Posted in Your Experiences
June 18, 2018
“Words are how we think, stories are how we link.”
– Christina Baldwin
Last week I had the privilege of facilitating a two-day Network Learning Lab for a remarkable group of conservation leaders and network weavers. I co-designed the session with Olivia Millard and Amanda Wrona of The Nature Conservancy (and at the instigation of Lynn Decker of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network) to connect and strengthen the capacity of those working at the intersection of ecosystem health and human/community development while building networks at local, state, regional, national and global levels. Our design was informed by input given by the participating network weavers themselves about their core challenges and learning objectives, while leaving room for the unexpected – enough spaciousness for the network magic of emergence to happen.
As with other network leadership institutes that we at IISC have had a hand in designing and facilitating, the experience last week had as its foundation plenty of opportunities for the cohort to authentically connect, to get to know one another on both professional and personal levels. And as with both leadership development sessions and ongoing network development initiatives that we support, we turned to storytelling as a way to create bonds and understanding. This included time for the participants to tell brief stories about their networks, doing so in 5 minute informal bursts sprinkled throughout the two days (which could also have been done as Pecha Kucha or Ignite presentations). The intent was to create a bit more understanding of what might make each network unique in its aspirations, attributes and accomplishments and to whet people’s appetites for further conversation at breaks, meals and into the evening.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
– Maya Angelou
We also set up a couple of exercises within the first hour of the lab for people to hear more about one another’s paths to the work they currently do, not by ticking off their resumes, but by telling stories about what happened to and moved them to be where they are now. Time and again, when I facilitate this kind of exercise, it shifts the tone of the gathering in the direction of greater openness and trust. And as we touched on in our debrief of those exercises, inviting that kind of storytelling into our work can send a signal about what is validated with respect to forms of knowing, expression and parts of ourselves to bring to the table. Along these lines, we also drew from poetry and other forms of creative expression, including a stanza from a favorite William Stafford piece, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” which, to me, gets at the heart of network building … Read More
January 29, 2018
I migrated to the United States in 1998 via the F1 visa application process. This process allows a family member who is a citizen to apply for immediate relatives to become permanent residents. The premise of this process is one of family reunification and the applicant (citizen) must be a resident in the United States during the greater part of the application period. In my case, my mother was the applicant so this meant that during the better part of two years while I was in high school my mother had to live in the United States while my brother and I lived in Trinidad. Being separated wasn’t the only thing we all/each sacrificed; there are several ramifications of this process that go along with the privileges of becoming a US citizen. And, I don’t make light of those privileges, especially as my particular immigration story is indeed one of great privilege relative to the experiences of those who are currently under direct attack by the federal government and by the right wing media. (I say “currently” not to say that undocumented immigrants were not under attack by previous administrations, but to say that I do not know when naturalized citizens and permanent residents will be under direct attack, as well. We’ve already seen it begin with the “Muslim Ban.”) But this reflection isn’t about the politics of migration, although we would do well to continue to reflect deeply on that. Rather, I am contemplating the state of my heart as an immigrant.
One thing I have noticed over the time that I have been in the US is that my heart is always torn in two. As someone who straddles two different ways of being, two different nationalities, two different ways of looking at the world, it has been a doozy for reconciling identity. On the one hand, this is stressful, but on the other, like so many other third culture people I know, it is actually a great super power. I can see the world from different perspectives and can necessarily integrate them in a way that produces something better than the sum of the parts. Immigrants have super powers, y’all. We can take the best of many different worlds and create beautiful, delicious, vibrant expressions of what liberatory futures look like.
Today, one of the experiences that I’m yearning for that comes from my culture is the annual ritual of liberation we call Jouvay or J’ouvert. I won’t go into all the history of colonialism and slavery that gave rise to this tradition, but I will say that in the modern era it is a great spiritual cleansing and a public ritual of liberation that takes over the streets of Port of Spain during the climactic second-to-last morning of the Carnival season. (This year it will take place in mid-February.) Carnival itself is a letting go, a festival of liberation based on the pre-Lenten Catholic festivals of the French and Spanish when they gave one last hurrah to the vices and proclivities of the flesh before engaging in the 40-day long period of fasting beginning on Ash Wednesday. During our Jouvay, participants adorn themselves in handmade costumes, and in mud, oil, paint, and cocoa or baby powder, and they chip through the streets in great abandon under cover of darkness in the early hours of the morning until just after sunrise. Jouvay begins at 2:00 a.m. and ends around 7:00 a.m.! I am watching friends in Trinidad prepare for this day by gathering mud, by gathering the friends they want to be with on the road, and by beating the drum of anticipation for the ritual that allows for release and rebirth.
I crave this ritual or any other ritual of liberation that allows us to let go, to be free, without trappings and accoutrement, without fear. To experience what it is like to just have love, and music, and dance, and laughter, and spirit…and rum. I am craving stories of the feeling of liberation here in the US. I am craving a liberation praxis. So often when we are asked about liberation as activists, we describe the struggle, the fight, the organizing, the process towards liberation. But I want to know…what elements of liberation are people experiencing right now even in the midst of the struggle? Even if it is for just a moment or an hour, when do you feel free? What are the experiences we want to expand in our liberatory future because they make us feel a little bit free now?
December 4, 2017
“Emergence notices the way small actions and connections create complex systems, patterns that become ecosystems and societies.”
A couple of weeks ago I was in Michigan to do a presentation and discussion with representatives from a number of inspiring networks focused on local food production, food access and public health. I was invited by my gracious hosts at the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University to share a bit of network theory, tell a few stories and cover key concepts around network thinking and action to help advance and cohere some of the good work happening around the state.
Towards the end of that morning session, a couple of the participants mentioned that their heads were swimming and a few acknowledged that along with their excitement, they were struggling with how complex and difficult “net work” can be.
I felt their pain and was moved by their honesty, and offered something along these lines, with a bit of post-event embellishment. … Read More
October 24, 2017
“Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,”
Over the past several years of supporting networks for social change, we at IISC have been constantly evolving our understanding of what is new and different when we call something a network, as opposed to a coalition, collaborative or alliance. On the surface, much can look the same, and one might also say that coalitions, collaboratives and alliances are simply different forms of networks. While this is true, it is also the case that not every collaborative form maximizes network effects, including small world reach, rapid dissemination, adaptability, resilience and system change. In this regard, experience shows that a big difference maker is when participants in a network (or an organization, for that matter) embrace new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. The following revised list continues to evolve as our own practice and understanding does, and it speaks to a number of network principles to guide thinking and action:
August 2, 2017
Photo credit: Ginko biloba leaves by James Field (Jame). Ginko trees are considered endangered even though they are cultivated worldwide, because so few live in the wild. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unportedlicense.
I’ve often said that language is difficult, but it’s all (or at least most) of what we have to communicate complex ideas. I can remember when doing “diversity work” was seen as cutting edge, relevant, and powerful. It was an effort to change historic structures of exclusion, to change outcomes for people of color and women who suffered the brunt of racism and sexism. It was a chance to speak truth to power, and it seemed for a while that power was listening. Until it wasn’t. Or, more precisely, until the listeners started to hear “diversity” and think only about “heterogeneity.” With the stroke of a pen checking off boxes, the work was domesticated, watered down, simplified, and downsized into simply getting different faces in the place. And folks who were thinking bigger thoughts had to find new ways to talk and to get others to think and act on inclusion and equity.
I remember in the mid-2000s when I started saying “We don’t do diversity work, but if you want to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we might be the right people for you.” Now, I’m afraid, that equity might be running its course. I’m encouraged, on the one hand, by how many more people and organizations are asking questions about equity. And about how the equity conversation focuses on what we want, not what we don’t want. I’m all about the positive vision of life chances fulfilled without barriers based on any aspect of identity. And it’s also clear to me that some of those folks are using the language of equity precisely to avoid talking about racism, sexism, and other -isms that produce and sustain inequities. Somehow “equity” and even “inequities” are more comfortable rolling off the tongue than racism, classism, sexism, or homophobia. I wonder if “equity” as a concept is headed the way of “diversity.”
Still, if we are going to advocate for equity as the superior growth model for our country, as our friends from PolicyLink have so aptly argued, I wonder what language will help to keep our attention focused on dismantling the drivers of inequity in order to increase the odds that we’ll actually achieve something approaching equity. The science surrounding the origins, consequences, and remedies for unconscious bias or implicit association seem to be promising entry points for some people who are reluctant to enter a discussion doorway marked “racism” or “privilege.” And, research and practice around communications and messaging gives us other avenues to pursue. In these days of particularly fraught racial discourse, what are you finding useful in your practice? What are you finding gets in the way?
July 18, 2017
One recent night, my son stomped out of the house, hurt, telling me that I should stop defining who he is and what he can do. My daughter followed after him, asking that I think about what I had done to cause the blow out. I meditated, cooked dinner, and two hours later we were eating a great puttanesca together.
That evening – and other parenting moments – have led me to recognize that my best liberation and change work these days is mothering. While there is so much to write and share about parenting, here I will glean what I can from my children about ways to improve work.
Here are five things I do with or learned from my kids that might work for you as well.
Just do it. Be silly, open up new parts of the brain, laugh, release endorphins. Do it at home and do it at work. Brain science tells us that laughter and play opens us and what flows is much more effective than working from worry and constriction. It does not mean that there are not real-life worries and real dangers everywhere—poor health and racism, for starters—but it is an invitation to play along the way. I re-learned how to play from my kids. I invest time in being as goofy with them as possible and bringing some of that spirit of laughter and fun into my work. We work a lot, it should be fun and fun generates new possibilities. What is the work equivalent of running through the fountain or blowing bubbles? What do you do at work to create fun and be creative?
Honor who they are and not only what they do or how well they do it
In work settings and movement building efforts we of course need to keep our eye on results. In racial equity work, that focus is particularly important as we have seen how changes in laws do not necessarily lead to changes in heart, nor does understanding lead automatically to reducing disparities. And yet, we know from parenting that honoring who a person is and valuing them for that is so much more important for long term well-being and success than a good grade or accomplishment. How can we keep our eye on the big changes as we honor ourselves and our co-workers for who we are and the spirit and talents we bring and not just what we produce?
Walking down the street, it is often the adults walking with children—holding hands or skipping or watching the trains – who seem most present and look happiest. It is a reminder that of how critical presence is for all of us. At a recent convening, The Confluence sponsored by MAG, someone offered this gem: “less prep, more presence.” Let’s make sure that we bring impeccable presence to our workplaces. Whether at large gatherings, staff or member meetings, or one-on-one conversations, bring your full presence. How do you stay present, planting seeds that flourish in the moment and over the longer term?
Show love and caring
While this may be an “of course” in family, it needs to be just as much so in the workplace. At a network gathering last week, I went to the bathroom, tired, after facilitating a challenging session on health equity. I found someone there in tears, having just lost a family member. I was able to show her some tenderness. The next day she reminded me how important the care I offered was for her and, in fact, opened her to learning. These moments, large and small, present themselves daily. What is the workplace equivalent of the schnuggle? Can you find more moments to show love to your co-workers and partners? What might that elicit?
I don’t need to be in something with my kids to know how incredible it is for my kids.
While my daughter plans a social justice orientation program for students at her college, I can simply watch her and her peers create and experiment; I can stand aside and watch it blossom. I have to let my kids experiment in the world and experience their ups and downs. I don’t have to help or be in it to know it will be an incredible learning experience. This is a good reminder to allow people to try new things and to flourish and stumble with their work, and learn from it all along the way. How do you practice standing aside?
People in organizations – just like in our families – need this level of tending and love. We all need play, space, and autonomy to create great things. It is a truism that change starts at home. Perhaps it is less clear that home can improve our work. Let’s garner those lessons.
What else can we learn from the kids?
March 10, 2017
“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”
Grace Lee Boggs
The past twelve months I had the pleasure of working with a team from Food Solutions New England to design and facilitate its first Network Leadership Institute. This initiative grew out of FSNE’s ongoing commitment to cultivating thought leadership and network leadership “to support the emergence and viability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” Another impetus for the Institute was a year spent doing system mapping and analysis that revealed four leverage areas for advancing a just, sustainable and democratically-owned and operated regional food system, including cultivating and connecting leadership. Read More
August 30, 2016
“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” is an 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:
August 17, 2016
Networks, or webs, are core to living systems. Thinking and looking through a network lens can help people to understand the patterns and quality of connection that either make life possible and enable liveliness or threaten life and livelihood.
Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, in their work on “cognition” in living systems, propose that there is no knowing outside of connecting or relating.
“The world as we know it emerges out of the way we relate to each other and the wider natural process.”
In other words, according to Maturana and Varela, it is through connecting and relating that “a world is brought forward.” The quality and qualities of that world depend, in large part, upon how people and other elements of living systems connect and relate to one another. Read More
August 1, 2016
I recently re-read portions of Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows. This second update to the original 1972 report from the Club of Rome affirms that current business-as-usual resource usage globally has our socioeconomic systems headed toward collapse shortly after the year 2050. The update reiterates the necessity of taking the impending crisis seriously and mobilizing quickly to adopt strategies such as:
While all of this serves as a strong wake-up (or stay awake) call, what most caught my attention was the concluding chapter, where the authors move from discussion of the technical fixes required to get us on the right track to a serious appeal to more adaptive approaches. Read More
June 29, 2016
I remember how heavy my heart felt after the Orlando shootings, the Newtown massacre, the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Raekwon Brown, Jonathan Ferrell and so many young people of color, the Boston Marathon bombing, the attacks of September 11 2001, the kidnapping of the Chibok school girls. There are so many heart-numbing tragedies and atrocities across our country and our world. And we are rightly moved. We mourn with those who mourn.
Every day the news brings us more reasons for heavy heartedness. And yet, some days I feel it more deeply than others. Today, my heart grew heavy reading about the bombing at the airport in Istanbul. Somehow it hits me harder when I know actual people who live in or near a place of tragedy, or know people who know and love people there, as is the case with Turkey. As a practicing Christian, I’m called to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. That implies relationship and ways to feel their joy and pain. And, I think we can develop a discipline of mourning, even when I don’t have proximity, even when I don’t have personal relationships. So, I’m working to cultivate a discipline of heaviness, the kind of love that extends itself to mourn even for people I don’t know personally.
June 16, 2016
As I walked into the office on Monday morning – pit in my stomach, swollen eyes from too much crying, exhausted from a restless night – I wondered how we would process the horror that had happened in Orlando over the weekend. I knew we would; after all, this was an organization full of facilitators whose values statement and change lens both included the word love. But having joined barely two weeks prior, I didn’t know just how it would happen.
Our colleague leading the extended meeting scheduled for that morning made it clear from the start: today wasn’t business as usual. And, it wasn’t a day off either. It was a day to be together, to mourn, to process, to do some work, and to practice “community care instead of just self care.” Read More