changing conditions “out there.”
Last week Darren Walker opened the Resilient Cities lunch reminding us that not only do we need to work to make cities resilient and sustainable, we must also work to make them just. As I listened to Xav Briggs, Joan Clos, Toni Griffin and others speak, I thought about my work at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and what working to make just cities means for planning and planners. How does one attend to the myriad issues facing cities: poverty, crumbling infrastructure, environmental sustainability and economic collapse? Read More
Four compelling questions came to me via the monthly newsletter of Conditioning Leaders, led by our colleague Madeline McNeely. She’s reflecting on 20 years of work and asking herself some great questions that we should all be asking ourselves as our year gets into full swing:
Bill Gates’ 2014 annual letter debunks three myths about poverty and foreign aid. It reminds me about the power of narrative to drive decision making and action, even when the narrative is not backed up by facts. Here are the debunked myths in short form. Read the full letter for the longer version.
Can three questions really change the world? Well, maybe. Let’s think about it for a minute. One thing we know about schools is that nothing stays the same for long. Each year brings the latest “best practice.” Each week brings a new procedure and its paperwork. Each day, our students pose new challenges. Each hour, the media bombards us with news about the latest crisis. What might possibly help us keep our balance as the world shifts beneath us?
The following post has been reblogged from our friend August Turak. Check out more of August’s amazing work!
The industrial age led to the compartmentalization of life. We turned everything into a silo. We even siloed ourselves. Here I am spiritual, here I am fun, here I work… We have been looking at personal development through that limited lens. But August Turak points us in a different direction. He invites us to make “personal development” the central purpose of our lives. When we make our own evolution a central purpose in our lives we become active contributors to the evolution of consciousness and culture as well as the material changes we want to see in the world. I hope you enjoy this post from August Turak as much as we did.