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April 13, 2021

Embracing Perpetual Beta: Leaning Into Life, Learning and Livelihood in the Network Age

Ever since I started working formally with networks of various kinds, some 17 years ago, and started blogging on a regular basis, about 11 years ago, Harold Jarche has been a teacher and an inspiration. Both the content and method of his writings have helped me to better appreciate the importance of living into uncertainty and playing with networked ways of thinking, learning and doing.

I had the pleasure of taking Harold’s Personal Knowledge Mastery course several years ago, and just finished savoring Perpetual Beta 2020, a collection of his writings generated through 2019 and 2020. As Harold says in the forward to his book, “Now we need to connect, adapt, and find our new normal.” In the spirit of working and learning out loud, and Harold’s Friday’s Finds that he offers on his blog, I am sharing some of the nuggets of wisdom I took from my reading of Perpetual Beta 2020 over the past month, in the form of 20 of Harold’s quotes and 4 quotes from others he references, and certainly invite readers to check out Harold’s work in more of its fullness.

“The great work of our time is to design, build and test new organizational models that reflect our democratic values and can function in an interconnected world.”

“Radical innovation only comes from networks with large structural holes, which are more diverse.”

“It will only be through our collective desire to learn with others and build networked organizations that we can build a better world.”

“Intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivation is necessary for complex and creative work.”

“The primary perspective in social networks should be empathetic. … From this perspective of trying to understand others, our actions in these networks should be driven by curiosity.”

Image from andressolo

“So it is important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all philosophy in terms of successful innovation. The one constant is that you able to be open to change and new points of view.”

– Shaun Coffey

“Social networks provide a fertile environment to share ideas. But we need a safer place to test ideas, so we turn to our trust communities of practice.”

“In the network era, learning and working are tightly interconnected.”

“Organizations need to understand complexity instead of adding more complication.”

“Trust emerges over time through transparency and authenticity, practiced by people working out loud. Credibility is earned through collective intelligence, developed through an active questioning of all assumptions. Finally, a focus on results is enabled through both collaboration and cooperation, and is further enhanced by subsidiarity- the promotion of the furthest possible distribution of all authority.”

“Learning faster is not about taking more courses or consuming more information. It’s about having better connections.”

“We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!”

– Donella Meadows

“Change the business models and change the world.”

“Without Autonomy we are disengaged. Without Competence we are ineffective. Without Relatedness we are aimless.”

“Research shows that work teams that need to share complex knowledge need tighter social bonds.”

“Meta skills [learning how to learn, working in networks] require ‘meta time.’”

“Network leaders understand that first we shape our structures, and then our structures shape us.”

Image from igarashi.edward

“We are innately a friendly species, but we need environments which allow us to optimally express our inclination to be friendly.”

– Nicholas Christakis

“In networks, it is best not to inflict too much power on individuals and instead learn how to distributed power to help the whole network make better decisions.”

“The more diverse our networks, the more diverse our thinking can be.”

“You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice.”

“With increasing chaos, creativity is becoming even more important. Look for the misfits and find a way to work with them.”

“As individuals, there is one thing we can all do, without anybody’s permission. We can become better learners.”

Image from Yogendra Joshi

“How can we listen to tomorrow if we have yet to clarify what belongs to yesterday? We don’t just need new maps that order the world in the same old ways. New vision is required. New ontologies reshape the map and reshape us. So we should listen to the future. Whose voices do we hear? [Ursula] Le Guin writes, ‘which is farther from us, farther out of reach, more silent – the dead, or the unborn?’ To listen, we must first be present.”

– Jeremy Johnson

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March 31, 2021

The Continued Evolving and Deepening of a Network Commitment and Innovation: FSNE’s 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

-James Baldwin

Things are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” 

-adrienne maree brown

On April 5, 2021, the 7th Annual Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge will launch. IISC is excited to continue our partnership with FSNE in offering the Challenge as an initiative for advancing the conversation about and action towards undoing racism and white supremacy in our food and related systems.

The FSNE Challenge is an enhanced and more sector-specific form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore (founder of the Privilege Institute), Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White), and Dr. Marguerite W. Penick-Parks (Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh). After FSNE formalized its commitment to racial equity in its sustainable food system work about 8 years ago (more on our journey in this article), a small design team saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread (networked!) conversation about the connection between race, racism and food systems and ultimately greater action for racial and food justice.

 “America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.”

– Isabel Wilkerson (from Caste)

We also saw the on-line version of the Challenge as a way of creating “network effects” around the justice work that many are already doing in our region and beyond through small world reach, rapid dissemination, adaptation, and creating new patterns of connection and flow. Participation in and the complexity of the Challenge continue to grow – in 2014 we had 200 participants, mainly from the six state region of “New England,” and last year we had some 8,000 people participate from all 50 states in the US, and some 20 different countries.

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

Lying, thinking

Last night

How to find my soul a home

Where water is not thirsty

And bread loaf is not stone

I came up with one thing

And I don’t believe I’m wrong

That nobody,

But nobody

Can make it out here alone.”

-Maya Angelou

It has been inspiring to see many organizations and communities self-organize to take the Challenge in-house, convening colleagues, fellow congregants, neighbors, family members and classmates to reflect together on learning and making commitments to action. This has included groups such as Health Care Without Harm; the Wallace Center at Winrock International; Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems; Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; Southside Community Land Trust (Providence, RI); Agricultural Sustainability Institute at University of California-Davis, Georgia Organics and many others who have convened around the Challenge.

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

Over the last few years, we have heard how participation is moving people from learning to action:

  • to create a community racial equity summit
  • to bring racial equity centrally into organizational strategy
  • to shift values in an organization to put racial equity front and center
  • to shift one’s job so that they can focus more centrally on issues of racial disparities and injustice
  • to bolster people’s courage to have courageous conversations about race, racism and white supremacy
  • to shift hiring practices and leadership structures
  • to bring a racial equity focus to food policy work

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

So what exactly is the Challenge?

It is a self-guided (individual and group) learning journey examining the history and impacts of racism, how it is connected to our food and related systems, examples of and tools for how to undo racism and build racial equity and food justice.

How does the Challenge work?

People sign up (YOU can register here) and then starting April 5th, they receive daily email prompts focused on a different theme along with links to related resources (readings, video, audio) that take about 10-15 minutes each day. In addition, there is a robust Resource List for people to look through and continue their learning. Those who register also have access to an online discussion forum for those who want to talk and think out loud about the daily prompts and other learning along the way.

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

– Arundhati Roy

How is the Challenge evolving in 2021?

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

  • In addition to an orienting webinar for participants, this year we offered a webinar specifically for people who want to facilitate groups around the Challenge.
  • We also offered two 2.5 hour virtual trainings for people who are interested in facilitating groups to prepare themselves for that undertaking. These sessions drew from the Discussion Guide as well as IISC’s Fundamentals for Facilitation for Racial Justice Work.
  • New this year we will host a facilitator debrief to hear and share about progress and challenges. This will happen on May 21, 2021 from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm Eastern Time.
  • Another feature is a more robust Outreach Kit that has been pulled together by FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes. The Kit includes sample communications that can be used to recruit others to participate in the Challenge through email, social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), as an outreach flyer.
  • This year like last, organizations (such as non-profits, agencies, schools, businesses and other groups) can register to be listed as “organizational participants” of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge. Each individual should still register with their own email address in order to receive the daily prompts during the Challenge, but organizations can now indicate to the world their support for the work of building equity and dismantling racism in our food system! Contact FSNE with any questions about this.
  • An addition this year is an optional #FSNEEquityChallenge registration question about what indigenous traditional lands people reside upon (see below for a word cloud of answers as of a few days ago).
  • Also this year like last, we will host a Friday drop in discussion on Zoom for participants who would like to meet others, share what they are learning and doing and hear this from others.
  • A new addition this year is a crowd-sourced playlist of musical selections that move and motivate participants in their pursuit of justice and liberation. People are invited to email fsne.info@unh.edu with tunes to add to the list.
  • And as was the case for the past few years, we will have guest bloggers throughout the Challenge, the numbers of which have steadily grown.

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

What next?

Please join us, spread the word, the invitation, the conversation and the commitment to others. These are daunting times, that are laying bare the damaging and deadly patterns that have existed for some time. It is beyond time to lean in, get real, bond together, and weave the better world we know is possible!

“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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March 23, 2021

Networks as the (Regenerative) Innovation

“We must create civilization(s) for equitable human wellbeing within a healthy biosphere. Since our thinking produced self-inflicted existential threats, the main challenge is to find a practical way to reconcile our thinking with the logic of life.”

– all-women Emerging New Civilization(s) panel. United Nations 
Image from Peter Karlsson, “Flower on Fire,” shared under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0,

In ongoing work with a group of practitioners dedicated to advancing the study and practice of “energy systems science,” for the sake of resilient and regenerative futures, we continue to come back to the primacy of seeing and working in networked ways as being key to charting a course to a regenerative future. In fact, in some ways we might see energy systems science as being energy network science.

As Dr. Sally J. Goerner articulates, Energy System Sciences (ESS) is “an umbrella term for disciplines that use the study of energy flow networks to understand the laws of systemic health, growth and development in living, nonliving and supra-living systems.” ESS disciplines include: Chaos, Complexity, Resilience, Ecological Network Analysis, Self-Organization Theory, Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics, Panarchy, and others.

We are clearly in a moment of needing to take more seriously the human prospect on the Earth, and whether we will continue to reclaim and maintain a place as a stewardship species. Much of this comes down to being able to “think like an ecosystem” and align with Nature’s regenerative capacities. As mentioned in another post, regeneration points us to the self-feeding, self-renewing processes that living systems (including human beings and communities) use to nourish their capacity to thrive for long periods of time, as well as their ability to adapt to unexpected, sometimes threatening, circumstances.

From an energy systems/networks perspective, long-term human thriving is rooted in large part in healthy social and socio-ecological webs that are diverse, intricate and dynamic. And more specifically, as Dr. Goerner and other colleagues in the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics highlight, aspects of social systemic health are grounded in:

  • Collective and adaptive learning – sharing information, working out loud, group inquiry and processing, prototyping, systemic sensing …
  • Collaborative culture – practicing facilitative leadership, weaving and coordination, designing for and engaging in collective innovation, linking and leveraging assets, collective decision-making, aligning practice to values such as trust, transparency, generosity …
  • Regenerative circulation – monitoring and tending to velocity, directionality, quality and quantity of flows of different resources …
  • Resilient structure – experimenting with fractals, distributed governance, strategic redundancy, subsidiarity …

Each of these four aspects links to network thinking and action, and can be further strengthened and guided by core principles (see this evolving list).

In the months to come, we will be fleshing out more of the practices around ESS/ENS to support network convenors, coordinators, facilitators, and weavers of all kinds, including those within organizations, to support systemic saluto-genesis (ongoing health creation).

Image by Wim Goedhart, “Forest Flow,” shared under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

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March 19, 2021

The Smell of Smoke: Are We Burning or Rising from the Ashes?

Photo credit: Mark McDermott, webinar for United for a Fair Economy

A friend said that as the snow melted in her Minneapolis neighborhood last week, the smell of smoke from the fires after Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd last summer was released anew into the air. This, as the trial of Derek Chauvin begins in Minneapolis.

This month is a cacophony of anniversaries and markings. It is a year since Louisville Police killed Breonna Taylor, about that since two men killed Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, a 25-year old unarmed Black man, and the start of the trials of Derek Chauvin and Kyle Rittenhouse.

Note that I am trying here to use an active voice after listening to a powerful podcast with Baratunde Thurston and Yahdon Israel talking about how racism and anti-Blackness is built into our use of the passive voice and tendency to make those impact the actors of a sentence[1]. [In other words] George Floyd was not killed by Derek Chauvin; Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.

This is an important time in our country. While our courts are a far cry from sources of healing or justice, it is critical that we use this system for positive change as much as possible, while we create better systems.

What will happen? We must:

  • Use this moment to make the courts an instrument of justice.
  • Work from outside the courthouse to say that we are ready to be a society with real accountability for wrongs that we have committed, both historically and recently.
  • Shift how we use language to ensure we are attributing actions to the perpetrators of the harm, in this case the death of another human.
  • Ask, each day, “what can I do differently in my organization to dismantle anti-Blackness and the destructive myth and perpetuation of white supremacy?” and then act on it.

Let’s be active now. In our language[2] and our actions.

In our organization and many others, people are tired and grieving. We have lost loved ones and we have lost access to aspects of our lives that we hold dear. And yet, we need to save energy for the important work and rebuilding ahead. We have to maintain energy in organizations so that the commitment and work does not end after a workshop, or after a team is set up, or after we hire a director of equity. These are just the first steps…

We have to decide, particularly white Americans, if we are willing to step into a real period of reckoning and not just a temporary increase in awareness that is evidenced by the formation of committees and our participation in  r marches. The smoke could be the signal of us all going down in flames or it could be the olfactory symbol of rising from the ashes and rebuilding our country.


[1] Baratunde called the podcast: “a meditation and conversation on analyzing the structure of headlines to reframe/revert the gaze away from the victims as racial objects back to the racial subjects perpetuating the problem….[in other words] George Floyd was not killed by Derek Chauvin; Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.” (We’re Having a Moment” Podcast, Episode 4, 2020).  

[2] In the same Podcast, Yahdon Israel (@yahdon on Instagram) reminds us that even well-intentioned campaigns like “Say her name” which helps us to hold up people who were killed and to focus on women as well as men; it doesn’t name the subject or actor and doesn’t name what we are doing or why. Don’t put those impacted in the passive action role: “Black people earn less than…”; “women are killed by men”; “George Floyd was killed”. Who did the killing and why?

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March 2, 2021

Pandemic Anniversary Reflection: It’s time to Reimagine Before It’s Too Late

Are you feeling a bit weary and maybe even crumbling? You’re not alone. We’re almost at the one-year anniversary mark of the pandemic, a few months out from the storming of the US Capitol, and ten months out from the murder of George Floyd. If you’re working from home, you’re lonely, and if you’re a frontline or health worker, you’re exhausted. The anxiety we’ve all been experiencing is real.

What to do when we feel like this? We need to acknowledge it for sure. And we need to pause because the big reopening is coming and it may not be the cure.

Vaccinations are spreading, warmer weather is returning in parts of the world, and traffic is ramping up. States are rolling back to the “old normal.”

But that “old normal” is not what many of us want. We desire the old normal of hugs,  social time, and in-person experience. We crave the return of play and the lightness of habit and ritual. Yet, we don’t want to welcome back stressful mornings, back-to-back meetings, political rancor, and racist violence.

Before it’s too late, we need to reimagine the new normal that replaces old norms with ones like joy, rest, and connection. A new normal that creates oppression-free lives and systems.

It’s time to plan,
It’s time to gather your family and plan your new normal. What will you discard from the old, and what will you bring into the new, before the pace of life takes over?

It’s time to gather,
Gather your teams and ask, What will your organization live into? What can you do to build and maintain human-centered and anti-racist workplaces and communities?

And for all of us,
What do we need in order to heal and repair? It’s been a really tough time. How can we discover new ways to foster self and community care? 

The negatives of the old normal will clash with our individual and collective well-being unless we work now to get rid of them.

So, when the snapback of the old calls you,

Stop
See
Love
Slow down
And ask yourself,

What can I do right in this moment to bring in a new normal that centers humanity, equity, and living?

We now understand that living is loving and being loved.
It’s radical collaboration and sharing.
It’s large openings and small slivers of joy.

Look for the small invitations around you to create a new and better normal.
Jump in.
If we develop the practices of the new normal,
we have a chance to create the world we want,
not the one that will overtake us yet again if we let it.  

Read these related blog posts:
https://interactioninstitute.org/creating-the-next-100-years/
https://interactioninstitute.org/from-trauma-to-transformative-futures-four-dimensions/

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February 11, 2021

Thinking Like an Octopus (and With a Collaborative Heart): Evolving and Interlocking Networks

“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”

Toni Morrison
Image from Giulian Frisoni

A network that I have been a part of for a number of years is seeing the emergent proliferation and strengthening of other related networks (some more adjacent than others) in its shared geographic and issue spaces. While this is welcomed overall, and sets up the potential for a more robust movement network and core-periphery structure (see image below), there are also some discussions within the network about how this proliferation constitutes an opportunity versus a looming threat or conflict.

SOURCE: Plastrik and Taylor, NET GAINS Workbook, 2006.

There is plenty being written about the power of collaboration to solve complex problems and shift undesirable patterns, and one of the persistent barriers to collaboration is the default competitive and protective instinct found in individuals and groups. There are good and long-standing evolutionary reasons for “watching out for number one,” so this impulse can be fairly baked in. And there are also good reasons for understanding and leaning into “collaborative advantage” (see, for example, the work of evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson on multi-level selection).

“One step is to recognize that ‘ideologies extolling individualism, competition, untrammeled free markets, and conversely, disparaging cooperation and equality’ (as Turchin puts it) have no scientific justification. An unregulated organism is a dead organism, for the body politic no less than our own bodies.”

David Sloan Wilson

And of course, there are plenty of examples of “taking the high road” only to have someone else take advantage of this, which can leave us feeling like we are living in the prisoner’s dilemma. So what is a network to do? Well, if your values include collaboration and justice, then you do your best to lead by example. Which is where a recent network stewardship team conversation left us. And as often happens with this group, things continued to marinate and then one of our members sent the following beautiful email, reminding us of her experiences in a related network of networks.

“The dynamics we discussed reminded me a lot of what we have experienced at our organization since 2009, so if you’ll indulge me for a few minutes I’ll try to lay it out here. In late 2007, we piloted a new cooperative venture and launched the FL Collaborative in 2009. Our vision and aspirations were to bring a cross sector of people and organizations together to address the root causes of the problems facing our sector and relevant communities.

One of the first things the FL Collaborative really wanted to focus on was replicating the cooperative model, and our organization was tasked with doing that. And we did. Pretty soon it became clear that we couldn’t both do that and hold the bigger vision and aspirations. But to be honest, I didn’t want to admit that.

By 2011, the LC Network started to emerge from the FL Collaborative. My first reaction was that we have competition. But very soon it became clear that the LC Network was serving a role our staff and the FL Collaborative couldn’t serve. The LC Network was beginning to pull together elements of what it takes to shift the supply chain from one that is value-less to one that is value-full. The kind of technical support the sector and visionaries needed began to emerge through the LC Network.

By 2014, the SF Network (another network) began to percolate out of the FL Collaborative. And again I found myself triggered by the potential competition. What the SF Network was beginning to offer was the ‘social’ space. When our organization and the FL Collaborative were hosting a series of community gatherings and various social events that allowed us to have a public facing part, SF was emerging as being able to offer that. Another thing we could take off of our staff’s plate so we can focus on our bigger vision and aspirations.

The FL Collaborative, in the meanwhile, began to morph into the political and advocacy space. That’s where we think through policy shifts, organizing opportunities, connectivity, and alignment around the broader vision of what the future of the sector and larger system can look like and what it might take to get us there. Those who are engaged in each of these networks are doing things that they can easily wrap their heads around and inspires them most. 

Today, I talk about these three networks as three tentacles of an octopus with our organization holding the space of the head of the octopus. Because our staff was not liberated to focus more fully on the shared values, bigger vision, the bigger story, connectivity, etc., all these three networks are interlocked by a shared set of values, a common vision, and organizing strategies. 

Our staff are the ones who are asking the bigger questions of each of these networks when they seem to go off track. We are the ones who are finding the resources needed to get them to think about how racial equity is or isn’t showing up there (and we get most of that from [the network for which the readers of the email are the stewardship team]). So without sounding too egotistical, our staff is tasked with holding the moral center of all of this work whether it comes to the connections, strategies, resources, stories, organizing, etc. There is probably a better word than the moral center, but that’s the only thing that is coming to me right now.

More tentacles might emerge, and I hope they do as we identify gaps in this work. And I hope I can remain humble enough to not see them as competition but as a valuable addition to the family.

It takes work, real intention and effort, to stay grounded and humble, to practice discernment and to keep perspective, to keep asserting the larger picture of complexity, to honor the need for deeper collaboration and more allies, to have faith in the possibilities that we cannot yet see through the growing entanglement of intersections. Even better when you can depend on others to help you out with this! With #gratitude to so many.

“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.”

Marge Piercy, from her poem “Seven of Pentacles”

Image by Kent Schimke
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January 27, 2021

Keeping Fires Lit and Wells as Full as Possible: Network Momentum During a Global Pandemic

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.

Albert Schweitzer
Image from Sarah

As a number of networks I am supporting are settling into the lingering reality of operating within our COVID19 context (“2020 still feels like it’s with us!”), uncertain of what resolution will look like or mean, we have been having more conversations about how to maintain momentum around key goals (food justice, health equity, equitable conservation, climate adaptation and mitigation) and also lead with care, supporting collective regenerative capacity. Through explicit asking and reading what is coming up through people’s engagement, here are some ideas for how to keep movement going over this lengthening haul in sustaining fashion.

  • Put movement into the movement (literally invite people to move their bodies during and in-between on-line and phone meetings)
  • Leverage the power of one to one conversations (they can often be more nimble and dynamic, including having people walk and talk to one another)
  • Keep some meetings agenda-free (and follow the emergent energy)
  • Share stories, music, recipes, jokes, games
  • Stay open to spontaneity
  • Lean into humor!
  • Do a meditation, be silent together
  • Give grace – “It’s okay to not be okay”
  • Make space for teach-ins and knowledge sharing
  • Invite people to not look at screens, and to look out windows
  • Offer different kinds of conversation models – Six Conversations model, for example
  • Use flexible and asynchronous means/tools for moving work forward (Google docs, MURAL, etc.)
  • See, appreciate and “amplify” one another
  • Use more visuals to focus on tasks and be less presentation-oriented
  • Bring in pictures and sounds from the natural world
  • Keep more personal meetings shorter
  • Stay focused on what is essential and let the rest go (see the urgent/important matrix)
  • Schedule long meetings as multiple meetings with a shared agenda over time to break it up
  • Remember this is not ours alone to do or solve and that there are others out there, including those we do not know

What would you add?

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

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January 22, 2021

Using the C-A-CA/P Framework to Evaluate a Policy Advocacy Network

Over the past couple of years, I’ve worked with a state-wide health equity network, comprised of smaller coalitions, that has been looking at living into being more of a network in thinking and action. After some conversation and consideration, we decided to use a framework that derives from the writings of Madeleine Taylor and Pete Plastrik.

The Connectivity-Alignment-Coordinated Action/Production framework (see graphic above) lifts up three different network modes, through which value and impact is created. First of all, network value and impact is grounded at a fundamental level in creating connectivity, by building linkages and trust between key stakeholders and perhaps unusual bedfellows. This can be done by convening people; closing triangles, sharing stories, data and other forms of information; co-creating knowledge; learning together, etc. Part of the value of this connectivity is that it can lead to orthogonal thinking and bolster individual network participants’ efforts in the shared domain where the network is focused. What also might happen is self-organized action between those who are meeting one another for the first time or getting to know one another better.

“Healthy networks measure their impact, in particular by establishing the links between decentralized network action and outcomes.

– The Packard Foundation

Up a level, networks may be compelled to create some kind of collective and aligned commitment or value proposition in the form of shared vision, values, public statements, etc. This can create greater impact/ripples, and provide additional value to individual participants and self-organized efforts, as they are more prone to head in the same general direction or with some kind of deeper shared understanding of context.

And then there are those instances when there is a call to some form of collective action, such as advocacy, a communications campaign, fundraising, or some other co-produced venture. This can happen even as smaller self-organized action continues (really, from a network perspective, most collective action should be about creating the conditions for those self-organized efforts, which is what is meant by “making the periphery the norm” in network building lingo).

With all of this in mind, after doing interviews, some observation, as well as evaluations and other documentation from the sub-networks of this state-wide advocacy network, a few patterns seemed to surface that suggested ways for the network to strengthen itself and leverage network effects.

Here is a list of what was surfacing as opportunities seen through the C-A-CA/P lens:
  • In the calls that the network does with its members, there appeared to be more of a one-directional download of information from staff (the hub) to its members (the periphery). And in various documents there appeared to be some suggestion that people were not connecting except through the hub. Furthermore, an annual report said that state partners expressed a desire to know more about one another’s capabilities, constituencies, and connections.  All of this suggested an opportunity for creating greater CONNECTIVITY, especially member-to-member.
  • In an interview the observation was made that on membership calls there were often the same people speaking while others were silent. This suggested that greater CONNECTIVITY could be created for those who were less outspoken and silent. There appeared to be some correlation between those who were longer standing members (more outspoken) and those who were new to the network (more quiet).
  • In assessments of meetings, comments were made that while people appreciate the great information and education they receive, they were also eager to meet, learn from and strategize with one another. This again suggested an opportunity to strengthen member-to-member CONNECTIVITY.
  • Questions had come up about whether relationships with state and county lawmakers, behavioral health experts, and others might be better maximized for trust and information sharing. Another area to explore strengthening CONNECTIVITY to and among those stakeholder groups.
  • Related to the above, while the network’s political capital was appreciated by many members, there were also questions about democratizing that power, and helping members to be more involved in the legislative process. This suggested that beyond creating greater CONNECTIVITY among members, there might be some opportunity to provide COORDINATION support to enhance access.
  • “Clusters” of members in certain parts of the state had been mentioned in interviews and documents. It was observed that in one region, there is some evidence of people getting tighter and that in another region, organizations were using lists to get together. This lifted up the question about more intentional CONNECTIVITY and ALIGNMENT that the network might suggest or provide to those existing and other potential clusters to strengthen their advocacy work.
  • An annual report identified some expressed concern about the challenge with creating alignment among collation partners on behavioral health priorities, and that “collective buy-in” and “intentional relationship building” will be key to establishing alignment. This is another reason to keep building that trust and CONNECTIVITY and also to explore actively facilitating ALIGNMENT around core priorities.
  • It was shared in staff interviews that there have been questions from members about the network’s long-term vision – “Where are you trying to go?” This raised some possible opportunities to facilitate ALIGNMENT around a shared, guiding and galvanizing vision with members.
  • Related to the above, the suggestion was raised around exploring he coalescing of sub-networks to consolidate and create more ALIGNMENT and COORDINATION between those separate coalitions.
And here is what was offered as a set of initial recommendations:
  • Consider the points above and if there is agreement among staff about where to weave greater connectivity, facilitate alignment and/or coordinate activity in different domains. Specifically: Who needs to be better connected and what would that achieve? Would alignment around a shared vision and high-level goals be helpful? Who would need to be aligned?
  • As these opportunities are identified, consider existing network (staff) capacity to provide weaving, facilitation and coordination support. Where and how might this capacity be added or developed?
  • Think about ways to create greater connectivity within existing calls, meetings and trainings. For example, have a check-in question; invite people to share news, victories, needs; break people into pairs and smaller group discussions; create open space for people to explore interests and opportunities to work together.
  • Consider creating a toolkit and perhaps a training for building relationships and maximizing connections in networks.
  • Reach out to less out-spoken and newer coalition members to see if there is anything that would support their participation. Related to this, make sure there is an on-boarding process for new members so that they feel up-to-date and know how to participate.
  • To gauge “network impact,” follow up with members to see what they do with the content, capacity and connections they get from calls. Are they able to leverage these for greater impact in their communities and regions to create “ripple effects”?
  • Reach out to other networks to see how they go about democratizing power and opportunity in a network. In addition, look to other groups across the state to see how they are working with grassroots groups to mobilize around policy.
  • Consider having an open conversation with member organizations about how to strengthen the sub-networks (coalitions) as a network. What ideas do they have? This might include giving them some overview of networks and network effects/impacts.
  • Consider conducting an assessment to find and leverage “network champions.” Are there certain members who are particularly enthusiastic about and active in network activity and might be ambassadors for the collective work? Might they be more formally enlisted as network weavers?
  • Consider the virtual tools currently used for keeping members connected (virtual meeting platforms, shared files and documents, archives, private group pages). Are they working? Are people taking full advantage of them? Is there additional value they are looking for that might be provided by other tools?
  • Consider using a more formal network assessment to look for strengths and areas for growth and improvement in the network’s structures and practices. This could be conducted among staff alone and also include key partners. Examples include “Network Effectiveness: Diagnostic and Development Tool”, “Partnership Self-Assessment Tool” and “Network Health Scorecard.”
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January 8, 2021

The Capitol Coup: Questions to Face

This is not a “statement”.

You don’t need another statement.

At IISC, we’re asking ourselves some hard questions. Are we maintaining the status quo or  breaking it? If we are alive in times like this, what are we living for? And whatever that is, we better make it worth it. Because this country has been presented with a mirror and what we see is our ugly reflection, and the choices we now make will have life and death consequences.

So we feel it’s right, and necessary, to ask the hard questions, The questions are rhetorical, but hey, why not, since we’re all talking and trying to be brave.

  • If we don’t ask for and expect this President’s immediate removal,
    what are we sanctioning?
  • If you lost steam for the fight for racial justice that rose up last summer, or if you went back to business as usual after George Floyd died, why is that? 
    Do you realize that racism is always awake even when you’re sleeping?
  • If you’re shocked about the attempted takeover of our Capitol and country,
    have you accepted that white supremacy isn’t just present in those that stormed the doors, but are also inside government institutions and within our own elected officials?
  • If you think diversity training and simple “DEI” initiatives are enough to dismantle structural racism, think again!
    How can you begin to shift your focus to dismantling structural racism?
  • If you think you aren’t complicit with racism, ask yourself,
    “am I too comfortable?”

Yesterday was an epic system failure (or, from another perspective, it’s the system working as it was designed to work), born out of relentless racism, white domination, and male violent entitlement. It’s not extremist. It’s not an aberration. It’s America. If you’re numb or checked out, wake up. If you’re shocked, don’t think more shock isn’t coming. You may feel pain, but that exists for a reason. The pain tells you that you’re alive and alert. We may be striving to do the right thing, but playing it safe is not an option during a 24-7 assault on our humanhood.

Safe is “we can do this later.”

Safe is “someone else will take care of this.” 

Safe is “we can talk about ‘equity’ without being laser-focused on tearing down racism.”

Safe is “we can avoid struggle, hard truths and conversations, and real work.”

Safe is downright dangerous. 

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January 4, 2021

Leaning Into Values and Trust Building in (Food) Systems Work

Word cloud generated from participant comments/conversations

Transformative change in the food system will not happen unless we work towards racial justice and equity. 

Anderson, S., Colasanti, K., Didla, N., and Ogden, C. (2020). A Call to Build Trust and Center Values in Food Systems Work. Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems.

In September of 2019, I was fortunate enough to be invited to co-facilitate a gathering of over 70 people from across the U.S. to learn from one other about the work of coordinating state and regional level food system plans. At least that was the initial idea. The gathering was convened by the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. I was joined in this work by the very generous and talented Noel Didla, Sade Anderson, and Kathryn Collasanti. As is the case with so many good things, the out of the gate vision for the convening gave way to a more emergent planning process that moved us away from purely technical practices and knowledge sharing to the more complex and adaptive work of bringing people together across various lines of difference to have “real talk” and wrestle with tough questions.

What became clear very quickly, with the leadership of Sade and Noel in particular, was that considerations of racial equity and economic justice had to be at the center of our design and facilitation. That included:

  • how we got in “right relationship” with one another as a team
  • how we framed the gathering for invitees
  • who was invited to attend and present at the gathering
  • the choice of where to have the convening
  • the way we designed both the agenda and the gathering space
  • the way we held what essentially became one rich two-day conversation

“I am taking away a lot of thoughts about meeting structure and facilitation from the overall convening planning, structure and flow. The structure of the agenda to put racial equity at the forefront and the structure of the conversations that allowed for honest discussion and audience participation was very effective and made for interesting conversations. These are techniques that would be helpful for us to use in our presentations and to share with food policy councils.”

2019 national gathering participant from the Mid-Atlantic

What we experienced during and heard after the event was pretty encouraging – how for many this was one of the best “conferences” they had ever attended, how people left challenged and inspired, how many of the conversations we started at Wayne County Community College stayed with people and continued.

Our original intent as a co-facilitation team was to write up a report of the event not long after we arrived back in our respective homes. Instead, things simmered for a while and the right time to wrap up the writing emerged during COVI19, as certain things that we had already been emphasizing were put into more stark view.

The linked publication, entitled “A Call to Build Trust and Center Values in Food Systems Work,” is meant to be a way to holding ourselves accountable to the work of racial justice by sharing our reflections on two practices to advance equity that anyone can incorporate into their life and work: building trust and centering values. Here we describe what these threads looked like in this national gathering—including both our personal experiences of the process, the practical event decisions we made, and more about what what participants had to say.

Our collective hope is to challenge readers (and ourselves) to consider the many ways in which food systems activity is either welcoming or exclusionary and either embodies equitable belonging or perpetuates “othering.” And because the conversation must continue, we welcome any reflections and reactions, including how you are leading with values, including racial equity, and trust in 2021.

Kathryn, Noel, Sade and Curtis

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January 4, 2021

Civic Engagement, IISC-Style

Dear Friends of IISC,

We turned out in record numbers in the November general election — despite a pandemic, an economic crisis, and so many attempts to stop us. We voted for our communities and the things we care about, and to make life better for all of us. We voted because it is our right to do so. And there is still more to do…

Yes – we still need to phone bank TODAY for tomorrow’s #RunoffElection in Georgia! This election determines control of the senate, and we can all show up for Georgians the way they showed up for the country’s future in November. Sign up NOW to phone bank with @newgeorgiaproject 5-8pm ET (mobilize.us/ngp) or @NAACPYouthCollege 6-7pm ET (bit.ly/GAPhoneBanking)

#TogetherWeVote #GOTV
@AdvancementProject @ apiahf @DemosIdeasAction @naacp @ncai1944 @WeAreUnidosUS @naturbanleague @FIAnational @RaceForward

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December 31, 2020

Capturing the Complex (and occasionally chaotic) Nature of a Social Change Network

Recently a long-time member of the Food Solutions New England (FNSE) Network Team let us know that they would be transitioning out of their current job and needing to leave the network, at least the core role they have played. FSNE is entering its second, and critical, decade of work, and going through a transition itself as it strives to better weave together a regional food system that is grounded in racial justice, ecological sustainability and democratic principles. It has been quite the journey, 2020 not withstanding.

This person, and real FSNE champion, gave a tremendous gift in their email, laying out how meaningful their experience has been these last several years. In so doing, there is also a wonderful articulation of what being in a network can be all about. Here is a taste of what was so generously offered:

What stands out to me when looking back is how many aspects of FSNE’s work are challenging: communicating complex concepts; making the most of limited time when such a rich network of folks gets together; putting up with ambiguity when structure and linearity are so comforting and in demand. 

But the rewards from the process are on an equal scale with the challenge: building lasting and meaningful relationships with diverse folks from across the food system; being able to think and strategize about that system in entirely new ways; learning new ways to think and to go about work and life. … in offering this to participants, FSNE is very unique among organizations. …  

I’m looking forward to what’s coming next, sensing and hoping that the world at large is more ready to support FSNE’s values now, than it was even a year ago.”

So well said! And we know FSNE is not alone.

Even as the network (along with so many others) navigates complexity and disruption and continues to make “progress” around its “impact areas” (including more dense and diverse connectivity; greater advancement of the vision and values; increased regional alignment around a new food narrative; more collaboration on regional food, farm and fisheries policy; more wide-spread commitment to anti-racism in the food system), it can be hard to “see” all of this in the moment. Like so many things in life, it is only in retrospect that we can get a sense of how far we have come. And also like so many things in life, as our transitioning FSNE colleague expressed so beautifully, it is not just what we can most tangibly measure that matters, but also (and perhaps more so) qualitative change and the nature of our experiences (processes, relationships) along the way.

FSNE Network Structure

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