Author Archives for Curtis Ogden

May 14, 2024

When “Kin” Is All We Have: From “Stakeholders” to “Care-holders”

Image by Emily Bergquist, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

“We must move ourselves beyond resistance and survival, to flourishment and ‘mino bimaadiziwin’ (the good life).

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

“The challenge is to replace practices that distance and disconnect with ones that evoke empathy, caring, and creativity.”

Carol Sanford

NOTE: This is a slightly revised version of a post that appeared about a year and a half ago. We live, we learn, and so some of the overall framing and details have shifted, but the essence here remains the same

In our collaborative change work with organizations and multi-organizational networks, we at IISC are adamant about doing thoughtful “stakeholder analysis” at the start of an initiative, and returning to this work periodically, asking the question, “Who are we missing or not seeing?” As important as this can be, not everyone loves the word “stakeholder.” It can sound somewhat wonky and impersonal, and I myself have been thinking about the word “stake” and what it says about people.

To have a stake means “to have a share, interest, or involvement in something or someone.” Going back to the early 1700s, a stakeholder was one to whom money was deposited when making a wager/bet. And in the colonizing of what is now the United States, stakes were literally placed on lands that were stewarded by Indigenous peoples as a way of claiming ownership of them. What none of this conveys is a sense of care or caring. I don’t mean whether or not someone cares (or is indifferent), but whether there is a genuine heartfelt/embodied sense of connection or deep desire to participate, protect, co-create and/or contribute. Increasingly, this sense of care and caring (along with reckoning and making amends) is showing up as a crucial factor in making the work of complex collaborative (systemic and culture) change happen.

Recently, Anne Heberger Marino tweeted something about translating “stakeholders” to “careholders” in her/their mind to get beyond “detached objectivity.” I really like and resonate with that! And it goes beyond the term I had been playing with that still felt a bit detached – “interest-holder.” Playing with language seems to raise some interesting possibilities. In general, when we at IISC work with partners to consider who might been engaged in collaborative social change work, we uplift the following categories/criteria (applied to individuals and groups) with respect to a given initiative:

  • Is likely to be impacted by the outcome of the effort/decision 
  • Voices unheard and/or historically marginalized perspectives 
  • Functions as a connector in or across sector(s)/field(s)/communities 
  • Is in a position to implement the effort/decision 
  • Is in a position to prevent the effort/decision from being implemented 
  • Has relevant information or “expertise” (including lived experience)
  • Has informal influence without authority 
  • Has formal authority/responsible for the final decision
  • Is Indigenous to the place where we are doing “the work”

Applying a lens of “caring” or (or even of “loving”) to these criteria brings out another level or nuance, for me anyways. Beyond functionality and/or positionality, it invites me to ask: Who really connects to and cares about what we are trying to do? This can deepen and really anchor the analysis in powerful ways and also potentially expand possibilities for the initiative in question. Farmer, poet and essayist Wendell Berry has talked about the importance of what he calls “the turn towards affection.”  Having spent many years reflecting on and pushing back against the unfortunate demonstrated human capacity to damage the land and demonize “the other,” he takes a strong stand for deep connection, or affection:

“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. … By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.”

And, of course, there is longstanding Indigenous perspective and practice around “seeing” and sensing the land and all beings as kin, as “relations” that shape us and are shaped by us, with or without our conscious “knowing.” What if we asked ourselves and others what might be illuminated by people bringing their affection, love and/or sense of kinship to the initiative, work, place and/or goal in question? Who already has this? How might we inspire it in others?

“Cares deeply about the effort/decision” might become its own worthy category/criterion. And in looking at the criterion from the list above, “Is in a position to prevent the initiative/decision from being implemented” (the proverbial “blocker(s)”), bringing a lens of care might help us wonder what perceived “adversaries” actually care about/love/connect to. Might this kind of curiosity help to build bridges and understanding from the outset as opposed to immediately relegating certain people and groups to the category of “them”?

Speaking to the last criterion in the list above, recent conversations among a group of IISC staff and affiliates about these categories and criterion have raised important considerations of Indigenous peoples and perspectives. Increasingly we are seeing an interest in acknowledging and addressing harms done through colonialism, validating Indigenous ways of knowing, and working to establish “right relationships” and a “resurgence” (borrowing language here from Leanne Betasamosake Simpson) of saluto-genic (health/wholeness-promoting) systems. And perhaps by extension of these notions of “indigeneity” and caring, we might also consider who: “Speaks for the land” (see the work and writings of Jeannette Armstrong, of the Okanagan people) and also “Speaks for the more-than-human realm.”

I am also reminded of our IISC Collaborative Change Lens, which includes the facet of “love” as a force for social transformation and justice. Love here is a deeply rooted sensibility and practice, something that connects us in an ongoing way to “right mind and right action” in support of the “bigger We” of which we are all a part. As we say on our website, “We nurture the love that does justice: the desire for the wellbeing of others, which is central to every social change movement. Love infuses our power with compassion, reclaims our resilience, heals our wounds, causes us to see ourselves as connected, and enables our radical imagination.”

Finally, at least for now, as I look at the list of nine criteria above, I am tempted to add one more growing out of the unfolding spirit of these reflections. I would simply add a place/seat for “possibility,” in whatever form that might want to take. To and for me, the practice of leaning into more caring/loving leads naturally to this kind of space. More on that soon. And in the meantime …

What might care and care-holding bring to your consideration of who and how to engage others/”kin” in your social change work?

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April 16, 2024

Oklahoma Teachings: Be Care/Full With the Stories You Tell

New Tulsa flag. For more on its meaning, including tribal connections, see this link.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending and presenting at the 25th annual White Privilege Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma with my dear colleague Karen Spiller. We were invited to share about the past 10 years of co-producing the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge for Food Solutions New England, and also be in conversation with Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr., Debby Irving and Dr. Marguerite Penick-Parks, who were the originators of the 21 Day Equity Challenge through The Privilege Institute. To say that it was a rich experience is an understatement.

Meeting in the City of Tulsa and being in the state of Oklahoma was particularly poignant, for all that they represent with respect to this country’s history – the destination of the Trail of Tears and home to 39 different Indigenous tribes because of relocation and forced removal; the site of Black Wall Street and the 1921 Massacre; birthplace of the likes of Woody Guthrie, Wilma Mankiller, Jim Thorpe, Anita Hill, and Ralph Ellison; a focal point of the Dust Bowl, and known as the buckle of the so-called “Bible Belt.”

We were truly blessed to be welcomed each day by members of one of the three tribes whose reservations intersect in the City of Tulsa – Osage, Cherokee, and Muscogee Creek. Through their welcoming words and “land acknowledgments” we learned so much more about this country’s history and also the resilience and generosity of Indigenous peoples. This included a very rich morning presentation from Wilson Pipestem, a citizen of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, Osage headright holder, Managing Partner and co-founder of Ietan Consulting and a fierce advocate for tribal self-determination. In this and a follow-up breakout session Pipestem facilitated with his colleague Lance Kelley, of the Muscogee Creek, I found myself scribbling teachings, including this list of ten, all of which seem to fit under broader headings of “be aware of the danger of the single story” and “check your assumptions”:

  • There are some 575 tribes in the US today and more than 300 reservations, along with 630 Canadian “reserves.”
  • In telling the story of the Indigenous peoples within the US, we should not speak of “conquest.” Rather we should talk about accommodation, ongoing attempts at agreement building, and of course, agreements broken and terrible harms done.
  • Much of the policy of the US government during the Trail of Tears era and beyond was based in a very false and harmful belief that Indigenous peoples were “inferior and would disappear eventually.”
  • Related to the above, laws were set around certain allowances of land for Indigenous peoples, complete with White overseers and an expiration date, all of which emphasized the false idea of “Indigenous impermanence and incompetence.”
  • During the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Andrew Jackson had his life saved by a Cherokee named Junaluska. Later, Jackson, as President, would request the removal of Junaluska and his people from North Carolina as part of the Trail of Tears.
  • A large part of Indigenous resistance lay in the ongoing refusal to accept that “the ways we were given that we know are perfect are in any way ‘wrong’.”
  • The story of Little House on the Prairie could also be told as that of, “A White family that was squatting on Indigenous lands.”
  • Recently the US Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of the Muskogee Creek Reservation to exist.
  • Some Indigenous tribes owned African-American slaves and enslaved other Indigenous peoples.
  • There exists a range of “blood quantum” requirements among tribes which determine tribal membership (from as much as one-half to as little as 1/128).

Sitting with all of this, with much gratitude, and more committed than ever to the notion of working towards “right relationship” as well as telling the fuller story of this imperfect and amazing country.

What assumptions are you sitting with?

What single stories that could benefit from a fuller telling?

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February 7, 2024

Getting to the Core of Long-Term, Complex, Collaborative and Networked Success

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!

I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen …

and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

– Henry David Thoreau

Image by Bill Smith, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Earlier this week I posted on our blog a piece drawing from lessons learned in over a dozen years of supporting Food Solutions New England to launch and evolve as a network. These lessons were also drawn from other collaborative networks we have supported over the years at IISC, and fed forward into our work with FSNE, not as a way of forcing fit, but seeing if the system/network reacted favorably.

A colleague and collaborator from outside of IISC read the post and fed it to into an AI interface and asked about the top three take-aways (the original post has a list of 25 developmental milestones and lessons). That generated a very interesting summary, which I continued to play with a bit. Collaborating in this way has yielded the following three core elements for long-term collaborative and networked success in our experience, without declaring final victory (which is surely a bit of fiction).

1. **Foster a Culture of Collaboration and Shared Vision/Values**: The importance of working together as a collective rather than as isolated entities underscores the need for a unifying vision and values. The vision and values should bridge real and perceived differences, creating a sense of belonging and purpose across diverse groups. Co-creating a guiding vision and values not only aligns efforts but also amplifies impact through collective action. Engaging in storytelling and shared experiences, like breaking bread together, further solidifies shared vision and values by humanizing the collaboration, making it more than just a professional undertaking. This approach encourages a deeper understanding and appreciation of one other, fostering a more cohesive and inclusive network.

2. **Build and Maintain a Robust, Trust-Based Network**: The call to build networks that are vertical, horizontal, and diagonal emphasizes the importance of creating spaces where trust and accountability can become the foundation. This involves not only bonding within similar groups but also bridging across different ones, ensuring a rich tapestry of connections that are resilient and creative over time. These networks are strengthened by dedicated support for convening, coordination, and facilitation, ensuring that collaboration is effective. Enrolling network weavers or ambassadors to keep the network vibrant and inclusive is crucial through ongoing outreach. 

3. **Commit to Continuous Learning, Equity, and Systemic Saluto-genesis**: Recognizing and addressing social inequities within the system is vital for achieving a fair and sustainable future. This involves a commitment to racial and other forms of equity, both broadly and deeply. Leveraging “network effects” for spreading learning, understanding the persistence of dominant systems/power structures, and identifying leverage areas for “collective impact” are critical steps towards systemic saluto-genesis (ongoing health-promotion for all “participants” in the system and the system as a whole). This also highlights the need for integrated policies that reflect the network’s core vision and values, making policy along with financial and other resources more equitably available and relevant to people. It also encourages embracing complexity while striving for simplicity in tools and approaches, preparing for disruptions, being trauma-informed, well-being oriented and dedicated to accessibility.

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February 2, 2024

Lessons From 12 Years of Weaving a Regional Network for Better Food Futures

Recently a colleague and I were invited to present to partners in Mississippi about what we have learned over a dozen years of creating a network in New England dedicated to advancing a just, sustainable, democratic and collaborative regional food system.

It has been quite a journey to date, filled with twists and turns, much joy, and some hard-earned wisdom. Over this time I have done my best to capture insights and developments as they have happened in blog posts. In reflecting on those, along with content that has been curated on the network’s website, I pulled together the list of developmental lessons/milestones below.

This could easily be longer, and if one were to “double click” on any item, a whole story would unfold with other learnings. Some day we hope to capture this in a fuller telling, and for now, here is an offering of 25+ take-aways, some of which might be of interest to others depending on where you are in your own network stories of change.

  1. Work and consider what we can do as a six-state region, as opposed to individual states.
  2. Co-create a guiding vision to bring people together across real and perceived differences/boundaries.
  3. Build a network and strengthen trust that is vertical, horizontal and diagonal (in network-speak, “bond and bridge“); years from now, we will be very glad we did.
  4. Lean into core and common values (these will help us through some of the hard times and decisions).
  5. Engage in storytelling and breaking bread together, getting to know one another beyond roles, titles and assumptions (this will create more “surface area” for connection).
  6. Ensure there is funding to support skillful and dedicated convening, coordination, facilitation and other key collaborative functions.
  7. Create diverse teams for key functions such as process design, strategy development and program implementation to deepen engagement.
  8. Keep evolving and socializing the shared vision, helping people understand what a vision is/is not and what a vision can do.
  9. Keep evolving and socializing the network, helping people understand what a network is/is not, and what a network can do.
  10. Enroll formal network weavers (we call them “ambassadors”) and commit to ongoing outreach to keep expanding and diversifying the network.
  11. Work to really understand social inequities, what drives them and what they have to do with food; commit to racial and other forms of equity broadly and deeply.
  12. Leverage “network effects” and network tools to spread learning.
  13. Work to better understand the dominant system(s) and why, despite our best efforts, they persist and resist.
  14. Identify leverage areas (we now call them “impact areas”) that we can lean into collectively to create the better system(s) that align with our shared vision and values.
  15. “Do what you do best and connect to the rest” – keep focusing on what is ours to do as a network in the region, while respecting, appreciating and linking with what others are doing that aligns with and complements our efforts.
  16. Create pipelines for and connect emerging and existing leaders in the regional food system.
  17. Work for narrative change in and around the food system and messaging that aligns with our shared vision and values.
  18. Create an integrated policy platform across the region and sectors, grounded in our core vision and values, and help make policy more accessible and relevant to everyone.
  19. As Toni Morrison once wrote, “Keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.” Normalize complexity in our shared work, while avoiding making things more complex than they need to be.
  20. With respect to technology tools and platforms, remember that less can truly be more, and that they are as much about sociology as technology. Ask what you really need to facilitate fluid communication, sharing and decision-making.
  21. Be prepared for disruptions and learn to pivot together with grace.
  22. Be trauma-informed,
  23. Be well-being oriented.
  24. Be dedicated to accessibility.
  25. Ongoing and always, throughout all of the above, practice “fierce love” (deep caring and accountability, for/to yourself and others)

Also, based on where we seem to be heading in 2024 … Help weave together a larger regional “network of networks” and regional infrastructure focused on addressing poverty advancing climate resilience and supporting thriving communities/local people.

Feel free to sign the Food Solutions New England Pledge here, no matter where you are, to support and align with our core values and vision.

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October 12, 2023

Righting Our Relationships: Reflections From the Voice, Choice and Action II Gathering

“In the end, everything works together.”

Chief Jake Swamp (quoted by Dan Longboat)

Earlier this year I had the honor and privilege of being invited to support the second Voice, Choice and Action gathering of the Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Network. A project of The Nature Conservancy, the IPLC is devoted to centering Indigenous and local knowledge and leadership in land conservation work

Back in 2019, I worked with lead organizer Mariana Velez Laris to support the design of the first convening, held in Bend, Oregon, but was unable to attend. Four years later, again working with Mariana and her team, we found ourselves in new territory, living in a COVID-rattled and fire-and-water-ravaged world with turbulence on many other fronts – political, economic and cultural. We also found ourselves in the midst of many promising developments, including advancements in the realm of braiding, “Indigenous knowledge” with the better practices of Westernized conservation. 

This time around I was able to support the team as both a co-designer and co-facilitator with Mariana and the co-leaders of the IPLC, Andrea Akall’eq Burgess and Briannon Fraley, of a gathering that was hosted on Haudenosaunee lands in Buffalo, New York (which also happens to be my birthplace). The decision to hold it in this powerful location (think Niagara Falls, gateway to the Great Lakes, old industrial city experiencing a rebirth, the lands of the oldest standing confederacy in the world) was really the result of Mariana’s vision, and it would yield untold benefits. 

We were clear from the outset that this convening was not meant to be a stand-alone event, but would build on the first VCA convening, along with all the work prior to and since that gathering in Oregon. We were also clear that to be in alignment with a “right relations” commitment, as embraced by our Haudenosaunee hosts and other Indigenous participants, we would need to operate in accordance with Haudenosaunee protocols. Much care was taken to establish trust and understanding, including with the host institution, the University of Buffalo, which is home to this country’s oldest Indigenous studies and environmental studies programs. 

The agenda itself, under Mariana’s thoughtful and caring stewardship, became a story of spaciousness and flow, a slow moving river that carried us early on into a Haudenosaunee-led opening with the traditional Thanksgiving Address, or the Words Spoken Before All Else. During this time we were welcomed by faithkeeper Oren Lyons, who has seen such immense change in our world during his 93 years on this planet, and who declared our current situation as a deep spiritual battle. And we were greeted over the course of the first two of the four days by other Haudenosaunee leaders, including Gae ho Hwako Norma Jacobs, a Cayuga elder who writes in her recently released book, Odagahodhes, “We have forgotten about that Sacred meeting space between the Settler ship and the Indigenous canoe, where we originally agreed on the Two Row [wampum agreement], and where today we need to return to talk about the impacts of its violation.” 

Much of our time made space to dig deeper into this violation, how it was perpetrated in different places in different though related ways, and how it is perpetuated through certain contemporary mainstream (Westernized) conservation practices. Importantly, we also pivoted towards what it would take to heal the rifts and divisions amongst the relations and the nations and to move forward together. Part of this occurred through a ritual that Mariana and I co-led, pulling from the practices of Fierce Civility and Respectful Confrontation, grounding people in their bodies and breath, and inviting us all to honor self, community, Mother Earth and future generations. This was intended to mark a “crossing of a threshold” to open up new possibilities in the community that was gathered. We framed this ritual around some of the teachings we had heard directly or indirectly from the Elders and other speakers to that point, including:

“One of the greatest gifts is to re-member.”

“Everything is built on reciprocal relationships.”

“Nature is one big family, working together to sustain Life.”

“The best way to learn is in ceremony; it pulls you together.” 

“Feel our feelings. Feel the love of the Creator. Love ourselves.”

Participants also heard from a couple of powerful panels of Indigenous women leaders from around the world on their visions for reckoning and rematriation, which included these appeals:

  • Lead with care
  • Reduce competition
  • Protect bio-cultural systems
  • Embrace networks and new structures
  • Support women’s participation and equality
  • Let Indigenous groups speak for themselves
  • Recognize more territories that pre-existed current boundaries

In addition, we participated in other Indigenous-led rituals for healing and joy (optional sunrise ceremonies, a Listening to Niagara Falls visit, a high energy Seneca-led social dance) and ultimately to a session on “planting seeds for the future.” It was not your usual conference, to say the least, and I can safely say that it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, in no small part because of our Haudenosaunee hosts, and the invitation to “see” (feel and sense) the world from an Indigenous perspective. And I was not alone. 

A few months after the convening, Mariana and I held a couple of follow-up sessions, to share what was gleaned from post-gathering evaluations and learn what had moved for participants since we were together. What flowed from those conversations was quite inspiring and encouraging. In the image above you can see some of the major insights that emerged regarding pathways towards Indigenous and community-led conservation. Beyond this, as we listened to those participating in our two Zoom calls share about what they still carried with them and were committing to in terms of action, this is what I heard and noted on a piece of paper: 

❤️ Expand the teachings, rather than simply repeating what and how they were given to us.

❤️ Protect and nurture endangered experiences, beyond endangered species.

❤️ Listen to the human and non-human elders.

❤️ Leverage collective power; row together.

❤️ Be accountable for impact.

❤️ Make room for wholeness.

❤️ Bring gifts and gratitude.

❤️ Lead with gentleness.

❤️ Practice forgiveness.

❤️ Remember to rest. 

For more information, see this recently published article on the gathering and visit the website for the VCA Framework (see image below):

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July 19, 2023

Transformation Teachings

I am recently back from the Transformations Community gathering in Prague in the Czech Republic and still savoring and making sense of the time. That trip capped a flurry of work travel that began in May and took me from Jackson, Mississippi (Food Policy Council Network COLP) to New York City (Ford Foundation Global Leadership Meeting) to the Seacoast of New Hampshire (Food Solutions New England Network Leadership Institute) to Haudenosaunee Territory in Buffalo, NY (Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Network Voice Choice and Action Gathering) to the District of Columbia (DC Legal Aid Transformations Network) to water ravaged northern Vermont (Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont) to Eastern Europe.

All along the way, there were messages of what the times are calling for in terms of practicing resilience and transformation. Each of these deserves a fuller unpacking, and I offer them here for now, with much gratitude to many teachers along the way. I begin each of these with the word “remember,” as that was a core teaching from our gathering on Haudenosaunee lands, that one of our greatest gifts is to remember, and that so much of this is about remembering …

Remember that everything is designed to work together through reciprocal relations.

Remember where you come from, what your “creation story” is, as there is great guidance there.

Remember what matters most to you, your values, and align with them in practice.

Remember what is yours to do in this lifetime and in/with Life.

Remember to go below the neckline (to the heart and gut), without throwing out what is above it (the head).

Remember to practice belonging and accountability (they go together and support one another).

Remember to do intergenerational work/learning, thinking of those living, those passed on, and those yet to come.

Remember to bring in “the periphery” (whatever that means in your particular situation – this generally relates to power and access). There is much wisdom and fresh insight here.

Remember the importance of putting in place a “resilience or transformation infrastructure” (think process, roles and relationships) – this does not necessarily happen on its own.

Remember when it makes sense to “institutionalize” and do so in ways that do not kill spirit, vitality and diversity.

Remember not to make assumptions and be prepared to be surprised.

Remember to have faith in the unseen, the power of “practical magic.”

Remember to break bread with one another, to talk with one another and to keep leaning in to the (apparent) differences. Learning awaits!

Remember to find what grounds and nourishes you (individually and collectively) and cherish/honor it.

Remember to listen …

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May 26, 2023

Equity May Not Be So Deep, Even If It Isn’t Easy: 10 Things You Can Actually Do Sooner Than Later

Just wrapping up some work with a network focused on just and sustainable food systems, and based on work we have done and conversation we have had to date on equity, networks, and love, here is a list of 10 things that might be transferable to your work (remembering that you can’t always transplant directly, without some fine-tuning to context):

  1. If you have an equity commitment, revisit it often, if not during every significant meeting that happens. Integration is key. If you have not developed a commitment, consider it. You might ask your team, “Why are we committed to advancing equitable wellbeing and belonging in and through our work? What does this mean to us? What is in it for us? What happens if we don’t live into this commitment?”
  2. Go back to your group agreements (assuming you have a set of guiding principles) during every meeting (think about opening with these). Ideally these agreements help you to answer the question, “How can we create conditions for a sense of equitable wellbeing and belonging?”
  3. Have more discussion with people in your organization/system about Zoom and on-line etiquette. This has to do with supporting equitable wellbeing and belonging and also leaning into collective accountability, which is a big part of “justice infrastructure.” Talk about what you all mean by “accountability” in terms of “showing up” for each other and “speaking up” when together and why it is important. 
  4. Clarify an equitable “system of roles” in your meetings/work (facilitator, scribe/memory keeper, sponsor, lead organizer, point person, etc.). These roles can (and probably should) rotate, and be distributed (not all held by a single or few people). Know what your system of roles is in any given moment, whether you are making meaning, making decisions, or taking action together.
  5. Schedule equity-focused facilitator training for anyone who facilitates groups in your organization/system. This could be, for example, Facilitative Leadership for Social Change and Fundamentals of Facilitation for Advancing Racial Justice Work, which we offer through IISC. This is about facilitation skills and also meeting design, and also so much more (like tapping into our shared human dignity).
  6. Create and maintain a broadly accessible list of recommended equity tools for all. Ideally co-create this, revisit it together from time to time, and think of it in terms of different modalities (text, audio, visual, etc.). Keep it fresh and pruned. Here is a great resource to get started.
  7. Fine-tune the structure of your organization/system so that it reflects your equity commitment, following the notion that “form (structure) follows function (activities) follows focus (what you are trying to make happen in the world).” Revisit structure in light of changing functions and your evolving understanding of equity at least once a year. How is it supporting equitable wellbeing and belonging? How might it be adjusted to be more aligned? Consider using an equity impact assessment to guide you in this work (see image below).
  8. Keep broadly accessible equity learning and cultural celebration events going, monthly or quarterly. This could be movie nights, discussion groups, guest speakers, book clubs, multi-cultural food potlucks, storytelling festivals, etc. This could also include something like participating in the FSNE 21 Day Equity Challenge. And certainly see if you can attract a diverse flock to these events and celebrations.
  9. Think about how to do your events in such a way that a wide variety of people feel engaged and included, as participants, contributors, presenters, etc. Consider who has access and feels welcomed and who does not.
  10. For a bigger stretch, perhaps, consider doing relational organizing or “conversational weaving,” focused on discussing and practicing equitable wellbeing and belonging. You can do this in small groups starting in your organization/community and spread out from there. A resource that might be helpful in this regard is Marshall Ganz’s work.
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May 5, 2023

Mississippi Learnings: Deep Trust, Values, Accountability and Faith as and for “System Change”

One of many murals in Jackson, celebrating local s/heroes.

I have been trying to capture my learning from the past few days in Mississippi. I feel pretty shifted by the experience, in directions that we at IISC have been pointing towards (along with partners such as the Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative, Food Solutions New England, The Full Frame Initiative, National Parent Leadership Initiative, and many others), though now personally I feel it at another level of depth and conviction. For that I am so grateful.

This is something that I put into a digital journal as I was traveling home to capture what was moving through me:

“Just leaving Jackson, Mississippi, where I was for three days, co-facilitating and participating in a gathering convened by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future of food policy councils from around the country (US) that are trying to advance social equity in their work. It was incredibly powerful to me to gather in Jackson, for all its history; to meet the likes of Reena Evers-Everette (daughter of Medgar and Myrlie Evers), Charles Taylor (head of the NAACP-Mississippi), Savi Horne (Land Loss Prevention Program), Ed Whitfield (Seed Commons) and Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott (founder of Foot Print Farms); and also to learn more from colleagues there about the network weaving and healing work they are doing in and around food systems, which is about so much more than food – community, local economy, and culture. 

As I was walking through the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum about two hours after we closed the convening, I was hit in the forehead and heart (literally had to sit down) by the messages from both the history I was taking in and also what I had just experienced in Jackson. And I should add that it links to the work we at IISC have been supporting through Food Solutions New England for over a decade. To distill “success” (or encouraging movement) in the Civil Rights movement (especially in Mississippi) and what is happening now in Mississippi and in New England around food systems change, much seems to come down to this:

  • Foregrounding relationships and relational culture, and especially bridging beyond bonding (like-to-like)
  • Being grounded in core values and principles that are co-created and co-evolved
  • Establishing, collectively, accountability structures and processes focused on the values and principles and maintaining relational culture 
  • Relentlessly keeping those who are most negatively impacted by the existing system(s) at the center, not to exclude or peripheralize others, but rather to make sure their experiences-voices-ideas-advocacies serve as a guidepost for systemic redesign (the curb cut effect suggests that when we design for those who are most marginalized, we catch others up in the process)
  • Grounding in the anchoring power of faith, which may or may not be religiously-sourced, and nonetheless is about having humility in the face of Life’s gifts and grandeur, which is complex and awe-inspiring, and asks us to both never give up but also to let go …

On top of this, or infused with this, comes the work for policy change, creating new civic infrastructure, and the like, and never losing sight of the list above. 

Picture from Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

One peril, over and over again, in social/system change work, seems to be the pitfalls of abstraction – making what we are doing too intellectual and inaccessible to most, not to mention unactionable; not addressing the abstractions that people make of one another in systems (seeing someone only as their role, or other aspects of identity); inappropriately “scaling” or “franchising” efforts and not shaping the work to real places where there may be some familiar patterns but always uniqueness in terms of history and culture.

Another peril is perpetuating fragmentation – not working with living breathing wholes, siloing our “knowing” to overly intellectual/analytical thinking, failing to integrate/weave strategies and perpetuating unhelpful competition (playing into the oligarchic capitalist narrative and way of doing things).”

Now reflecting on this a few days later, something else comes up, which is the importance of ongoing work on ourselves as “change agents,” care-fully watching our own automatic tendencies, biases, and inclinations (including towards groupthink), and especially being careful of the rearing of the overly pride-full ego in the forms of fear, envy, greed and striving for control. Much seems to come down to the abiding power of Love (and from it the expression when necessary of “holy rage”) and the never-ending practice of making room for regenerative flows …

Still sitting with it all, and curious to hear reactions, resonances and other reflections …

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March 7, 2023

An Ever-Evolving Journey: On Moving to Equitable Wellbeing and Belonging

The project of our society is to constantly re-imagine how we belong together.

Bridgit Antoinette Evans’ 

This year, we are again excited to partner with Food Solutions New England on the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge. This will be the 9th offering of what began as an experiment to bring a region together in exploration of the connection between race, racism and the food system, and what can be done to ensure equity and fairness across all lines of identity. Each year the Challenge has evolved, including more and different resources, topics, tools, and features. And the number of participants has grown from roughly 250 in the first year to several thousand over the last five years, with a total of more than 30,000 people signing up from all 50 US states and over 30 other countries. For more on this evolution, see this post.

What we wanted to highlight this year is that we are framing everything under the theme of “Moving to equitable wellbeing and belonging in food systems and beyond.” Why wellbeing and belonging? Because most everyone can relate to the ideas of wellbeing and belonging. Also because this phrase can help to answer the question regarding what some of the big goals are of doing racial and other forms of “equity work.” 

At a time when we might feel confused about what it means to work for equity and justice, and when many words have become political footballs, we find that focusing on the core values and destinations of equitable wellbeing and belonging can help to ground and focus people. This is especially so when we focus on definitions of wellbeing and belonging that (1) most if not all people across identities can relate to, (2) emphasize the systemic, structural, and social nature of these terms, and (3) help us better understand how racism and other forms of bias and oppression can get in the way and ultimately impact everyone. We are especially fortunate to be able to turn to our partners in and experts on wellbeing at The Full Frame Initiative and on othering at the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California at Berkeley

“We are all wired for wellbeing.” So say our friends at the Full Frame Initiative (FFI). And while this may be the case, they go on to say, “We do not all have a fair shot at wellbeing.” This ends up being due in large part to different kinds of treatment and opportunities that can fall along lines of identity, including race and ethnicity. While this clearly impacts the victims of racism and other -isms, it also ends up impacting everyone in society. 

So what is wellbeing? According to FFI,

“Wellbeing is the set of needs and experiences essential, in combination and balance, to weather challenges and have health and hope.”

Wellbeing here is not the same as “wellness,” which often is used in very individualistic kinds of ways – for example, whether or not you are “well” is because of the choices you have made.

The work of FFI around wellbeing also points to five key factors or domains in play, which are largely socially determined:

  • Social connectedness to people/communities that allows us to give and to receive, and spaces where we experience belonging to something bigger than ourselves. 
  • Stability that comes from having things we can count on to be the same from day to day and knowing that a small bump won’t set off a domino-effect of crises.
  • Safety, the ability to be ourselves without significant danger or harm.
  • Mastery, that comes from being able to influence other people and what happens to us, having a sense of purpose and skills to navigate and negotiate our life. 
  • Meaningful access to relevant resources like food, housing, clothing, sleep and more, without shame, danger or difficulty.

The first domain above has clear connections to social location and connection. Being embedded and engaged in supportive social networks is a great contributor to individual and collective wellbeing. Beyond this, being connected to others in authentic, caring, and mutually rewarding webs of relationships can contribute to a sense of stability, safety, and purpose, and it can create access to resources (financial and otherwise) that sustain and enliven us.

To learn more about these “five domains of wellbeing” and why they matter for everyone, you can check out the interactive graphic at this link and/or watch the short video below with FFI’s Tanya Tucker.

Belonging. This is a powerful word, feeling, and condition/situation. It is more than inclusion, simply “feeling or being included.” It is about being fundamentally “seen” and “respected.” The concept of belonging has been explored and expressed by many over time, and with great depth, nuance, and relevance more recently by the staff at the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California-Berkeley (OBI). OBI contrasts belonging to “othering,” a process which fundamentally denies certain people recognition of their full or even partial humanity. You can watch or listen to a roughly five minute segment of a talk that OBI founder john a. powell gave in 2019 about othering and belonging (see below – start at 9:10 and end at 13:45). 

As with the concept of wellbeing, belonging is understood here as being directly connected to power dynamics. According to OBI,

“Belonging means having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of political, social, and cultural structures that shape one’s life — the right to both contribute and make demands upon society and political institutions.”

Belonging then requires power, access, and opportunity among all groups and individuals within a given social structure, such as a society, organization, business, club, etc. And as Brian Stout, ever curious explorer of “building belonging,” writes, “Belonging is a felt sense in our bodies of safety, power, wholeness, and welcome. It is a relational quality that can be cultivated and practiced.”

With this relational and systemic understanding of belonging, we can see how the different “levels of racism,” in food and other systems, can create othering in interpersonal, institutional, and also individually internalized ways, which can and do ripple through the broader fabric of our shared social body, or what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called as our “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

If you are interested in further exploring these topics and engaging in this conversation about giving everyone a fair shot at wellbeing, repairing, healing, and building belonging in food systems and beyond, join us for this year’s 21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge. Registration information can be found here.

We are all tied to a lineage of love that has existed since time immemorial. Even if we haven’t had a direct experience of that love, we know that it exists and has made an indelible imprint on our souls. It’s remarkable to think that the entire span of human life exists within each one of us, going all the way back to the hands of the Creator. In our bodies we carry the blood of our ancestors and the seeds of the future generations. We are a living conduit to all life. When we contemplate the vastness of the interwoven network that we are tied to, our individual threads of life seem far less fragile. We are strengthened by who we come from and inspired by the those who will follow.”

– Sherri Mitchell (Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset)

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December 6, 2022

Principles and Questions for Advancing Equitable Wellbeing in Systems

“Our drive for wellbeing is universal. Our access to wellbeing is not.”

www.wellbeingblueprint.org/blueprint  

One of my greatest joys is weaving connections between initiatives with which I am partnering. Over the past several months this has shown up, in one instance, as creating bridges and partnerships between the Full Frame Initiative (creators of and conveners around the Wellbeing Blueprint) and a few other networks, including Food Solutions New England and the DC Legal Aid Transformations Network.

What these and many other networks that I am working with, have in common, is a commitment to social (and particularly racial) equity, characterized in large part by a vision of equitable wellbeing and a deeply rooted sense of belonging for all people, in food, public health, legal aid, and related fields. The Full Frame Initiative has developed a robust body of work, that brings nuanced attention to what supports individual and collective wellbeing, systemically. This includes focused attention on different domains of wellbeing, as well as a set of principles that are meant to help people design systems that give everyone access to wellbeing.

Inspired by FFI’s work, I took their set of principles and turned some of what was presented as a set of descriptive statements into questions that might help different kinds of social service providers and policymakers integrate wellbeing into their work. Curious to know which of these catch people’s attention, and what they might and or adjust for their particular system change work.

Principle 1: Start with what matters to people: wellbeing.

  1. Are our decision-making processes being informed by the lived experiences and expertise of people receiving services/most negatively impacted?
  2. Are we defining people by the issues they are facing? Are we seeing them as whole people with their own strategies for navigating systems? 
  3. Are we asking people, and especially those who have been historically marginalized, to make unsustainable tradeoffs in our service models/policy work? 
  4. Are our services trauma-informed and culturally responsive, recognizing the different challenges and values at play in people’s lives?
  5. Are we focusing on the level of the family and/or community, not just the individual? 

Principle 2: Design and implement with, not for.

  1. Are we partnering with community to vision and frame issues, rather than engaging community for feedback around solutions designed by others? 
  2. Are we ensuring that those most impacted dictate what matters, rather than externally determining what “should” matter? 
  3. Are we shifting power to community and shift risk and burdens out of community? 
  4. Are we allowing communities to be complex and non-monolithic?
  5. Are we valuing- not exploiting- people’s and communities’ vulnerability and shared experience? 

Principle 3: Push against harms in communities already facing the greatest adversity; support healing and regeneration.

  1. Are we reaching/considering the least resourced/capitalized communities in our area? 
  2. Are we respecting Indigenous and informal cultural norms and values?
  3. Are we collecting data on structural/systemic barriers and how people receiving services/most negatively impacted work around these barriers?
  4. Are we addressing biases in expectations for the outcomes of those receiving services/most negatively impacted?
  5. Are we explicitly supporting healing and tying our work to shifting harmful patterns of the past?
  6. Are we supporting and creating space for creative solutions, including from those receiving services? 

Principle 4: Foster and build on social connections and social capital.

  1. Are we supporting people helping people before adding programs to help people, including removing obstacles to family/community members helping one another?
  2. Are we enabling and enhancing social networks in our policy work, especially for those receiving and providing services/most negatively impacted?
  3. Are we building on and not undermining social connectedness, belonging and social capital in community?
  4. Are we supporting bridging and linking capital (relationships that connect us across differences of identity, experience and power), not just bonding capital (relationships with those most like us)?
  5. Are we focusing less on individual change and considering how changes in relationships between and among people might be more useful?

Principle 5: Span boundaries.

  1. In our services/policy work, are we leveraging different and diverse aspects of the human experience, including arts, culture and joy?
  2. Are we seeking out uncommon partners and solutions?
  3. Are we Integrating with and advocating across other systems, leveraging other fields and sectors?
  4. Are we identifying and illuminating when policies of one system (including the one in which we work) create barriers in other systems for those receiving our services?

Principle 6: Build (on) assets and innovation.

  1. Are we striving to preserve innovations sparked by the pandemic and/or other crises?
  2. Are we ensuring that our services/policies we are advancing do not require (further) financial sacrifice and that they do support or connect to others supporting financial wellbeing?
  3. As we provide direct services, are we also attending/connecting to anti-poverty work and programs?
  4. Are we addressing policies that undermine people’s and communities’ ability to accumulate wealth, knowledge, data and other kinds of capital?
  5. Are we starting with what communities already have and diligently seek ways to avoid circumventing what works well, as defined by the people who are impacted? 
  6. Are we hiring/compensating people with lived experience in navigating structural challenges?

Find out more by visiting the Wellbeing Blueprint and consider becoming a signer!

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December 1, 2022

Network Weaving for Equitable Wellbeing (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of the one that appeared earlier this week (Tuesday, November 29th), and together both form an extended article that was written for participants of this month’s Wellbeing Summit, hosted by the Full Frame Initiative.

What is network weaving?

“A network weaver is someone who is aware of the networks around them and works to make them healthier.”

June Holley (writer, activist, network consultant)

Network weaving is an umbrella term for the practice of network leadership/stewardship, and it refers to a specific role. If you think about weaving with fabric, it is about bringing different strands together to create a tapestry or cloth of some kind. This can create beautiful patterns, functional garments, and also strength where individual fibers might otherwise be relatively weak. The same goes for weaving connections between people, places and ideas. This is what network weaving is about! 

Network weaving is not necessarily the same thing as networking. Networking is generally about putting oneself at the center and making connections to others that create what is called a hub-and-spoke network (see middle image below). 

“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 (author, social activist, philosopher)

A core activity in network weaving is what is called “closing triangles.” This happens, for example, when we connect people we know who do not already know each other. This effectively creates a triangle of connection (see the many triangles created through the connections in the left hand image above). These triangles, by extension, can bring the connections that those three people know together, potentially creating more diversity, intricacy and robustness in a larger network (see image below). This is how we can begin to realize a sense of abundance, if these many connections are actively engaged, sharing, contributing and caring for each other and the whole network. 

The work of network weaving is also about strengthening existing connections, keeping them warm and engaged. This can happen through activities such as asking questions, making requests and offers, and sharing resources of different kinds.  Beyond this core function of supporting greater connectivity, network weaving can also be about supporting greater alignment and coordinated or emergent/self-organized action in networks. Other key moves for weaving and activating networks can include:

  • designing and facilitating processes to achieve a sense of shared identity/destiny
  • curating a variety of resources for and diverse communication pathways between members
  • creating conditions for self-organized and emergent action
  • helping to coordinate joint ventures

What do networks and network weaving have to do with having a fair shot at wellbeing?

“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 (wellbeing/justice advocate, Full Frame Initiative founder)

Wellbeing, as defined by the Full Frame Initiative (FFI), is “the set of needs and experiences that are universally required in combination and balance to weather challenges and have health and hope.” FFI notes further that everyone is wired for wellbeing, but we do not all have a fair shot at  the core determinants of wellbeing, or what FFI uplifts as the 5 Domains of Wellbeing

  • Social connectedness to people/communities that allows us to give and to receive, and spaces where we experience belonging to something bigger than ourselves. 
  • Stability that comes from having things we can count on to be the same from day to day and knowing that a small bump won’t set off a domino-effect of crises.
  • Safety, the ability to be ourselves without significant danger or harm.
  • Mastery, that comes from being able to influence other people and what happens to us, having a sense of purpose and skills to navigate and negotiate our life. 
  • Meaningful access to relevant resources like food, housing, clothing, sleep and more, without shame, danger or difficulty.

The first domain above has clear connections to networks and network weaving. Being embedded and engaged in supportive social networks is a great contributor to individual and collective wellbeing! Beyond this, being connected to others in authentic, caring and mutually rewarding webs of relationships can contribute to a sense of stability, safety, purpose, as well create access to resources (financial and otherwise) that sustain and enliven us. So let’s notice the networks around us, who is in them and who is not, who has access to the five domains (see above) and who does not, and invite others to do the same. Ask, What systemic changes need to be made for greater inclusion, equity and belonging?” And then together, let’s weave our way to everyone having a fair shot at wellbeingll!

“i think of movements as intentional worlds …  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.”

– adrienne maree brown (author, doula, activist)

For more on network weaving, see: 

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November 29, 2022

Network Weaving for Equitable Wellbeing (Part 1)

The following post was written for those who will be attending the Full Frame Initiative’s (FFI) Wellbeing Summit in Charlotte, North Carolina December 11-14. The Interaction Institute for Social Change has been supporting FFI staff and signers of the Wellbeing Blueprint in developing network ways of thinking and doing as they work to equitable wellbeing in systems ranging from health care to transportation to housing to education to legal aid to food and beyond. Feel free to sign the Wellbeing Blueprint by going to the link above and join the movement to ensure that everyone has a fair shot at wellbeing.

“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. (minister, activist, civil rights leader)

What are networks, and why should we care?

Networks are collections of “nodes and links,” different elements that are connected to each other. These nodes or elements could be people, places, computer or airport terminals, species in an ecosystem, etc.  Together, through their connections, these nodes create something that they could not create on their own. This is what some might call “collective impact” or what network scientists call “net gains” and “network effects.”

“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.”

– Nicholas A. Christakis (sociologist, physician, researcher)

Network effects and net gains can include the following (see image below):

  • Resilience – The ability for a network to weather storms of different kinds, literal and metaphorical, and to bounce back from adversity. Healthy networks can bend without breaking. 
  • Adaptation – The ability for a collective to change with changing conditions. Healthy networks can rearrange themselves to adjust and respond to disruptions and perturbations.
  • Small World Reach – The ability to reach others relatively quickly, across different lines of separation or difference (geography, culture, sector, etc.) . Healthy networks have a diversity and intricacy of pathways, so there are a variety of ways to reach many different nodes/members efficiently. 
  • Rapid Dissemination – Related to reach, this is about the ability to get crucial resources out to a wide variety of nodes in a timely manner. Healthy networks can ensure that different members can get the nourishment (information, ideas, money, food, etc.) they need to survive and thrive.

“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, ideas.”

-Nilofer Merchant (entrepreneur, business strategist, author)

Other “network benefits” can accrue to individual nodes or members of a network. For example, when surveying members of different kinds of social change and learning networks, some of what often gets mentioned as benefits include:

  • Being with other people who inspire and support me
  • Learning about topics relevant to my work
  • Understanding the bigger picture that shapes and influences my work
  • Gaining new tools, skills and tactics to support my work 
  • Having my voice and efforts amplified
  • Accessing new funding and other resources
  • Forming new partnerships and joint ventures

What is a healthy network?

“We are the living conduit to all life. When we contemplate the vastness of the interwoven network that we are tied to, our individual threads of life seem far less fragile.”

– Sherri Mitchell/Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset (Penobscot lawyer, activist, author)

A healthy network is one that is able to achieve its collective purpose/core functions, while also addressing the interests of its members, and continuing to be adaptive to changing circumstances. Some key features of these kinds of networks include:

  • Diversity of membership
  • Intricacy of connections (many pathways between nodes)
  • Common sense of purpose or mutuality; a sense of a “bigger we”
  • Robustness of flows of a variety of resources to all parts of the network
  • Shared responsibility for tending to the health and activity of the network
  • Resilient and distributed structure(s) with a variety of shared stewardship roles
  • A sense of equitable belonging and ability to give to/benefit from the network 
  • Ongoing learning and adaptative capacity

Like any kind of living organism, networks require care and feeding to keep them vibrant. This is where network weaving comes into play! More on this in the post to follow on Thursday, December 1st …

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