Networks as Human Environments

October 3, 2013 2 Comments

Yesterday, Carole Martin and I took the Tillotson Fund Community Practitioners Network on a site visit/retreat to Lawrence CommunityWorks, to see first hand what a network approach to community and economic development looks like. There is much to be said about what LCW has done, learned, and is looking to do going forward, and some of this has already been captured in case studies and articles.  Here I want to focus on one important lesson that staff and residents have learned over the past 15 years or so when it comes to taking a network approach.  This lesson falls under the caution – “Avoid a Fetish for Structural Forms.”

In a very thought-provoking presentation, Jessica Andors, Juan Bonilla, Spencer Buchholz, and Victor Martinez highlighted LCW’s belief that structural forms in human engagement are created mainly to compensate for the following:

  • absence of relationships and trust
  • real and perceived imbalances of power
  • real and perceived complexities of implementation

They went on to note that often we end up creating structures in the name of organizing and organization that end up doing nothing about the first, exacerbating the second, and reinforcing the third.  The take away?  Keep it light. LCW’s network-centric approach is based on a flexible and accessible structure, with multiple doors for entering the network and options for varying levels of affiliation; space and support for community members to discover and implement around their own passions; and a proclivity for having fun and getting to know one another in informal ways.

As Jessica and other staff shared, “People exist in environments, not organizations or groups of organizations.”  The work then is to cultivate deeply human environments that bring out intrinsic motivation, connection, and a drive for individual and collective development.  They are clearly on to something!


  • Chris Knight says:

    Really interesting stuff, Curtis. I love how you put it, “avoid a fetish for structural forms.” It’s really difficult because most examples we have of groups working together, especially large ones made of people who don’t know each other well, have lots of structure, hierarchy, and formal process. Your answer of building platforms for human connection makes a lot of sense. When starting out, find ways to help people to get to know each other and deepen their connections. That way there is trust and an understanding of what each person brings to the table.

    One further questions I have is this. How is LCW providing avenues for new people to join? That is one of the obstacles I’ve seen. Once a group has been given the space to form close connections it is hard for new people to join as easily, get to know others, and truly contribute. I look forward to your response. Cheers!

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Thanks for your post and questions, Chris. LCW has done an interesting job of not requiring a certain trajectory of joining the network. There are many doors, intentionally. And they believe that it is OK for some to be more involved and others less so, and that people will sometimes choose to leave, and perhaps come back later. Doorways can be through any number of different programs, events, and certainly personal connections.


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