Posted in Systems Thinking

July 25, 2017

Pulling Threads from Small Arcs: Reflections on Complexity, Living Systems and Leadership

“The difficulty we face is that the ecology of the biosphere is at odds with the ecology of our institutions.”

– Nora Bateson

In the past couple of posts, I have referenced Nora Bateson’s book Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patternsa collection of essays, poetry, personal stories and excerpts of talks focused on systems theory and complexity thinking. I just finished the book and have underlined and tweeted a number of provocative lines that resonated and gave me pause (in a good way). Here are a few gems from the book that I continue to contemplate in different contexts:

“The problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint.”

“Systems theory is struggling inside a system that doesn’t actually accommodate it.”

“We cannot know the systems, but we can know more. We cannot perfect the systems, but we can do better.”

“What does it mean to be healthy in an unhealthy system?”

“No living thing exists in just one context.” 

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April 26, 2017

Moths to the Flame of Simple

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?       ~Terry Tempest Williams

In Turkey, voters just granted the Prime Minister additional powers. In the US, many people have long been fond of simple solutions. Today that plays out with support of a bombast who is inconsistent and offers solutions that exacerbate underlying problems.

When we work with clients, it also seems like there is a pull to simplicity, especially around issues of diversity and equity.

We field many calls from organizations and networks eager to address issues of racism. In its caricature state, which is all too common, the request is for a two-hour workshop for staff. The hope is that with a few hours of filling smart brains with a new understanding—of the history of racism, or of implicit bias, or levels of oppression—that then things will be okay.

This is false. A two-hour workshop can open some new understanding or potentially be used to make a case for change, but in no way does not even put you on the road to okay.

How is it that smart people believe that a little more in the way of “smarts” will undo a complex historical reality routed in policy, cultural narrative and economics?

Some of it seems to be a wish for easy and for ease. Many white people want the magic bullet or the easy solution to our own racism and that of our country and our organizations. We are not used to acknowledging that it took a lot of work to dig the hole that we are in and that it will take even more work to get out. Hoping that two hours or one day can give a diverse group the knowledge, tools, and understanding to create systemic change is simply a wish for simple.

In addition, there are systems that support the quest for this to be simple. For example, funders may offer relatively small dollars for organizational change efforts or not prioritize learning about systems of oppression at all. The push is almost always for fast outcomes and it seems risky to slow down and support the harder efforts that will ultimately be successful. Many leaders of our organizations, foundations, and government institutions have ourselves benefitted from the structures of racism and are content (wittingly or unwittingly) not to rock the boat.

For people working on systemic change, our job is to communicate that change is both hard and worthy. To want change requires more than a workshop; it is a commitment to put in the time, the dollars, and the effort. We know that effective equity efforts require work on multiple levels.

It may not be easy but it is fun and powerful to see the changes along the way. Change can beget more change. Change includes:

  • New and deep relationships that expand what is possible and build new ways of being
  • More equitable hiring and purchasing policies, investing in long term economic change
  • Policies in an organization that are constructed to undo the bias that is both implicit and explicit in our minds and our organizations.

I will write more in the coming weeks about examples of change as a motivation for those moments when we think oppression, racism, and inequity are solvable in a two-hour workshop. IISC is interested in working with groups that choose to avoid the simple and invest with their hearts and time the work that can lead to meaningful change.

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December 19, 2016

Systems Mapping and Strategy Development for a Better Food Future

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The following post recently appeared on the Food Solutions New England (FSNE) website. I have had the great pleasure and privilege of supporting FSNE for the past five years as a network design and development consultant, facilitator, and trainer. As we near the end of 2016, a year that has proven challenging to many, I continue to find some of my greatest hope in the work of this important and unique initiative, grounded in the tremendous commitment and generosity of its shared (net) leadership. This is not the first time that I have written about the work of FSNE. Other posts include: Distribution, Diversity, Dignity: Networking the “Business Case” for a Regional Food SystemLeveraging a New (Food) System NarrativeRacial Equity Habit Building 2.0Peeling Away Layers for Impact in Networks for Change; and Networks: A Love StoryThe post below speaks specifically to the past year-plus of work identifying “leverage areas” for coordinated collective action … 

In 2015, the Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Network Team began a year-long process to better understand how we could support the region in achieving the New England Food Vision. The Vision describes a future in which at least 50% of our food is grown, raised, and harvested in New England and no one goes hungry. It looks ahead to the year 2060 and sees farming and fishing as important regional economic forces; soils, forests, and waterways cared for sustainably; healthy diets as a norm; and racial equity and food justice promoting dignity and well being for all who live in New England. Read More

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December 6, 2016

Connection is Fundamental … and Adaptive … and Resilient

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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

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November 22, 2016

Dangerous Post 11/9/2016 Detours

Many of us who identify politically as left of center, and who work in nonprofits or foundations, have been upset, shocked, angry, sad, disappointed and more about the election of Donald Trump last week.

In reaction to this loss, many are awakening to the white supremacist (alt-right) forces gaining strength in our county. Many people are experiencing a greater degree of fear for our nation and for their safety than ever before. In the last week, I have witnessed a few reactive behaviors that are not going to serve us through this time. If we don’t stop ourselves from practicing these behaviors, we are in danger of pursuing short-sighted strategies that end up preserving the status quo, rather than taking advantage of this moment to push us forward toward a greater force of woke people standing for justice.

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Check out Jen’s compilation: “Intro to Racism for White People—a List of Resources for White Peoplehttp://bit.ly/2gdUhDs

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November 8, 2016

National Call to Action for Unity and Dialogue after the U.S. Elections

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 healing from 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.

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February 9, 2016

Race Talk

IISC Senior Associate Cynthia Silva Parker presented “Race Talk: Moving Beyond the Surface” at the Q Commons. On February 11 at 7PM the conversation continues at Grace Chapel in Watertown, MA. She and Colin Stokes, whose TedX talk on White Privilege will also screened, are leading a “deeper dialogue on racism, systemic injustice, bridge-building and reconciliation.”

The written version:

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December 16, 2015

Courageous Race Conversations Shift Justice System

Our eyes met and locked a split second after we noticed the feet of two young men sitting next to each other in the circle – both had a pant leg rolled up to show an ankle monitor. In the same circle, sat two sheriffs with guns and tasers strapped to their hips and covered by their untucked shirts. It was day three of our training, Moving Forward in Addressing Race, Power and Privilege, and we were now harvesting the fruits of many hours of challenging mental, emotional and spiritual work.

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“I have learned to see that not all police officers are rude and mean,” shared a 14 year-old Latina girl. “I have learned that some officers care about me and want to be fair; this is the first time I’ve been in a space where I felt heard by adults (in the system).” 

Having law enforcement at the table with an openness to change is important. Systems are made up of individuals. Individuals centered on equity values and skilled in moving policy forward, in partnership with multi-sector networks towards common goals, can create long term change.

“I have gained sight and vision where before I was blind,” shared a white male law enforcement officer, “and I am willing to give what ever it takes personally and professionally to our cause.”  Read More

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