Author Archives for Curtis Ogden

May 10, 2020

Rooting for Change: A Living Systems Approach to Thinking About and Better Linking Our Organizations

“The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience. A system that can evolve can survive almost any change by changing itself.”

Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A primer

I just finished reading Leading From the Roots: Nature-Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World by Dr. Kathleen E. Allen. It was a great resource to dig into for the past few weeks as I have been getting out into the woods in western Massachusetts and tuning into the emergent spring season in a way that I never have. Allen’s book has certainly helped with my attunement, along with some interesting readings on edible plants (Northeast Foraging), becoming more local to place (The Natural History of Western Massachusetts), and regenerative gardening and farming (Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture). This is certainly one of the mixed blessings of these times, noting the relative privilege that my family and I have, to focus in a slower and more concentrated way on some of what might feed us more deeply and over the long-term.

Allen’s book provides a lot of food for thought. It is an exploration of a series of design principles from mature ecological systems (living systems) and how these can be applied to human organizations. These principles include:

  1. Run on sunlight (tap the power of photosynthesis/positive energy)
  2. Waste is never wasted (conserve energy, cultivate wise use)
  3. Fit form to function (and function to purpose, paying attention to context)
  4. Reward cooperation (respecting connection and interdependence)
  5. Bank on diversity/difference (for intelligence, resilience, adaptation)
  6. Curb excess from within (via feedback loops)
  7. Depend on local expertise and self-organization (for more response-ability)
  8. Tap the power of limits (constraints can inspire creativity)

In the first chapter, Allen also highlights some of the key dynamics of living systems that provide a better understanding of how generous and generative human organizations might operate.  These include:

  1. Living systems are interdependent – change in one part of the system influences other parts of the system in expected and unexpected ways
  2. Living systems become more diverse as they evolve
  3. Living systems are never static; they are always in flux
  4. Living systems are filled with feedback loops that facilitate evolution
  5. Living systems cannot be steered or controlled, only attracted or nudged.
  6. Living systems only accept solutions that the system helps to create
  7. Living systems only pay attention to what is meaningful to them here and now.

As I was reading, I pulled out a number of quotes and posted them on Twitter, which provoked some fun interactions. Many of these have to do with the underlying network structure and dynamics of living systems, for which I have a particular fondness. Here is a sampling, that will give you a taste of the book and perhaps entice you to dig deeper. Curious to hear what thoughts, feelings and sensations these inspire:

“Once we shift our worldview to seeing our organizations as living systems, then we can begin to see that generous organizations behave more like dynamic networks rather than traditional hierarchies.”

“The quality and authenticity of the relationships between people, and between people and ideas, increase the flow of positive energy in organizations.”

“The structure of nature’s network, the connections and interdependencies, allow the living system to self-regulate, adapt to changing conditions and evolve to survive.”

“Mutualistic relationships can help buffer partners against extreme conditions, open new niches for both partners, and amplify the baseline of resource acquisition.”

“Diversity allows for multiple ways that nutrients can be exchanged, making the entire system more resilient.”

“Opposition is necessary for wholeness.”

“When we recognize organizations are in constant movement, we then see organizational strategies as adaptive cycles instead of linear constructs.”

“We need to let go of the assumption that all of our assets are tangible.”

“Wet sand operates like a network. It is made up of grains of sand held together by saline. When it encounters force, those elements combine to resist; however, when it encounters a slow entry into its system, it accepts the presence of our foot. Living systems are networked and the nudge and wait for change is very effective in influencing them.”

“Generous organizations are open to the wider world. There are no silos in a generous organization.”

“What if a job description articulated a philosophy of relationships and connections that this person would need to develop and maintain while doing their job?”

“What would leadership look like if its highest purpose was to ensure that future generations thrive?”

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April 29, 2020

Dimensions of Network Success

Currently engaged in a number of state-wide and regional network-building initiatives focused on food, health and education system change, I am beginning to see some interesting patterns across efforts to build connectivity-based and more fluid movements for change.  Watching these dynamics unfold, I can’t help but come back to one of our foundational frameworks at IISC, what we call the R-P-R Triangle, for all that it has to offer our thinking about network strategy and success. 

This framework (see below) makes the point that any kind of collaborative endeavor is a multi-dimensional affair when it comes to the core determinants and definitions of success.  Of course, many of us come to “net work” and collaborative efforts eager to see results, to work in new ways to have greater impact on the issues that we care most about.  Without concrete results or “wins,” it is hard to keep people engaged and morale up.  But results are just a part of the story, and the big results may take some time in coming.

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April 20, 2020

Bringing a Network Theory Perspective to These Times, Part 2

Image by Alexander Baxevanis, “Flow,” shared under provision of the Creative Commons Attribution LIcense 2.0.

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

– Sally J. Goerner, Robert G. Dyck, Dorothy Lagerroos, The New Science of Sustainability

This post builds on a post from a couple of weeks ago, looking at how in a time of pandemic, with viruses revealing other viruses (racism, othering, oligarchy, mechanical thinking run amok), and triggering viral responses of various kinds, this is prime time to cultivate network literacy and strength. In this post I want to highlight the importance of “flow network science” or the “energy network sciences.” These fields stretch across disciplines and look at how nutrients, information and other vital sources of energy move through the structures of living networks.

Dr. Sally J. Goerner and her colleagues (Dan Fiscus, Brian Fath, Robert Ulanowicz, and others) have looked at how certain features of systems-as-networks (communities, ecosystems, economies) contribute to their long-term health and thriving, including diversity, intricacy, adaptability and robustness. A key is to focus on those dynamics that support the self-renewing (regenerative) and saluto-genic (health promoting) capacities of living systems as and so that they evolve and adapt to disturbances in their environment (which is really an extension of their being!). A big part of this is not just focusing on the pattern of network connections, but what is moving through those connections, including quality and velocity of those flows, from whom and to whom.

At IISC, we are fielding lots of questions right now about what networks are doing or should do to not only to respond to the COVID19 emergency and achieve some semblance of stability, but also to build pathways to better, more resilient and equitable systems. Taking a cue from what we are observing and what we are learning from energy network sciences/flow networks, some of the things networks can do and are doing include:

  • Weaving and convening diversity to foster systemic intelligence and resilience
  • Distributing power and intelligence to enable rapid and timely responses in different parts of “the body”
  • Circulating accurate and accessible (curated) information in various forms (text, visual, audio) throughout “the whole” to support diverse learning and adaptation
  • Facilitating effective (clear, concise, well-timed and spaced) communication and conversation to help people stay grounded, focused and moving on what matters
  • Disseminating elements of opportunity- and abudance-based narratives that encourage people to lean into these times and not flee from or freeze in the midst of them
  • Identifying and circulating a variety of nourishment (multiple forms of “capital”) widely (especially to those who are otherwise undernourished) in the form of money, ideas, in kind support, and other resources
  • Promoting robust exchange to support innovation, learning and systemic vitality at different levels
  • Creating safe and brave spaces for people to share their challenges and successes, get peer-assists, give and receive emotional support that encourages risk-taking and further venturing into uncharted terrain
  • Designing and carrying out network activity and engagement with an ethic of love (“seeing others as a legitimate others”), care, generosity, abundance, common cause, mutualism, transparency, inclusion, equity, and our full humanity (minds, bodies, hearts, spirits)

And we can “double click” on each of the above to delve deeper into the “who” (roles and relationships), “how” (processes), which we are actively doing with a variety of groups, and will share more of what we are learning in future posts and webinars.

And in that spirit of learning, please share what you are learning and would add with respect to what networks can do and are doing to create pathways to the new and the better.

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April 16, 2020

Hope Out of the Muck

This is the first post I ever wrote for IISC and dates back to this day 11 years ago. I have edited it only a little, in light of Václav Havel‘s passing, and it seems telling that it could have very easily been written for these COVID19 times, which are an extension of the patterns that have been at play for a while in our world.

Former (and first) President of the Czech Republic Václav Havel told a little story that may provide a little guidance in these times. In 1989, only a few months before he completed an incredible journey from prisoner to president of his country, Havel found himself in a dire situation. The dissident-poet-and-playwright-turned-politician, who had risked his life numerous times in the fight against communism, was walking with a friend in the countryside outside of Prague.

In the near total darkness, he suddenly fell into a hole, a deep pit surrounded by cement walls, which he realized was a sewer. Disoriented and covered in muck, Havel tried to move but this only made him sink more deeply. His friend above was joined by a number of people who gathered around the rim of the hole and tried frantically to rescue Havel. It was only after someone managed to find and lower a long ladder, nearly thirty minutes later, that Havel was saved from an untimely ending.

From this freak accident, Havel climbed not just to dry land, but to the presidency, a truly amazing turn of events. Having lived through a number of seemingly hopeless circumstances, Havel continued to be a profoundly hope-full man. He saw hope as a state of mind that most often does not reflect the state of the world. Hope for him emerged out of the muck of absurdity, cruelty, and suffering, and reached not for the solid ground of what is certain, but for what is meaningful, for what fundamentally makes sense. Hope, in his view, was not the same as optimism. It was not the belief that something would ultimately work out, but that it felt true in a very essential way, beyond what was relayed in headlines, opinion polls, and prognostications.

Obviously we are now faced with circumstances that demand some faith on all of our parts. With the uncertainty of a volatile economy and a swirl of other forces, there is plenty to be pessimistic about. And if we consider Havel’s story, the antidote is not to be optimistic in the sense of desperately looking for something that tells us everything will be alright or return to being as it was. Rather, the more powerful response comes from within and attaches itself to what most deeply motivates us, what tastes most like truth.

Peter Forbes of Knoll Farm once said that, “New culture is formed by people who are not afraid of being insecure.” (maybe because they realized that security is over-rated or not really a thing). That may be the promise of this slowdown, if we can quiet the chatter, avoid panic and attune ourselves to what is waiting to grow out of the cracks in the foundation. The question is, in following those roots and shoots, how far are we willing to go? And who will be out fellow travelers?

How can we go from emergency response to stewards of emergence?

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April 9, 2020

Ripples, Spirals, Loops and Love: Mapping a Networked Change Effort

Image from abstractartangel77, “Spiralling,” used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

About a month ago, I worked with a regional education network focused on racial equity in education to do ripple effect mapping (REM) based on the past three years of its work to diversify the teacher workforce, including efforts to help paraprofessionals advance into formal teaching roles. REM is a technique to evaluate the results of an initiative or intervention by pulling together a diverse and representative group of stakeholders to make sense of the impacts they see as rippling through the system. The methodology is very participatory and has extra added benefits of helping to strengthen relationships and understanding between what otherwise might be siloed stakeholders. REM can also help to guide the refinement of a theory of change (rooted in actual experience!) and lift up areas for further investigation, including barriers to and accelerators for greater impact and systemic shifts.

Ripple effect mapping combines four different methods: peer interviews, group sense-making, mind mapping, and qualitative data analysis. In general it happens through the following steps:

  1. Conduct a stakeholder analysis to identify the right set of participants that has participated in the initiative, including beneficiaries, implementers, sponsors, key decision-makers, resource providers, those with relevant expertise and lived experience, and critical connectors/boundary spanners.
  2. Convene the identified group. Our convening was a bit larger than the recommended size of 15-20 people – we had about 35 people representing different roles, institutions, geographies, perspectives and backgrounds.
  3. During the convening, conduct interviews using Appreciative Inquiry questions. Appreciative Inquiry invites people to reflect on the positive aspects of a project. We had people share something positive that they had experienced or witnessed associated with the project, including outcomes, relationships, learning, new collaborations, etc.
  4. Do a group mapping session, during which people build on what they shared and heard in the interviews, brainstorm and record the effects (the “ripples”) of the initiative or intervention. We used a large bank of chart paper and large stickies with two facilitators (one to steward the conversation, the other to place and move stickies) and several scribes. The resulting “mind map” illustrates the effects of the intervention and explores connections, causality, and virtuous cycles. Before ending the mapping session, we invited people to “take a step back,” take in the map and ask what stood out to them, what seemed most important, and what they wanted to know more about.
  5. Clarify, connect, code, and analyze data. After the session, a smaller group organizes the mind map and collects and connects additional details by following up with participants.
Image from Washington State University Extension – Sample Ripple Effects Map

This week a small team of us met for a second time (virtually, of course) to make sense of the data, including notes that were taken by a recorder and photographs of the mind map. It was helpful to do this in two meetings as there was a considerable amount of data, people are reeling from COVID, and it was important to have some time in-between the two sessions to do some more individual reflection, looking for patterns in the data.

In this second meeting, we started threading together our individual reads, and also reminded ourselves that we are dealing with complex systems and as such, linear causality is not necessarily what we should be looking for. What began to emerge as we talked (over the course of two hours) was a circular, or spiral, progression and lattice-work of nested impacts. We started to think in terms of “causal loops,” DNA helixes, and networked flows. An overarching question started to form –

What intersecting “virtuous loops” are we learning need to be supported to advance change and overcome “vicious loops” oriented towards keeping the system(s) as it/they are?

What we are working with as a core loop/spiral (for now) is the following:

  1. People who care and are committed come together across boundaries (districts, schools, roles, disciplines, perspective, culture)
  2. People practice deep listening to and learning from paraprofessionals, students, one another …  
  3. People start making different choices and behaving differently (changing job descriptions, altering programs to accommodate spoken and respected needs, engaging in mutual support, moving from competition to collaboration between programs, sharing information more transparently)
  4. People start to taste “transformation” (a sense of their and others’ potential, the power of lived experience in the classroom, the essential nature of community, the benefits of working together)
  5. The resulting enthusiasm feeds back into care and consideration, and the cycle repeats, and ideally takes in more people … (we have seen some evidence in this as paras become seen as leaders and mentors to other paras)

This core loop operates at and across different levels:

  1. The individual “beneficiary” level (students and para-professionals)
  2. The individual support level (mentors, teacher prep educators, those who hire/fire/retain)
  3. The individual school level
  4. The district/teacher prep program level
  5. Larger system levels (community, state policy and support)

And the loop will play out in different ways in different contexts. And so we are asking about differences and similarities across systems (trans-contextual, in the words of Nora Bateson).

This is all very emergent and still exploratory, as it should be, and we will continue to make meaning and test take-aways. And I think that we would all agree that the foundation of all of this is care, or a word we like to use at IISC – love. One definition of love is “seeing and treating the other as a legitimate other.” If we don’t begin with this at the level of students who we see as deserving to have the benefit of having teachers who look like and can experientially relate to them, if we do not see and believe in the potential, humanity and “expertise” of para-professionals of color, well, we go no where.

And so we continue to mull over and be guided by the dynamic “ripples and collisions” (in the words of a network participant) of this work to what we hope will be a better place …

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April 1, 2020

Bringing a Network Theory Perspective to These Times, Part 1

“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, and the particular pattern of 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. And the specific pattern of the ties is crucial to understanding how networks function.”
Nicholas A. Christakis

At the Interaction Institute for Social Change, we have a collaborative change lens that includes the facets of (1) naming and building power and working for equity and inclusion; (2) seeing and advancing networks as the unit of action and analysis and (3) embracing love as a force for social transformation. With respect to networks, we have noticed that there are a lot of different takes on what networks are, why they matter, and how to “leverage” them for positive social change. Part of this may be due to the fact that network science and approaches span a variety of schools of thought and practice, including sociology, psychology, mathematics, political science, communication, anthropology, economics, and epidemiology.

I recently came across an article by Nancy Katz, David Lazer, Holly Arrow, and Noshir Contractor (2004) that names some of the commonalities that exist across these different schools and approaches that we’ve been experimenting with to advance social change networks, support resilience, and to shift patterns and flows in “systems as networks” to create regenerative communities and equitable wellbeing. The article, entitled “Network Theory and Small Groups,” refers to the work of Barry Wellman (1988), which lifts up five core principles of network theory that might provide some more coherence and alignment to “network approaches.”

  1. People’s behavior is best understood and predicted by the web of relationships in which they are embedded. These webs present opportunities and impose constraints on people’s behavior. So working with connections and flows can facilitate, inhibit and shape possibility.
  2. Nothing can be properly understood in isolation or in a segmented fashion. The focus of analysis should be the relationships between people or groups, rather than the units themselves or their intrinsic characteristics. So the quality of relationship matters and needs tending.
  3. Methods of “analysis” should not assume independence, but rather interdependence. People should be understood relationally. So think in terms of “collisions and ripples” as one network we are working with likes to say, characterizing network effects.
  4. The flow of information and resources between two people depends not simply on their relationship to each other but on their relationships to everybody else. Or in network science speak, “Understanding a social system requires more than merely aggregating the dyadic ties.” So focus not just on one-to-one exchanges, but one-to-many and many-to-many (scale-linking).
  5. Groups have fuzzy rather than firm boundaries. The building blocks of organizations and communities are not discrete groups but rather overlapping networks. Individuals generally have crosscutting relationships to a multitude of groups. So focus not simply on the impacts of bonding within groups but bridging across, and what this manifests.

Webs, relationships, flows, interdependence, intricacy, scale-linking, bonding and bridging. This is certainly not a full list of what network mindsets make visible to us, but hopefully lifts up some of what can help us better understand and work with reality, in these and at all times.

And more to come on this …

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March 20, 2020

Network(ed) Adaptations: A Regional Food System Network Responds to COVID19

Image from K. Kendall, “Fragile Resilience,” used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Yesterday I was on a call with the Food Solutions New England Network Team, meeting virtually instead of in-person, to do some checking in and also to move forward ongoing efforts focused on strengthening our collective work towards the FSNE Vision. This included talking about ways to use the current moment to strengthen resilience, even as so many in-person convenings, including the FSNE 2020 Summit, are being cancelled or postponed.

Many of us feel like there is an opportunity to take the network to another level in this time, to deepen connectivity, to ramp up exchanges, to facilitate greater alignment, to engage in much more mutual support. Evidence of this came from a round of sharing announcements, updates, requests and needs (riffing on the “network marketplace” that we have adapted from Lawrence CommunityWorks), among the nearly 20 participants on the call (representing all 6 New England states, different sectors and perspectives in the food system). I think we were all heartened to hear about the adaptations, creativity, and care happening in so many places amidst COVID19.

Image by sagesolar, “Mesmerized by murmuration,” used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Examples of emerging activity, which came up during our call and in email exchanges since, include:

  • Various mutual aid initiatives (see Big Door Brigade for resources on this front)
  • A coordinated call for stimulus funds to invest in communities to build out critical infrastructure between local and regional food producers and families in need of healthy food
  • More robust activity around the upcoming 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge to advance equity considerations and actions especially in these times (see and register here)
  • Advancing research and work on regenerative food and economic hubs in western Massachusetts and in Connecticut (see Regenerative Communities Network)
  • Rapid response grassroots funding (see The New England Grassroots Environment Fund and opportunities to donate)
  • Farmers opening up farm stands, home delivery, etc.
  • Food delivery route adjustments to ensure people who are most vulnerable have food
  • Rapid responses around work visas for farm workers to keep farms working
  • Work to reimburse private childcare centers for caring for the children of essential workers, including grocery store workers
  • Just and sustainable food organizers digitizing campaigns (see Migrant Justice and Real Food Challenge)
  • Efforts to meet current needs amidst COVID19 with needs to address climate change (see some reflections from Otto Scharmer on this front, which have been making their way through the network)
  • Food funders revising guidelines and getting money out the door quickly and for general operations
  • Innovations around education in food system programs through universities
  • Rallying support for small food-related businesses
  • Re-galvanized food policy council activity
  • Getting food to children who are now out of school and otherwise depend on schools for breakfast and lunch
  • Open forums on institutional needs around providing food during COVID19 (see Farm to Institution New England)
  • Collecting COVID related resources and reporting on impacts on the food system (see this Google doc started by FSNE Network Leadership Institute alum Vanessa García Polanco)
  • Free virtual/video cooking demonstrations
  • Leveraging online platforms to connect people across geographies and systems to talk about taking action around systemic alternatives (see Now What? 2020)
  • Utilizing virtual tools creatively to advance strategic thinking under changing and challenging conditions (there was also good discussion about the importance of considering issues of inclusion and equity, given uneven access to certain tools, dependable wi-fi, and supports that allow more focus when working virtually, etc.)

There are others that I’m sure we did not hear. That said, beyond the warmth of the personal connection time during our call, which we always make time for, and the emails of mutual support since, there is a hopeful sense that in what we are sharing are the seeds of systemic alternatives to the system that is failing some more than others and all of us in the long run. All of this needs more tending, more care, more connecting, more inclusion, always more considerations of equity, and more coordination. And more time and space for wisdom and innovations to emerge …

Please share with us what else you are seeing emerge and adapt for the good and the better in these times!

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February 20, 2020

Network Analysis for Change: Collaborations, Clusters, Champions and Coach-Weavers

“Thinking in terms of networks can enable us to see with new eyes.” 

– Harold Jarche

A couple of years ago I teamed up with Bruce Hoppe, a very skillful and savvy network mapper, to do a network capacity building and analysis engagement with a national education organization comprised of a growing number of member schools. While the organization referred to itself as a “network,” leadership recognized that it did not necessarily intentionally leverage itself as such, or do so with great consistency. Furthermore, there was reported unevenness of understanding among member schools of what it meant to be a member of this network. So Bruce and I were invited in to work with the leadership team to see what might be done to grow network awareness, intention and activity.

In addition to doing some “thinking like a network” training and coaching with the core leadership team, we put together a network survey that yielded some interesting results. The survey was intended to surface how people in the network currently took advantage of the network, what they valued about it, and what other value they would like to see come from their membership and participation.

In analyzing both the pattern of responses and the network map that Bruce constructed, we were interested to see stories emerge of mediated and self-organized collaborations between schools. This included reports of information sharing, staff exchanges, and coordinated learning. This raised a few questions – Was network leadership aware of these collaborations? Were others in the network familiar with them? The answer was that there was some awareness, but this was not at all widespread. The hypothesis emerged that if examples of collaboration were more widely shared and celebrated, this might become both license and motivation for others to do so.

Something else that emerged from the network map were signs of various geographic clusters of schools where there was relatively robust and/or growing communication and coordination. At the same time, there were schools that were in relatively close geographic proximity (in a state or sub-region of a state) where there was little if any interaction and exchange. Clusters in a network can become very powerful engines of collaboration, innovation and influence, both for members of the cluster and also the rest of the network. Leadership was invited to look more closely at the conditions that might be supporting interactivity in some clusters as opposed to others, and also to share examples of robust cluster activity with the rest of the network to inspire curiosity and connectivity.

Another take-away from the survey analysis was that there were clear (what we called) “champions” in the network, individuals who participated in many different virtual and in-person network activities at a relatively high degree of frequency. These super-users were identified as an asset to be further engaged to the extent that they might be ambassadors for the network as a whole, given their apparent enthusiasm. In addition, we raised the idea of creating a cluster of the champions, or a community of practice, that might exchange and prototype promising practices for network engagement.

Also related to this notion of champions was the discovery that the formal school coaching role that existed within the network could play a potentially powerful weaving function within the network. That is, coaches worked with multiple school leaders and often saw opportunities to make connections for the sake of peer exchange. However, this was not a formally condoned aspect of the coaching role. Leadership was invited to consider what it might look like to move coaches out of the role of highly customized support for individual schools and to do more generalized workshops and connecting of peers to ramp up interactivity, and support capacity, in the network.

Collaborations, clusters, champions and coaches-as-weavers – helpful isights from a network survey and map that we look forward to continuing to build upon and learn from, including how to leverage both virtual and in-person convenings to energize the network.

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February 17, 2020

The Evolving Story of a Network Innovation: FSNE’s 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge

“I believe that the struggle for racial and social justice provides an unparalleled lens through which to visualize – and achieve – more honest, just, and positive interrelationships in all aspects of our lives together.”

– john a. powell, from Racing to Justice

On March 30, 2020, the 6th Annual Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge will launch. IISC is excited to continue our partnership 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 sector-specific 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). After FSNE formalized its commitment to racial equity in its sustainable food system work about 7 years ago (more on our journey in this article), a small design team saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread (networked!) conversation about the connection between race, racism and food systems and ultimately greater action for racial and food justice.

We also see the 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 through small world reach, rapid dissemination, adaptation, etc. Participation in and the complexity of the Challenge continue to grow – in 2015 we had 200 participants, mainly from the six state region of “New England,” and in 2019 we had some 5,000 people participate from all 50 states in the US, Canada, Mexico and other countries outside of North America.

The point of the Racial Equity Challenge is not simply to spread but also deepen the commitment to racial equity and food justice. So we hope that participants return each year, and many do, and also continue the work in between. Because of this, we make sure that the Challenge continues to evolve in content and format, increasingly with a bias towards action. A couple of years ago, seeing how things were developing, we created the “ladder of engagement” below to think about how to continue to move people along a continuum from “not paying attention” to “organizing.”

It has been inspiring to see numerous organizations self-organize to take the Challenge in-house, convening colleagues, fellow congregants, community members and classmates to reflect together on learning and making commitments to action. This has included 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.

Last year we responded to these organic efforts and some specific requests by creating a discussion guide for facilitators to design and steward conversations in their organizations/communities. In 2019, the Challenge also went deep in the home institution of Food Solutions New England, the University of New Hampshire (the Sustainability Institute serves as the network’s “backbone”). With the support of a Professorship that I shared with Karen Spiller, we did considerable “in-reach” to staff, faculty and students, including a launch event and campus presentations, which resulted in more than 500 people participating in the Challenge from UNH. We also turned the Challenge into workshops that we offered at gatherings such as the White Privilege Conference.

Last year, we heard for months after the Challenge many appreciations from different parts of the country and how participation is moving people from learning to action

  • to create a community equity summit
  • to bring equity centrally into organizational strategy
  • to shift one’s job so that they can focus more centrally on issues of injustice
  • to bolster people’s courage to have courageous conversations
  • to bring an equity focus to food policy work

We hope these ripples will continue to be amplified this year!

So what exactly is the Challenge?

It is a self-guided learning journey examining the history and impacts 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 March 30th, 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 in 2020?

To meet the growing demands of participants and the expressed desire for many to go deeper and to replicate and extend the Challenge in different ways, we have developed a variety of additional supports.

  • In addition to an orienting webinar for participants, this year we will offer a webinar specifically for people who want to facilitate groups around the Challenge. This will happen on May 9th.
  • We will also offer a one day in-person training for people who are interested in facilitating groups to prepare themselves for that undertaking.
  • Another feature this year is a more 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 an outreach flyer.
  • Related to outreach, and a late-breaking development, a US Representative in our region (whose name we cannot reveal yet) has agreed to tweet out daily prompts to her constituents via social media. How about inviting your elected officials to do the same!
  • New this year – in collaboration with the New England Grassroots Environment Fund and the Garfield Foundation, we are excited to offer mini-grants up to $1,000 to organizations and groups based in any of the six New England states who need some financial support to meaningfully convene discussions or group conversations around this year’s Racial Equity Challenge. Funding can be used to cover expenses such as printing, room rental, refreshments, childcare and travel reimbursements for attendees of session(s), language translation/interpretation, etc. More information is available here.
  • Also new this year, organizations (such as non-profits, agencies, schools, businesses and other groups) can register to be listed as “organizational participants” of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge! Each individual should still register with their own email address in order to receive the daily prompts during the Challenge, but organizations can now indicate to the world their support for the work of building equity and dismantling racism in our food system! Contact FSNE with any questions about this.

All of this is in line with how FSNE sees itself evolving as a network into its next decade, creating accessible and supportive resources that might be shared and easily adapted through aligned, diverse and robust connections in the region and beyond.

What next?

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

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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 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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