We took in a lot from the gathering, which featured attendees from around the US and several other countries, and were encouraged by the proceedings, especially to hear how conversation is evolving in the larger collective impact community around equity, community engagement, as well as complexity. Highlights for me personally, beyond meeting many interesting and committed people doing good and interesting work, were a break-out session on racial equity; Paul Schmitz‘s (formerly of Public Allies) plenary talk about collective leadership, privilege, and community ownership; as well as a conversation with seasoned backbone participants about their successes, challenges, and innovations. To flesh this out a bit . . .
Getting Serious About Equity
In a session called “How to Advance Equity through Collective Impact,”Sheri Brady of the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions facilitated presentation and conversation among panelists Joanna Scott from the Race Matters Institute, Richard Crews from Thriving Together, and Juan Sebastian Arias from Living Cities. The point of departure was that, in order to truly solve complex social issues, structural inequality along race, class, gender and culture lines needs to be addressed head on. Furthermore emphasis was put on the importance of leading with equity, and not simply diversity and inclusion. Here are a few quotes that I gleaned in the course of the conversation.
“Equity starts at home, in your backbone.”- Richard Crews (you’ve got to walk the talk from the start and from the core)
“If you have a bunch of tokens, you aren’t getting anywhere on the expressway.” – Richard Crews (you’ve got to move beyond tokenism around diversity and inclusion to genuine and equitable engagement)
“Too many people do not think about systems as being racist.” – Joanna Scott (racism operates at multiple levels, and if we only focus on the interpersonal level, we are not truly engaged in needed structural change)
“We all have a stake in the outcomes so we all have a stake in the work.” – Joanna Scott (Amen)
Getting Real About Community Engagement and Privilege
I have to say that one question that kept coming up for me during the gathering was, “When people say ‘the community,’ who are they talking about?” Everyone? Residents? Those most negatively impacted? It would be good to be clear about this in any given mention of the word.
That said, Juan Sebastian Arias and Paul Schmitz spoke and tweeted compellingly about making broader community engagement central to and not an afterthought in collective work, as well as to pay attention to how privilege operates in any given context.
“You are never done with community engagement. You need to always be engaging.” – Juan Sebastian Arias
“Engaging communities is not about how the community perceives ‘our’ work, but how they own it.” – Paul Schmitz
“How might power and privilege distort the lenses of your collective impact effort?” – Paul Schmitz
Thinking Like a Network
Lastly, for now anyway, a note about what I heard as a repeated explicit and implicit theme throughout the gathering and in a deep dive session with those who have been engaged in backbone activities for a while. An ongoing challenge and key to supporting the promise of collective impact is to keep a variety of flows going. Certainly that includes the flow of financial support, but also the flow of ideas, of people, of leadership, of power, of generosity, of energy. Also flow with respect to adaptation of organized form and approach, and evolution in terms of understanding of problems/opportunities and viable/systemic solutions.
If things stop flowing, pooling and stagnation can quickly ensue, people can get complacent, bureaucracy can crop up, groupthink and an attitude of exceptionalism and exclusivity can take hold or get reinforced. Which is why it’s important to keep bringing the network lens and network thinking to this work.
Curious to hear from others who were in attendance.
“Weave real connections, create real nodes … Reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.”
“A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems.”
An essay that I return to every now and then, including over the recent break, 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” is an invitation to take a larger and longer view of “problem-solving,” to think about interventions that serve a bigger picture. Solving for pattern 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. An example is certain irrigation schemes that channel water in such a way that the larger water cycle is disrupted and nutrients lost to key places in the ecosystem.
“A bad solution is bad . . . because it acts destructively upon the larger pattern in which it is contained.”
A better approach in these situations is to get a sense of the larger systemic picture and pattern at play (which takes more time) and to look for interventions that support overall healthier dynamics in the system. Read More
“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.
“What’s most systemic is personal . . . and interpersonal.”
- rift on a Peter Senge quote
At IISC, one of the three core lenses that we bring to our collaborative capacity building for social change work is love as a force for social transformation. How this lens impacts what we do as practitioners depends on context, though often it comes down to ensuring that there is time for people in the collaborative change efforts we support to connect on a personal and interpersonal level. One way to do this is to invite people to share stories and do this beyond the parameters for their professionally defined roles. I did this recently with a group and as is often the case, there were a few areas of resistance in the collective body. “Why are we doing this?” asked someone with a hint of consternation. That became my opening. Here is what I offer as a response to discomfort around what some people call “touchy feely” exercises.
Why are we doing this?
In general terms, to expand collective potential.
To help each of us to be more fully seen and appreciated for who we are, beyond abstractions and implicit assumptions. When people do not feel seen or appreciated they can disengage, or “act out” to get the attention they want.
To test and stretch the boundaries of “appropriate” and “legitimate” ways of knowing and being with one another. Otherwise people can default to ways that privilege those most comfortable with certain ways of being (often strictly professional and cerebral).
To grow “positivity” – that is, to expand the overall collectively felt sense of positive emotions (which includes pride related to the demonstrated ability to have and hold difficult conversations). Positivity has been scientifically linked with greater physical and psychological capacity to see and take in more (of systems and one another).
I offer these, like a yoga teacher, with compassion for any expressed discomfort or tightness felt in different parts of the collective body. And the invitation is to breathe through this and to see what might be loosened up for the benefit of the whole. For another take on this, I highly recommend my friend Joe Hsueh’s piece “Why the Human Touch is Key to Unlocking Systems Change.”
Curious to hear your own experiences connecting what is most personal and interpersonal with systemic change.
The above graphic is something that I recently created, borrowing heavily from the good work of Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor, to help convey what is meant by engaging in “network strategy.” One of the challenges we’ve encountered in working with different networks is helping people to understand the difference between strategy development and network development. I try to meet this challenge, in part, by showing how they are not so different, or at least, that they are intimately connected. The diagram is also designed to help people get beyond some of the either/or thinking that we encounter. For example, it’s not that we have to choose between decentralized self-organized action and more formally coordinated collective action. It can be both!
So here’s what the graphic is meant to convey. First of all, network strategy is grounded at a fundamental level in creating (strategic) connectivity, by building linkages and trust between key stakeholders and perhaps unusual bedfellows. This can be done by convening people; sharing stories, data and other forms of information; co-creating knowledge; learning together, etc. Part of the value of this connectivity is that it can lead to orthogonal thinking and bolster individual network participants’ efforts in the shared domain where the network is focused. What also may ensue is self-organized action between those who are meeting one another for the first time or getting to know one another better (see the arrow to the left side of the triangle). This is all well and good and is something that networks should try to track. Read More
“In spite of current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible.”
For the past two years, I’ve had the fortune of partnering with Carole Martin to create and deliver a network leadership development program for regional and economic development in “the north country” (northern NH, southern Quebec, eastern VT). This opportunity was made possible by funding from the Neil and Louise Tillotson Foundation and took the form of something we called the Community Practitioners Network (CPN). Subsequently, some of the members of the first cohort have taken to calling it the “Community Placemakers Network” (more on that another time).
One of the first steps Carole and I took in creating the program was to begin with a set of principles, which, in good network fashion, evolved over time. These principles guided our design and facilitation of the program as it emerged, and we offered them to and co-evolved them with the cohort as they considered how to bring them to their own leadership in their organizations, communities, and beyond. Here is a condensed version of the lastest iteration of the principles:
Look for what is beyond the immediate sight lines and intersections – Part of the power of networks is emergence; expect and delight in the unexpected that comes from the meeting of different minds and perspectives.
Design for serendipity – Don’t try to control and account for all outcomes. First of all, it’s impossible. Secondly, as Andrew Goldsworthy once said, “Too much control can kill a work.”
Periphery, not (just) center – Network action is not simply about what is happening “in the room” but what transpires “after the meeting,” not what goes on at a “steering group” level, but what happens in two-sies and three-sies that form/partner/innovate “out there.”
Picking up on the spirit of yesterday’s post about asking “beautiful questions” and inspired by a staff challenge to articulate lines of inquiry stemming from IISC’s core lenses, I offer this post. 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?
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.
This past weekend’s CommonBound Conference was quite the experience. It was inspiring to be with the more than 600 participants from around North America talking about and sharing examples of what it might take to evolve a just and sustainable economy. I found the event’s closing plenary, an interview of and conversation between Adrienne Maree Brown, Gar Alperovitz, and Gopal Dayaneni, to be particularly stirring. For those who missed it, here is a smattering of what was buzzing in the Twittersphere . . . Read More
In my current work with the Cancer Free Economy Network, I have the opportunity to partner with a very skilled team of consultants, including Joe Hsueh from Second Muse. Joe’s core offering to this initiative is system mapping and helping people to hold systemic complexity. The short video above, taken by another team member, Eugene Kim, features some of Joe’s thinking about what it takes to gain “strategic clarity” when striving to evolve a complex system.
One of the many things I appreciate about Joe is his holistic approach to system mapping which renders it much less mechanistic than I’ve seen from other practitioners. In fact, as this great article in The Guardian about Joe and his work illustrates, he comes from a very deep, some might call it spiritual, place. As the article quotes him, “Systems mapping, system modeling – all these scientific tools and methods – these are not ends in themselves. For me, they are tools for us to create a space where we open our minds, open our hearts and open our will.” In this sense, the (system) map is not the territory in more ways than one.
I will admit to being a bit dubious when I read articles about “scaling social impact.” A fair number of these pieces come from rather privileged places and can smack top-down solutions that perpetuate existing and problematic power dynamics and largely ignore the specifics of local realities. I am also concerned that many continue to hold an industrial/mechanistic/extractive view that renders “scaling up” simply more of the same old damaging same old.
So I have been heartened to hear different takes on scale this past month in a few conversations about evolving a more regenerative, “human scale”, and equitable economy. Read More
Last week I had the privilege of being 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. The last day 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 take a deeper view of 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 offers that our chosen change methods are always grounded in an underlying belief system about what we hold to be true about humanity, the world and what constitutes “knowing.” Not being aware of or transparent about this can get us into difficulty when it leads to mixing and matching techniques/methods that may contradict one another, or when we are not operating from the same system of beliefs as others. Here are some questions I offered the CSL Fellows in consideration of their cross-sector work: Read More