Author Archives for Curtis Ogden

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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October 17, 2022

Care, Trust, Truth and Belonging: Themes From a Network Leadership Institute Re-Launch

Tent where we held the launch session

* * * * *

“We now know what each other is made of. We can start weaving this beautiful tapestry, this community.”

“I don’t want to wait another 8 months until we are back in person!”

“I want others to know about this. I’ve never experienced anything like this. Others should know about this.”

The three quotes above came from participants in the newest Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Network Leadership Institute cohort, at the close of our opening session two weeks ago. After a year of doing an on-line only Institute, we made the decision to move to a hybrid model for this sixth annual offering, launching and concluding in-person during the warmer months (September and June) and going on-line for five sessions during the colder months late fall through early spring 2023.

Like so many, we weighed many considerations before making this choice. As one participant said during the session, “Many of us had to push through vulnerabilities to be here.” Ultimately we felt we really needed to tap into the power of the in-person gathering to ground people and set an energetic tone for the rest of the program. Many conversations were had about COVID protocols that would ensure safety without being overly onerous. This ended up including a wrist band system (see photos below), testing the day before, at arrival and after upon returning home (tests provided by the program), meeting for the bulk of the time outdoors in a tent with plenty of ventilation, light and spacing, and making masks available for those who wanted them, when we met or ventured indoors.

Our COVID care station

The tone we aimed to set from the outset was one of community care and belonging, acknowledging that for some this would be a new and welcome experience, and others may well be feeling anxious and uncertain. Hosting is always a spirit we aim to bring to the Institute, whether in-person or virtual, and includes working to ensure that everyone feels welcome and that their well-being is front and center. This included providing clear information on the front end around expectations and supports, a warm welcome upon arrival, a care package of local/regional food items (appropriate to our common work), keeping food and beverages available and setting a tone of ease and enjoyment (fidget items on tables, art supplies and a diverse music playlist).

Co-faciltator Karen Spiller with the cohort

Since 2016, IISC has been partnering with the FSNE Backbone Team from the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Sustainability Institute, to support and connect people in this region who are committed to advancing the emergence of just, sustainable, collaboratively stewarded and self-determined food futures for all who live here. This network and leadership development offering initiative grew out of system mapping that FSNE undertook several years ago to identify areas of leverage to shift extractive, inequitable and life-depleting patterns of the dominant food system.

More recently, the network has honed its focus on four overlapping impact areas as its unique and essential contribution, complementing those of its partners in the region, to bringing the FSNE vision and values for food system transformation to life. The Network Leadership Institute (NLI) is an outgrowth of both Network Building & Strengthening as well as Racial Equity & Values Leadership, but also touches on the other two areas as well in its content.

From the start, we knew that the main value of any kind of leadership development program would be in the people that came together and the relationships they built with one another. You only need to read about the current cohort to feel how much potential there is in simply creating opportunities for these individuals to connect and identify as more of a collective! From there, we were interested in connecting those involved in the program with other values-aligned change agents in the region. In addition, we looked at giving people an experience of different and diverse places in our region (rural, urban, coastal) and to see their work in a regional context. Lastly, we wanted to offer an opportunity for participants to hone their skills as collaborative/network leaders and social (especially racial) equity champions.

This year’s program integrates all of these elements, again with a particular theme of care and welcome. What we heard from this year’s cohort was how this was very much appreciated and built over the course of the more than 24 hours we were together. Here are some highlights of the programmatic progression that were intended to contribute to our themes of care, trust, truth and belonging:

  • We began by breaking bread together, at small tables, in the tent. Good food, relaxing music and informal introductions were meant to help people land softly.
  • We formally opened, as we generally do during FSNE gatherings, with an offering and a grounding exercise. The offering might be a poem, a quote, a song, a short story, a dance …. We read one of our favorite stanzas of poetry from William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” (see below), again to set a tone for the session, and then led people who were interested (making sure to let people know it was voluntary) through an embodied exercise to ground bodies/nervous systems, honor feelings and any thoughts people might be having as we got going.
  • We were joined by NLI alum Rachel Sayet, a Mohegan tribal member, Indigenous educator, essential oil crafter and Reiki practitioner, to provide some background on the land on which we were meeting and the history and present of Indigenous peoples who have stewarded them. This included the terrible and truthful telling of the actions of Lord Jeffrey Amherst, for whom the town in which we were meeting is still named, as well as efforts by indigenous educators and students in the area to reclaim their foodways and advance food sovereignty.

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

  • We introduced everyone to the Welcome Table ritual, through which people share objects that are meaningful to and say something about them, and share a bit of that story. At the end of our session, participants are invited to take their object back and say what they have gained during their time with the group. People always remark how “deep” this goes very quickly in helping people get a sense of one another.
  • We collaboratively built community care agreements, by consensus, first by inviting people to consider their self-care practices and then inviting them into conversation with one another about what might support the entire “village.” We guided them through one of the Liberating Structures practices known as 1-2-4-All for this.
  • We introduced people to a brief history of the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Institute, the Backbone Organization (convenor, coordinator, communicator and fundraiser) for Food Solutions New England, how it defines “sustainability” broadly (including cultural diversity and social equity) as well as the history and current reality of FSNE. In presenting this, we made clear that this new cohort was already a part of FSNE and we welcomed their contributions not just to the Institute, but its various other programs and initiatives.
From UNH Sustainability Institute
  • We started our second day by sharing a land acknowledgment in the form of a poem (another favorite – “Being Human” by Naima Penniman) that personalizes our connections to the Earth). And we shared an offering with some of the same themes in the form of a quote by Penobscot educator and advocate Sherri Mitchell ((Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset) from her book Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change (see below), which encourages the reader/listener to attune to the rhythms in the natural world for greater ease and alignment.

When we merge our internal rhythms with the rhythms of creation, we develop grace in our movement, and without thought or effort we are able to slide into the perfectly choreographed dance of life.”

  • On our second day we also invited offerings from the cohort members, whoever felt moved to do so. There were three – a short personal story, a reading and a poem. We look forward to more over the course of our next six sessions!
  • We invited people to get artistically expressive through illustrating their River of Life– with crayons, pencils, markers – and naming where they are in their leadership/change agency journeys. They then were invited to share these in trios and talk about how they want the Institute to support them moving forward, and what their intentions were for learning from and contributing to the program and one another’s journeys.
  • We delved into Facilitative Leadership for Social Change, our collaborative skills curriculum for the program, and led off with the practice of “Balancing Dimensions of Collaborative Success: Results, Process, Relationship.” This practice includes a small group challenge exercise (building a tower) that tends to bond people (lots of laughter) and helps them think about the trust, care, truth and belonging that is needed to ensure long-term “success” in collaborative change work.

Mutual trust, holistic care, truth-telling and equitable belonging. Those words were expressed throughout our first session in one form or another, in word and in deed, by the hosting team, guests and by the participants. It was evident how these were not just ideas, but becoming part of the collective body that will carry this program and network forward, as we move into an on-line season. “That’s okay,” said one participant,” as some bemoaned going back to more life on Zoom, “we know each other now. That will stay with us.” And we are delighted to already see one subset of the group looking to meet in person soon in the southeast of our region.

This is how we do and will do it, as the poet Marge Piercy writes in two stanzas of her poem “Seven of Pentacles” (see below image) …

Cohort 6, just before our closing, at The Welcome Table

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after
the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

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August 22, 2022

“Entangled” Social Change: From Inter-action to “Intra-Action”

“What is at stake with quantum theory is the very nature of reality. Should reality be understood as something completely impervious to our interventions, or should it be viewed as something responsive to the very existence of human beings?”

Christopher Fuchs (physicist)
Image by Kevin Dooley, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

A mark of a good book for me is one that challenges my thinking, moves my heart, and also resonates in my body. That has been the case while reading Karen O’Brien’s You Matter More Than You Think: Quantum Social Science for a Thriving World. I want to give a big “thank you” and shout out to Fabian Pfortmüller who made this recommendation to me during a rich conversation a few weeks ago.

O’Brien’s book makes the case for bringing a quantum physics lens to the social sciences and to thinking about social change, even as she acknowledges the doubters and detractors who see this as an inappropriate move. Indeed, in posting about the book on LinkedIn recently, I was a little surprised to see a couple of comments attacking the idea of importing quantum considerations into the human realm. In anticipation of this, O’Brien notes that while quantum and classical physics, as well as the “hard” and social sciences, may have different applications, they are not totally separate from each other. Furthermore she writes:

“… given the nature of global crises, maybe this actually is an appropriate time to consider how meanings, metaphors and methods informed by quantum physics can inspire social change, and in particular our responses to climate change.”

So I have been doing what she invites – playing with these different ideas and concepts from the quantum realm and seeing what they stimulate. One I want to lift up here is the notion of subjectivity versus objectivity, and specifically that we are always participants in the world, never simply “detached observers.” This is not simply meant in an emotional sense, but that our very act of observing is actually an embodied intervention and can change what we see and also how we see the world. This “entanglement” (meant more metaphorically here, rather than in the formal scientific sense) asks us to consider how we are already connected, or part of a larger whole.

O’Brien spends some time exploring beliefs as being central to both what is possible and what is actually realized in our lives and world. If we believe we are completely separate from one another, for example. what do we and don’t we consider possible or worth while? If we believe we are more tied or woven, then what might we be inclined to do? The work of Karen Barad is referenced in this respect, pointing out the difference between talking/thinking about “inter-actions” of separate entities versus “intra-actions” among entangled elements within a larger whole. This is not just about a difference in language, but a difference in perceived and acted upon futures.

Photo taken at The Gennie in Craftsbury, VT

What comes to mind is a mantra of sorts that Valarie Kaur puts forward in her justice work focused on addressing the dynamics of othering and oppression, as well as in her book See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love

“You are a part of me I do not yet know.”

Similar to this spirit, john a. powell offers the following in Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society:

“There is a need for an alternative vision, a beloved community where being connected to the other is seen as the foundation of a healthy self, not its destruction, and where the racial other is seen not as the infinite other, but rather as the other that is always and already a part of us.”

I am also reminded of the peace-building work of John Paul Lederach, and this from his book The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace:

“Time and again, where in small or larger ways the shackles of violence are broken, we find a singular tap root that gives life to the moral imagination: the capacity of individuals and communities to imagine themselves in a web of relationship even with their enemies.”

If we treat the so-called “other” (whether human, other animals, plants … ) as apart from us, or as in some sense fundamentally threatening (“the enemy”), then where does that lead? The point here is that reality is not just “reality out there,” it is also what we make of it. We have a say. We matter. What we believe matters. What we do matters. Embracing “a bigger WE” matters. We can “bring forth worlds,” (to quote Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s Santiago Theory of Cognition) at least to a certain extent. And whether this is about imagining or re-membering, acting “as if” we are joined in something larger can seemingly create tangible results, while also acknowledging that dynamics of power and privilege are important to consider in terms of who may be inclined to make first gestures and how these will be received.

“Between me and not-me there is surely a line, a clear distinction, or so it seems. But, now that I look, where is that line?

This fresh apple, still cold and crisp from the morning dew, is not-me only until I eat it. When I eat, I eat the soil that nourished the apple. When I drink, the waters of the earth become me. With every breath I take in I draw in not-me and make it me. With every breath out I exhale me into not-me.

If the air and the waters and the soils are poisoned, I am poisoned. Only if I believe the fiction of the lines more than the truth of the lineless planet, will I poison the earth, which is myself.”

Donella Meadows, from “Lines in the Mind, Not in the World”

* * * * *

A few years ago I was diagnosed with a benign tumor on my left acoustic and balance nerve (an acoustic neuroma). As the tumor continued to grow, albeit slowly, I made the decision to have radiation treatment two years ago (six months into our new COVID reality). What was presented as a fairly straight-forward outpatient procedure turned into quite an ordeal as I had a strong reaction to the treatment. What followed was dizziness, terrible tinnitus, poor sleep, muscular pain, headaches and occasional “nerve storms” in other parts of my body. After a few months of extreme discomfort I went to see a very adept acupressurist and holistic healer who made the observation that I seemed to be trying to separate myself from that part of my body, tensing against it, rejecting it, and the result was further exacerbation. With her help, over several months, I gradually got reacquainted with that sensitive area (really getting to know it for the first time), and through slow and steady integrative body work, began to relax and reclaim that part of me in a way that has brought greater ease to my overall system and life.

Image by  Joe Le Merou, “Peace,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

The very energizing thing about that work with this healer is that it has helped not simply to address discomfort in one area of my body, it has positively impacted other parts that I did not even realize were misaligned and/or listless until this crisis occurred. I take it as ontological truth that I am all of my body (though not simply my body), yet for many years (and especially recently) I had not been acting like that (consciously and unconsciously), with real health-related ramifications. Extend this metaphor (separate –> connected, inter-action –> intra-action) to other “bodies” of different sizes. scales and dimensions, and where might that lead?

What excites me here is acknowledging the entanglements that we do not yet know, or cannot possibly hold in our minds alone given the immensity of the world. This is where “thinking and acting in a networked way,” with some faith and conviction, comes into play for me, along with an orientation towards equity. In particular, I think of the encouragement offered in these words from the late long-time community organizer and political educator Grace Lee Boggs:

“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.”                      

What critical connections and small moves might we make in this intricate, [vast/intimate] and mysterious world that could yield big and needed changes in our communities and lives?

Photo by Gordon M Robertson, shared under auspices of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
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