Social Change Networks: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

April 23, 2019 2 Comments

Networks seem to be all the rage these days, as more and more people come to understand that we live in a vastly inter-connected world. This is wonderful news, and it can be challenging in many ways, as we grapple with complexity to build new muscles and mindsets to deliver on the promise of so-called “network effects.” These effects have a breadth dimension to them (i.e. small world reach, rapid dissemination). They also have a depth dimension, which can sometimes be overlooked and/or minimized. Networks are not just about the quantity of connections and flows, but also quality.

The experiences of “net weavers” in various fields suggest that the extent to which people are able to connect deeply and authentically with one another increases trust, possibility, commitment and impact. They are learning that especially in a world that can feel like it is fracturing and unraveling, love matters!

What follows are excerpts of an interactive session I led at this year’s Network Leadership Training Academy held at the University of Colorado-Denver and co-hosted in partnership by The CU-Denver School of Public Affairs’ Center on Network Science and Visible Network Labs. Through sharing story, science and wisdom, we explored how love can bolster our “net work” for more just, healthy, and sustainable communities.

Excerpt 1. Love Through a Collaborative Change Lens

At IISC we uphold three integrated lenses for our collaborative capacity building work for social change:

  • power/equity/inclusion,
  • networks, and
  • love as a force for social transformation

And we really see these facets as being dynamically connected. That is, it’s hard to have one without the others to be maximally impactful – we know that when collaborative “net work” is done without serious considerations of power and equity we can subsequently perpetuate or exacerbate injustice. Equity work done without net work can remain small and exclusive. And either of these without love … Well, Michael Edwards of Open Democracy may have said it best in a talk he gave a number of years ago called “Love and Networks” –

“Only by operating from the space where we are joined together in some deeper sense are we likely to find common ground in facing up to the collective problems that confront us, with some of our differences intact.”

Excerpt 2: Love in Action: The Barr Fellowship

I want to share a couple of network stories that I am intimately familiar with that have a lot to do with love as a force for social transformation. The first is from Boston and is about the Barr Fellowship. For a little bit of back story – Boston is home to a high concentration of non-profits with relatively few funding sources compared to that number and an historically competitive culture. Also, like many cities of its size, it is plagued by social disparities that play out along lines of race, ethnicity and class.

The idea for the Barr Fellowship grew, in part, out of a desire to cultivate deeper relationships (and presumably a greater sense of abundance) among experienced leaders, as well as to help them rejuvenate, reflect, and re-engage with their work in new ways. It was also intended to see if a more deeply connected network of committed leaders might bring more systemic impact across a variety of issues in the city.

The Fellowship began in 2005, in partnership with IISC process designers and facilitators, with an inaugural cohort of 12 Fellows from a variety of fields and neighborhoods, and representing a diversity of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds and perspectives. There were really few expectations put on Fellows, other than that they take a break, connect authentically with one another, and open themselves to different experiences and perspectives, and then … see what emerged.

“We add value to society-at-large when we dare to connect.”

Gibran Rivera

The Fellows start their experience by taking a three-month sabbatical. They spend the first two weeks of their sabbatical traveling together outside of the country (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Haiti, for example). These trips immerse fellows as a group in an entirely disruptive learning context, which gives them space to think differently and also opportunity and impulse to turn to one another. Following the sabbatical, fellows gather on semi-annual overnight retreats for three years. These gatherings continue to deepen the peer network of learning, support, and accountability.

Gatherings are also held each year for the entire network (bridging cohorts) and these sometimes also include travel. The learning journey, sabbatical, and periodic retreats are designed to help fellows develop deep, authentic, trusting relationships (i.e., social capital). What have the results been? See for yourself in this short video, and ask yourself, “What’s love got to do with this” …

Excerpt 3: Netweaver Wisdom

The importance of cultivating a “love ethic” (in the words of bell hooks) was echoed repeatedly in a recent conversation convened by Bruce Evan Goldstein and Lynn Decker of the Netweaver Network, with a few network coordinators and facilitators focused on food justice, regenerative agriculture and community fire resilience. Without planning to do so, we fell into talking about the role of love in advancing and cohering networks. Practices to cultivate love showed up in the following ways in these and other networks:

  • Building trust with one another through informal conversation/breaking bread
  • Sharing our truths and stories with one another
  • Connecting more holistically through mind/heart/spirit
  • Cultivating a shared sense of purpose
  • Honoring difference and the complexity of our selves and one another
  • Developing collective courage to challenge entrenched power and internalized oppressive behaviors
  • Staying curious about what different people need and what they have to offer
  • Displaying an ongoing ethic of welcome, hosting and care to all
  • Cultivating creativity and vulnerability – singing and dancing, improv(ising)
  • Working/talking/meeting equitably outside of cultural comfort zones
  • Leaning into deep mutual learning, saying “I don’t know,” staying open to change
  • Celebrating/appreciating one another and one another’s successes

Which of these tacks are you taking to cultivate a “love ethic” in your network? What others have you taken or would you consider taking?

Excerpt 4: Bringing It Home

So [in closing] what’s love got to do with the work of weaving networks for social change? Increasingly, we at IISC and many of our partners are seeing and saying … everything! In many ways, we have created and can reinforce dominant systems and a society that constrain us, that make us into objects, cogs, consumers, abstractions and stereotypes. And this is devastating, certainly most for those who suffer under the heel of oppression and violence, but also for those with privilege. There’s a collective de-humanization going on.

Image by NASA Goddard, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

Barbara Holmes, president emerita of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and author of Race and the Cosmos, reminds us that there is a vastness out there, that reality is so much more than we think and often experience it as being. We are each of us so much more than we think we are, than others may think we are. Yet we forget this, or have it denied by the flattening powers of oppression, commodification and homogenization.

The key to unlocking vastness, to re-membering and reclaiming who we are and choosing something else, Holmes says, is not simply through our heads, but through our hearts. This happens when we experience deep connection – to our full selves, to others’ authenticity, to Life and the universe. This kind of connection will often take us to vulnerable and uncomfortable places – to sadness, to regret, to tenderness, to the necessary work of atonement and forgiveness, to uncertainty … but also and ultimately to joy, to awe, to gratitude, to a grounding in something firmer. And this is really what feeds us in regenerative ways.

Father Richard Rohr, a regional neighbor here in the Southwest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation over in Albuquerque, reminds us that:

“Love as flow goes in the direction of ever more life and ever-more creative life.”

Image by Bold Frontiers, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

Network scientists would agree, looking at how “network effects” can amplify positive emotions and actions. See for example, the work of Christakis and Fowler who say, in a more scientific way:

“Cooperative and pro-social behaviors and emotions cascade in human social networks.”

The same could be said, of course, of negative emotions and activity. Fear begets fear and shrinks who we are and possibility. Love begets love, and expands who we are and possibility, and it can seemingly work magic through the vast and often invisible or unacknowledged connections and flows of which we are a part. So heeding the wisdom of scientists and sages, let’s boldly go forth across boundaries and barriers and sow seeds for justice, liberation and flourishing.

We’ll end with this from adrienne maree brown and her new book Pleasure Activism,

“We learn to love by loving. We practice with each other, on ourselves, in all kinds of relationships. And right now we need to be in rigorous practice, because we can no longer afford to love people the way we’ve been loving them. This year, commit to developing an unflappable devotion to yourself as part of an abundant, loving whole. Make a commitment with five people to be more honest with each other, heal together, change together, and become a community of care that can grow to hold us all.”

Image taken at Red Rocks outside of Denver, CO.


  • EcoAnew says:

    I love that heart stone… its really antique piece. it should be in somewhere in the museum,,,

  • Andy Calkins says:

    Great, Curtis, just great. I am seeing the emergence of what you describe here in a couple of education-change networks I’m part of. It all starts with love. Love carries you through. It has to be buttressed and applied with so much else that is so much more pragmatic, since the work of these change networks is happening inside of systems that generally don’t have a place for love, or put a value (officially) on love.

    As we write in our own work on Transformation Science (, real change happens at the speed of trust plus agency. Love enables trust, and vice versa. You just gotta have it to get anywhere, if you want to do anything deep, and lasting, and real. Thanks for your work, and for your blog.

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