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December 2, 2019

As a Network Matures: Brushfires, Bake Boxes and (Calling) B.S.

A couple of months ago we had a meeting of the Food Solutions New England Network’s Process Team, and we spent part of our time checking in around our perceptions of where the network is heading in its next stage of development. For the past 8 years, FSNE has moved through a series of stages that have roughly correspond with the following:

  1. Building a foundation of trust and connectivity across the six states in the region as well as across sectors, communities and identities.
  2. Fostering alignment around a cohering vision (the New England Food Vision) and a set of core (non-negotiable) values, including a commitment to racial equity and food justice
  3. Facilitating systemic analysis of the regional food system, which resulted in the identification of four leverage areas where the network sees itself as poised to contribute most:  (1) engaging and mobilizing people for action, (2) connecting and cultivating leaders who work across sectors to advance the Vision and values, (3) linking diverse knowledge and evolving a new food narrative, and (4) making the business case for an emerging food system that encompasses racial equity and food justice, healthy food for all, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.
  4. Developing and beginning to implement a set of systemic strategies to encourage the continued emergence of this values-aligned regional food system, including a narrative and messaging guide; food, farm, and fisheries policy platform; set of holistic metrics to gauge the state of the regional food system; and people’s guide to the New England food system.

All of this effort, including the work of other regional networks (Farm to Institution New England, New England Grassroots Environment Fund, Northeast Farm to School Collaborative, Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, a community of practice of state-level food planning efforts, among others), has moved the region from a state of relative fragmentation, or disconnected clusters, to more of a multi-hub network.

With greater intricacy and diversity in this network of networks, the Process Team talked about the work of the next several years as being the following:

  • Continuing to support foundational connectivity and alignment
  • Moving from rooting to branching by creating more visible actions and assets beyond the underlying connectivity and alignment
  • Shifting and sharing “backbone functions” currently held by one entity (the UNH Sustainability Institute)
  • Cultivating a “brushfire approach” where, through greater density and diversity of connection, information and calls to action are spread in more timely ways
  • Making the periphery more of the norm, by moving from just bringing people into the network to making sure we support their aligned efforts “out there”
  • Moving from “seeding thoughts and cultivating commitments and leaders” to “managing the whole garden,” including supporting a growing team of people who are committed to creating conditions in the region for the Vision and core values to be realized
  • Creating “bake boxes” that can readily be used and adapted by people and organizations in the region (examples include the regional Vision, the core values, the recently endorsed HEAL policy platform, a soon to be launched narrative/messaging guide, racial equity design toolkit and discussion guide, etc.)
  • Calling B.S. on those who are “Vision and values washing” (saying they are aligned but acting in contrary ways) or are off point – see for example these recent letters in response to a Boston Globe editorial.

We also talked about what we see not changing:

And of course all of this is subject to adjustment and adaptation given complexity, uncertainty and the network nature of emergence. #humility

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October 28, 2019

A Taste of “Team Human”

I just finished reading Douglas Ruskoff’s Team Human and found it very provocative and timely. As I find myself in more spaces where it feels like there is a tendency towards breaking as opposed to bridging, I and others with whom I work are asking, (1) What is really going on here? and (2) What we can do to better hold things together, while respecting diversity and difference? Team Human offers some insights by lifting up how the digital-age technologies in which many of us are engaged are making dangerously simplistic abstractions of our world (and of people) and appealing to the worst of our humanity.

Rushkoff uses 100 aphoristic statements in what amounts to a manifesto that speaks to how forces for human connection have turned into ones of isolation and repression. This includes algorithms that constantly direct our attention to what outrages us and sound bite biased social media undermining democracy by encouraging people to spread incendiary partial and untruths (because they outrage us!).

The book is certainly a wake up call to understand the manipulation behind digital media and to go beyond false appearances and reductionist reactivity to embrace prosocial behavior and make contributions towards regenerative patterns and flows. I highly recommend the book and have pulled some of my favorite quotes, which you will find below:

“Whoever controls media controls society. … Social control is based on thwarting social contact and exploding the resulting disorientation and despair.

“Engineers at our leading tech firms and universities tend to see human beings as the problem and technology as the solution.”

[Under capitalism] “people are at best an asset to be exploited, and at worst a cost to be endured.”

“We’ve got a greater part of humanity working on making our social media feeds more persuasive than we have on making clean water more accessible.”

“The internet reinforces its core element : the binary. It makes us take sides.”

“Memetic warfare, regardless of the content, discourages cooperation, consensus, or empathy.”

“If we don’t truly know what something is programmed to do, chances are it is programming us. Once that happens, we may as well be machines ourselves.”

“There is no ‘resistance’ in a digital environment/ only on or off.”

“We reduced ideas to weaponized memes, and humankind to human resources. We got carried away with our utilitarian capabilities, and lost touch with the reasons to exercise those capabilities in the first place.”

“The long-term danger is not that we will lose our jobs to robots. … The real threat is that we lose our humanity to the value system we embed in our robots, and that they in turn impose on us.”

“We must learn that technology’s problems can’t always be solved with more technology.”

“Might the apparent calamity and dismay around us be less the symptoms of a society on the verge of collapse than those of one about to give birth?”

“The first step toward reversing our predicament is to recognize that being human is a team sport.”

“Happiness is not a function of one’s individual experience or choice, but a property of groups of people.”

“Evolution may have less to do with rising above one’s peers than learning to get along with more of them.”

“Challenging the overt methods of separation is straightforward: reject that hate speech of racists, zero some economics of oppression, and the war mongering of both tyrants and neoliberal hawks.”

“We can be utterly in charge of the choice not to be utterly in charge. We can be fully human without being in complete control of our world.”

“It’s neither resistance nor passivity, but active participation: working in concert with what’s happening to make it down river in one piece.”

“New experiments have revealed that after just a few moments of awe, people behave with increased altruism, cooperation and self-sacrifice.”

“True awe is timeless, limitless, and without division. It suggests there is a unifying whole to which we all belong – if only we could hold onto that awareness.”

“If we are not going to follow the commands of a king, a CEO, or an algorithm, then we need unifying values in order to work together as a team to work toward mutually beneficial goals.”

“Unless we consciously retrieve the power inherent in our collective nature, we will remain unable to defend ourselves against those who continue to use our misguided quest for individuality against us.”

“The future is not a discontinuity or some scenario we plan for so much as the reality we are creating through our choices right now. We just need to observe the flows, recognize the patterns, and apply them everywhere we can.”

“Find the others. Restore the social connections that make us fully functioning humans, and oppose all conventions, institutions, technologies, and mindsets that keep us apart.”

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October 11, 2019

Racial Imposter Syndrome

I have now sat in at least six meetings in which women of color leaders have talked about feeling like an imposter. My thinking is evolving, but I believe imposter syndrome in racialized contexts is the experience (almost like a deja vu moment), when people of color feel like a fraud or, worse, they actually believe they are not capable leaders.

Initially coined by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.

Imposter Syndrome is unique if you apply a racialized lens because it is so deeply intertwined with assimilation and racism.

Assimilation into white and male work culture was not something that women of color chose. We were forced to conform our way of dressing, speaking, working, and being so that white people, and men –  in particular – would accept us as leaders, good workers, and trusted friends. It was an olympic code-switching, and it was exhausting and soul depleting. But mostly, it was survival. Survival so we could ascend to positions of leadership, keep a job, and make enough money to support our families. Choosing not to assimilate came at a huge price.

When you assimilate, you lose a sense of self. You lose the parts of you that were the “original you,” the stronger parts of your identity and what made you unique and whole. And before you know it, you become another version of yourself – watered down, less happy, more anxious, and constantly questioning your abilities. It’s like catching a wicked case of internalized oppression in which we walk around feeling bad about ourselves or feeling like we fall short. It may be a feeling that lasts for a few seconds and we swat it off to move forward, or it lasts longer, causing serious emotional pain and worry.

This vice grip of assimilation and internalized inferiority finds us showing up as half of ourselves in the workplace. For example, we may have the best idea in a meeting at a particular moment, but we feel self-conscious advocating for it or even raising it. People may want us to take on leadership roles but we turn them down, either because we think we don’t deserve the role or we might fail. Racial imposter syndrome drains your confidence meter, and confidence is necessary to take risks, lead and collaborate with others.

One thought leader on this topic speaks to how there is the real you and then there are the masks we wear to hide our authentic selves.  

So what can we do about it? 

As women of color, I feel we need to embrace our real selves and discard the masks that assimilation requires us to wear. We have to surrender our perfectionist patterns and release the internal negative feelings that we have. We need and deserve a positive and healthy internal dialogue and stance.

Racial Imposter syndrome prevents women of color from taking on high profile roles such as executive director in nonprofits or elected office. I am  convinced as a woman of color that we must confront and conquer racial imposter syndrome to develop positive self-image and healthy confidence which will help us to accept and excel in our most desired leadership roles. Together, we can be free of our masks and lead boldly for racial equity and social justice.

Source: https://medium.com/datadriveninvestor/why-imposter-syndrome-affects-the-most-successful-people-d3e5c8bb977e
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October 7, 2019

Participatory Methods and Approaches for Equitable Food Systems Work

“Nothing about us without us is for us.”

South African slogan

“What is missing from the policy analyst’s tool kit – and from the set of accepted, well-developed theories of human organization – is an adequately specified theory of collective action whereby a group of principals can organize themselves voluntarily to retain the residuals of their own efforts.”

Elinor Ostrom (1996) Governing the Commons

“…there’s no real evidence that one can become expert in something as broad as ‘decision making’ or ‘policy’ or ‘strategy.’ Auto repair, piloting, skiing, perhaps even management: these are skills that yield to application, hard work, and native talent. But forecasting an uncertain future and deciding the best course of action in the face of that future are much less likely to do so. And much of what we’ve seen so far suggests that a large group of diverse individuals will come up with better and more robust forecasts and make more intelligent decisions than even the most skilled ‘decision maker.’”

James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds

Last week I had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop for one of the sub-networks of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network focused on food access (including food justice and racial equity). Farm to Plate is moving into a second decade of work and looking to refresh its strategic work and structure (version 2.0). As part of this move, various members are interested in how they can engage others more robustly and/or responsibly in their work, including those who are negatively impacted by the current system (those living with hunger and in poverty, struggling farmers, farm workers, indigenous people, etc.). The workshop was designed around some core IISC collaborative frameworks, which participants applied to their work in pairs and small groups, and it also elicited different participatory methods that those in the room were already using or aware of.

One of the operating assumptions in the workshop was that engagement and participation can and should look different in different situations, and that more is not necessarily better. Rather, it is important to get clear on the aims of an initiative, carefully consider who the key stakeholders are, weigh various factors (time, complexity, readiness, power dynamics, etc.) and think about timing and different phases of the work. Doing this kind of due diligence can help to clarify when and where on a spectrum of engagement options different individuals and groups might fall (see below for some examples).

For the last segment of the workshop, we explored a variety of participatory models and methods, and here is some of what came up (specifically considering the context of Vermont food systems work).

Organizational/Network Models:

Tools, Techniques, Roles:

Governance/Decision-Making:

Participatory Planning and Assessment Approaches:

Of course there are many others out there. Please feel free to suggest additional models, examples, techniques and tools!

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September 12, 2019

Racial Equity Inside IISC: Doing What We Say We Do

I often think the biggest quest for IISC is to mirror our mission internally. We work to build collaborative capacity for social justice and racial equity with our clients and partners in the field, but how do we practice that inside of our organization with intention and action?

Unconsciously or consciously what leaders show, allow, and choose to grow are the things that people either imitate or support inside their organization. IISC is a leader in the field of racial equity and social justice so it follows that we should mirror transformational practices for racial equity and justice at home. It’s not about being perfect but it is about taking deep ownership of our own racism and other forms of oppression. It’s about bringing to an end comments, behaviors, and practices that call into question even subtly the worth, intelligence, experience, and dignity of people of color or other targeted groups. It’s about making sure that all of our policies are informed by a racial equity lens by asking ourselves how a decision, policy, or practice negatively impact people of color or other groups at the margins.

This graphic builds from materials that were adapted by George Friday
from the Dismantling Racism workshop.

At different points in IISC’s history we have paid deep attention to our own culture and practices to align them more closely with the just world we want to create. In recent times that has meant examining the personal, interpersonal, and institutional interactions that may perpetuate racial inequity in our relationships and inside our culture and system.

We have examined and adjusted our pay scales to bring them more in line with our values and to ensure there is parity based on race and gender. We have restarted the practices of caucuses, in which white staff gather separately to learn about white privilege and fragility in our workplace so that they can support one another and take accountability for their beliefs and actions. In the people of color caucus, staff support each other around instances of racism by staff and clients and challenge each other to show up more fully at IISC so that we can challenge the status quo. Both caucuses then come together in staff meetings to explore our learnings, give each other feedback, and discuss our aspirations and challenges. We are constantly in dialogue and discovery.

As the leader of IISC, I have made it known that it’s not enough to do your functional job at IISC – the tasks of a particular role for example – but that it is equally as important if not more so to walk the talk of collaboration, racial belonging, equity, and justice.

In the future, we will be offering individual equity coaching to staff so that they can have a resource to impact and grow as leaders. We will also be deeply infusing equity expectations into our performance management process.

Some of the questions I think we need to explore going forward are:

  • How do we disrupt and interrupt unconscious and conscious racism in our organization? In our thoughts, behaviors, and interactions, and in those of others? And how do we still reach for each other to collaborate when we are in the middle of tough conflicts across difference?
  • How do we move this internal work into our relationships and practice with the board of directors and with our affiliate consultants? What is the most authentic and powerful way to do that?
  • In what ways we do expect our clients to treat people of color staff and affiliates with deep respect and on the same level as their white peers? There are many stories of white consultants working in client systems receiving better or different treatment than people of color.

Clients pay IISC to design and facilitate processes for racial equity change in their organizations. If we do that which we say we do, IISC will always be in an equity change process itself. There may be fits and starts, victories and back slides, but we will be in it.  Embracing discomfort like our clients, making changes despite setbacks, and taking on tough battles and decisions to uproot the influence of racism and oppression that surrounds and penetrates the IISC living system.

We will be undone as I shared in a recent blog, but we will be practicing what we preach and that alignment and clarity will give us the strength and resilience to keep transforming IISC and of course transforming ourselves.

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September 5, 2019

What’s Your Thread?

Over the past couple of months I have brought the poem below into a few different gatherings. Amidst flux, uncertainty, volatility, and pending collapse, it can be difficult to figure out how to orient, what to hold onto. So leave it to the poets to throw us a life line. Or in this case a thread.

William Stafford is a source of consistent solace and sanity to me, and “The Way It Is” I have found particularly grounding …

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Colleagues and I have used this as an opening check-in with various groups and then invited people to name their thread. Here is some of what has come up:

  • People, those that I care for and who care or me.
  • The moral arc that bends towards justice.
  • Courage to hold on to what is possible.
  • Grace.
  • Tenderness.
  • Imagination.
  • The fire of passion.
  • Love, love and love.

What is the thread you hold that guides and grounds you in these times?

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August 9, 2019

Leadership: Stepping Back to Let Others In

As I watch the Democratic Party presidential debates, I am particularly struck by the large number of white males and males of color who insist they must be candidates for president in November 2020.

Why do they feel it’s their time to step in when there are plenty of women – including women of color – who could lead this country as well if not better than they could? When do people with privilege understand and appreciate that they need to step back so others can step in? A defiant and powerful act against racism and sexism is to say to yourself, “I have experienced what it’s like to govern, to lead, and to hold power. It’s now time for me to support others who have not yet had that chance so we can experience a different kind of America.”

I have a fantasy that sometime in the fall of this year, all the male candidates – yes all – will host a press conference and relinquish their nominations. If the male candidates actually ceded power, it would change the course of this country because a woman would be elected as president of the United States for the first time in our history. Our culture would see power explicitly and transparently shift to those who don’t typically have it. Policies would undoubtedly look very different if approached through a gendered and intersectional lens.

But I don’t want to just make this a challenge to presidential candidates. It’s a challenge I want to make to us all, especially those of us in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. There are many great leaders holding onto their positions, titles, or spheres of influence, not realizing that doing so comes at the price of denying others these opportunities.

Some provocative considerations include:

  • If you have been in your position for at least five to seven years and think it’s yours until you leave the role or retire, you aren’t ceding or sharing power.
  • If you aren’t sharing your relationships with people who have power and resources with others who have less privilege, you aren’t ceding or sharing power.
  • If you are reading this thinking you don’t have power, ask yourself if you have ever been in a position of authority or responsibility. Are you in one now? Do your decisions affect others as well as institutional or organizational policies? You may not feel powerful but chances are you have power.

There’s reward if we step back to make room for others to step in. We will get to observe and follow the leadership of others and learn new ways of doing things. We will know that we proactively and willingly contributed to shifting power unlike some of our ancestors or predecessors. We will feel the sense of relief and humility that comes from knowing that we are not the only ones who can answer the call of duty or lead an organization. And if we allow others to lead and to lead fully, we will be able to restore our energy for other ways we can contribute to the work that remains so important to us all.

I think about this as a woman of color leading IISC. Although I am female and a person of color, I am older and I have had the opportunity to hold many positions of authority. I think about how I can support younger people to lead IISC. It scares me to think about leaving my role one day, what I might do next, how I would make it financially. But then I remember all the privilege I have earned over my fifty years. I have gained connections to money, connections to recruiters and other opportunities, and I have many family members who love and can help me.

I breathe and I remember I will be perfectly fine.

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August 5, 2019

An Ecosystem of Resourcing for Racial Equity Culture Change Work

Over the past several years we at IISC have had to opportunity to work with colleagues to go deep over a relatively short period of time (2-3 years) with a few organizations facilitating internal culture change for race equity and inclusion. The intensity of this work has offered up opportunity and a number of important lessons, perhaps first and foremost that it is critical to have in place an ecosystem of support and resources to do this work for everyone involved, facilitators included.

IISC President Kelly Bates wrote wisely in a blog post that the work for racial equity is about undoing as much as it is about doing. We do not simply build new culture or behavior on top of old, especially in situations that are characterized by oppression. Some things must be released, and this letting go does not come easy.

There is power and identity and comfort and resources of various kinds invested in the status quo, including in chronic busyness that does not make space for the work or for much of substance to happen. In some cases, there is a preference for existing discomfort that is familiar and that for some is better than uncertainty and instability (the devil you know). But this is exactly what this work calls for  – stepping boldly, and together, into the unknown and unknowing and being open to changing who we think we are, how we relate to ourselves and one another.

This can get quite fraught, opening up hard feelings, mistrust, suspicion and trauma. The diagram above from DismantlingRacism.org highlights the “liminal” space in racial equity processes that groups enter when they move beyond the familiar, including “familiar dysfunction,” to unfamiliar dysfunction. This phase is described in the following way:

The stage of “not knowing,” [is] a place where many experience frustration and/or fear. Many if not most people want the process to offer clarity and quick fixes; when the process does not, both POC and white people give into the tendency to identify people and actions as “right” or “wrong.” Some people in the organization move into positions of high righteousness, believing that race equity is based in “one right way” of doing things; energy goes into identifying who or what is “right” and who or what is “wrong.” People can feel very unsettled because this righteous judgment can either lead to significant self-doubt and/or a desire for the organization to address personal ego needs. At the same time, in the middle of this “not knowing,” relationships may begin to subtly shift as some individuals within the organization work to negotiate conflict with heightened personal awareness and increased accountability to the mission. In addition, the organization as a whole begins to recognize ways in which racism is tending to reproduce itself and attempts are being made to address those. 

SOURCE: “Racial Equity Stages” from DismantlingRacism.org

Here, while ideally we would hope to be able to lean on one another, it is the reality that other supports are going to be necessary, and beyond what external change facilitators and coaches are able to provide. On the way to achieving more relational trust with and commitment to one another, there are a variety of handrails that can be helpful.

For one of our engagements, my colleague Jen Willsea put together the diagram below to sketch out some of the systemic supports that can be useful for organizations going through race equity change work.

A few notes about what appears in the diagram:

  • Contemplative and embodiment practices can be done alone or in groups and include things like meditation, prayer, general somatics, and focusing. This Self-Care Wheel, which I learned about from my colleague and IISC Racial Equity and Training Practice Lead, Aba Taylor, has many great suggestions of practices that can contribute to well-being. Another good resource is the Tree of Contemplative Practices from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.
  • There are many rich places to find resources for learning. Consider Racial Equity Tools as a place to start. Also consider the Healing Justice podcast and community. The Perception Institute offers cutting edge research on the science of implicit bias, racial anxiety and stereotype and identity threat. In addition, the Food Solutions New England 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge website has a lengthy resource list.
  • Mental health professionals may or may not have experience around race-based trauma, racial identify formation, internalized superiority and inferiority, etc. It is good to do your homework around this.
  • There are growing numbers and revelations of spiritual teachers and teachings that can serve as resources for this work. Some that we have come to appreciate include angel Kyodo williams, Ruth King, Barbara A. Holmes, Howard Thurman, Sherri Mitchell, and Father Richard Rohr.
  • Human resource professionals can be key to providing support especially when they are trained in dealing with racism and white supremacy. A helpful resource on this front is this guide from RoadMap.
  • The board of directors of an organization is an important lever for change and support, provided it has an unwavering commitment to racial equity, ideally is collectively trained in the history/shared language/key concepts around race and racism, and has people who bring some relevant lived experience and expertise around healing, organizational change and political action.
  • There are more and more resources that address the reality of trauma and intergenerational transmission of suffering that results from racism and white supremacy. Consider books such as Trauma Stewardship and My Grandmother’s Hands.
  • Some of our favorite conferences include Facing Race, the Equity in the Center Convening, and the White Privilege Conference.
  • There are many powerful workshops and on-line trainings out there, including Undoing Racism, PACE trainings from Visions, Inc., unconscious bias trainings, equityXdesign, and our own Fundamentals of Facilitation for Racial Justice Work and Advancing Racial Justice in Organizations (thank you, Cynthia Silva Parker and Nyantara Sen!).
  • For more political and historical education, consider books such as Stamped from the Beginning, White Rage, Under the Affluence, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Waking Up White, The New Jim Crow, The Fire Next Time, White Fragility, Who We Be; and videos such as Race: The Power of Illusion, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity.
  • For more on the what, why and how of racial affinity groups and caucuses, check out the resources on this page.
  • Thanks to the guidance of Melinda Weekes-Laidlow and inspiration of Christine Ortiz, prototype teams are increasingly a feature of our work with organizations doing race equity and inclusion culture change work. What this looks like is that departmental and other cross-functional teams each create a small testable and scalable experiment at strategic “choice points” to address internalized and institutional racism and white supremacy. When well-facilitated and guided, these are powerful engines of learning and relational trust-building. We are are happy to share more about our experience with these teams, how they operate and what they produce.
  • Race equity design, planning and implementation teams are a feature of the work we do around culture change in organizations and networks. These teams are ideally diverse (with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, seniority/tenure, age, function … ), process-savvy and invested in the long-term success of this work. Again, we are happy to share more about these vital teams.

And we certainly welcome additions! What have you found to be helpful, if not crucial, to the work of race equity culture change?

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July 27, 2019

Getting With the Flows: “Net Work” As Change

For a number of years now I have been digging into network approaches to social change, including supporting collaborative network formation and development at national, regional, state and local levels around a number of issues, from food insecurity to health inequity to environmental conservation to economic decline and stagnation. While there have been promising advances made in many spaces and places to build trust and connection across various lines of difference (geographic, sectoral, cultural, ethnic, racial) and also to achieve alignment around shared goals and shared identity, significant change has been slow to come and while I know it is important to be realistic about time, I keep feeling that there is a missing link between the work of network development and what is often held up as the goal of “system change.”

I will admit that increasingly I find the stated goal of “system change” a bit hollow and too big, too abstract. Change from what to what? For the sake of what and whom? Increasingly I am more interested in looking at the work of system change as being about working with living systems (neighborhoods, communities, organizations, economies, democracies, etc.) to be equitable, salutogenic (health-promoting) and regenerative (self-renewing). Arguably many of the systems that change agents are focused on are in a state of crisis and/or impending collapse, putting significant portions of the human population, if not the entire species, at risk.  And, of course, the extent to which many of these systems have been “functional,” it has often been at the expense of certain people and the planet (parts or the entirety thereof).

As I hear more talk about the need to come together, connect and collaborate across boundaries (build networks), I keep wanting the conversation to get to another step. Instead of saying that we are here to build networks to work on systems, I want more people to realize that the networks that we are trying to create and that already exist are part and parcel of those systems. That is, neighborhoods, communities, economies, political and health systems, are also networks, or networks of networks – patterns of connection and of flow. They are characterized not just by elements (including people) that are in relationship (that we might see in a typical network map) but also by the resources that move through those channels of relationship (money, information, nutrients, etc.). This realization takes us into the realm of what are called the “energy network sciences” and the idea that evolving patterns and the quality of connection and flow changes and/or creates new systemic possibilities.

Image from Marco Nuernberger, “Flow,” used under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

“New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”

My friend and mentor Sally J. Goerner, quoted above and throughout the rest of this post, recently published a paper entitled “The Collapse of Oligarchic Capitalism and the Rise of Regenerative Learning: How the science of energy systems clarifies what’s happening today and what comes next.” In this paper she builds on her previous and robust work to illustrate how “flow networks” have a lot to say about our current political, economic and climate disruptions and crises.

She begins by reframing our view of evolution from one that is mechanical and accidental to one that is dynamic and quite intelligent. As she writes – “The new logic of life comes most clearly from the new story of growth, development and evolution emerging from an energy-driven process called self-organization.” Self-organization, a phenomenon that is recognized and valued by many network weavers, occurs through the ongoing process of life meeting life and creating new patterns of vitality. Sally writes –

“Instead of improbable accidents in a universe running downhill, we are probable products of energy-flow and binding forces … that connect us in an all-embracing ever-evolving web moving inexorably toward increasing intelligence, complexity, integration and balance.”

In order for this process of complex evolution to occur, there is a need to keep energy flowing and cycling and recycling through an “ever-growing meshwork of connective tissue” so that new patterns of organization can form that are resilient in an ever-changing environment. This flowing energy can exist in the form of information, learning, money, and other crucial resources. When this flow is stunted or fails to happen, certain parts of the system in question can be put at risk, and over time, especially if energy makes it to only a small part of the overall system (through disconnection, blockage, hoarding, extraction) the whole system faces the prospect of collapse. What this means is that the system loses its capacity to regenerate.

Image from tinyfroglet, “Energy Flows,” used under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

“Regenerative systems maintain their existence by constantly channeling critical flows back into nourishing their internal processes and organization and other forms of revitalization.”

Sally spends the bulk of her paper showing how non-regenerative patterns apply to the logic and playing out in the US and globally of economic neoliberalism and oligarchic capitalism. “Neoliberal economies under-invest in human capacities, encourage extractive and speculative practices, promote concentration over circulation; and extol corporate gigantism instead of proper balance.” This is all exacerbated by the accompanying dynamic of the concentration of significant influential decision-making power in fewer and fewer hands (elites) that are self-serving. And this makes the entire system (economy, political system, organization, community) unstable because it violates the rules of “regenerative vitality” – it is less “intelligent” in its ability to respond through diverse sensors and actors to environmental signals.

The counter to where we are and are heading is to be found, in part, through bringing an energy or flow networks perspective which encourages us to keep evolving “constructive, synergistic human networks, linked by mutual benefits, energized by common-cause, and fueled by the robust circulation” of energy/resources. This means embracing a different set if values than those offered by neoliberalism, for example – uplifting a full accounting of human and planetary “externalities” (oppression, theft, pollution, ecological degradation); the care, inclusion and feeding of entire and diverse networks of interconnected individuals, organizations, businesses, communities, cities, governments and the biosphere; and a commitment to robust social learning across all kinds of difference.

This is where I want to take the conversation with more and more social change agents and network weavers going forward. Let’s not focus simply on the structural form of our networks and net work. Let’s focus on what is moving and what facilitates flow through those connections; from where and from whom, to where and to whom; as well as what and who flow supports in terms of resilience, thriving, as well as adaptive and regenerative capacity.

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June 25, 2019

IISC’s 25th Anniversary Celebration: Lessons Learned

On June 11, 2019, IISC successfully celebrated twenty-five years of building collaborative capacity for social justice and racial equity. It was a beautiful and soulful party with over 200 supporters at the historic Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a largely Black and working-class community in the heart of Boston. It was IISC’s first time planning an event of this magnitude, let alone celebrating such a major milestone as our quarter-century birthday.

As you know, part of IISC’s core and signature contribution to the field is that we bring people together to collaborate, lead, and design processes for social change and racial equity. Therefore, like a true IISC’er, I have been pondering some questions. What did we learn about collaboration, racial equity, process, and leadership through this event? What did this event teach or re-teach us about collective planning for change?

There are five observations that come to mind. Not so much about the mechanics of the event (get a great event coordinator is the short answer to that!), but rather about the important intentions around the event.

  1. Clear collaboration got us through every challenge. It was important for us to have a clear purpose for our event, a set of shared values to guide our planning, and a collective vision for our success. Our willingness to share leadership brought wisdom and effective action to our task. We also understood that our collaboration could be efficient. At IISC we remind people that not every decision needs to be made by consensus and this was true in our process. In the case of our event, we delegated the role of planning the event to a committee of diverse stakeholders by role, age, and race that could work nimbly with a relatively small number of constraints such as budget. Other than that, the sky was the limit. We solicited input from each other and other stakeholders as we went along so that we could harness the collective genius and perspectives needed to make this a truly special and unique event. When we hit a block or wall, we would ask the group, what do you think?
  2. Women of color leadership makes the difference. At IISC we are challenging our clients and ourselves to make and honor spaces for women of color to share their voices, to lead, and to flourish. Our event coordinator was a Black woman and at any given time, 70% of the event committee was comprised of women of color. These women of color brought intersectional approaches to everything, making connections between IISC’s equity values and our event vision and execution. We ensured that we had diverse voices on our event stage, and that we hired people of color, women, and Boston residents as vendors. Women of color have often had to make do with very little and to work on every task from bottom to top. With that, our skills kicked in, helping us to nail the small and big details. Collectively, we turned over every stone to solve every challenge along the way.
  3. Set an inspiring goal. At IISC, we promote facilitative leadership, and a major facet of this kind of leadership is inspiring people with vision. We decided to set a fundraising goal that was a stretch but not one that would strike fear in us if we didn’t meet it. We chose a goal that if reached, would allow us to accomplish what had otherwise seemed impossible: a goal that would provide long imagined funding for innovation and product development. And we not only met our fundraising goal, we shattered it!
  4. RPR works. At IISC, we talk about the three dimensions of success in any collaboration. Tending to relationships, designing artful and meaningful process, and achieving results. At each stage of our work as an event committee, we made space for each event committee member to personally check in about their lives and to learn about non-IISC interests and pursuits. We made sure to have focused and detailed meeting agendas with strong facilitation so that we could process all the event details before us and achieve our desired outcomes. We focused on achieving results. We set targets of $125,000 in fundraising and 150 event participants, and we exceeded both our goals. All three dimensions were essential to our event’s success.

5. Speak and show your values. At IISC our values include equity, networks, shared power, and love and we made sure our event program directly reflected these values. Event participants not only walked away knowing something about IISC’s historical accomplishments and what we do here at IISC, but also about the values that hold our work. Our special 25th anniversary video and program speakers spoke to racial equity, the value of networks, and of love as a force for social change. We had three tiers of event ticket prices along with scholarships, so that we could meet our fundraising goal and still make the event accessible to everyone. Our values were also displayed by hugs, laughing, dancing, and making connections between people around the room. It’s no fun to work on racial equity and social justice if you don’t get to live out and experience those actions and values.

There are many more lessons to learn, but this I know: love, commitment, collaboration, adaptability, connection, and ambitious goals had everything to do with our success. It’s actually hard to accept that our planning has come to an end. Our event planning committee members loved working with each other and experienced a sense of accomplishment that we hope to replicate throughout the organization in the next twenty-five years!

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June 10, 2019

Taking the Interaction Method Home

The Parker Clan

IISC is about to celebrate 25 years of service and my husband and I just celebrated 27 years of marriage. One of my colleagues asked how being part of IISC has influenced my marriage. I tell workshop participants all the time that using at home the collaborative methods and mindset that we teach will make it easy to use them at work. They will also make your home life better because they are rooted in values that are all about building up others and working together toward important common goals. Sounds like family life to me!

When I’m on my best behavior at home (as a mom, wife, sister, daughter, daughter-in-law) I use lots of what I have learned and teach at IISC. It’s also true that when I’m on bad behavior, I’ve usually forgotten or laid aside what I’ve learned. Here’s a sampler …

  • Distinguish content and process. Use appropriate processes for the outcomes and people you’re working with. Pay special attention to process and how people are relating to one another.
  • Be clear about my role in the conversation. Am I participating? Just facilitating? Coaching?
    • When I am a participant, bias toward asking questions that build understanding and help ideas to emerge. Engage with what others are saying rather than just advocating for my own ideas.
    • When coaching, ask questions and share observations that help the coachee to gain insight. Before giving advice, be sure the person wants it.
    • When I’m just facilitating, don’t do the work for the group or turn the conversation toward me or my ideas. Help them to think it out.
  • In all cases, inquire before advocating. And then inquire some more!
  • Be clear about who’s the decision maker and involve others appropriately in the process. Remember that even when I have the authority to make a decision, I will still want to consider ways to involve others who will be affected by that decision. And, be sure to explain my rationale.
  • Remember that big agreements are often built through a series of small agreements.
  • Remember IISC’s collaboration lens:
    • Networks – Remember that my family is part of a broader network. Cultivate relationships, build the capacity of everyone in the network to be strong, contributing members, build a gift culture.
    • Exercise “power with” rather than “power over.” Again, even when I do have power over (as with a small child), bias toward building the person’s power to discern and act on their best motivations rather than just imposing my will.
    • Work for equitable outcomes, matching my strategies to the individual needs. Recognize that people will experience the family and the world differently based on their identity.
    • Nurture the love that does justice. Deeply honor the humanity of everyone, even people we disagree with.
  • When in conflict, don’t be overly wedded to my position. Reveal and encourage others to reveal the underlying interests and look for common ground. Explore options without commitments before trying to move toward an agreement.
  • Be clear and specific about feedback. And only offer it when you are genuinely committed to the other person’s improvement. Make sure to give reinforcing feedback as well as constructive feedback.
  • Remember where you are in the open-narrow-close stages of building an agreement. Don’t start to narrow (analyze options) too early or good ideas may not emerge. Don’t close (make an agreement) until you’ve got all the ideas on the table and have thought them through together.
  • And, of course, many of our norms for collaboration:  Remember it’s ok to disagree. Listen for understanding. Enable empathy and compassion. Take space/make space. Keep it real. Keep it here. Take responsibility for impact, regardless of intent.

I’m curious about what’s on your list folks!!

Years ago, I used to joke (only half kiddingly) with Ron and Susan Kertnzer, who were affiliates and former staff of Interaction Associates who were married to each other. After participating in a workshop that they facilitated, I thought we should create a workshop called “The Learning Marriage and the Facilitated Family.” The skills we teach could strengthen some basic building blocks of our society. And, if we would learn and use these skills at home, using them at work would be second nature! That idea never got out of the discussion phase. Who knows whether it’s an idea whose time will eventually come!?!

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March 24, 2019

A Networked Racial Equity Challenge Grows Up, and Out

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are [people] who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.”

– Frederick Douglass

On April 1, 2019, the 5th Annual Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge will officially launch. We at IISC are excited to once again partner with FSNE in offering the Challenge as a tool for advancing the conversation about and commitment to undoing racism and white supremacy in our food and related systems.

The FSNE Challenge is a remixed and more topically focused form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore (founder of the Privilege Institute), Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White), and Dr. Marguerite W. Penick-Parks (Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh). A small design team saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread conversation about the connection between race, racism and sustainable food systems and ultimately greater action for racial and food justice.

Furthermore, we saw an enhanced on-line version of the Challenge as a way of creating “network effects” around the justice work that many are already doing in our region and beyond. Participation in and the complexity of the Challenge have grown significantly and organically over time. In 2015 we had 200 participants, mainly from the six state region of “New England.” Last year we had over 3,000 people participate from most states in the US and some places in Canada. As of the writing of this post, we already have over 2,000 people registered.

The point of Challenge is not simply to spread but also deepen the commitment to racial equity and food justice. As such, we hope that participants return each year, and many do. Accounting for this, no two Challenges are exactly alike in terms of content, and we are continuously nudging people to go from learning to action. See the image below as one way that we have thought about encouraging people to move up a “ladder of engagement” through their involvement.

Over time, numerous organizations have self-organized to take the Challenge in-house, convening staff colleagues, fellow congregants, community members and classmates to reflect together on learning and making commitments to action. We have heard from groups such as Health Care Without Harm; the Wallace Center at Winrock International; Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems; Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; Southside Community Land Trust (Providence, RI); Agricultural Sustainability Institute at University of California-Davis, Georgia Organics and many others who have convened around the Challenge and are planning to do it for the first time or again.

This year the Challenge is being widely promoted in a variety of places, including through sessions that Karen Spiller and I offered at the White Privilege Conference in Rapids City, Iowa, and at the New Hampshire Food Alliance state-wide gathering. In addition, the Challenge is being promoted campus-wide to students, faculty and staff at the University of New Hampshire, where FSNE’s convening team, the UNH Sustainability Institute, is located.

So what exactly is the Challenge?

It is a self-guided learning journey examining the history and impacts of racism, different kinds of racism, how it is connected to our food systems, examples and tools on how to undo racism and build racial equity and food justice.

How does the Challenge work?

People sign up (YOU can register here) and then starting April 1st, they receive daily email prompts focused on a different theme along with links to related resources (readings, video, audio) that take about 10-15 minutes each day. In addition, there is a robust Resource List for people to look through and continue their learning. Those who register also have access to an online discussion forum for those who want to talk and think out loud about the daily prompts and other learning along the way.

How is the Challenge evolving?

To meet the demands of a growing number of participants and the expressed desire for many to go deeper and to replicate the Challenge in different ways, we have developed a variety of additional supports. This year we again offered an orienting webinar that featured Drs. Moore, Jr. and Penick-Parks along with testimonials to the value of the Challenge, including perspective from Sister Anna Muhammad who works for NOFA/Mass and is on the FSNE Network Team and the FSNE Racial Equity Challenge Committee.

In addition, this year we have produced a Discussion Guide to support groups at schools, colleges, businesses, churches or other organizations that may want to do the Challenge together. The Guide along with the Resource List essentially form a ready-to-use “bake box” that groups could use to run their own exercise if they would like, or to keep the Challenge going 365 days a year!

Another feature this year is a robust Outreach Kit that has been pulled together by FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes. The Kit includes sample communications that can be used to recruit others to participate in the Challenge through email, social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), as well as a one page information flyer.

All of this is in line with how FSNE sees itself evolving as a network into its next 8 years, creating resources that might be shared easily through aligned, diverse and robust connections and adapted by others in the region and beyond (stay tuned for a New Food Narrative Messaging Guide).

What next?

Please join us, and spread the word, the invitation, the conversation and the commitment to others!

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