Over the last couple of months I have really savored my reading of Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Yunkaporta is an academic, arts critic and researcher who belongs to the Apalech clan in Queensland, Australia. His book met me during found me in these times of disruption when I was searching to further disrupt myself and pry open some widening cracks in my older ways of thinking, feeling and being.
It is important to say that any review of the book or excerpting from it necessarily de- and re-contextualizes the content, which is a key point Yunkaporta makes – many people are caught up in low context cultures that are rather disconnected from the specifics of place and community. With that awareness, I wanted to offer some take-aways that have helped me to bring different, more energizing, engaging and empowering perspectives to multiple contexts in which I move, in the event that they may help others make enlivening shifts.
Towards the end of the book, Yunkaporta sums up what he and a number of other indigenous people with whom he “yarns” see as an indigenous approach to engaging with living systems – respect, connect, reflect, direct. He offers corresponding embodied centers for doing this work as: gut, heart, head, hands. He also makes the point that Western colonizer cultures reverse this progression, leading with action and control (direct), and only perhaps later capitulating (respect, or “looking again”), if at all, when things do not go according to plan. This “indigenous progression” aligns strongly with a community of practice of which I am a part (Respectful Confrontation/Fierce Civility), which is based in Taoist philosophy and practice, and invites devotees to lead in grounded and focused ways that put one in right relationship with their (multiple) selves and so-called “others.” I can say from experience that this is a very powerful way to prepare myself for engagement, especially in these volatile and unpredictable times.
Yunkaporta also lifts up what Aboriginal and indigenous knowledge asks of those who are attempting to bring about change in complex systems (all living systems). What he calls the “complexity agent protocols” includes:
Connectedness (create bonds to self, others and wider networks)
Diversity (respect and engage across difference)
Interaction (continuously transfer knowledge, energy and resources)
Adaptation (remain open to change, as that is the constant)
This, of course, is the much older wisdom that more recent so-called “regenerative” (agriculture, development) efforts are calling for and building upon, engaging the dynamics of network structures and energetic flows that constitute life.
The rest of what follows is a selection of twenty quotes that I pulled from the book, and that I can continue to read from time to time, to jolt my own tendencies towards complacency and stasis.
“Increase is different from growth, because you don’t want the size of the system to grow, but you want the relationships within the system, the exchange within the system, that needs to increase. And you can increase that quite infinitely.”
“Many Aboriginal stories tell us how we must travel in free-ranging patterns, warning us against charging ahead in crazy [linear] ways.”
“All Law-breaking comes from that first evil thought; that original sin of placing yourself above the land or above other people.”
“Nothing is created or destroyed; it just moves and changes, and this is the First Law.”
“Every unit requires velocity and exchange in a stable system, or it will stagnate – this applies to economic and social systems as well as natural ones.”
“Sedentary lifestyles and cultures that do not move with the land or mimic land-based networks in their social systems do not transition well through apocalyptic moments.”
“People today will mostly focus on the points of connection, the nodes of interest like stars in the sky. But the real understanding comes in the spaces in-between, in the relational forces that connect and move the points.”
“If you live a life without violence, you are living an illusion: outsourcing your conflict to unseen powers and detonating it in areas beyond your living space. … The damage of violence is minimized when it is distributed throughout the system rather than centralized into the hands of a few powerful people and their minions.”
“It is difficult to relinquish the illusions of power and delusions of exceptionalism that come with privilege. But it is strangely liberating to realize your true status as a single node in a cooperative network.”
“There is more to narrative than simply telling our stories. We have to compare our stories with the stories of others to seek greater understanding about our reality.”
“There’s no valid way to separate the natural from the synthetic, the digital from the ecological.”
“Most of us today are living in a state of compliance with imposed roles and tasks rather than a heightened state of engagement. We are slaves to a work ethic that is unnatural and unnecessary.”
“The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal knowledge but in remembering their own.”
“The only sustainable way to store data long term is within relationships.”
“[From an Aboriginal perspective] an observer does not try to be objective, but is integrated within a sentient system that is observing itself.”
“Understanding biological networks appropriately means finding a way to belong personally to that system.”
“Somewhere between action and reaction is an interaction, and that’s where all the magic and fun lies.”
“Your culture is not what your hands touch or make – it’s what moves your hands.”
“Guilt is like any other energy: you con’t accumulate it or keep it because it makes you sick and disrupts the system you live in – you have to let it go. Face the truth, make amends, and let it go.”
“Stop asking the question: ‘Are we alone?’ Of course we’re not! Everything in the universe is alive and full of knowledge.”
I’ll tell you a secret. Most staff embarking on a journey for racial equity change in their organization don’t see board members carrying their weight. I hope to be provocative by offering a few secrets often unshared with boards about their lack of deep participation in equity change efforts. It’s time to have a real discussion about board and staff engagement when it comes to equity change so that the whole organization can collaborate to seed and root transformative change.
Secret #1: Boards still view their roles as promoting diversity in the workplace which is no longer enough to move an organization along a path toward implementing racial equity and justice.
Diversity was the early way to approach change in organizations. The focus was on getting more of this or that group represented on the board and staff, but these efforts lacked a power analysis. Bringing people of color onto the board is very different than ensuring they have positions of power and real authority on the board, or accepting their challenges to unhealthy parts of the board culture or the organization’s way of operating. Boards have also proudly hired people of color or young executive directors and CEOs and then expect them to magically turn around underperforming organizations with little resources and support, or unawarely blocked them from creating truly transformational equity change. Examining issues of power in leadership is an equity and justice pursuit, not a diversity exercise.
Secret #2: Most staff who are deeply engaged in diversity, inclusion, and racial equity efforts believe that their boards are lagging way behind them on the path to change.
Staff committed to racial equity often participate in rigorous and deep training, learning sessions, affinity spaces, and working groups to consider how to challenge the organization’s status quo which likely upholds white dominant culture, practices of racial inequity, and over-centralization of power. They may be attempting to practice new ways of building relationships, making decisions, or handling major racial tensions on interpersonal and institutional levels. In many cases, the board has not had the benefit of these awareness and skill-building moments that could strengthen their capacity to address power dynamics on their board or between staff and board on core organizational questions around racial equity.
Secret #3:Staff see many board members as out of touch or – even worse – contributing to oppression in their organization.
Many boards are recruited for their potential to fundraise or simply to have famous names associated with the organization, rather than to create a balance of people who can bring many types of resources to the organization such as lived-experience and knowledge of a community. Wealthy board members who have not explored the cultural roots of wealth and classism may expect formal decorum in board meetings or social gatherings that is counter-cultural and oppressive to staff. They may believe that they are helping the organization by firing questions at the staff when in reality the way they ask those questions puts staff on the defensive, creating a culture of fear that puts creativity to death. White board members that don’t champion racial equity in a board meeting or fail to interrupt other white members from engaging in paternalizing or direct racist behaviors are seen as supporting racism for failing to act.
Secret #4:Because staff (and especially the executive director/CEO) think board members want them to be “perfect” and share only their accomplishments, staff are reluctant to openly share their struggles and tensions around racial equity.
Staff are wary to share real-time equity tensions in their workplace or programmatic struggles. Simply put, there is not enough candor between staff and boards. Board culture often rewards product over relationship; perfectionism, numbers, and plans over impact and learning from mistakes. Additionally, the executive director is evaluated by the board and the main way for board members to gauge the leader’s effectiveness is the director’s ability to paint a rosy picture of the organization in board meetings. Moreover, board members rarely raise challenging equity issues as a part of board discussions, either to reflect on their own mistakes and challenges, or those of the organization as a whole. They leave that burden to staff.
So what can be done?
Board and staff need to build trusting relationships where relationships are valued and challenge and mistakes are welcome for learning and growth around racial equity.
Board members should build trust with staff by showing their own vulnerabilities, giving the staff runway to move their ideas, and avoiding savior thinking that assumes board members have all the answers, or that one executive director who is a person of color will save the day.
Board members that join any board in this day and age must be willing to jump into a journey to examine how their experiences with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and generation impact how they see the world and operate in it. They must be willing to face hard truths about their privilege and, without placing the burden on others, champion change and use their privilege (access, resources, knowledge) strategically to shift opportunities to others.
Board members who come from a position of privilege in any category should embrace new ideas and ways of doing things from leaders that are very different from them or leaders that hold a more bold view of racial justice.
Boards and staff should work together to ensure that board members sit on diversity/equity/inclusion or racial equity teams with staff to experience, learn, and champion the work for change. And this should involve not just one board member, but a few.
Boards and staff should come together in joint training and learning sessions for the board and staff to explore issues of racial equity. These sessions should include reflection on how issues of racial equity impacts the mission of the organization as well as how it impacts the organization’s internal culture and operations. Better yet, have the organization go through a comprehensive equity change process that embeds equity in everything the organization does.
What else do you think could shift change so that boards can fully and genuinely support and champion racial equity efforts? We want to hear from you. Please start a conversation with us by commenting below.
As the world reels from racism and re-openings from COVID-19, we have a small window of time in which we can decide never again to return to the “old normal” of racism in every facet of our life, or to the exhaustion from an overproducing system. Let’s walk into the next one hundred years together in the spirit of new creation and new norms. May this poem that I wrote be a source of vision and inspiration.
Let not the slow creep of the old return
Like childish feet come slipping through your doorways
Look in the direction of the sun
Remember the lessons of staying in place
Wading into presence
Tending to family
Resting your breath
Slowing your heart to hear cries of “I Can’t Breathe”
For the futures of humankind
Erase the “old normal”
Walk toward the light
Grieve the long path of injustice you were in
And stand upright
To meet your new life
The new society we are creating
There can be no turning back
You can look over your shoulder and peek once in awhile
But there is no freedom behind you
Greed, exhaustion, and oppression live there
You said you wanted change in your lifetime?
Keep walking forward
Keep pausing to hear your heartbeat
To hear the people in the streets
And create the next 100 years
And you will not return
Because we will rise forward with the force of 100,000 horses galloping
Tens of thousands of drums pounding
And a Planet alive with millions dancing
Life spilling over into our lineage of children
We’re rising up to end anti-Blackness around the world.
George Floyd died under knee in Minneapolis But Black bodies and minds are under destruction in all lands.
Enslavement was a world-wide global attempt
Its end presupposes that our planet undoes itself, and heals itself
through transformation of hearts, minds, and structures.
White people of this planet, can you…
love Black people with abandon and without expectation that they will dismantle this racism?
decolonize and clean your hearts of Black hatred, disgust, dismissal, and disrespect?
never take a hand, arm, leg, knee, bullet to Black bodies and souls?
speak Black names and languages, and love Black children?
destroy your unconscious value of Black people remaining small, restrained, and tethered to white supremacy?
forever replace structures and practices premised on white ways?
follow and hire Black leaders to change your world and that of your entire organization…
…or will you act to make them produce, clean up your mistakes, and sacrifice their vision for your small version of social justice?
understand that one training will not be enough…
…and that instead it’s a tidal wave shift in hearts, minds, behaviors, practices, policies, and systems over sustained time that is needed, and is completely within your capacity and control.
take accountability and ignite and invite action…
…knowing that your grief and anger are welcome, and if you’re afraid to set a path forward to emerge, you’re complicit in allowing racism to continue.
extract racism in all corners to revolutionize the planet to be free of anti-Blackness?
And as Black people can we discover and rediscover our joy, beauty, refreshment, and spirituality to heal?
At IISC, we are asking ourselves, what more or different could we be doing to support the deep, transformative change necessary for Black people to know better and beautiful lives?
And to our world we ask, what’s enough? Could this be the tipping point that finally brings liberation for Black people and collective healing for us all? And if not, how can we be of service to prevent ongoing tragedy? Please use the comment field below to share your commitments and, in so doing, inspire yourself and inspire others.
Thank you to the Black women and men of IISC that bring change to our clients. As a Black Biracial woman and leader of IISC, you bring me joy and purpose. Thank you for working for our people every day. Be well, be safe, and be bold.
Note: This blog was authored as a framework to assist leaders moving people and organizations through COVID-19. Shortly after it was written, the racial uprisings of 2020 began after the many deaths of Black people in the United States. We have since updated this framework to bridge the approaches we believe are necessary for navigating both COVID-19 and racial injustice. Please view this blog and new resource.
As we find ourselves rowing in uncharted, uncertain, and scary waters, feeling like we’re up against waves of deep tension and crisis, we know that we need to row together in new and deeply collaborative ways. Yet under current conditions, many leaders are overwhelmed with concern about their own organizations; their staff, volunteers, Board, constituencies, and networks. We are all problem solving minute-to-minute and facing many critical decisions – decisions which could determine if people have a source of income, if they will receive essential services, and, indeed, even if they will remain healthy and alive.
We need to support leaders at all levels – individually, organizationally, and at the level of the ecosystem of networks around them – to work strategically and collaboratively in this critical moment. We are using IISC’s Collaborative Change Lens, to harness the power of collaboration by focusing on love, racial equity, and networks. We are supporting leaders online, and will eventually support them in-person (yes, that day will come), to plan and move through the stages of transformation offered in this framework during the pandemic and beyond.
Organizations, communities, networks, and even individuals may experience these stages in linear ways. Or, they may dip in and out of the stages at different times as they move through challenges and opportunities. We are supporting them to shift from emergency responses to creating conditions for resilient futures that create regenerative and equitable systems that are sustainable for the longer-term. This includes helping individuals and groups “do what they do best and connect to the rest,” and to act in networked ways to strengthen response and movement.
As you review the framework, would you share your responses to the questions below in the comments?
What does it bring up for you?
Where do you find yourself focusing your thinking and efforts?
What might you want to explore, start, continue or further develop, or stop doing in any of the stages?How does the framework help you prioritize and perhaps find empowering areas for action and partnership?
Facilitate rapid problem-solving and decision-making in the face of immediate needs, heightened risk, chaos, and/or uncertainty.
Focus on relationships and results for rapid decision-making and crisis management
Engage in quick and meaningful stakeholder engagement of those impacted by critical and consequential decisions to generate effective responses.
Ground all decisions in what is best for our shared humanity and fate.
Act and respond with love, humility, empathy, and transparency.
Let those in critical need know they are not alone.
Show up with and model presence and focus.
Avoid “savior syndrome” and respect the dignity and voice of those most in need in the moment.
Recommit to racial equity practices and approaches from the organization’s past that can build resiliency.
Anticipate and remove racialized barriers to accessing emergency resources and uniquely tailor responses to account for historic inequities to eliminate disparities in the emergency response.
Foster connectivity and flows between leaders in various sectors and ecosystems to gather and share information, understand the current reality, and respond to complex problems.
Tap into diverse networks to address critical needs and discover new possibilities.
Eliminate bottlenecks and liberate the flow of critical resources.
Grapple with the reality of fewer resources and more distress within the organization/community.
In these unsettled and challenging times, many of us at IISC are finding ourselves inspired to actively share our reflections. We welcome your comments and reactions. And we wish you all so much love and good health. Together, we will make it through to the other side.
Allen’s book provides a lot of food for thought. It is an exploration of a series of design principles from mature ecological systems (living systems) and how these can be applied to human organizations. These principles include:
Run on sunlight (tap the power of photosynthesis/positive energy)
Waste is never wasted (conserve energy, cultivate wise use)
Fit form to function (and function to purpose, paying attention to context)
Reward cooperation (respecting connection and interdependence)
Bank on diversity/difference (for intelligence, resilience, adaptation)
Curb excess from within (via feedback loops)
Depend on local expertise and self-organization (for more response-ability)
Tap the power of limits (constraints can inspire creativity)
In the first chapter, Allen also highlights some of the key dynamics of living systems that provide a better understanding of how generous and generative human organizations might operate. These include:
Living systems are interdependent – change in one part of the system influences other parts of the system in expected and unexpected ways
Living systems become more diverse as they evolve
Living systems are never static; they are always in flux
Living systems are filled with feedback loops that facilitate evolution
Living systems cannot be steered or controlled, only attracted or nudged.
Living systems only accept solutions that the system helps to create
Living systems only pay attention to what is meaningful to them here and now.
As I was reading, I pulled out a number of quotes and posted them on Twitter, which provoked some fun interactions. Many of these have to do with the underlying network structure and dynamics of living systems, for which I have a particular fondness. Here is a sampling, that will give you a taste of the book and perhaps entice you to dig deeper. Curious to hear what thoughts, feelings and sensations these inspire:
“Once we shift our worldview to seeing our organizations as living systems, then we can begin to see that generous organizations behave more like dynamic networks rather than traditional hierarchies.”
“The quality and authenticity of the relationships between people, and between people and ideas, increase the flow of positive energy in organizations.”
“The structure of nature’s network, the connections and interdependencies, allow the living system to self-regulate, adapt to changing conditions and evolve to survive.”
“Mutualistic relationships can help buffer partners against extreme conditions, open new niches for both partners, and amplify the baseline of resource acquisition.”
“Diversity allows for multiple ways that nutrients can be exchanged, making the entire system more resilient.”
“Opposition is necessary for wholeness.”
“When we recognize organizations are in constant movement, we then see organizational strategies as adaptive cycles instead of linear constructs.”
“We need to let go of the assumption that all of our assets are tangible.”
“Wet sand operates like a network. It is made up of grains of sand held together by saline. When it encounters force, those elements combine to resist; however, when it encounters a slow entry into its system, it accepts the presence of our foot. Living systems are networked and the nudge and wait for change is very effective in influencing them.”
“Generous organizations are open to the wider world. There are no silos in a generous organization.”
“What if a job description articulated a philosophy of relationships and connections that this person would need to develop and maintain while doing their job?”
“What would leadership look like if its highest purpose was to ensure that future generations thrive?”
Currently engaged in a number of state-wide and regional network-building initiatives focused on food, health and education system change, I am beginning to see some interesting patterns across efforts to build connectivity-based and more fluid movements for change. Watching these dynamics unfold, I can’t help but come back to one of our foundational frameworks at IISC, what we call the R-P-R Triangle, for all that it has to offer our thinking about network strategy and success.
This framework (see below) makes the point that any kind of collaborative endeavor is a multi-dimensional affair when it comes to the core determinants and definitions of success. Of course, many of us come to “net work” and collaborative efforts eager to see results, to work in new ways to have greater impact on the issues that we care most about. Without concrete results or “wins,” it is hard to keep people engaged and morale up. But results are just a part of the story, and the big results may take some time in coming.
“New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”
– Sally J. Goerner, Robert G. Dyck, Dorothy Lagerroos, The New Science of Sustainability
This post builds on a post from a couple of weeks ago, looking at how in a time of pandemic, with viruses revealing other viruses (racism, othering, oligarchy, mechanical thinking run amok), and triggering viral responses of various kinds, this is prime time to cultivate network literacy and strength. In this post I want to highlight the importance of “flow network science” or the “energy network sciences.” These fields stretch across disciplines and look at how nutrients, information and other vital sources of energy move through the structures of living networks.
Dr. Sally J. Goerner and her colleagues (Dan Fiscus, Brian Fath, Robert Ulanowicz, and others) have looked at how certain features of systems-as-networks (communities, ecosystems, economies) contribute to their long-term health and thriving, including diversity, intricacy, adaptability and robustness. A key is to focus on those dynamics that support the self-renewing (regenerative) and saluto-genic (health promoting) capacities of living systems as and so that they evolve and adapt to disturbances in their environment (which is really an extension of their being!). A big part of this is not just focusing on the pattern of network connections, but what is moving through those connections, including quality and velocity of those flows, from whom and to whom.
At IISC, we are fielding lots of questions right now about what networks are doing or should do to not only to respond to the COVID19 emergency and achieve some semblance of stability, but also to build pathways to better, more resilient and equitable systems. Taking a cue from what we are observing and what we are learning from energy network sciences/flow networks, some of the things networks can do and are doing include:
Weaving and convening diversity to foster systemic intelligence and resilience
Distributing power and intelligence to enable rapid and timely responses in different parts of “the body”
Circulating accurate and accessible (curated) information in various forms (text, visual, audio) throughout “the whole” to support diverse learning and adaptation
Facilitating effective (clear, concise, well-timed and spaced) communicationand conversation to help people stay grounded, focused and moving on what matters
Disseminating elements of opportunity- and abudance-based narratives that encourage people to lean into these times and not flee from or freeze in the midst of them
Identifying and circulating a variety of nourishment (multiple forms of “capital”) widely (especially to those who are otherwise undernourished) in the form of money, ideas, in kind support, and other resources
Promoting robust exchange to support innovation, learning and systemic vitality at different levels
Creating safe and brave spaces for people to share their challenges and successes, get peer-assists, give and receive emotional support that encourages risk-taking and further venturing into uncharted terrain
Designing and carrying out network activity and engagement with an ethic of love (“seeing others as a legitimate others”), care, generosity, abundance, common cause, mutualism, transparency, inclusion, equity, and our full humanity (minds, bodies, hearts, spirits)
And we can “double click” on each of the above to delve deeper into the “who” (roles and relationships), “how” (processes), which we are actively doing with a variety of groups, and will share more of what we are learning in future posts and webinars.
And in that spirit of learning, please share what you are learning and would add with respect to what networks can do and are doing to create pathways to the new and the better.
This is the first post I ever wrote for IISC and dates back to this day 11 years ago. I have edited it only a little, in light of Václav Havel‘s passing,and it seems telling that it could have very easily been written for these COVID19 times, which are an extension of the patterns that have been at play for a while in our world.
Former (and first) President of the Czech Republic Václav Havel told a little story that may provide a little guidance in these times. In 1989, only a few months before he completed an incredible journey from prisoner to president of his country, Havel found himself in a dire situation. The dissident-poet-and-playwright-turned-politician, who had risked his life numerous times in the fight against communism, was walking with a friend in the countryside outside of Prague.
In the near total darkness, he suddenly fell into a hole, a deep pit surrounded by cement walls, which he realized was a sewer. Disoriented and covered in muck, Havel tried to move but this only made him sink more deeply. His friend above was joined by a number of people who gathered around the rim of the hole and tried frantically to rescue Havel. It was only after someone managed to find and lower a long ladder, nearly thirty minutes later, that Havel was saved from an untimely ending.
From this freak accident, Havel climbed not just to dry land, but to the presidency, a truly amazing turn of events. Having lived through a number of seemingly hopeless circumstances, Havel continued to be a profoundly hope-full man. He saw hope as a state of mind that most often does not reflect the state of the world. Hope for him emerged out of the muck of absurdity, cruelty, and suffering, and reached not for the solid ground of what is certain, but for what is meaningful, for what fundamentally makes sense. Hope, in his view, was not the same as optimism. It was not the belief that something would ultimately work out, but that it felt true in a very essential way, beyond what was relayed in headlines, opinion polls, and prognostications.
Obviously we are now faced with circumstances that demand some faith on all of our parts. With the uncertainty of a volatile economy and a swirl of other forces, there is plenty to be pessimistic about. And if we consider Havel’s story, the antidote is not to be optimistic in the sense of desperately looking for something that tells us everything will be alright or return to being as it was. Rather, the more powerful response comes from within and attaches itself to what most deeply motivates us, what tastes most like truth.
Peter Forbes of Knoll Farm once said that, “New culture is formed by people who are not afraid of being insecure.” (maybe because they realized that security is over-rated or not really a thing). That may be the promise of this slowdown, if we can quiet the chatter, avoid panic and attune ourselves to what is waiting to grow out of the cracks in the foundation. The question is, in following those roots and shoots, how far are we willing to go? And who will be out fellow travelers?
How can we go from emergency response to stewards of emergence?
About a month ago, I worked with a regional education network focused on racial equity in education to do ripple effect mapping (REM) based on the past three years of its work to diversify the teacher workforce, including efforts to help paraprofessionals advance into formal teaching roles. REM is a technique to evaluate the results of an initiative or intervention by pulling together a diverse and representative group of stakeholders to make sense of the impacts they see as rippling through the system. The methodology is very participatory and has extra added benefits of helping to strengthen relationships and understanding between what otherwise might be siloed stakeholders. REM can also help to guide the refinement of a theory of change (rooted in actual experience!) and lift up areas for further investigation, including barriers to and accelerators for greater impact and systemic shifts.
effect mapping combines four different methods: peer interviews, group sense-making,
mind mapping, and qualitative
data analysis. In general it happens through the following steps:
Conduct a stakeholder analysis to identify the right set of participants that has participated in the initiative, including beneficiaries, implementers, sponsors, key decision-makers, resource providers, those with relevant expertise and lived experience, and critical connectors/boundary spanners.
Convene the identified group. Our convening was a bit larger than the recommended size of 15-20 people – we had about 35 people representing different roles, institutions, geographies, perspectives and backgrounds.
During the convening, conduct interviews using Appreciative Inquiry questions. Appreciative Inquiry invites people to reflect on the positive aspects of a project. We had people share something positive that they had experienced or witnessed associated with the project, including outcomes, relationships, learning, new collaborations, etc.
Do a group mapping session, during which people build on what they shared and heard in the interviews, brainstorm and record the effects (the “ripples”) of the initiative or intervention. We used a large bank of chart paper and large stickies with two facilitators (one to steward the conversation, the other to place and move stickies) and several scribes. The resulting “mind map” illustrates the effects of the intervention and explores connections, causality, and virtuous cycles. Before ending the mapping session, we invited people to “take a step back,” take in the map and ask what stood out to them, what seemed most important, and what they wanted to know more about.
Clarify, connect, code, and analyze data. After the session, a smaller group organizes the mind map and collects and connects additional details by following up with participants.
This week a small team of us met for a second time (virtually, of course) to make sense of the data, including notes that were taken by a recorder and photographs of the mind map. It was helpful to do this in two meetings as there was a considerable amount of data, people are reeling from COVID, and it was important to have some time in-between the two sessions to do some more individual reflection, looking for patterns in the data.
this second meeting, we started threading together our individual reads, and
also reminded ourselves that we are
dealing with complex systems and as such, linear causality is not necessarily
what we should be looking for. What began to emerge as we talked (over the course
of two hours) was a circular, or spiral, progression and lattice-work of nested
impacts. We started to think in terms of “causal loops,” DNA helixes, and
networked flows. An overarching question started to form –
What intersecting “virtuous loops” are we learning need to be supported to advance change and overcome “vicious loops” oriented towards keeping the system(s) as it/they are?
we are working with as a core loop/spiral (for now) is the following:
People who care and are committed come together across boundaries (districts, schools, roles, disciplines, perspective, culture)
People practice deep listening to and learning from paraprofessionals, students, one another …
People start making different choices and behaving differently (changing job descriptions, altering programs to accommodate spoken and respected needs, engaging in mutual support, moving from competition to collaboration between programs, sharing information more transparently)
People start to taste “transformation” (a sense of their and others’ potential, the power of lived experience in the classroom, the essential nature of community, the benefits of working together)
The resulting enthusiasm feeds back into care and consideration, and the cycle repeats, and ideally takes in more people … (we have seen some evidence in this as paras become seen as leaders and mentors to other paras)
This core loop operates at and across different levels:
The individual “beneficiary”
level (students and para-professionals)
The individual support
level (mentors, teacher prep educators, those who hire/fire/retain)
The individual school
prep program level
Larger system levels (community,
state policy and support)
And the loop will play out in different ways in different contexts.
And so we are asking about differences and similarities across systems (trans-contextual,
in the words of Nora Bateson).
This is all very emergent and still exploratory, as it should be, and we will continue to make meaning and test take-aways. And I think that we would all agree that the foundation of all of this is care, or a word we like to use at IISC – love. One definition of love is “seeing and treating the other as a legitimate other.” If we don’t begin with this at the level of students who we see as deserving to have the benefit of having teachers who look like and can experientially relate to them, if we do not see and believe in the potential, humanity and “expertise” of para-professionals of color, well, we go no where.
And so we continue to mull over and be guided by the dynamic “ripples and collisions” (in the words of a network participant) of this work to what we hope will be a better place …
“While a network, like a group, is a collection of people, it includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties, and the particular pattern of these ties, are often more important than the individual people themselves. They allow groups to do things that a disconnected collection of individuals cannot. The ties explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And the specific pattern of the ties is crucial to understanding how networks function.” – Nicholas A. Christakis
At the Interaction Institute for Social Change, we have a collaborative change lens that includes the facets of (1) naming and building power and working for equity and inclusion; (2) seeing and advancing networks as the unit of action and analysis and (3) embracing love as a force for social transformation. With respect to networks, we have noticed that there are a lot of different takes on what networks are, why they matter, and how to “leverage” them for positive social change. Part of this may be due to the fact that network science and approaches span a variety of schools of thought and practice, including sociology, psychology, mathematics, political science, communication, anthropology, economics, and epidemiology.
I recently came across an article by Nancy Katz, David Lazer, Holly Arrow, and Noshir Contractor (2004) that names some of the commonalities that exist across these different schools and approaches that we’ve been experimenting with to advance social change networks, support resilience, and to shift patterns and flows in “systems as networks” to create regenerative communities and equitable wellbeing. The article, entitled “Network Theory and Small Groups,” refers to the work of Barry Wellman (1988), which lifts up five core principles of network theory that might provide some more coherence and alignment to “network approaches.”
People’s behavior is best understood and predicted by the web of relationships in which they are embedded. These webs present opportunities and impose constraints on people’s behavior. So working with connections and flows can facilitate, inhibit and shape possibility.
Nothing can be properly understood in isolation or in a segmented fashion. The focus of analysis should be the relationships between people or groups, rather than the units themselves or their intrinsic characteristics. So the quality of relationship matters and needs tending.
Methods of “analysis” should not assume independence, but rather interdependence. People should be understood relationally. So think in terms of “collisions and ripples” as one network we are working with likes to say, characterizing network effects.
The flow of information and resources between two people depends not simply on their relationship to each other but on their relationships to everybody else. Or in network science speak, “Understanding a social system requires more than merely aggregating the dyadic ties.” So focus not just on one-to-one exchanges, but one-to-many and many-to-many (scale-linking).
Groups have fuzzy rather than firm boundaries. The building blocks of organizations and communities are not discrete groups but rather overlapping networks. Individuals generally have crosscutting relationships to a multitude of groups. So focus not simply on the impacts of bonding within groups but bridging across, and what this manifests.
Webs, relationships, flows, interdependence, intricacy, scale-linking, bonding and bridging. This is certainly not a full list of what network mindsets make visible to us, but hopefully lifts up some of what can help us better understand and work with reality, in these and at all times.