Having run the NLI for four years as an in-person offering, happening over three multi-day retreats in different parts of the region, we took a break during 2020, which we had considered doing before the pandemic, and recalibrated. The lingering uncertainties of COVID19 forced us into making the Institute virtual, and it is now a monthly day-long offering, that happens between September and February, with optional intersession opportunities (a movie – we have already watched “Gather”, a cooking demonstration – Wampanoag Chef Sherry Pocknett joined us earlier this month, a Liberating Structures evening, etc.).
Along the way we are doing what we can to encourage connections beyond our on-line gatherings, and doing this by making space for realtime connection, albeit on Zoom. This has stretched our creativity and also has us constantly thinking about how to balance presentation with discussion, form and void, whole group with small group and paired discussions, etc. One small practice that we have integrated that seems to be helping people connect during and between sessions is asking a few simple questions. Where this shows up most prominently is when a few of this year’s cohort members do short 10 minute presentations during each session about their work advancing just and sustainable food systems.
When people share, we prompt them not simply to talk about what they do, but also WHY IT MATTERS TO THEM. In addition, we may ask what they bring to the work they do and what excites and challenges them about this work. What we find is that this can create opportunities for connections that are not simply functional (You do what I do or something related to what I do), but also values-based and affective/emotional (Hey, we have some of the same experiences/motivations!) and mutuality (Hey, I have something that might be helpful for you, and you might have something that is helpful for me!). My colleague Karen Spiller and I ask these same questions during panels we have of food systems change agents in our region, before inviting small group breakouts for the cohort to be more intimate with the individual panelists (our recent session included Gaby Pereyra of Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, Anna Muhammad of NOFA-Massachusetts, Sarah Huang of The Grassroots Fund and Madeline Sarrow of Migrant Justice, all speaking to one of FSNE’s four core impact areas – racial equity leadership).
Another simple but powerful question we ask, after someone presents is, “Questions? Comments? Connections?” It is interesting to see how many people jump on the last question, making connections between their work and that of the presenter, offering a name or resource that might be of support, or thinking about possibilities for collaboration. Of course some people might be inclined to do that without the prompt, but this refrain, “Questions? Comments? Connections? seems to be prompting regular weaving activity during and between sessions, reminding us that the questions we ask matter!
And we are checking in with people during each session about the connections they have made since our last time together, reminding them and ourselves that larger change and movement is built through and upon this workof reaching out and exchange!
What other questions have you been asking and small moves have you been making to promote a culture of weaving?
Getting ready to host a session for the Connecticut Food System Alliance (CFSA) focused on “rethinking networks,” I am playing with a list of curated quotes from various people, which all have something to do with networks, connection and interrelatedness. I’ve found over the years that diving into theory first is not a way to bring participants in. Instead I begin with associations, stories and a set of quotes. Below are the ones that I plan on offering to the CFSA by way of volunteer readers, with an invitation for everyone to pay attention to what resonates – when are heads nodding, pulses quickening, smiles spreading, goose bumps rising … and asking readers here to do the same and to freely share your own favorites that do not appear on this list.
“It really boils down to this: all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
“Connections create value. The social era will reward those organizations that realize they don’t create value all by themselves. If the industrial era was about building things, the social era is about connecting things, people, and ideas.”
– Nilofer Merchant (entrepreneur)
“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 (community organizer)
“Network intelligence is the ability to learn from a diverse group of connections. Wherever you work, look beyond your walls: there are more smart people outside than inside your organization.”
– Reid Hoffman (digital strategist)
“We can no longer rely upon traditional gatekeepers of information and knowledge. Each of us must engage with others and develop our trusted knowledge networks. None of us are smart enough to handle all the connections in our digital lives on our own. We need to use both our human networks and our machines in concert.”
– Harold Jarche (personal knowledge management expert)
“i think of movements as intentional worlds, or perhaps more accurately as worlds designed by and for intentional people, those who are able to feel the world not as an unfolding accident of random occurrences, but rather as a massive weaving of intention. you can be tossed about, you can follow someone else’s pattern, or you can intentionally begin to weave and shape existence. and yes, the makeup of your web is the same matter as all that already exists, but your direction and pattern can be new, unexpected, agitating new growth. what results from your efforts depends on your intention.”
– adrienne maree brown (author, doula, activist)
“The key knowledge/abilities of an organization are found in individuals, teams, projects, and their interconnections. The value of the organization is in its network! … The structure of the organization can be viewed via the organization chart. But the ‘doing and learning’ of the organization happens in the ‘white space’ on the organization chart.”
– Valdis Krebs (network scientist)
“While a network, like a group, is a collection of people, it includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties are often more important than the individual people themselves. They allow groups to do things that a disconnected collection of individuals cannot. The ties explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
‐ Nicholas A. Christakis (sociologist and physician)
“Connectedness is a social determinant of health. The degree to which we have and perceive a sufficient number and diversity of relationships that allow us to give and receive information, emotional support and material aid; create a sense of belonging and value; and foster growth.”
‐ Katya Fels Smyth (advocate for equity and well-being)
“When our ancestors spoke about a web of life, they were describing what Western science calls quantumentanglement. They understood that we all originated from the same seed of life, and when that seed exploded and carried life across our universe, we remained connected. Quantum entanglement tells us that any matter once connected physically can never be disconnected energetically (or spiritually).”
– Sherri Mitchell, Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset (Indigenous rights activist and spiritual teacher)
“Long term prosperity is primarily a function of healthy human webs.”
– Sally J. Goerner
“Networks are a thing.” That statement was made by the member of a partner network that we at IISC have been supporting for several years. The comment was meant to convey how increasingly people are recognizing the need to become more network literate as they work for social change, and also to put a finer point on the complexity of doing “net work.” Indeed, as intentional or impact networks evolve, they can often become much more “involved” and this is both good and challenging.
Food Solutions New England is a regional network that has moved into its second decade of work as a formally recognized multi-stakeholder collaborative, and along the way, participants have seen a constant evolution in how it understands itself and its work, as well as how it is organized and carries out its activities in the direction of its vision and grounded in a set of shared values. During a core team retreat last week, and a subsequent Steering Committee discussion, we did some stock taking and also projecting into the future, as uncertain as the latter may be. Where we came to rest is an appreciation of what has been built, much very emergently, over the last 10 years, and upon which the Network can build and certainly will continue to iterate.
So what does a 10 year old regional food systems network have to show for its efforts? Here is a (not quite complete) list, in case it is helpful to others as they evolve:
New EnglandFood Vision/Update planning/scaffolding – The New England Food Vision is a collaborative report that examines the history and considers the future of the region: a future in which food nourishes a social, economic, and environmental landscape that supports a high quality of life for everyone, including generations to come. The Vision was formally published in 2014 as a way of spurring the imagination of people around the region. It has helped to catalyze many conversations around what is possible and must to be done to ensure an equitable and resilient food future, and has helped to create alignment amongst efforts at local, state and regional levels. The Network has recently initiated a participatory process to bring the Vision up to date, both in terms of the data and potential scenarios presented in the original 2014 Vision, but also in response to our evolving world.
Annual 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge – The Challenge is an enhanced and more sector-specific form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore, Debbie Irving, and Dr. Marguerite W. Penick-Parks. After FSNE formalized its commitment to racial equity in its sustainable food system work about 8 years ago (more on this journey in this article), a small design team saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread conversation about the connection between race, racism and food systems and ultimately greater action for racial and food justice. This past April, the Challenge had 10,000 participants from around the region, country and world. Reports are that it has spurred many organizations to do DEIJ work internally, and has inspired Equity Summits and other organizing efforts in communities.
Network Leadership Institute – FSNE launched its first Network Leadership Institute in 2016 to support food system advocates and leaders through skill-building, connect them with one another and the larger Network, and to engage them in the growing alignment around the FSNE Vision and Values. Each year, FSNE selects a diverse cohort who demonstrate deep engagement with and commitment to the New England food system for an immersive, experiential program designed to maximize learning and growth, reflection and connection, and inspiration and renewal. With this year’s (virtual) cohort, roughly 85 people will have been through the NLI, and many alumni have joined the Network Team and been guest faculty in the NLI.
Winter Series – For the first six years of its existence, FSNE hosted an in-person regional Food Summit, which moved around the region to each of the six states. These were paused in 2017 in the name of doing deeper strategy development and implementation work, which resulted in the four Impact Areas to guide the network’s activities (see image above). Earlier this year, given the pandemic, the decision was made to host a series of virtual sessions where people could join together with others across the Food Solutions New England network to connect, learn, and get inspired. Each Friday morning in February 2021 featured a four hour gathering on one of the four impact areas.
Narrative Toolkit and Communicators Community of Practice – As a result of a system mapping process in 2016-2017, the FSNE Network Team identified changing dominant narratives about food and food systems as a leverage point for moving the region in the direction of the Food Vision and Values. Since then, a Communications Director has been hired, a Narrative Toolkit has been developed, and a regional community of practice of food system communicators has been initiated to share resources and discuss aligning and coordinating efforts.
Regional Policy Work – Since elevating regional food policy coordination to one of its four key “impact areas” in 2020, the FSNE network has been convening conversations about the role of the network in helping to move meaningful, collaborative and values-based food policy forward in the region. In addition to hosting online events in late 2020 and beginning work on a draft regional policy platform, FSNE hired a part-time Policy Analyst to help move this effort forward.
The FSNE Pledge – The Network has created an opportunity for individuals and organizations to join and align with the FSNE Vision by signing the FSNE Pledge and demonstrating commitment to the Network’s values and the strengthening of the regional food system.
An expanded and more representative Network Team. The Network Team is made up of food system participants from across the six New England states who share common values and are strategic, networked, practitioners from key sectors and cultural perspectives. The Network Team serves as the principal steward of the FSNE regional network, while cultivating greater connectivity and alignment around the FSNE Vision and Values, and supporting collaborative action to advance our network goals. The team works together to: identify key resources to support the network; maintain and evolve the collaborative culture and capacity of the network; ensure ongoing engagement and participation; model and affirm our commitment to racial justice; and share learnings and FSNE’s work with other networks and organizations.
An expanded and more representative Steering Committee. The Steering Committee (formerly the Process Team) is a strategic “network stewardship” body that includes the Backbone staff as well as some current and former members of the Network Team. Specific responsibilities of the Steering Committee include: proposing and ensuring the integrity of the overall FSNE process; identifying and prioritizing key activities and opportunities with/for the Network Team; helping to draft documents related to network structure and governance; performing leadership duties assigned to the Steering Committee by the full network team, and helping to steward the FSNE network’s health overall.
New Ambassadors and an expanded Ambassador Team. The Ambassador Team takes the FSNE Vision and Values and its commitment to racial equity to communities across the region. The Ambassadors’ work was launched in January 2015 in the most populated and diverse geographic area, the southernmost states of our region: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. This team is expanding to all six states and works together to identify and make connections with new and diverse partners, organizations, and individuals; to create a space for more racially diverse leadership and mentorship opportunities for equity in the food system; and to ensure more connectivity between community efforts, the broader regional food system, and a racial equity agenda.
A close partnership with New England Feeding New England. In 2019, the New England State Food System Planners Partnership launched the New England Feeding New England: Cultivating A Reliable Food Supply Project, a 10-year initiative to prepare the region for system shocks such as climate-related weather events and public health emergencies. NEFNE’s aim is to increase regional food production for regional consumption, striving to improve the reliability of our regional food system by strengthening supply chains and our goal is for 30% of food consumed in New England to be produced or harvested in the region by 2030.
A close partnership with the Southern New England Farmers of Color Collaborative (SNEFCC). SNEFCC is a nascent organization of beginning farmers of color and collaborators who want to increase the success of farmers of color in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. SNEFCC hopes to position farmers of color for new opportunities, and to provide them with the necessary skills and resources to build and sustain successful farm enterprises now and in the future. There is overlap between participants in this Collaborative and the FSNE Network Team, Steering Committee, and Ambassadors.
Partnership and collaboration around holistic regional policy. Through a recent reconfiguration, a regional food policy network manager will work closely with staff at the Highstead Foundation, which serves as the coordinator backbone of Wildlands & Woodland along with the Harvard Forest. Both initiatives have strong collaborations with many NGOs as well as state and federal agencies across the six-state region.
Ripples into neighboring states and other countries – FSNE core team and Steering Committee members are often asked to present about the network’s work. This has resulted in initiatives being sparked in other areas, near and far. Recently, inspired in part by the New England Food Vision, the Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepreneurship began a 2050 Visioning process for the New York State food system. And other food systems initiatives and conversations attributed to the inspiration of FSNE have been occurring in Canada and the UK.
An evolving partnership with Mississippi food system advocates – Through relationships built leading up to, during, and following a national convening of state and regional food system planning efforts, a partnership and exchange has been evolving between advocates in Mississippi, particularly the Mississippi Food Policy Council and Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative, and FSNE. This has resulted in Mississippi advocates presenting during the recent Winter series (see below), FSNE contributing to capacity building efforts in Mississippi, and joint work on initiatives to advance racial equity and economic justice in and through food systems.
I was recently in conversation about the creation of a systems change programmatic offering for funders and nonprofit leaders, and as the discussion turned to the “once in a generation” billions of dollars investment from the US federal government into states and towns, a thought occurred more clearly. Part of “building back better” is weaving back better, connecting and reconnecting the social and cultural fabric of places and communities. This work could fall to official and unofficial “network weavers,” in places that are so inclined, and perhaps there is a need to make this work more official, visible and well supported/compensated.
At a time when many are disengaged from work because of disenchantment, uncertainty and burnout, what could be more engaging than being paid to build trust, facilitate communication and learning, and weave more functional, equitable, resilient and democratic structures of all kinds? A Civic Weaving Corps (CWC)!!!
A few years ago I worked with a place-based multi-organizational collaborative initiative in Massachusetts with a focus on health and fitness. What they recognized is that there was not nearly enough interstitial tissue between organizations and agencies, so that beneficiaries of the system were dropping through gaps or confused about how to navigate. Relying on existing staff to do this was not realistic (except for the energetic few who then risked burnout, or not doing their “day job” well). The same came up in a national education network, where school coaches were discovered to be playing a crucial weaving role between schools within and across regions. This, however, was not what they were formally paid to do, and so it was the first thing to go when people got pressed.
So what if part of Build Back Better lifted up the strong suggestion that cities, towns, states and regions take seriously the importance of weaving activity, and officially supported the creation of network weaver positions (called that or something else contextually meaningful)? Isn’t this the time? What if we really took this opportunity to promote relational stewardship at different scales as being central to ensuring long-term human thriving? While there is some risk to institutionalizing anything, this seems to be worth doing so that it becomes more of a habit and value in systems. And certainly institutionalizing network weaving behaviors in many more positions might help to create the regenerative flows and resilient structures needed for a just and sustainable future.
There could be many models for this. One with which I am intimately familiar is the Food Solutions New England Racial Equity Ambassador Program. This team of passionate and skillful weavers takes the FSNE Vision and Values and its commitment to racial equity in food and related systems to communities across the region. They work together to identify and make connections with new and diverse partners, organizations, and individuals; to create a space for more racially diverse leadership and mentorship opportunities for equity in the food system; and to ensure more connectivity between community efforts, the broader regional food system, and a racial equity agenda.
What do you think? Where is this happening already? How might we advance this as a cause collectively?
As mentioned in a previous post (see “A Network Leadership Institute Goes Virtual With an Appeal to the Senses”), this summer, the core convening team of Food Solutions New England was able to attend a number of different trainings to heighten the team’s awareness and facility around issues of trauma and racialized trauma. This was made possible through the generosity and understanding of the Angell Foundation, which has supported FSNE in offering the Network Leadership Institute since 2016. Last year, in light of COVID, the calls for reckoning and repair, and so much uncertainty, along with the very place-based nature of the Institute to that point, we elected not to jump into the virtual fray. Instead we took a step back, and had some deeper conversations about the future of the NLI, what we had learned over the past years, how we wanted to evolve the offering, and what new capacities we needed as a team and broader network.
Now we are poised to offer the 5th Institute over the next six months (September 2021-February 2022), anchored in 6 day-long virtual sessions, complete with many of the same components we have had in the past: (1) community and relationship building, (2) grounding in the history and present work of the Food Solutions New England Network, (3) meeting and hearing from other food system leaders and change agents in our region, (4) sharing practices to cultivate personal and collective resilience, and (5) developing deeper collaborative and networked capacity to realize justice, equity, sustainability, and democracy in our regional food system. In addition to these six sessions, we will offer a number of optional inter-session gatherings, in the early evening, with either a cooking demo, relevant movie (such as Gather and Homecoming), or special speaker.
We enter into this year’s offering knowing that the baseline for our work is connection and care. And thanks to Jerrilyn Dixson and team at Progressive Therapy, LLC out of Jackson, MS, Cultural Somatics Institute, Class Action and Quabbin Mediation, we have more enhanced sensibilities related our collective work for equity and well-being. What appears below are some of the lessons that we are bringing to this year’s Institute, and all the on-line gathering work of FSNE.
3 Realms of ACEs (sources of child trauma)
Important overall learnings and take-aways…
Class is not just wealth; class is about a combination of resources + culture (status/power/education, etc.)
Class can be a driver for anxiety, stress, comparison, confusion, shame, inner resistance …
The levels of classism can mirror and connect to the levels of racism (internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural).
Harm-doing can take many different forms, including: racism, sexism, misgendering, aggression, unpaid labor, miscommunication, exploitation, abuse …
At least 70% of people have had at least 1 traumatic experience; thus, trauma is the norm, not the anomaly
6 core principles of trauma informed care: safety, trustworthiness and transparency; peer support and mutual help; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice and choice; attention to cultural, historical and gender issues
“Trauma happens when people feel disconnected,” not seen, heard or valued.
Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and values and when they give and receive without judgment.
Challenging behaviors are almost always about creating connection and/or safety, even if that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on to the outside observer of the behavior
The concept of “protest behaviors” — these are things people do to get what they need to feel connected, when not getting their needs met. These show up in all different kinds of ways — be on the lookout.
Make sure to offer assistance with technology and do not assume, or convey the assumption, that everyone is comfortable with any given technology or technique.
Build community agreements collaboratively and by consensus.
Ask people to name any accessibility needs, discomforts and triggers (this could be done in a survey and/or during group activity).
Create safe and soothing space (white noise to drown out distracting noise or to let people know that what they are sharing is not carrying beyond the room, soft/relaxing music, natural imagery, calming scents)
Be aware of your own triggers as a trainer/facilitator/coach – realize it isn’t the person, it is the action andthe interaction. Recognize, take a break. Have a code between facilitators for when one of us is triggered and needs to step out to re-regulate.
Consider having a “3rd party” (not one of the facilitators) that a participant can talk toif there is a perception that the challenge lies with the facilitation approach.
Use a grounding/re-connecting exercise or opportunity after a challenging moment or episode of disconnection in a group (breathing, movement, shaking, tapping, etc.).
Use a scale of 1-10 for mood check/how people are entering or leaving space. Use a scale of 1-10 on how connected you as facilitator feel to [the group or the topic we are working on today.
Invite people to make themselves feel comfortable as participants (bring fidget toys, food, water, something that makes them feel at home).
Pay attention to the choices of colors, images, etc, in the slides that you use.
Create some predictability and transparency by sharing goals and the agenda of a session in advance, along with timeframes, roles, expectations and any supplies/materials needed.
Stay online 15-30 minutes after a session for anyone who would like to talk more.
Agree on a hand gesture signal that allows people to take space as needed (i.e. when they want to leave the room to use restroom or take an unscheduled break).
Consider structuring in identity-based caucuses. Give them topics and structure. Use when needed or desired.
Use entry passwords, and make sure everyone in the group can get easy access to them, for virtual settings, ensuring that all feel it is literally a safe space
Apprise guest speakers of group agreements, before they show up and brief them on the vibe/pet peeves. Let the group know this is being done to demonstrate you value the trust-based environment you are trying to create.
Have mental-emotional-spiritual health and support resources information available.
Should things get volatile with someone who is triggered, reflect back (name the behavior), create space for them to be heard, do not take it personally and check your privilege …
Be ready to recognize if an individual is not ready for the group or program (and vice versa) after employing all of these practices. No one person is bigger than the mission/goal. Have procedures in place for non-compliance that maintain the dignity of all.
Have a “consent/agreement” about actions that will be taken should challenges arise, including the possibility of determining the program is not the right fit for participant. “In the event of a conflict or a feeling of harm being done, here are [2-3] ways to start the process of addressing or resolving the issue. If, even after these efforts, the challenges remain, we may collectively decide that this program is not a good fit for your needs….”
“Non-violence is the constant awareness of the dignity and humanity of oneself and others. Non-violence is a courageous acceptance of active love and goodwill as the instrument with which to overcome evil and transform both oneself and others.”
Wally Nelson, African American civil rights and peace activist (1909-2002)
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
After shedding joyful tears, I was thrilled to share this news with our team. Many years ago, we aspired to attract an angel investor, but never had the capacity to pursue one rigorously. Since then, we occasionally joked about this possibility, but never really thought we would be on the receiving end of the biggest charitable donation of our careers. The $2 million gift, with no strings attached, was validation for a team whose members have been humble over the past thirty years as we worked to build collaborative capacity for social justice and racial equity.
In the midst of the excitement and overwhelm of the unexpected gift, we also recognized the responsibility that comes with our windfall. For many organizations led by Black, Indigenous, & other people of color (BIPOC) — like ours, operating on relatively small budgets — a cash infusion of this magnitude could enable us to grow our programmatic work while also focusing on often neglected internal needs. Yet, rather than rejigger our budget, we are choosing to take a long pause before doing anything with the grant. We are faced with answering an otherwise hypothetical question that we often pose to the networks and organizations we work with: ‘What would your non-profit do with $1 million?’ In our case, what would we actually do with an unrestricted $2 million grant?
We are keenly aware of the freedom to make expansive choices and explore new possibilities now available to us. At the same time, we are also aware of: 1) the countless entities we support or are in partnership with that did not get a grant as we did, and 2) that the grant has created an implicit power and equity differential between IISC and those with whom we work. So what is the way forward?
To guide our response, we are drawing on our organizational values — to ensure that this gift benefits not just our organization but also the ecosystem within which we operate including our clients and partners.
Social change is possible through shared power and equity, network building, and love — our lens for collaborative change which guides our internal and external work. As we consider how we will spend these grant funds, and what we want to do with them, we hope to foster a sense of power-sharing, ensure equitable outcomes, build relationships and networks, and express love in action.
With that in mind, we are clear that decisions on how we spend the money will be led by BIPOC staff, including our affiliate consultants and trainers and our board members, with input from other IISC stakeholders. We want to ensure that historically marginalized and racially oppressed groups and communities have an equitable share in the power and control of organizational and societal resources. This is particularly important to us because BIPOC are typically not centered in big money spending decisions. Furthermore, centering BIPOC is an act of trust, with the understanding that the people involved in the decision-making will do so with the strengths, aspirations, and needs of their organizations, networks, and our communities in mind.
Transformative leadership is the kind of leadership we need in the 21st century. With this organizational value, we are considering how this potentially transformational gift to IISC is an opportunity for us to lift up organizations and networks that were not chosen for the grant. We are already using our position to leverage funds for other great organizations. We are excited that this is one way we can expand our circle of influence and promote greater equity in philanthropy.
The change we seek in the world ultimately comes down to the decisions we make about how we expend resources in our lives from the individual to community, organizational, and societal levels. IISC envisions a healthy planet where people thrive, value their differences, and work together for peace and justice and we are committed to leveraging the gift from MacKenzie Scott towards realizing this vision. As we come out of our pause and initiate conversations on how we will utilize the grant, we invite you to stay tuned as we share what we are learning and where we land.
I have shared a few times on this blog about the Food Solutions New England Network Leadership Institute (NLI), something IISC has had a hand in co-designing and co-facilitating for four years (late 2016- early 2020). Last year, in light of COVID, the calls for reckoning and repair, and so much uncertainty, along with the very place-based nature of the Institute to that point, we elected not to jump into the virtual fray. Instead we took a step back, and with the generous support and understanding of the Angell Foundation, were able to have some deeper conversations about the future of the NLI, what we had learned over the past years, how we wanted to evolve the offering, and what new capacities we needed as a team and broader network.
Now we are poised to offer the 5th Institute over the next six months (September 2021-February 2022), anchored in 6 day-long virtual sessions, complete with many of the same components we have had in the past: (1) community and relationship building, (2) grounding in the history and present work of the Food Solutions New England Network, (3) meeting and hearing from other food system leaders and change agents in our region, (4) sharing practices to cultivate personal and collective resilience, and (5) developing deeper collaborative and networked capacity to realize justice, equity, sustainability, and democracy in our regional food system. In addition to these six sessions, we will offer a number of optional inter-session gatherings, in the early evening, with either a cooking demo, relevant movie (such as Gather and A Reckoning in Boston), or special speaker.
Through the summer, we were able to attend a number of different trainings to heighten the core team’s awareness and facility around issues of trauma and racialized trauma (thanks to Jerrilyn Dixson and team at Progressive Therapy, LLC out of Jackson, MS and Cultural Somatics Institute), dynamics of class and classism (thanks to Class Action) and intervening actively in harmful situations (thanks to Quabbin Mediation). This has also opened up more ground for us to explore, even as we bring some of these more enhanced sensibilities to our collective work for equity and well-being. More about learnings from our summer sessions will come in another post.
In addition, we have been considering ways in these continuing socially distanced times, and in light of our ongoing reliance on virtual means of connecting, to bring some more fun and a bit more of the tactile and multi-sensory to this year’s program. One step in this direction is a care package going out to our diverse 18 member cohort before the program officially starts. With a tip of the hat to the ever thoughtful and resourceful Jane d’Antonio and El Farrell (core members of the FSNE Backbone Team) and Karen Spiller (lead FSNE Ambassador and network weaver extraordinaire), here is the letter that will accompany goodies going out to this year’s participants, chosen in alignment with the network’s core values and commitments. Hoping it might inspire you in your creative and generous offerings as we head into a new season of opportunity and challenge:
Welcome to the FSNE Network Leadership Institute. We are thrilled to host your cohort during this unusual year. While our sessions will be virtual, we hope to foster a unique and supportive community amongst us all. To start, we wanted you to have these tactile, delicious treats from values-aligned producers across our region, many made by NLI alumnae or FSNE Network Team members. We hope that we can enjoy these together during some of our sessions, as a reminder of the vibrancy of our network and the ways we are all connected, even when physically apart.
NLI Alum Rachel Sayet is a member of the Mohegan Tribe and an Indigenous Educator, anthropologist, Reiki practitioner and essential oil crafter. She specializes in creating natural health and beauty products utilizing therapeutic grade essential oils. This smudging spray is an easy way to refresh your space.
The Passamaquoddy people have lived and flourished since time immemorial within their Aboriginal Lands primarily in Eastern Maine and Western New Brunswick, Canada. For millennia, the Passamaquoddy way of life was to hunt, fish, trap and gather food and medicine and to employ the natural resources of the environment to sustain their communities. One Passamaquoddy food gathering tradition is harvesting the sweet sap from the Mahgan (Sugar Maple). Passamaquoddy Maple is a MOFGA-certified economic development project meant to tap into this traditional natural resource. Since the operation began they have sustainably tapped over 10,000 trees and produced over a thousand gallons of maple syrup, as well as creating seasonal and full-time jobs for the Passamaquoddy people.
This Maine company was founded by Rwandan immigrant Mike Mwenedata who says: “In many ways, the coffee we share with you is the perfect symbol for my Rwandan home. Both prove that the richest lives are often shaped by the struggle to survive. This exceptional Bourbon Arabica varietal coffee crop perishes in other climates, but flourishes within the extreme alpine environment of our tropical land. Our Fifty Percent for Farmers program was inspired by the belief I inherited from my parents that education and compassion have the power to create richer, fuller lives. The direct aid these funds provide to support the health, education, clean energy, and operational needs of our farmers and their communities does just that.”
This woman-owned business in El’s hometown of South Berwick, Maine, features locally grown teas and herbal remedies. Her Apple Mint Sage Tea includes locally grown Apple Mint leaves, and will refresh you and leave you with a feeling of warmth and contentment. Add a small amount to a tea strainer, steep and enjoy!
This Black and Dominican immigrant-owned business in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood and in Newton is a favorite haunt of your co-facilitator Karen Spiller. She keeps our whole team running on chocolate covered pretzel deliveries, so we thought it only fitting that we share some with you.
NLI Alum Evan Mallet and his wife Denise founded this unique spice shop in Portsmouth. Stock + Spice strives to bring global flavors, local ingredients, and creative ideas to home cooks, and to serve as a place to learn about, discuss and engage in our local food community. Their Wicked Hot Salt is made with 100% local chiles, including Ghost, Jalapeno, and Capperino chiles, mixed with pure Atlantic sea salt from the Maine Sea Salt Company. Sprinkle just a little (or a lot) on fried eggs, home fries, roasted veggies, and more.
This woman-owned Dover business is not far from the University of New Hampshire campus, where FSNE is based.Popzup popcorn is sustainably harvested and GMO-free. Try topping it with some of the Wicked Hot Salt! Stop by the FSNE hosted New England Village on the Greenway at the Boston Local Food Festival on September 19 to meet Julie Lapham!
Several NLI Alumnae are involved in the work of the African Alliance of Rhode Island, which is led in part by FSNE Steering Committee member Juilus Kolawole. This savory jam is one of their most popular value-added products made with their own carrots grown in their community gardens. Try it on a Castleton Cracker or visit the AARI website to find a Vegan Carrot Apple Jam Muffin recipe (on page 22 of AARI’s 2020 Report Card).
This woman-owned business was inspired by a traditional New England recipe for “hardtack”, a sturdy cracker that was an early staple, especially for sedafarers of our region. The crackers are all natural and handmade, making them a healthy base for any snack!
And last but not least:
We’ve also enclosed ourFacilitative Leadership for Social Change (FL4SC) Manual via the Interaction Institute for Social Change, and a favorite book: Sacred Instructions, by Sherri Mitchell (Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset). Sherri is based in Maine and is a Penobscot speaker and educator on issues of Indigenous rights, environmental justice, and spiritual change. We felt her writing would be grounding and inspiring to read on your own time. The manual will be a main text and resource during our six main sessions, and will be supplemented by other online materials as we work to build collaborative skill and will towards a more just, sustainable, resilient and democratic regional food system. Please make sure to have the manual with you during all sessions.
We hope you enjoy each of these special items, and find community in the shared experience of flavors and scents! We are able to support these businesses and share their products with you thanks to generous support from the Angell Foundation.
A couple of years after the Food Solutions New England Network officially published the New England Food Vision, and just after the network formally committed to working for racial equity in the food system, it formally adopted a set of four core values. On the FSNE website, a preamble reads: “We collectively believe that the food system we are trying to create must include substantial progress in all these areas, alongside increasing the consumption of regionally produced foods and strengthening our regional food economy and culture.” The four values are:
We celebrate and value the political power of the people. A just food system depends on the active participation of all people in New England.
Racial Equity and Dignity for All:
We believe that racism must be undone in order to achieve an equitable food system. Fairness, inclusiveness, and solidarity must guide our food future.
We know that our food system is interconnected with the health of our environment, our democracy, our economy, and our culture. Sustainability commits us to ensure well-being for people and the landscapes and communities in which we are all embedded and rely upon for the future of life on our planet.
We consider trust to be the lifeblood of collaboration and collaboration as the key to our long-term success. We are committed to building connections and trust across diverse people, organizations, networks, and communities to support a thriving food system that works for everyone.
In the last few years, these values have generated a lot of good discussion, both internal to the network and with others, and we are discovering that this really is the point and advantage of having values in the first place. They can certainly serve as a guide for certain decisions, and in some (many?) instances things may not be entirely clear, at least at first. What does racial equity actually look like? Is it possible for a white-led, or white dominant, institution to embody racial equity? Can hierarchical organizations be democratic? Are there thresholds of trust such that people are willing to not be a part of certain decisions in the name of moving things forward when needed?
Recently, FSNE received an email from a Network Leadership Institute alum who now works as a commodity buyer for a wholesale produce distributor in one of the New England states. They reached out to inquire who else in the network might be thinking about high tech greenhouse vegetable production in the region. Specifically their interest was talking about projects that use optics of being “community based,” but are financed by big multinational corporations. “What would a “just transition” framework look like in the context of indoor agriculture,” they wondered, especially in light of undisclosed tax deals happening as the industry rapidly grows.
As it turns out, a public radio editor recently reached out to FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes, about pretty much the same thing, also referencing other similar projects taking root in different parts of the region. What does FSNE think of these? Part of her response was that there are some good questions that not only the New England Food Vision (currently being updated), but also the Values, can raise to evaluate the potential role of some of these more tech-heavy food system projects and enterprises as the region strives to be more self sufficient in its food production. And this conversation is certainly growing.
These exchanges in our region have had me thinking about work colleagues and I have been doing with food justice advocates in Mississippi. A central part of this also lifts up values as being key to establishing “right relationships” between actors in the food system, and also between advocates and partners (including funders) from outside of the state. I have learned much from Noel Didla (from the Center for Ideas, Equity, and Transformative Change) and her colleagues about the importance of establishing what they call “cultural contracts,” which create a foundation of values-based agreements as a way of exploring possibilities for authentic collaboration. The signing of any contract is just a part of a process of ongoing dialogue and trust building. For more on these contracts and culture building, see the recording of a conversation Karen Spiller and I had with Noel and other Mississippi food system advocates during the FSNE Winter Series earlier this year in a session called “The Power of the Network.”
“Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.”
In a different series of workshops with those same Mississippi-based advocates, we introduced a values-focused tool from the PROSOCIAL community. PROSOCIAL is rooted in extensive field research (including the commons-focused work of Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom) and evolutionary and contextual behavioral science. PROSOCIAL offers tools and processes to support groups in cultivating collaborative skillfulness and the critical capacity of psychological flexibility, including the application of Acceptance and Commitment Training/Therapy (ACT) techniques.
The ACT Matrix (see below) is something that individuals andgroups can use to name what matters most to them (their core values), along with aligned behaviors (what are examples of living out these values?), as a way of laying a foundation for clarity, transparency, agreement, support and accountability. The Matrix also helps people to name andwork with resistance found in challenging thoughts and emotions that might move them away from their shared values. The upper left quadrant is a place to explore what behaviors might be showing up that move people away from their stated values. In essence, this helps to both name and normalize resistance and when used with other ACT practices (defusion, acceptance, presence, self-awareness), can encourage more sustainable, fulfilling (over the long-term), and mutually supportive choices.
An additional values-based tool we have lifted up both in New England and in our work in Mississippi is Whole Measures. Whole Measures is a participatory process/planning and measurement framework from the Center for Whole Communities). There is both a generic version of this framework, as well as one specifically focused on community food systems (more information available here). As CWC points out, “How the tool or rubric framework is used, how the community engagement is facilitated, who is represented in the design matters.” Whole Measures is about content, yes, and it is meant to be used for ongoing deep dialogue, especially amidst complexity, diversity and uncertainty, and when faced with the challenge of tracking what matters most that can also be difficult to measure.
When it comes down to it, these times seem be asking us what kind of people we really are and strive to be. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t know what you stand for, you’ll fall for anything.” And so the work of values identification and actualization is of paramount importance. I’ll leave it to the poet William Stafford to appropriately close this post with his poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” (something we often share with social change networks as we launch, especially the first and last stanzas):
If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind, a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail, but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park, I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: though we could fool each other, we should consider— lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe — should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
For the past 4 years IISC has supported the formation and evolution of a network of educators (the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition) across four school districts in western Massachusetts dedicated to diversifying the teaching profession with respect to race, with a leading strategy being to leverage the paraprofessional pipeline. And as the ParadigmShift initiative, as it is called, explains, “By helping Black and Latinx para-educators and teachers on waiver become licensed teachers, we are building a sustainable path for teacher diversity, increasing opportunities for students of color to thrive.”
Even in districts where over 80% of the student body is Black and Latinx, the teacher workforce still averages around 75% white in this region. By contrast, the para-educator pool is much more diverse, and many of these individuals come from the local community, yet there are numerous barriers preventing them from becoming fully licensed educators (stigma, stringent exams, lack of support, isolation, racism). A few years ago, educational leaders concerned about these structural barriers came together under the auspices of Five Colleges to explore the collaborative potential of working across institutional lines (school districts, teacher preparation programs, educator unions, workforce development initiatives). This ultimately led to the pursuit and receipt of an innovation grant from the local community foundation, which allowed for staffing and other supports to formally launch a collaborative network.
Over the last few years there have been tangible successes, with cohorts of paraprofessionals receiving mentoring and support to become classroom teachers. And there is clearly much more work to be done to work for educational inclusion and equity. That said, there have been several key lessons noted by the diverse Leadership Team of this initiative, and these have been laid out in a very rich report called “Leveraging the Power of Coalition for Teacher Diversity,” which tells many of the details of the Coalition’s development and discoveries.
Many of these lessons align with IISC’s core commitments around building collaborative capacity, processes and structures, including lifting up power dynamics and working for equity, leaning into the power of relationships and networks, and embracing love as a force for social transformation (see image above). Headlines for these lessons appear below, as they were shared with participants during an on-line conference on June 10, 2021 entitled “Leveraging the Power of Coalition for Teacher Diversity: New Perspectives, Practices, and Paradigm Shifts.” We are curious how these resonate with other system and equity change efforts, in education and beyond.
LESSON 1: Naming race is key because messages “for all” are not interpreted as “for me.”
LESSON 2: Crafting solutions based on participant inputbuilds trust, reinforces the message that the pathways are designed for the candidates, and fosters effectiveness. This is critically important when building pathways to attract teacher candidates from historically marginalized groups.
LESSON 3: When administrators and others pay authentic attention to—andbuild authentic relationshipswith—paraeducators of color, the paraeducators are more likely to make the decision to become teachers and to persevere through the process of obtaining licensure. Paying attention matters because paraeducators of color face both role-based and race-based inequities.
LESSON 4: Some teacher candidates who otherwise demonstrate teaching proficiency do not overcome the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL), which functions as a gatekeeping hurdle. The MTEL requirement reflects an assumption that competency is demonstrated solely through passing required tests. It is a barrier to diversification of the teacher workforce and should not make or break a career.
LESSON 5: Redesigning systems for racial equity requires change from the macro levels of policy to the many complex micro levels of practice, requiring leadership and resources. It is not a quick fix. Systems resist.
LESSON 6: Working in coalition leads to shared learning, pooling of resources, and regional solutions for regional problems while raising challenges of commitment, clarity, and communication.
LESSON 7: The contributions of supportive funding partners are fundamental to the genesis and growth of innovative initiatives, though the funder practice of awarding short-term grants impedes systems change.
LESSON 8: The concept of innovation provides a framework thatlegitimizes learning and adaptability, elements that are necessary for effecting systems change to promote teacher diversity.
And threaded through all of these lessons was the understanding that in many ways the core innovation in all of this was the collaborative network itself, with people going above and beyond their day-to-day work, breaking down walls and boundaries, and flipping what have often been traditionally siloed and/or competitive institutional arrangements.
For more resources and materials from the Coalition, including information about our ripple effects mapping process, see think link.
We recently wrapped up a series of workshops for members of the Wallace Center‘s Food Systems Leadership Network focused on Organizational Change for Racial Justice (OCRJ), which was adapted from our IISC workshop Advancing Racial Justice in Organizations (ARJ). This offer was made by IISC under the auspices of The Wallace Center’s CORE Project, and with generous support from the Garfield Foundation. It was a wonderful and challenging experience for our collective Wallace/IISC team, as we welcomed representatives from 21 different food systems-focused organizations from around the US, along with a talented group of 16 small group facilitators who had participated in a customized Fundamentals of Facilitation for Racial Justice Work (FFRJW). That made for over 80 participants over 4 four-hour sessions, that took people from fundamental DEIJ concepts to change process design work to anticipating inevitable roadblocks and detours. We deeply appreciated how people showed up and went along for the ride, giving us helpful feedback along the way, and ultimately sharing all that they had taken that sets them up with a stronger foundation to do the work.
As we wrapped up our final session, my colleague Erika Strong shared an excerpt from a piece by Herbert A. Shephard, “Rules of Thumb for Change Agents,” which appeared in the OD Practitioner in December 1984. It has appeared by permission in our course Collaborative Social Change: Designing for Impact in a Networked World. And we now include it in many of our racial justice trainings as a way of bringing focus back from systems to individual and groups of change agents, and what can support them in doing this work over the long haul. These are re-shared below with some additional commentary.
Stay alive, literally and figuratively. The work is indeed long and often hard. And it can also have its moments of joy and satisfaction, as we experience connection and development of different kinds. But this does not happen if we are not enlivened, or breathing, in a deeper sense. Self and community care is crucial.
Start where the system is. This is about getting clear-eyed about where things actually are, which comes not just from an initial assessment, but over time, especially as people try to do things differently. Action is certainly about trying to make change, and it is also about nudging living organizational/social systems to see how they respond, so that we better understand defenses, patterns, logic, etc. Starting from where the system is not can waste valuable energy.
Speaking of energy conservation, another guideline is to Never work uphill.
Don’t build hills as you go. Don’t make the work more difficult than it needs to be, or too insurmountable for people. It is not easy to begin with, requires stretches, but putting people in panic or overwhelm mode does not help. Use accessible language, make clear asks, try not to overly trigger people’s defenses.
Work in the most promising areas. Look for early wins. Because this always inspires confidence, that change is possible, and it can build a sense of accomplishment and community. Don’t try and tackle it all. We encourage people to start with a couple of areas in their organization/community/network where you can start and then build/connect.
Build capacity. Don’t go it alone. Build your team! As Maya Angelou once wrote, “Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone.” Start with your core/design/equity team. Let them become a model for the rest of the organization. And share transparently about how you are working, as there is much to be gained from trying to create network effects through this work.
Don’t over-organize. Don’t fall into the trap of the perfect becoming the enemy of the good. Yes, get necessary supports in place. Yes, do some initial assessment and grounding, and then know that a lot of the learning will come through acting, trying out different things, and iterating as you go. And you want to leave place for others to add their ideas and initiative.
Be bold.Doing this will send important signals to those around you, be a “chaotic attractor” of sorts, will help you identify allies and some of the strongest blockers. And given the many roadblocks that come up, boldness is an important energetic counter, especially when held by an even small but mighty group.
Innovation requires a good idea, initiative, and a few friends. The idea for change does not need to be perfect, it needs to be “good enough” (reasonably well informed), have legs (can be put into action) and people who are willing to try it out.
Load experiments for success. This connects to much of what appears above, along with being as clear-eyed as possible about what is actually happening in any given system in any given moment.
Light many fires. Don’t rely on only one intervention or one place in a system to create change. A few interventions in different places, especially when connected, can help create ripples of change over time.
Keep an optimistic bias.Negativity bias is real, and can help us to be both realistic and to survive. And it can also quickly kill ideas and initiatives outside of “the norm.” Part of the value of finding a few friends to move things forward is developing a core group that can maintain and spread an attitude of positivity and possibility.
Capture the moment. Timing may or may not be everything, yet is can matter immensely. Staying tuned in, in both a collective and holistic sense, to what is changing and where energy might be shifting and effort applied is key to being able to nudge living systems in more just, prosocial, and sustainable directions. And it turns out, there is something of a science around “when” decisions.
This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, and we are always eager to hear what you would add.
“i think of movements as intentional worlds, or perhaps more accurately as worlds designed by and for intentional people, those who are able to feel the world not as an unfolding accident of random occurrences, but rather as a massive weaving of intention. you can be tossed about, you can follow someone else’s pattern, or you can intentionally begin to weave and shape existence. and yes, the makeup of your web is the same matter as all that already exists, but your direction and pattern can be new, unexpected, agitating new growth. what results from your efforts depends on your intention.”
– adrienne maree brown
I recently returned from a week-long vacation with family to the so-called Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and a particular location that is deeply nourishing and meaningful for its landscape, its link to family history on my wife’s side and (perhaps for these times) an unusual sense of community. I count myself privileged to have had the time and the opportunity to be in that place with those loving people, with that sense of multi-generational connection.
Heading back “home,” I could feel the tension mounting as my wife and I talked about re-entry. Before thought, my body tightened in anticipation of the return to the mundane daily tasks, to-do lists and un-answered emails/phone messages. The morning after our return, I somewhat absent-mindedly dipped toes into social media and felt my blood pressure rise. “What am I doing?” I wondered, even as I continued to wade in, pulled by questions about what happened while we were away and what new opportunities might be presenting themselves – FOMO (“fear of missing out”) in full effect. When I closed the laptop, perhaps 30 minutes later, I was aware of my stiff neck, shallow breathing, hunched shoulders, and whirling brain. Saved by a 12 year old daughter almost yelling, “Dad, c’mon, let’s get outside and play ball!”
As much of a proponent as I am of collaboration and networks, I am struck by how I can get a bit caught in the approach/avoid loop of connection, and mired in questions of “How to connect?” and “How much is enough connection?” and “What kinds of connection do I really need?” As I engage with others, I realize that these are pretty fundamental ponderings for navigating a more viscerally entangled world.
“When our ancestors spoke about a web of life, they were describing what Western science calls quantum entanglement. They understood that we all originated from the same seed of life, and when that seed exploded and carried life across our universe, we remained connected. Quantum entanglement tells us that any matter once connected physically can never be disconnected energetically (or spiritually).”
– Sherri Mitchell (Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset, “She Who Brings Light)
More and more is being written, spoken and (re)-presented about the fundamentally interconnected nature of our lives, and of Life writ large. In a beautiful essay in Emergence Magazine (“When You Meet the Monster, Anoint Its Feet”) , which weaves connections between climate change, race, racism, evolutionary biology, ecology, myth and narrative, Bayo Akomolafe offers …
“Perhaps most important about this time is that the image of the human is being composted—or, we are experiencing great difficulty determining where the nonhuman stops and the human begins. Everything touches everything else in the Anthropocene—an observation that is supported by, say, current thinking about ‘holobionts,’ assemblages of bodies within bodies within bodies, or intersecting communities that toss out notions of separable individuality. We are holobionts.We live and are lived through; we are composite beings, companion species, emerging within and among assemblages.”
And, as Akomolafe later shares from his indigenous and experiential knowledge, bodies and beings transcend time. More recent research into intergenerational trauma (see the work of Resmaa Menakam and Thomas Hubl) shows that our bodies indeed know the score, not only of our own individual pain, but the suffering passed through our ancestral lines. Husband and wife, and astrophysicist and physician, team Karel and Iris Schriyver, in their book “Living With the Stars,” add that our bodies are always in dynamic exchange with … the wider universe! Our cells die and are replaced by new ones, renewing our entire biological makeup, using food and water as both fuel and construction material. This rebuilding happens by using elements captured in our surroundings and cycled through geological processes, all extensions of galactic explosions and ripples and atoms that formed through collisions with our planet’s atmosphere eons ago.
We are entangled in a multiplicity of ways, containing and residing within multi-dimensional multi-scalar multitudes. I find this simultaneously liberating, dizzying, humbling and dumbfounding. Knowing that everything is interconnected can inspire a profound sense of belonging and ease, yes, and sometimes it can make it a bit hard for me to plan or get through the day!
And so here we are, exquisitely entwined, and yet also individuals, or at least bounded organisms with a sense of individuality, of distinction, of the need to preserve the integrity and dignity of something called “me” or “self.” And the question of these times would appear to be how we can honor a healthy sense of self/individual, whole communities, and Life, all at once.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activity neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
– Thomas Merton
While there have been understandable and important pushes to get beyond the individualistic and atomistic view, I have the feeling that some of this emphasis, as with all pendulum swings, can go a bit too far. Seeing the world as profoundly interconnected might drive a strong desire to reclaim a kind of forgotten birthright, and in my experience, it can also result in getting lost, especially if it is guided by an underlying desire to fully understand, grasp and/or control it all (colonial mindset?). Or if that drive is purely to belong to something, anything, no matter its underlying values, to spare the pain of felt/perceived separation.
A certain view in contemporary physics holds that the world, the universe, is entirely made up of an infinite amount of information, a vast expanse of sensory inputs that all taken together would be utterly overwhelming to our individual apparatus. And so we have our human senses as filters to sift through, make sense and identify/assemble what is most … useful, interesting, advantageous. The point is, there is always more than meets (or at least is taken in by) our eyes, ears, nose, tastebuds, touch, etc. This calls to mind the ladder of inference, a framework we teach at IISC that helps people remember that we are often recycling conclusions we have drawn from a very partial understanding of reality, and that it might behoove us to expand our “view” to reach more helpful (just, prosocial, sustainable) conclusions and actions.
That said, simply taking in more, or making more connections, may not lead to a better place, if it results in overwhelming nervous systems. So it seems there is a balancing act here. Just as we often can’t do something new without letting go of something old, there is a need to modulate what one takes in – news, ideas, people, and possibilities. Connection and flow management. Energetic discernment. Intentional dis-connection and dis-entanglement.
What might this look like in this networks upon networks networked world? A few thoughts …
“Between you and me, now there is a line. No other line feels more certain than that one. Sometimes it seems not a line but a canyon, a yawning empty space, across which I cannot reach.
“Yet you keep reappearing in my awareness. Even when you are far away, something of you surfaces constantly in my wandering thoughts. When you are nearby, I feel your presence, I sense your mood. Even when I try not to. Especially when I try not to. . . .”
– Donella Meadows
In a previous post, I shared some of the wisdom of network science as taught by Danielle Varda and colleagues at Visible Networks Lab. They make the point that when it comes to creating strong (resilient and regenerative) networks, more can be less in terms of the connections a person has. Connectivity and related flows can be ruled by a relentless growth imperative(capitalism?)that is not strategic or sustainable. More connections require more energy to manage, meaning there may ultimately be fewer substantive ties if one is spread too thin. Instead, the invitation is to think about how to mindfully maintain a certain number of manageable and enriching strong and weak ties, and think in terms of “structural holes.” For more on this social network science view, visit this VNL blog post “We want to let you in on a network science secret – better networking is less networking.”
Over the last several years, I have been playing with a set of about a dozen principles (give or take) for network thinking and action. One that seems quite helpful here is the saying, “Do what you do best and connect to the rest.” As ecosystems become more robust and complex, individual participants are invited to carve out more specific niches, and be oriented towards synergistic and supportive relationships with others. In other words – stop trying to do it all, or connect to it all! It’s not possible, it can create unnecessary competition, overwhelm and inhibit “collaborative efficiencies.” This also aligns with a metric of energy network and systems science (see below), which focuses on the importance of a diversity of roles in healthy living systems. Share and spread the wealth!
As just alluded to, the emerging field of “energy systems science” points to a number of different factors or indicators that contribute to long-term living system (including human systems) health and thriving. Four of these indicators fall under the heading of “measures of flow.” Thinking about how these apply to our own and/or collective in-take and sharing of information/energy might be helpful for knowing what is “sufficient:”
Robust cross-scale circulation: How rapidly (too fast?/too slow?) and well do a variety of resources reach all parts of an individual/social body?
Regenerative return flows: To what extent does the individual/social body recycle resources into building and maintaining its internal capacities? Is there too little (depletion)? Is there excess (hoarding)?
Reliable inputs: How much risk and uncertainty is there for critical (health promoting) resources upon which the individual/social body depends?
Healthy outflows: What impacts do the individual/social body’s outflows have externally?
On a more personal tip, I have been married for almost 20 years. What has perhaps been one marriage from the outsider’s perspective has been many from the inside, as other long-standing intimate partners can surely appreciate. We have learned and grown over the years. One important lesson has been knowing when we are too enmeshed and need to separate for some time. There is a point of diminishing returns in many of our heated discussions/ arguments, and if we do not dis-entangle or dis-connect, we have learned, we can do damage to the relationship.
Along the same lines, two of our daughters are identical twins, now twelve-years old. What we have observed about them is what we have heard about many twins – they are truly uniquely connected. There are many times when we quietly watch with fascination as they, seated on opposite ends of the room, engage in similar gestures (scratching their heads with the same hand at the same time, for example) seemingly without direct awareness. Quantum entanglement in full effect! And they can get themselves enmeshed at times and in ways that drive each of them, and the entire family system, to the edge. They are learning that they need and how to differentiate and take space, even as they have a natural gravitational pull to their other half.
Knowing when to create a bit of a boundary (what Buckminster Fuller once called, “a useful bit of fiction”), a separate amniotic sack if you will, and when it is optimal to connect more fully often requires attention and discernment, for all kinds of relationships.
“Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.”
– Ben Okri
The movie The Social Dilemma and the work of Douglas Ruskhoff (see Team Human) both point to the perils of getting caught up in our increasingly socially mediatized world. The algorithms behind these powerful tools are designed to capture our attention, pressing our buttons oriented towards hedonism (“likes”) and fear/outrage. A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly(“You Really Need to Quit Twitter”) points to how difficult it can be to break this habit. This is not to say that these tools are inherently bad or evil. They are certainly formidable, and require considerable attention and intention. Social media fasts and limited dips can help, as well as being mindful about what and why we are both sharing and consuming (see this other recent post for some considerations on this – The Wisdom of W.A.I.T.ing: Mindful Sharing in a Network Age.
If dis-engagement is not an option or ideal, there are a number of practices I have been learning and using that can help to manage energy exchanges, both in-person and virtual:
From the Rockwood Leadership Program, I learned the practice of imagining that my body is like meshwork (think a fishing net), when something intense is coming at me, so that it can pass through me, and I don’t use too much energy resisting or having it get stuck in my body/psyche.
From a couple of local trauma therapist who focuses on racialized trauma, I have learned the practice of using imaginative “shields” (in my mind’s eye) on the outside and inside of my body, to allow for energy coming in or going out. Silver shields on the exterior repel unwanted energy, and on the inside they keep precious energy in. Grey shields allow some energy in or out.
From a number of practitioners, I have learned the practice of slowing my breath to manage energy flow, in-take and circulation.
From Qigong Master Robert Peng I have learned how to use a “circuit breaker” for the life force (or “chi”) moving through me by enclosing my thumbs with the fingers on each hand, which can diminish intense energy flows when engaged with others.
Also from The Weston Network, I have learned about the practice of embodied energetic balance when reaching out to make contact with others, while not over-extending, and also maintaining a firm sense of grounding and dynamic flexibility. I have also been reminded, helpfully, that balance is never static. We are constantly in motion, if we are alive, and when “most balanced,” are actually able to recover quickly from being extended or engaged in some way. So a question to carry is “What supports my ongoing ability to recover?”
From Harold Jarche, I have learned many ways of managing personal knowledge development through mindful connection to different networks in ways that ideally make them all “smarter” and don’t simply ask them/me/us to work “harder.” Of particular help is knowing what one can reasonably expect in terms of energetic flow and return from work teams versus communities of practice versus one’s wider social networks (see image above).
And in general, I am embracing and making space for more silence, solitude and stillness, challenging some of my deep seated anxieties about losing connection and a sense of belonging in the world (what some would say FOMO is really about – for more about this, see this informative talk by Tara Brach).
And there are SO MANY teachers out there and much wisdom to glean that I certainly welcome others to share! It is my hope that many more of us can become adept energy and flow scientists/artists/healers/workers as we intentionally weave patterns that are the basis of the better world we sense is possible and know is necessary.
“The point of solitude is to give yourself time to grow in your own way, while the ultimate goal remains the difficult task of love and connection.”
– Damion Searls (from the introduction to a new translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet)
Networks are fundamental to life, to liveliness and to livelihood. There is growing recognition of this fact. And at the same time, the frame through which one views networks has a lot to say about how one might be living out and into their potential, or not. For example, I still see people a bit enamored of “social network analysis” (SNA) in a way that concerns. It is the equivalent of pinning an insect to a board and dissecting it. The vitality of any living creature does not lie in understanding its “parts” alone, and pinning anything down does not allow “the observer” to see it in action, in its vitality. This is not to say that SNA cannot be helpful, but to keep in mind that anything frozen is not a true representation of life, and that the very observation of something changes it, as in living systems we are constantly engaged in the making “and bringing forth of worlds” through our interactions (see the work of the late Humberto Maturana) .
Which brings me to the use of “it” in referring to a network, or the idea of “building a network.” A network is not simply an it, it is an “us,” at least when we are referring to social and social-ecological webs. And a network is not simply a means to an end, a “so that,” if you will. Networks always “are” in some sense, in light of the myriad and often invisible connections that exist in our world. And as I have written before, the very nature of networks in terms of their patterns of connection and flow, has a lot to say about human and ecological health and resilience.
The use of “it,” which I certainly fall into, can create a degree of false and, in some cases, dangerous separation. A case could be made that much of what ails mainstream society and the human world is a severe case of distance and abstraction. As Andreas Weber has pointed out, this false separation in mainstream biological sciences can lead to the cutting off of something vital – our feelings and emotion! In The Biology of Wonder, Weber makes the case that far from being superfluous to the study of organisms (including social and and social-ecological networks), feelings (and I would add our bodies below the neck), are the very foundation of Life!
Which is why, increasingly, I am playing with full-bodied ways of engaging people in “network ways of thinking, doing and being” – at individual (internal to our selves – yes, we are networks!), group, and larger systemic scales. Whether it be poetry, music/song, meditation, storytelling, somatic practice, there is an apparent need to enlist people in a “poetic ecology” (in Weber’s words) of net work. This to me is key to helping to realize the regenerative potential of networks, and requires dedicated and deep practice.
What changes, what possibilities arise, when you shift towards “seeing” a given network as an “us” and an “as”?