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July 10, 2024

Doing What We Can, With What We Have, Where We Are

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of getting to know and work with food justice advocates in the state of Mississippi through the Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative and the Mississippi Food Policy Council. On two occasions, as a part of visits to Jackson, Mississippi, I’ve had the opportunity to go on the wonderful civil rights tour provided by Frank Figgers. Mr. Figgers is a graduate of Tougaloo College, where he worked with the Jackson Human Rights Project, founded by Howard Spencer, a SNCC field organizer and former civil rights worker. While working with the Jackson Human Rights Project, Mr. Figgers met, worked with, and developed relationships with other former civil rights workers. He is an absolutely captivating storyteller, who has filled in many gaps in my own historical knowledge, and provided numerous corrections to the education I received.

Touring Jackson, we made stops at a number of different historical landmarks, including the Smith Roberston Museum and Cultural Center (once Smith Robertson Elementary School, the first public school for African-American children in Jackson), the Farish Street Historical District (known as a hub for Black-owned businesses up until the 1970s), the Greyhound bus station at 219 North Lamar Street (where many arrests were made during the 1961 Freedom Rides), Tougaloo College (established by descendants of slaves aboard the Amistad and an institution that has at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi), and Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Historical Monument (where Medgar Evers was fatally shot in 1963). Mr. Figgers narrated key and often dramatic events while those of us in the large van he was driving listened intently and as if we were watching events play out in front of us.

Exhibits inside the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

A common refrain that Mr. Figgers used, in pointing out how “everyday people” stepped up to fight for their and other’s rights amidst oppression and violence was – “They did what they could, with what they had, where they were.” As he said this, he scanned our faces in the back of the van, his eyes widening behind his glasses, and then smiled as a final point of exclamation. Even in the face of truly terrorizing circumstances, people stood up. They stood up. They did something. So many acts of tremendous courage, large and small. So many people, everyday people, finding ways. Making ways.

“They did what they could, with what they had, where they were.”

Something about those words continued to work through me, and so was the case for others who were on the tour, as we talked about it later. They’ve been echoing in my head more loudly recently, as I feel the strain in my body and mind related to escalating challenges and suffering around us.

*******

Another story recently came to mind as Mr. Figgers’ words have been working on me. Not long out of college, I created and ran a youth service program for middle and high school students in upstate New York. My first summer organizing the program was spent in the most rural and economically poorest part of the county where I was based. We had assembled a group of about ten middle schoolers who were motivated to help others or simply looking for something to do with their time in the summer months. We got involved with the local food pantry, learned a lot about hunger in the county and country, did some painting and cleaning work on a couple of historical buildings needing love and care, and made ourselves available to those in the community unable to do certain things for themselves.

About mid-way through the summer, as more people heard about our work, we received a call about an elderly woman who was legally blind and lived by herself. The town works department was coming to her house to fix some sewage pipes and in the process of digging up a portion of her back yard to do so, they were going to have to take down a few of her young fruit trees out back. Could we come and move them for her, a neighbor who was calling on her behalf wondered? The youth were very eager to assist, and on a blistering hot day we arrived with gloves on and shovels ready. Approaching the house I gasped a little – the structure looked like it was held together by little more than hope. We met the woman outside. She wore darkened glasses and was leaning on a walker. She welcomed us and promptly guided us to the trees out back. After some basic instructions, we got to work and spent a few hours digging holes, moving and watering trees, packing soil, adding some fertilizer, and then – with sweat pouring down our faces – felt satisfied that the job was complete.

The woman was delighted and, smiling behind her darkened lenses, asked if she could give us something in return. Without waiting for an answer she told us to follow her. We went inside her house and she waved us in the direction of the door behind her where we found the stairs to her cellar. We were then instructed to flick the switch at the top of stairs, descend, and “pick anything you like.” The kids and I looked at each other, a little uncertain. I went ahead and led the way. Once at the bottom of the creaky stairs, we looked around to see dust-covered shelves on all sides of a single unfinished room, completely packed with jars. Jars full of fruits, vegetables, jams, and pickled this-and-that. Hundreds of jars. We were completely floored. After taking a few minutes to absorb the incredible array, we each selected a jar that looked good to us and went back up stairs.

“You do all of that?” one of the girls asked once we were all gathered back in her kitchen.

“Yup,” said the woman, matter-of-factly.

“And you gonna eat all of that?” asked one of the boys.

The woman laughed. “Oh no,” she said. “I send most of those to the needy.”

There was silence in the kitchen as we worked that over in our minds.

She continued. “I give them to people in my church to send to people overseas who are hungry or experiencing difficulties like earthquakes.”

The kids nodded, clearly still working that through in their minds.

Well, let’s just say that gave us a lot to talk about during our van ride back to the kids’ homes. Despite all appearances, this elder, officially living at the poverty level, legally blind and physically limited, was doing what she could, with what she had, where she was.

A nice coda to the story is that the kids decided they wanted to learn how to do canning themselves and wondered if the woman would teach them. I reached out through the neighbor, the woman agreed, and we ended up donating what we produced (fruit jams) to the local food pantry where we had begun our summer of service work.

*******

I am not going to lie. There are days when I feel completely overwhelmed. I look at what I see as the challenges we face in this country and world and I wonder, “How on earth…? It’s too much! It’s just too much.” And then I think of Mr. Figgers and the everyday people of the historical and current day civil rights movement in Mississippi and other places. And I think of “The Canning Lady,” (as she came to be called by the kids in our service group), and so many others like her that do what they can everyday with whatever they have wherever and however they are. And that’s enough to eventually right me.

Part of this righting is remembering is that it is not just about me! It is about doing my part, making the contribution(s) that I can make. To riff on a phrase I often use in supporting the creation of social change networks, it’s also about “doing my best, and then connecting to and trusting the rest.” That’s why I am such a big fan of networks, of making more loving links between people and places. Imagine more of us doing what we can, where we are, with what we have, and weaving it all into something larger. Something even more beautiful. As a poet once said, we might just make a world like that.

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July 4, 2024

Reaching Toward One Another

In these times of splitting and splintering, I keep in mind a powerful experience from a few years ago when a team of us were working with a climate resilience planning initiative in the South Bronx in New York City. We had been brought in to support city planners and engineers in creating and facilitating a community engagement process that would generate ideas for resilient energy systems with other community benefits (education, jobs), while also building stronger relationships within the community and between community members and government officials. The way we did this was essentially by humanizing the process, reducing barriers to accessing and sharing information and importantly reducing barriers standing in the way of people accessing one another.

What this meant was that we chose meeting spaces that felt like community spaces, not official government meeting rooms. We slowed the process down overall, made sure that any information presented was done in non-jargon heavy ways with plenty of opportunity for people to ask questions and with translation services available. We also brought music into the room, at the start and end of meetings, as well as other creative art forms during certain portions of the process so that community members could express more fully their hopes and concerns through different media. For evening meetings we served delicious locally-catered food. Childcare was available for parents who wanted that support. And as facilitators, we treated everyone as if they had something to offer, no matter their age or official position, and assumed all wanted the best for the community.

Public meeting held in community center theater space

Predictably, in the early going, some long standing social-political dynamics and suspicions showed up. People seemed to be really good at and used to playing their respective roles – buttoned up officials, ardent (and occasionally angry) community organizers, business owners thinking mainly about their own livelihood, etc. But over time you could feel things start to shift as people understood that this was a different kind of process. There was more laughter and joy in the space, less posturing, softening of tone, and more engagement with one another outside of official roles and meeting times.

This all culminated in a particular moment when the city official with whom we worked most closely had to share some difficult news at a public meeting from one of the engineering analyses that was not well received by many community members. Tempers flared in the room, and just when it seemed we were going to come to a complete stalemate, the official with whom we were working cried out, “Look, I’m on your side! I want this to work for you. We’ve been trying to figure this out but it’s not that easy.” For a moment this person looked like they were going to burst into tears, holding their head in their hands.

That public display of emotion, of vulnerability, was followed by what felt like a long silence, and then one of the lead community organizers looked at our facilitation team, seemed to sigh with their entire body, stood with hands outstretched and said, softly, “Let us help you. That’s why we’re here.” That exchange broke what might have been the spell that returned us to the predictable story of “us vs them.” It opened up possibility and kept us going and eventually led to agreement on a path forward.

“That’s why we’re here.”

Not to fight or prove who’s right.

Not to keep an old tired and fatiguing pattern going.

Not to waste more precious time, money and other resources.

But to figure out how to make sure that people and communities are safe in the face of whatever may come.

And to do that figuring, TOGETHER.

That is the bigger promise of collaboration from our humble and long-standing perspective at IISC, having supported hundreds of collaborative ventures over the past 30 + years: to bring our different needs, perspectives, talents and ideas together to make something better, for everyone. This notion used to be seen as almost pollyannish in some circles up until about about 15 years ago. Then it became much more accepted as people grappled with increasingly complex issues and challenges. More recently it has been seen as needed but perhaps a near impossibility in some places because of pronounced pain and polarization.

And still what we know is that now more than ever, we need each other. As trite as it may sound, difference and diversity are truly our strength. And we know that we have far more in common than we do differences. Most of us share a core set of common values, most of us want something better, better than what we have in many communities and this country right now. Some of us may be tired and perhaps frightened. Yet we cannot avoid the truth that we are in this together. We certainly are being tested to learn to live and work together in new ways. What if we saw this as an opportunity to show what we are truly made of and might become? This could actually happen if we were to reach toward one other in good faith, from a spirt of deep caring, and with curiosity, humility, and determined hope.

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May 14, 2024

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

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

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

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

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

Carol Sanford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 16, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What assumptions are you sitting with?

What single stories that could benefit from a fuller telling?

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April 11, 2024

Conversation and tools for leading during moments of chaos and complexity

If you’re like me, I never would have thought I would be leading an organization during epic extremes and upheaval in our nation. I was not prepared for this! On many days, I feel like I’m leading through total chaos without any kind of a manual for it. That’s why IISC is bringing leaders of all kinds together on May 7th in a virtual interactive learning experience. I’ll be there, along with my colleague Simone John. We will acknowledge and cultivate the orientation and skills that are needed to lead through, well, wild times. I could use expletives in place of “wild,” but I know you get the point. 

I‘ve led six organizations over my three-decade nonprofit and social justice career and none of it prepared me for what I’m up against now or what has been going on since 2020. I’ve had to lead our staff through a global pandemic, weather disasters, political and social upheaval, as well as the day-to-day struggle of accelerating our mission for racial justice and creating an organization that centers human wellbeing. 

What has helped me lead through it all? Frankly, it was partly being a black biracial woman who was raised in untenable circumstances and had no other choice than to be resourceful, rely on others, and blast music in my ears when I ran out of hope. The other critical part was working in an organization such as IISC that cultivates shared and equitable leadership through our collaborative change lens of love, equity, and networks. 

No one should be alone, struggling, or pushing through leadership. Not when it’s so chaotic and absolutely wild and hard out there. Not when IISC has got some wisdom and tools we’re excited to share, and we bet you’ve got some gems to share, as well!

Learn more and register now!

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February 7, 2024

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

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

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

and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

– Henry David Thoreau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 2, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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December 21, 2023

It’s Time: Three Strategies to Undo Traditional Management in Workplaces 

This work is licensed to the public under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Traditional management has run its course. At IISC and in our network of clients and equity practitioners, we’re trying to create something new in its place. We don’t have all the answers, but we know it’s time to discover another way. 

As a Generation X’er who worked “under” bosses trained in traditional command and control leadership, I saw the poor results of “do what I say” or “do as I do” leadership. In the 80s and 90s, management strategies were based on military and manufacturing leadership practices which relied on top-down hierarchies, rigid routines, and long work hours. 

Obedience of the workforce was paramount. And it was suffocating.  

A natural product of the system of racialized capitalism, management was – and in many cases still is – about dominion over people and making sure they work harder and faster to amass money and resources for those “at the top.” It’s too often about quantity and output over people and quality, rather than what you ultimately accomplish. 

Fortunately, collaboration as a critical proposition for team effectiveness, and equity and wellbeing as vital strategies for organizational success, are now in play in more workplaces. And yet, if we’re honest, we’re still churning out work and people like generations before us. The pandemic tried to teach us otherwise, but now that we’ve moved from pandemic panic to endemic acceptance, we’ve fallen back into old habits. We’ve defaulted to management practices that are rooted in the anxiety that comes from living in a world of systems which perpetuate oppression, political chaos, and climate catastrophes. Anxiety compels us to micromanage, remove employee autonomy, and revert to workplace disciplinary practices, 

At IISC we’re working hard to stay true to our values and practices by approaching our organizational structure and practices with intention. We’re moving away from traditional management to transformational leadership that is based in shared leadership and the facilitative leadership and equity practices we bring to others. 

So what are we doing? Here are three strategies we’re trying:

  1. We’re decentering ourselves as “managers.” We’re developing a new leadership and decision-making structure that envisions each of us as leaders in a network, offering our contributions individually and collectively to move the whole. People closest to their areas of work and the impact of the work will be entrusted with decisions in those domains. Multiracial and multigenerational leadership will be a core principle as we undo work norms that stem from cultures of white supremacy.
  1. We’re creating a workplace that is about preserving dignity and wellbeing. We believe that policies that promote wellbeing help us approach our work with greater focus and creativity. And having more time outside of work to rest and connect enables us to see the world more clearly and better understand our organization’s role in making the world a better place. We have implemented a four-day work week to give people a greater balance between work and personal time, and we’ve launched a compensation pod to explore how to increase our wages through an equity lens. We’re repackaging some of our functions so they fit better within each person’s job and hiring more people to share those responsibilities. We avoid booking meetings before 10am so people have time to plan their days, do solo work, and attend to caregiving responsibilities. 
  1. We’re building new practices for holding each other accountable to our work goals and values by navigating the conflict that naturally arises in an organizational setting. We’ve had a dominant culture of “niceness” that allowed tensions to stay buried, leading to work inefficiencies and resentment. To address that, we’ve worked with transformative justice practitioners to learn to step into more radical candor with each other. We’ve learned it’s possible to have hard conversations and hold people with dignity by engaging in truth-telling that emphasizes impact over intent. And, last but not least, we’re piloting mechanisms for sharing feedback that are not based on a supervision model but rather on coaching and mutual accountability sessions.

I’m relieved that future generations may be spared the problematic management practices of the past that treated us like widgets instead of precious humans. But we need a lot more people and leaders who are willing to stand with us and our allies. And who are ready to lead us forward into this new way of working. 

We want to hear from you! How are you trying to replace traditional management practices with transformational leadership? How do you want to take a stand? 

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November 17, 2023

Rethinking Thanksgiving

Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@AdamWinger

I was that kid. I grew up in Carver, Massachusetts, next door to Plymouth. In middle and high school, I challenged (and most likely annoyed) my teachers when I wondered out loud why Native Americans would want to celebrate Columbus Day or Thanksgiving. “Shouldn’t it be a day of mourning for them?” I’d ask. I don’t recall any teacher having a good answer to my question or even being willing to engage in meaningful dialogue. In the years since, I have earned a reputation among family and friends as being “no fun” or “too serious” for pointing out the oppressive underpinnings of many elements of popular culture and U.S. traditions. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but “[s]ince 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth [not far from where I went to high school] to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”  Source: http://www.uaine.org/

Thankfully, I know more now than then, and I am grateful that the enduring impact of racism and colonization has made its way into the public discourse in the U.S. And, we still have a long, long way to go!

While there is nothing wrong with having a time for families and friends to gather and reflect on their lives with gratitude – even in the midst of so much war, oppression and devastation – it’s also important to correct the historically inaccurate mythology that surrounds this holiday. Native American activists remind us that giving thanks was a Native American tradition for generations before the European settlers arrived in Plymouth, and long before President Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a U.S. national holiday. As Suzan Shown Harjo, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, reminds us in a 2014 interview, some Native American people celebrate Thanksgiving in keeping with that generations-long tradition, while others observe it as a day of mourning – a day to reflect on the devastation their people have experienced at the hands of settlers, and the U.S. government — both historically and currently. 

Here are a couple of things to consider to bring more accuracy and equity to your Thanksgiving traditions.

  1. Teach your children a true story. Check out these children’s books that speak from the point of view of Native Americans. 
  2. Attend an observance of the National Day of Mourning in your area. You’ll join your heart in mourning and you’ll learn a lot. You may even begin to build new relationships. If you’re in New England, consider joining the United American Indians of New England on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth.
  3. Act in solidarity with Indigenous activists in your area. If you’re in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Indigenous Agenda is a great place to start. 
  4. Join the Decolonizing Wealth Project and its Liberated Capital Giving Community. Read Edgar Villanueva’s book Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance and get a guided journal to help you learn to apply his “Seven Steps to Healing” so you can begin to use money as medicine to heal what’s broken in our world. The seven steps are straightforward and simple to state, and oh so challenging to practice! (No spoilers here! Get the book and the journal!) As I reviewed them recently, I realized how often I skip past some of the steps and sometimes even practice their exact opposite. I invite you to join me in digging deeper, reflecting more honestly, loving harder, and practicing grace with oneself and with others more often. How will you open yourself to being guided by Indigenous wisdom as we seek to heal divides and restore balance?

This Thanksgiving, let’s connect with those we love and enthusiastically give thanks for the many blessings in our lives. And let’s reflect on what has made those blessings possible, including the full range of effort, sacrifice, serendipity, privilege, and oppression. Rather than be paralyzed by anger, guilt, or fear, let’s find ways to make our awareness and gratitude count for justice!

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October 12, 2023

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

“In the end, everything works together.”

Chief Jake Swamp (quoted by Dan Longboat)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everything is built on reciprocal relationships.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

❤️ Protect and nurture endangered experiences, beyond endangered species.

❤️ Listen to the human and non-human elders.

❤️ Leverage collective power; row together.

❤️ Be accountable for impact.

❤️ Make room for wholeness.

❤️ Bring gifts and gratitude.

❤️ Lead with gentleness.

❤️ Practice forgiveness.

❤️ Remember to rest. 

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

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August 25, 2023

Three Take-Aways from the 2023 114th NAACP National Convention


Earlier this summer, I walked into the Boston Convention Center with thousands milling about and locked eyes with a Black woman who had the kindest smile. As I learned later, she, like me, had been to hundreds of conferences in our lifetimes but we felt shy. The exhibits weren’t open yet so we started chatting about our work and lives. I learned she is the president of a local chapter of the NAACP in the south, and a Black woman president at that. Her power has been challenged daily by white power structures resisting change and by male leadership within her ranks who assume they know better, but she didn’t look tired. She was ready for the convention and she was proud of her youth leaders who were participating. She was here, at the NAACP convention, working to build a better future and that was all that mattered.

New friends at the NAACP convention

If the convention had stopped there, I would have learned something. When you get to my stage of life and attend events like this, you often spend time with people you already know. That day, I spent time with people I didn’t know and at workshops in which the content was unfamiliar. I came away enriched with a new relationship, with new ideas, and – most importantly – with new-found hope. And I learned a lot about what advocates working for change most need in these times. 


Here are three takeaways:  

  1. These times are not new, and we have the people and tools to break through this painful America we are living in right now. Shavone Arline-Bradley, president of the National Council of Negro Women, brought the house down at the women’s luncheon when she ran down the list of conservative white supremacists that Black leaders have reckoned with  – including George Wallace, former Governor of Alabama, who was an ardent advocate for school segregation in the 60s and 70s. Despite his efforts to keep in place Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized school segregation in 1896, it was overturned 58-years later by the US Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. She argued that we have seen the likes of supremacists like Donald Trump and Ron Desantis before and we have stopped their progress through organizing, get out the vote efforts, and in the courts. And she credited the strategy and strength of Black women who waged these fights.
  1. The climate crisis must be viewed as immediate and dangerous, and as a critical racial justice issue. Boston environmental and racial justice activist Reverend Mariama White-Hammond and other climate leaders clearly laid out the climate and weather shifts that we are now facing. We learned that the impacts are disproportionately centered in Black, Brown, and low-income communities where residents don’t have access to sufficient air conditioning or plentiful and drinkable water in hot conditions, or places to go when flooding hits apartments and homes because of poor water mitigation systems.

    As I listened to the inequities, I realized that there should be no “change” in climate change because it’s now a crisis, and there is no “threat” because climate chaos is already damaging our cities and rural communities in the form of extreme heat, wildfires, floods, and droughts. What gets in my way and the way of others who are in this fight is that it’s just so hard to face. We need to stare the climate reality in the eyes, and as indigenous people and people rooted to land know, we must focus on healing our planet and taking the best care of it we can. 
  1. We must bring young people to our tables. There were hundreds of youth at the convention, all attending workshops and participating in events designed to develop their leadership at all levels of the NAACP and in local communities. It was clear from the panel conversations and the myriad of people I spoke with that if we’re going to fight modern-day supremacists and their successors, we need young people leading the way. And we need to train and support them with strategies, tools, and resources for social change and racial justice.  Our legacy will continue through their passion and ideas and we have a responsibility to support them, teach them what we know, learn what we don’t, and follow their great ideas.  

I am walking away inspired by the knowledge that we absolutely have what it takes for the fights ahead, as long as we continue to build the strength of our networks and prioritize the leadership and energy of young people.  We can – and we will – do this. 

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August 10, 2023

The fastest way to kill collaboration? Obscure decision making.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Folks who know me as a facilitator know that one of my first and favorite questions in planning a meeting is “who’s deciding?” It’s a question that can be counter-cultural for groups that are unaccustomed to clearly defining the decision-making process. And yet, leaving the question unanswered or unclear is one of the fastest ways I have seen to erode trust and to drive people away from working together.

Tips for doing better

Answering a few simple questions can help to avoid a great deal of frustration and prevent the fracturing of collaborative work:

WHAT decision is being made? What information will we need to make the decision? What criteria will guide the decision?

WHY is this the decision we’re making? Is there something else that we need to address first?

WHO is the final decision maker? Is it the group that’s meeting now or is it actually some other group or individual?

HOW will the final decision be made? If the group is making the final decision together, do they have an understanding of what consensus is and how to reach it? What will they do if they can’t reach a consensus? If an individual is making the final decision, will they gather input from others or proceed alone? How will they share the factors that will be considered as the decision is made? How will people be informed about the final decision? (Check out our Levels of Involvement in Decision Making framework for many more details about options for how to involve people in decision making.) What constraints will shape the decision-making process (e.g., time available, resources needed, etc.)?

Using the Questions in Sticky Situations

Do any of these situations, which we’ve seen repeatedly in our work, sound familiar to you? Here are some ideas about how applying our tips could have helped.

  1. A team receives a task with minimal guidance about constraints, other than when the project is due. They complete their task and are told, “No, we don’t have time or money to do all of that.” or “That’s not actually what we thought you’d do with the task.” The team is asked to go back to the drawing board but many members feel disrespected and frustrated, and are reluctant to continue working on the project.

The leader who set the team up with the project could have named specific time and resource constraints to help both the leader and the team set clear expectations, and could have indicated what would happen next if the group couldn’t make its decisions within those constraints.

  1. A coalition is meeting to decide on its goals for the year. A few priorities rise to the top,  but there is no moment when the group clearly affirms the choices. Everyone goes away feeling good, but thinking differently about what was actually decided. A few days later, members read the meeting notes, which sound to some participants like they were from an entirely different meeting. Frustration ensues as individuals jockey to get the items they thought were agreed upon onto the final list of goals.

The meeting facilitator could have explicitly checked for consensus as priorities began to emerge, and clearly identified where there was/was not agreement. The note taker could have recorded on chart paper or used a computer and projector (in an in-person meeting) or screen sharing or a shared online document (in an online meeting) so that everyone could see what was happening with the information in real time. 

  1. A team receives a meeting agenda saying that the outcome of the meeting is an agreement on a solution to a pressing organizational problem. During the meeting, people spend all of the time exploring the problem. Some people are frustrated that they didn’t even begin to move towards a solution. Others are frustrated with the stated meeting outcome, since there hadn’t been any problem analysis. The meeting ends without a clear sense of what to do next and what to say to those who are waiting for the solution.

Typically, if a group is deciding on solutions, they first need to understand the problem they are trying to solve so they can identify solutions that effectively address root causes. The facilitator and meeting planners could have designed pre-meeting work or discussions to build understanding of the problem before getting into solutions. Or, they could have shifted the timeline so the group could explore problems during this meeting and solutions later.

  1. People leave a staff meeting thinking they have reached agreement on organizational priorities. A few days later, the CEO announces priorities, which are slightly different, thanking the group for the way the meeting helped her to make her final decision on priorities. Staff members are confused and frustrated because they thought they were all making the decision together. Some team members begin to wonder if they can trust the CEO. 

The leader could have first asked herself whether this is a decision the team should actually make together. If the situation really did call for her to make the final decision after consulting with the team, she could have started and closed the discussion by clearly stating why she is the final decision maker and how this discussion gives the team a chance to inform her final decision.    

  1. A colleague sends you an email, assigning you a task that you didn’t know about and asking you to do it in a way that doesn’t make sense to you. They don’t invite any questions and do not appear willing to discuss your ideas about how to get the job done. You wrestle with how much energy you want to put into asking questions and whether you have the energy to deal with a potential conflict if you just do the task in a way that makes most sense to you.

The colleague could have explained who decided that the task needed to be done in this particular way and why, spelling out important factors that led to this decision. They could have asked for your questions, concerns, or ideas about how to proceed. And they could have explained any degrees of flexibility around how the task was to be accomplished. 


While clarity about decision making isn’t magic, it will make many collaborative ventures much smoother. It will grow the precious resource of trust, without which your efforts to work together are destined to fall short. It will also give you new ways to explore and expand power, which is so often experienced through the act of decision making. Questions about who decides on things like priorities and strategy; the allocation of time, money, and other resources; involvement in designing and implementing activities; and who decides who gets a seat at the decision-making table are fundamentally questions about power. Clarity around decision making will create space to address power dynamics more directly and grow more shared power to accomplish together things that you could never accomplish on your own. 

Let us know how these tips are helping your efforts to collaborate for social justice and racial equity.For more on power and power dynamics, check out our series Bringing Facilitative Leadership for Social Change to Your Virtual Work, which includes sessions on Managing Power Dynamics in Virtual Meetings and Collaborative Decision Making and Shared Leadership.

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