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July 8, 2020

The 4 Secrets: The Hidden Factor of Nonprofit Boards & Racial Equity Change

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

I’ll tell you a secret. Most staff embarking on a journey for racial equity change in their organization don’t see board members carrying their weight. I hope to be provocative by offering a few secrets often unshared with boards about their lack of deep participation in equity change efforts. It’s time to have a real discussion about board and staff engagement when it comes to equity change so that the whole organization can collaborate to seed and root transformative change.

Secret #1: Boards still view their roles as promoting diversity in the workplace which is no longer enough to move an organization along a path toward implementing racial equity and justice

Diversity was the early way to approach change in organizations. The focus was on getting more of this or that group represented on the board and staff, but these efforts lacked a power analysis. Bringing people of color onto the board is very different than ensuring they have positions of power and real authority on the board, or accepting their challenges to unhealthy parts of the board culture or the organization’s way of operating. Boards have also proudly hired people of color or young executive directors and CEOs and then expect them to magically turn around underperforming organizations with little resources and support, or unawarely blocked them from creating truly transformational equity change. Examining issues of power in leadership is an equity and justice pursuit, not a diversity exercise. 

Secret #2: Most staff who are deeply engaged in diversity, inclusion, and racial equity efforts believe that their boards are  lagging way behind them on the path to change

Staff committed to racial equity often participate in rigorous and deep training, learning sessions, affinity spaces, and working groups to consider how to challenge the organization’s status quo which likely upholds white dominant culture,  practices of racial inequity, and over-centralization of power. They may be attempting to practice new ways of building relationships, making decisions, or handling major racial tensions on interpersonal and institutional levels. In many cases, the board has not had the benefit of these awareness and skill-building moments that could strengthen their capacity to address power dynamics on their board or between staff and board on core organizational questions around racial equity. 

Secret #3: Staff see many board members as out of touch or – even worse – contributing to oppression in their organization. 

Many boards are recruited for their potential to fundraise or simply to have famous names associated with the organization, rather than to create a balance of people who can bring many types of resources to the organization such as lived-experience and knowledge of a community. Wealthy board members who have not explored the cultural roots of wealth and classism may expect formal decorum in board meetings or social gatherings that is counter-cultural and oppressive to staff. They may believe that they are helping the organization by firing questions at the staff when in reality the way they ask those questions puts staff on the defensive, creating a culture of fear that puts creativity to death. White board members that don’t champion racial equity in a board meeting or fail to interrupt other white members from engaging in paternalizing or direct racist behaviors are seen as supporting racism for failing to act. 

Secret #4: Because staff (and especially the executive director/CEO) think board members want them to be “perfect” and share only their accomplishments, staff are reluctant to openly share their struggles and tensions around racial equity

Staff are wary to share real-time equity tensions in their workplace or programmatic struggles. Simply put, there is not enough candor between staff and boards. Board culture often rewards product over relationship; perfectionism, numbers, and plans over impact and learning from mistakes. Additionally, the executive director is evaluated by the board and the main way for board members to gauge the leader’s effectiveness is the director’s ability to paint a rosy picture of the organization in board meetings. Moreover, board members rarely raise challenging equity issues as a part of board discussions, either to reflect on their own mistakes and challenges, or those of the organization as a whole. They leave that burden to staff.

So what can be done?

  • Board and staff need to build trusting relationships where relationships are valued and challenge and mistakes are welcome for learning and growth around racial equity.
  • Board members should build trust with staff by showing their own vulnerabilities, giving the staff runway to move their ideas, and avoiding savior thinking that assumes board members have all the answers, or that one executive director who is a person of color will save the day.
  • Board members that join any board in this day and age must be willing to jump into a journey to examine how their experiences with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and generation impact how they see the world and operate in it. They must be willing to face hard truths about their privilege and, without placing the burden on others, champion change and use their privilege (access, resources, knowledge) strategically to shift opportunities to others. 
  • Board members who come from a position of privilege in any category should embrace new ideas and ways of doing things from leaders that are very different from them or leaders that hold a more bold view of racial justice. 
  • Boards and staff should work together to ensure that board members sit on diversity/equity/inclusion or racial equity teams with staff to experience, learn, and champion the work for change. And this should involve not just one board member, but a few. 
  • Boards and staff should come together in joint training and learning sessions for the board and staff to explore issues of racial equity. These sessions should include reflection on how issues of racial equity impacts the mission of the organization as well as how it impacts the organization’s internal culture and operations. Better yet, have the organization go through a comprehensive equity change process that embeds equity in everything the organization does.

What else do you think could shift change so that boards can fully and genuinely support and champion racial equity efforts? We want to hear from you. Please start a conversation with us by commenting below. 

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June 26, 2020

From Trauma to Transformative Futures: Four Dimensions

As you review the framework, would you share your responses to the questions below in the comments?

  • What does it bring up for you?
  • Where do you find yourself focusing your thinking and efforts?
  • What might you want to explore, start, continue or further develop, or stop doing in any of the stages?How does the framework help you prioritize and perhaps find empowering areas for action and partnership?


As you navigate the complex times of COVID-19 and racial uprising, consider what it would take to transition through these four dimensions, what needs to be in place, what is already in place, and what we need to reimagine and rebuild.


1 – In the Trauma Dimension: How are we responding to the impact of trauma from COVID, racism, and other shocks?

Racial Equity & Justice:

  • Are we removing racialized barriers to emergency resources? 
  • Are we using a racial equity impact analysis tool to understand and evaluate our response? Even when we feel rushed?
  • Are we recognizing deep racial harm in our organization and networks?

Collaboration:

  • Are we pausing and engaging in quick and meaningful stakeholder engagement to guide our responses and ensure less harm?
  • Are we attending to both relationships and results as we carry out our work?

Love:

  • Are we acting and responding with humility, empathy, and transparency?
  • Are we practicing presence and accountability?

Networks:

  • Are we tapping into diverse networks to gather information and foster flows to address critical needs?

2 – In the Reckoning Dimension: How are we grappling with deep distress and the reality of shifting resources? How are we embracing racial uprisings for change? How are we embracing uncertainty?

Racial Equity & Justice:

  • Are we acknowledging inequities revealed by crisis?  
  • Are we acting to undo the racialized impacts of our actions?
  • How are we recognizing the leadership of Black people and what are the lessons for our organizations?
  • Are we remembering and communicating that equity is not the same as equality
  • Are we designing from and with the margins to approach every problem and solution?

Collaboration:

  • Are we engaged in transparent and collaborative decision-making?
  • Are we facilitating conversations and activities to face the pain and opportunity of this crisis, our potential power together to make change, while also planning for next steps?

Love:

  • Are we embracing where people are? Their feelings, conditions, perspectives?
  • Are we modeling vulnerability as a sign of strength?
  • Are we exploring the reality through the lens of love and possibility?

Networks:

  • Are we setting strategic direction with critical partners? 
  • Are we listening for and following the ideas of BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, people of color)?

3 – In the Healing Dimension: How are we creating the conditions for healing and well-being?

Racial Equity & Justice:

  • Are we supporting BIPOC people and communities to move through trauma, grief and anger toward joy?
  • Are white people leaning into discomfort, trauma and pain, and working that through with other white allies?

Collaboration:

  • Are we generating and living into community care guidelines to support self-care and collective well-being?
  • Are we designing and facilitating in ways that allow people to process holistically – intellectually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually?

Love:

  • Are we convening grounding conversations that allow for brave space, emotions, and truth sharing?
  • Are we offering resources for healing modalities?
  • Are we acknowledging all paths to healing?
  • Are we meeting pain with action and redistributing power and resources?

Networks:

  • Are we deepening networks and attending to flows of resources that create healing and well-being for people?
  • Are we setting up more distributive structures focusing on regenerative flows of resources of many kinds?

4 – In the Transformative Futures Dimension: How are we envisioning and living into equitable and resilient futures?

Racial Equity & Justice:

  • Are we pivoting from supremacist and extractive practices to what is liberating and life-honoring?

Collaboration:

  • Are we facilitating leaders to envision and invest in equitable and resilient futures?

Love:

  • Are we encouraging building futures from the lessons of love, possibility, and shared humanity?

Networks:

  • Are we fostering a new level of learning, sustainability, innovation and radical collaboration with people and our planet?
  • Are we focusing on systems change and building long-term movement?

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June 11, 2020

Creating the Next 100 Years

As the world reels from racism and re-openings from COVID-19, we have a small window of time in which we can decide never again to return to the “old normal” of racism in every facet of our life, or to the exhaustion from an overproducing system. Let’s walk into the next one hundred years together in the spirit of new creation and new norms. May this poem that I wrote be a source of vision and inspiration.

Sun rays coming through trees, Pikrepo

Let not the slow creep of the old return
Like childish feet come slipping through your doorways

Look in the direction of the sun
Remember the lessons of staying in place

Wading into presence
Tending to family
Resting your breath
Facing scars
Embracing insecurities
Abandoning perfection
Slowing your heart to hear cries of “I Can’t Breathe”

For the futures of humankind
Erase the “old normal”
Walk toward the light
Grieve the long path of injustice you were in
And stand upright
To meet your new life
The new society we are creating

There can be no turning back
You can look over your shoulder and peek once in awhile
But there is no freedom behind you
Greed, exhaustion, and oppression live there

You said you wanted change in your lifetime?

Keep walking forward
Keep pausing to hear your heartbeat
To hear the people in the streets
And create the next 100 years

And you will not return
Because we will rise forward with the force of 100,000 horses galloping
Tens of thousands of drums pounding
And a Planet alive with millions dancing
Plants growing
Animals running
Seas churning
Temperatures readjusting
Life spilling over into our lineage of children

With Earth healing
Earth reclaimed

We did it.

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June 5, 2020

A Poem for the People of the Planet

Image by Sergio HT from Pixabay

Planet family,

We’re rising up
to end anti-Blackness
around the world.

George Floyd died under knee in Minneapolis
But Black bodies and minds are under destruction in all lands.

Enslavement was a world-wide global attempt
Its end presupposes that our planet undoes itself, and heals itself
through transformation of hearts, minds, and structures.

White people of this planet, can you…

love Black people with abandon and without expectation that they will dismantle this racism?

decolonize and clean your hearts of Black hatred, disgust, dismissal, and disrespect?

never take a hand, arm, leg, knee, bullet to Black bodies and souls?

speak Black names and languages, and love Black children?

destroy your unconscious value of Black people remaining small, restrained, and tethered to white supremacy?

forever replace structures and practices premised on white ways?

follow and hire Black leaders to change your world and that of your entire organization…
…or will you act to make them produce, clean up your mistakes, and sacrifice their vision for your small version of social justice?

understand that one training will not be enough…
…and that instead it’s a tidal wave shift in hearts, minds, behaviors, practices, policies, and systems over sustained time that is needed, and is completely within your capacity and control.

take accountability and ignite and invite action…
…knowing that your grief and anger are welcome, and if you’re afraid to set a path forward to emerge, you’re complicit in allowing racism to continue.

extract racism in all corners to revolutionize the planet to be free of anti-Blackness?

And as Black people can we discover and rediscover our joy, beauty, refreshment, and spirituality to heal?

At IISC, we are asking ourselves, what more or different could we be doing to support the deep, transformative change necessary for Black people to know better and beautiful lives? 

And to our world we ask, what’s enough? Could this be the tipping point that finally brings liberation for Black people and collective healing for us all? And if not, how can we be of service to prevent ongoing tragedy? Please use the comment field below to share your commitments and, in so doing, inspire yourself and inspire others.


Thank you to the Black women and men of IISC that bring change to our clients. As a Black Biracial woman and leader of IISC, you bring me joy and purpose. Thank you for working for our people every day. Be well, be safe, and be bold.

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May 13, 2020

From Emergency Response to Resilient Futures: Moving Towards Transformation

Note: This blog was authored as a framework to assist leaders moving people and organizations through COVID-19. Shortly after it was written, the racial uprisings of 2020 began after the many deaths of Black people in the United States. We have since updated this framework to bridge the approaches we believe are necessary for navigating both COVID-19 and racial injustice. Please view this blog and new resource.

As we find ourselves rowing in uncharted, uncertain, and scary waters, feeling like we’re up against waves of deep tension and crisis, we know that we need to row together in new and deeply collaborative ways. Yet under current conditions, many leaders are overwhelmed with concern about their own organizations; their staff, volunteers, Board, constituencies, and networks. We are all problem solving minute-to-minute and facing many critical decisions – decisions which could determine if people have a source of income, if they will receive essential services, and, indeed, even if they will remain healthy and alive.

We need to support leaders at all levels – individually, organizationally, and at the level of the ecosystem of networks around them – to work strategically and collaboratively in this critical moment. We are using IISC’s Collaborative Change Lens, to harness the power of collaboration by focusing on love, racial equity, and networks. We are supporting leaders online, and will eventually support them in-person (yes, that day will come), to plan and move through the stages of transformation offered in this framework during the pandemic and beyond.

Organizations, communities, networks, and even individuals may experience these stages in linear ways. Or, they may dip in and out of the stages at different times as they move through challenges and opportunities. We are supporting them to shift from emergency responses to creating conditions for resilient futures that create regenerative and equitable systems that are sustainable for the longer-term. This includes helping individuals and groups “do what they do best and connect to the rest,” and to act in networked ways to strengthen response and movement.

As you review the framework, would you share your responses to the questions below in the comments?

  • What does it bring up for you?
  • Where do you find yourself focusing your thinking and efforts?
  • What might you want to explore, start, continue or further develop, or stop doing in any of the stages?How does the framework help you prioritize and perhaps find empowering areas for action and partnership?

Facilitate rapid problem-solving and decision-making in the face of immediate needs, heightened risk, chaos, and/or uncertainty.

_____

Collaboration Priorities:

  • Focus on relationships and results for rapid decision-making and crisis management
  • Engage in quick and meaningful stakeholder engagement of those impacted by critical and consequential decisions to generate effective responses.
  • Ground all decisions in what is best for our shared humanity and fate.

Love:

  • Act and respond with love, humility, empathy, and transparency.
  • Let those in critical need know they are not alone.
  • Show up with and model presence and focus.

Racial Equity:

  • Avoid “savior syndrome” and respect the dignity and voice of those most in need in the moment.
  • Recommit to racial equity practices and approaches from the organization’s past that can build resiliency.
  • Anticipate and remove racialized barriers to accessing emergency resources and uniquely tailor responses to account for historic inequities to eliminate disparities in the emergency response.

Networks:

  • Foster connectivity and flows between leaders in various sectors and ecosystems to gather and share information, understand the current reality, and respond to complex problems.
  • Tap into diverse networks to address critical needs and discover new possibilities.
  • Eliminate bottlenecks and liberate the flow of critical resources.

Grapple with the reality of fewer resources and more distress within the organization/community.

_____

Collaboration Priorities:

Love:

  • Shape conversations, cultures, and approaches to exploring the current reality through the lens of love and possibility.
  • Embrace the full complexity of where people are and how they are experiencing current reality.
  • Model vulnerability as strength.
  • Encourage people to reach for connection to experience belonging and avoid isolation.

Racial Equity:

  • Acknowledge and address the reality of stark racial disparities in our social systems that the emergency reveals. Remember and communicate that equity is not the same as equality.
  • Collect and examine data on who has been impacted by your and others’ decisions and how; determine new paths and approaches to root out inequities.
  • Design from and with the margins to approach every problem and solution that can move you toward stability.

Networks:

  • Foster deeper trust and network connections by continuing to exchange ideas and resources.
  • Build a gift culture where people offer what they can for the good of the whole.
  • Set strategic direction with critical stakeholders and partners. Join forces, align, or merge.

Create the conditions for healing and well-being for people in groups, networks, and sectors in which we live and work.

_____

Collaboration Priorities:

  • Model communication and consistent practices of support, cooperation, and coordination.
  • Generate and live into community care and mutual aid guidelines to support healing, refreshment, self-care, and improved physical and emotional well-being of oneself and others.

Love:

  • Convene healing conversations that allow for brave space, nourishment, emotions, truth, and care.
  • Leave channels of communication open for how people are feeling and experiencing things.
  • Remind everyone that individuals will be in different places at different times, and that is okay.

Racial Equity:

  • Make space for people with shared racial identities or a shared purpose to come together to move through and release trauma collectively, and to experience liberation.
  • Design and facilitate in ways that allow people to process holistically – intellectually, physically, emotionally, spiritually.

Networks:

  • Generate new connections or deepen older ones to refresh and heal on individual, interpersonal, organizational, and network levels.
  • Attend to flows of resources that create healing and well-being for people.

Envision, live into, and develop capacities for new and better futures

_____

Collaboration Priorities:

  • Facilitate leaders, organizations, and networks to envision and generate elements of a new future that is different from what was imagined before the emergency.
  • Create emergent learning spaces for people to share what they are experimenting with and learning.

Love:

  • Imagine a future from the lessons and examples of love, possibility, mutual aid, and collective care.
  • Build systems, processes, and practices that begin to manifest the future that you envision.

Racial Equity:

  • Design your vision and future practices by grounding them in the value of transformative equitable well-being and thriving.
  • Pivot from supremacist, extractive practices to what is fundamentally liberatory and life-honoring.
  • Design around the principle of belonging (not othering).

Networks:

  • Foster a new level of equity, sustainability, and radical collaboration with people and our planet.
  • Work in expansive, equitable, free-flowing, and liberated networks for abundance and regeneration.
  • Encourage social learning, experimentation, freedom to fail, and sharing what works and has promise.

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May 13, 2020

IISC is sharing reflections…

In these unsettled and challenging times, many of us at IISC are finding ourselves inspired to actively share our reflections. We welcome your comments and reactions. And we wish you all so much love and good health. Together, we will make it through to the other side.

Bringing a Network Theory Perspective to These Times – Part One by Curtis Ogden… and Part Two

We have to work on-line: “Don’t they get it?!” by Matt Thompson

Living (and Working Virtually) in Uncertainty by Cynthia Silva Parker

Shared Leadership: We are all Guardians by Kelly Bates

The Pandemic’s Silver Lining by Miriam Messinger

Pandemic: A Poem for these Times by Lynn Unger

A Framework for this Time: Collaborative Change Lens by Kelly Bates

Living and Working Virtually in Uncertainty: Balancing the Dimensions of Success by Cynthia Silva Parker

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May 10, 2020

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

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

Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A primer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Opposition is necessary for wholeness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 29, 2020

Dimensions of Network Success

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

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

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April 20, 2020

Bringing a Network Theory Perspective to These Times, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 16, 2020

Hope Out of the Muck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 9, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This core loop operates at and across different levels:

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

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

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

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

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April 1, 2020

Bringing a Network Theory Perspective to These Times, Part 1

“While a network, like a group, is a collection of people, it includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties, and the particular pattern of these ties, are often more important than the individual people themselves. They allow groups to do things that a disconnected collection of individuals cannot. The ties explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And the specific pattern of the ties is crucial to understanding how networks function.”
Nicholas A. Christakis

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

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

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

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

And more to come on this …

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