For a number of years now I have been digging into network approaches to social change, including supporting collaborative network formation and development at national, regional, state and local levels around a number of issues, from food insecurity to health inequity to environmental conservation to economic decline and stagnation. While there have been promising advances made in many spaces and places to build trust and connection across various lines of difference (geographic, sectoral, cultural, ethnic, racial) and also to achieve alignment around shared goals and shared identity, significant change has been slow to come and while I know it is important to be realistic about time, I keep feeling that there is a missing link between the work of network development and what is often held up as the goal of “system change.”
I will admit that increasingly I find the stated goal of “system change” a bit hollow and too big, too abstract. Change from what to what? For the sake of what and whom? Increasingly I am more interested in looking at the work of system change as being about working with living systems (neighborhoods, communities, organizations, economies, democracies, etc.) to be equitable, salutogenic (health-promoting) and regenerative (self-renewing). Arguably many of the systems that change agents are focused on are in a state of crisis and/or impending collapse, putting significant portions of the human population, if not the entire species, at risk. And, of course, the extent to which many of these systems have been “functional,” it has often been at the expense of certain people and the planet (parts or the entirety thereof).
As I hear more talk about the need to come together, connect and collaborate across boundaries (build networks), I keep wanting the conversation to get to another step. Instead of saying that we are here to build networks to work on systems, I want more people to realize that the networks that we are trying to create and that already exist are part and parcel of those systems. That is, neighborhoods, communities, economies, political and health systems, are also networks, or networks of networks – patterns of connection and of flow. They are characterized not just by elements (including people) that are in relationship (that we might see in a typical network map) but also by the resources that move through those channels of relationship (money, information, nutrients, etc.). This realization takes us into the realm of what are called the “energy network sciences” and the idea that evolving patterns and the quality of connection and flow changes and/or creates new systemic possibilities.
“New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”
She begins by reframing our view of evolution from one that is mechanical and accidental to one that is dynamic and quite intelligent. As she writes – “The new logic of life comes most clearly from the new story of growth, development and evolution emerging from an energy-driven process called self-organization.”Self-organization, a phenomenon that is recognized and valued by many network weavers, occurs through the ongoing process of life meeting life and creating new patterns of vitality. Sally writes –
“Instead of improbable accidents in a universe running downhill, we are probable products of energy-flow and binding forces … that connect us in an all-embracing ever-evolving web moving inexorably toward increasing intelligence, complexity, integration and balance.”
In order for this process of complex evolution to occur, there is a need to keep energy flowing and cycling and recycling through an “ever-growing meshwork of connective tissue” so that new patterns of organization can form that are resilient in an ever-changing environment. This flowing energy can exist in the form of information, learning, money, and other crucial resources. When this flow is stunted or fails to happen, certain parts of the system in question can be put at risk, and over time, especially if energy makes it to only a small part of the overall system (through disconnection, blockage, hoarding, extraction) the whole system faces the prospect of collapse. What this means is that the system loses its capacity to regenerate.
“Regenerative systems maintain their existence by constantly channeling critical flows back into nourishing their internal processes and organization and other forms of revitalization.”
Sally spends the bulk of her paper showing how non-regenerative patterns apply to the logic and playing out in the US and globally of economic neoliberalism and oligarchic capitalism. “Neoliberal economies under-invest in human capacities, encourage extractive and speculative practices, promote concentration over circulation; and extol corporate gigantism instead of proper balance.” This is all exacerbated by the accompanying dynamic of the concentration of significant influential decision-making power in fewer and fewer hands (elites) that are self-serving. And this makes the entire system (economy, political system, organization, community) unstable because it violates the rules of “regenerative vitality” – it is less “intelligent” in its ability to respond through diverse sensors and actors to environmental signals.
The counter to where we are and are heading is to be found, in part, through bringing an energy or flow networks perspective which encourages us to keep evolving “constructive, synergistic human networks, linked by mutual benefits, energized by common-cause, and fueled by the robust circulation” of energy/resources. This means embracing a different set if values than those offered by neoliberalism, for example – uplifting a full accounting of human and planetary “externalities” (oppression, theft, pollution, ecological degradation); the care, inclusion and feeding of entire and diverse networks of interconnected individuals, organizations, businesses, communities, cities, governments and the biosphere; and a commitment to robust social learning across all kinds of difference.
This is where I want to take the conversation with more and more social change agents and network weavers going forward. Let’s not focus simply on the structural form of our networks and net work. Let’s focus on what is moving and what facilitates flow through those connections; from where and from whom, to where and to whom; as well as what and who flow supports in terms of resilience, thriving, as well as adaptive and regenerative capacity.
“By coming to the edges; by staying longer in the place that is supposedly without utility, empty, null and void; by dwelling with the bewildering awkwardness and staying with the trouble; other places of power become visible.”- Bayo Akomolafe
At a recent community of practice gathering of IISC consultants – a space in which we reveal our learnings and challenges – we explored the radical importance of creating spaciousness in our personal lives, as well as in our training and facilitation rooms. I believe spaciousness is the slow food of facilitation.
Slow food is used in progressive circles to describe living an unhurried life and taking time to enjoy meals and simple pleasures. It’s the complete opposite to fast food culture which, much like American work culture, is based on white and capitalist dominant norms of urgency, desperation, quantity over quality, and progress as always bigger and more.
We have forgotten to slow down. To say “no” lovingly. To just stop and pause lightly even for a few moments or minutes. IISC affiliate and former long-time Senior Associate Andrea Nagel shared at our community of practice session, “We can’t just talk our way into being. We need to be ‘in being.” Miriam Messinger, IISC’s director of practice, agreed and pointed out that “We have a fear of ‘being’ and we are rewarded for ‘doing’ in our culture.”
In our work with a client organization’s Race Equity Design Team, a member shared in a recent gathering, “We do have people who say no, but they have little power – we dismiss them. There is an unspoken sensation that we realize that ‘no’ is really not an acceptable word.” The team challenged themselves to slow down and get to the heart of things.
As facilitators and trainers, we can uproot white supremacy and capitalist culture just by adding spaciousness and slowness to our approach and design of meetings and gatherings. We can start with meditation and art, and we can focus on flow. Reduce the number of topics on an agenda. Pause to give people chances to breathe or take in moments of silence. Encourage people to empty their thoughts onto a page. Bring them into nature to walk and stretch. We can be firm on allowing at least one hour for people to eat lunch at day-long meetings so they can eat with intention and connect to people, and give no fewer than 15 minutes for a quality break. We can talk slower, walk around the room slower, and let space and time ebb and flow to allow people’s emergent thoughts to come into conversations. These thoughts are often the most strategic, brave, and authentic, and often the ones that allow new ideas to come into being and new cultural norms of collaboration to take hold.
There are times for high energy in a training or facilitation, but we can still offer spaciousness — more time for conversation and more time for self and group care. The rush of life and dominant culture will take us and our conversation over unless we intentionally create spaciousness. We have to re-condition ourselves to slow our minds and reduce or focus less on our “tasks”. If we disrupt the dominant pattern for one minute, one hour, or one day, it’s a victory in our current society. We can engage in practices to help us “be” in true and transformative collaborative relationship with one another.
February 5, we launch a connection/productivity experiment called Rays. It derives from a critical piece of team infrastructure we invented while working at IISC, the secret ingredient to our team’s performance. Without it, we noticed a gap and with it, the work (and our team) flowed more smoothly. That makes us think our little practice could benefit others. So we’ve decided to do an open call for participants.
The practice is a short, daily meeting: Rays. For less than 30 minutes, you will join an online call and share three things:
RAY: something you are grateful for
TASK: something you are doing that day
BLOCK: something literal or existential in the way
There is no solving. It’s just reporting and listening.
We are inviting people to join us in February (starting as early as the 5th!). You commit to showing up to an online call for 5-days, up to 30 minutes, and sharing.
“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 recent Thanksgiving break, I had the opportunity to meet with friends of extended family members, a couple who are engaged in both disaster relief and community planning work. She is from Nepal and he is from the U.S., and together they relayed a story about their time visiting Nepal during the devastating earthquake of 2015.
The two of them were hiking in the mountains when the 7.8 magnitude quake struck. Shaken but not hurt, they made their way back to Katmandu as quickly as possible to check in on family members and then to offer their assistance to others. Originally assigned the task of loading water jugs on trucks, they then volunteered and were enlisted for their translation skills, and headed out to some of the hardest hit villages with international relief workers. Read More
The Interaction Institute for Social Change invites you to join a National Call to Action for Unity and Dialogue after the U.S. elections. From the moment the election is settled, we call for a peaceful response from Americans, and from people all over the globe, to the results.
We call for a national conversation in living rooms, workplaces, boardrooms, schools, and government offices to foster healingfrom the divisions that have been deepened by this election, and to explore the common ties that bind us.
We call on Americans to explore with honesty and empathy the role that race, gender, and immigrant status played in this election to create a powerful wedge in our communities. We ask for commitments and plans to remove this wedge, which for too long has deeply threatened, burdened, and dismantled our democracy. It has fostered violence and death and a loss of opportunity and personal dignity. It has constructed glass ceilings and prevented our children from realizing their full human potential.
We call on Americans to talk to each other and not at each other. The use of social media in this election has perpetuated the false notion that we cannot talk to one another or understand one another across differences or party affiliation. This is not true. In the right places with the right facilitation, we can have meaningful and healing dialogue. Unity is not agreement; it is a decision to stand firmly as Americans to embrace ideas and opinions different from our own, and to disagree peaceably in order to foster understanding and better solutions.
We call all Americans into “Big Democracy” – the belief that the public is fully capable of working together to create sustainable, just, and equitable communities. We can provide peaceful ways for the public to come together and – as professor and social activist Carl S. Moore says – “struggle with traditions that bind them and the interests that separate them so they can build a future that is an improvement on the past.” We can create these conditions with shared leadership and shared responsibility, and with the power of love that resides deeply within each one of us.
With this National Call to Action, we call on all Americans to shift the conversation about what is possible. We call on all Americans to communicate, demonstrate, and create places of experimentation to show that it is possible for the public to come together to solve problems and create change.
I can’t remember exactly where I saw the phrase recently, but I latched onto it. “Connections change what is connected.” So true. And this is a reason to seriously consider the power and promise of building networks for social change.
In our mainstream culture it seems that many people tend to look at things in isolation, without appreciating that context and relationship have so much to say about the nature of … well, everything. Think about the following examples: Read More
In light of a recent conversation with Jana Carp, an academic who has studied the underlying principles of the “slow movement” and how they connect to sustainability, place-making and livabily, I am revisiting, revising and reposting the piece below. Jana and I were connected by a mutual colleague with the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, given our mutual interests in public engagement, community-building and sustainability (inclusive of justice), and had an interesting conversation about slowness and networks.
At one point, the question came up as to whether networks might cut against slowness, especially when the emphasis is on rapid growth, diffusion, and trans-local connections. My thought at the time was that this certainly could be the case, and that is why it is important to think about both the breadth and depth dimensions of networks, as well linking different scaled networks (local, regional, global). The importance of networks for social change can certainly reside in their reach and rapid scaling. Their potential also resides in the nature and quality of connection, how deep the ties that bind are and what they help to create and circulate. And this brought me back to these reflections on how to think about “social velocity” in networks and collaborative work …
My friend Joel Glanzberg is a constant source of provocation and insight. The way he sees the world, through a living systems and pattern-seeking lens, is not only refreshing but unnerving in that it is evident how simultaneously critical and rare his perspective is. Joel is great at helping me and others to see beyond objects and structures to underlying patterns and processes, and how these are what animate living systems. Read More
“A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems.”
– Wendell Berry
An essay that I return to now and then, including over these past summer months, is Wendell Berry‘s “Solving for Pattern.” Published in 1981, the piece essentially considers systemic approaches to more “sustainable “agriculture, though the concept alluded to in the title has wider application. The phrase “solving for pattern” isan invitation to take a larger and longer view of “problem-solving,” to think about interventions that serve a bigger picture in more sustained and multiply beneficial ways.
Solving for pattern, according to Berry, runs counter to reductionist and mechanical solutions, which lend themselves to more predictable and relatively contained situations. When reductionist solutions are applied to more complex and systemic situations, they are more prone to failure and to exacerbating negative aspects. Real-life examples include:
For the past 4 years, IISC has supported Food Solutions New England (FSNE) in developing a network and collaborative practices to forward its work for “an equitable, ecological regional food system that supports thriving communities.” In the past year, this work has included conducting a system mapping and analysis process to identify leverage areas for regional strategy development. One of these leverage areas is “making the business case for an equitable ecological regional food system,” which includes thinking at the levels of individual food-related businesses, economic development, and political economy. Strategy development will begin in earnest this fall, and as a precursor, IISC and FSNE facilitated a convening of businesses and community members in the Boston area to discuss how business are already aligning with the New England Food Vision and the real challenges that stand in the way. What follows is a summary of that evening’s conversation.
“You have to be patient, develop trust, and have people go with you.” These were words from Karen Masterson, co-owner of Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton, MA as she talked about what it takes to align her business with the aspirations of the New England Food Vision. Read More
Renewal, revival, restoration; spiritual transformation; an aspect of living systems without which there would be no life; a process through which whole new organisms may be created from fractions of organisms; an adaptive and evolutionary trait that plays out at different systemic levels.
Readers of this blog know that at IISC we do not see building networks simply as a tactic, rather networks are more fundamental as structures underlying healthy living systems (ecosystems, human communities, economies, etc.). This is especially true when there is focus on the regenerative potential of social-ecological networks. That is, in paying attention to qualities of diversity, intricacy and flow in network structures, people can support systems’ ability to self-organize, adapt and evolve in ways that deliver vitality to participants and to the whole.
In my conversations with the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics, we have been developing a list of design principles for and indicators of the human factors in healthy (regenerative) networks. Here is a working list of 12 and readers are invited to offer adjustments, additions, and comments: Read More
A couple of years ago, I was turned on to the work of Louise Diamond. Diamond has been bringing insights from the dynamics of complex systems to peace building work for many years. Her efforts connect to a growing number of practitioners and thinkers who see the need to approach social change with an ecological and evolutionary mindset. In one of her papers, she extracts some of the “simple rules” that yield core practices for working in this way. Here I have adapted and adjusted some of them in application to network building for change and resilience in food systems. Read More