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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What these and many other networks that I am working with, have in common, is a commitment to social (and particularly racial) equity, characterized in large part by a vision of equitable wellbeing and a deeply rooted sense of belonging for all people, in food, public health, legal aid, and related fields. The Full Frame Initiative has developed a robust body of work, that brings nuanced attention to what supports individual and collective wellbeing, systemically. This includes focused attention on different domains of wellbeing, as well as a set of principles that are meant to help people design systems that give everyone access to wellbeing.
Inspired by FFI’s work, I took their set of principles and turned some of what was presented as a set of descriptive statements into questions that might help different kinds of social service providers and policymakers integrate wellbeing into their work. Curious to know which of these catch people’s attention, and what they might and or adjust for their particular system change work.
Principle 1: Start with what matters to people: wellbeing.
Are our decision-making processes being informed by the lived experiences and expertise of people receiving services/most negatively impacted?
Are we defining people by the issues they are facing? Are we seeing them as whole people with their own strategies for navigating systems?
Are we asking people, and especially those who have been historically marginalized, to make unsustainable tradeoffs in our service models/policy work?
Are our services trauma-informed and culturally responsive, recognizing the different challenges and values at play in people’s lives?
Are we focusing on the level of the family and/or community, not just the individual?
Principle 2: Design and implement with, not for.
Are we partnering with community to vision and frame issues, rather than engaging community for feedback around solutions designed by others?
Are we ensuring that those most impacted dictate what matters, rather than externally determining what “should” matter?
Are we shifting power to community and shift risk and burdens out of community?
Are we allowing communities to be complex and non-monolithic?
Are we valuing- not exploiting- people’s and communities’ vulnerability and shared experience?
Principle 3: Push against harms in communities already facing the greatest adversity; support healing and regeneration.
Are we reaching/considering the least resourced/capitalized communities in our area?
Are we respecting Indigenous and informal cultural norms and values?
Are we collecting data on structural/systemic barriers and how people receiving services/most negatively impacted work around these barriers?
Are we addressing biases in expectations for the outcomes of those receiving services/most negatively impacted?
Are we explicitly supporting healing and tying our work to shifting harmful patterns of the past?
Are we supporting and creating space for creative solutions, including from those receiving services?
Principle 4: Foster and build on social connections and social capital.
Are we supporting people helping people before adding programs to help people, including removing obstacles to family/community members helping one another?
Are we enabling and enhancing social networks in our policy work, especially for those receiving and providing services/most negatively impacted?
Are we building on and not undermining social connectedness, belonging and social capital in community?
Are we supporting bridging and linking capital (relationships that connect us across differences of identity, experience and power), not just bonding capital (relationships with those most like us)?
Are we focusing less on individual change and considering how changes in relationships between and among people might be more useful?
Principle 5: Span boundaries.
In our services/policy work, are we leveraging different and diverse aspects of the human experience, including arts, culture and joy?
Are we seeking out uncommon partners and solutions?
Are we Integrating with and advocating across other systems, leveraging other fields and sectors?
Are we identifying and illuminating when policies of one system (including the one in which we work) create barriers in other systems for those receiving our services?
Principle 6: Build (on) assets and innovation.
Are we striving to preserve innovations sparked by the pandemic and/or other crises?
Are we ensuring that our services/policies we are advancing do not require (further) financial sacrifice and that they do support or connect to others supporting financial wellbeing?
As we provide direct services, are we also attending/connecting to anti-poverty work and programs?
Are we addressingpolicies that undermine people’s and communities’ ability to accumulate wealth, knowledge, data and other kinds of capital?
Are we starting with what communities already have and diligently seek ways to avoid circumventing what works well, as defined by the people who are impacted?
Are we hiring/compensating people with lived experience in navigating structural challenges?
“The challenge is to replace practices that distance and disconnect with ones that evoke empathy, caring, and creativity.”
In our collaborative change work with organizations and multi-sector 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?” 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 sense of connection or deep desire to protect, 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 difficult work of complex collaborative (systemic and culture) change happen.
Is likely to be impacted by the outcome of the effort/decision
Voices unheard or typically marginalized perspectives
Functions as a connector in or across sector(s)/field(s)
Is in a position to implement the effort/decision
Is in a position to prevent it from being implemented
Has relevant information or expertise (including lived experience)
Has informal influence without authority
Is responsible for the final decision
Applying a lens of “caring” or (or even “loving”) to these criteria brings another level or nuance. Beyond functionality and/or positionality, who really connects to and cares about what we are trying to do? This can raise the bar for the analysis and also potentially expand possibilities for the initiative. 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 despoil landscapes 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.”
What if we asked ourselves and others what might be illuminated by people bringing their affection and/or love 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 it 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?
In addition, 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, validating indigenous ways of knowing, and working to establish “right relationships” and “decolonize” systems. So we might add another criterion/consideration: “Is indigenous to the lands we are on or where the work is happening.” 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.”
Finally, and relatedly, I am reminded of our IISC Collaborative Change Lens, which includes the facet of “love” as a force for social transformation and justice. 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.”
What might care and care-holding bring to your consideration of who and how to engage others in your social change work?
Over the course of the last few years I have been delving deeper into the trans-disciplinary science of energy systems, largely thanks to my colleague and mentor Dr. Sally J. Goerner. Earlier in 2022, Dr. Goerner and I offered a session to The Weaving Lab on energy systems science for network weavers. A summary of that session can be found here. Since then I have been working with a few others to explore,identify and build out resources, practices and tools at different “levels” (individual, group/organization, and larger system), all within the context of the planet that sustains us, in the four different domains of Energy System Science. Together, these domains support systemnic saluto-genesis – the capacity of living systems to reproduce resilience and wellbeing. The four domains are:
resilient and balanced structures
common cause culture
The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all “living” systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like:
investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources,
healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning “the host”),
the velocity and spread of resources in the system,
cross-scale circulation, etc.
The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways.
The image above offers a sample collection of resources, practices and tools, that transcend specific sectors (economics, education, etc.) and that I look forward to bringing to a group later this fall. Certainly incomplete, these practices also do not all neatly fit into one category, even where they appear to in the graphic – that’s life! If you go to this link, you will find the above image as a clearer PDF document that has hyperlinks for some of what is listed (items that are underlined) that will take you to additional information. And I am always eager to hear what others would add!
I am grateful for the many teachers and collaborators, in addition to Dr. Goerner, who have guided my thinking and practice along the way: Joe Weston, Gwen McClellan, john a. powell, Eve Capkanis, Melinda Weekes-Laidlow, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Joel Glanzberg, June Holley, Resmaa Menakem, Katya Fels Smyth, Tanya Tucker, Verna Allee, Carol Sanford, Robert Peng, Maya Townsend, Father Richard Rohr, Dorn Cox, Sherri Mitchell, Harold Jarche, Nora Bateson, Marty Kearns, Tara Brach, John Fullerton, Marilyn Darling, Daniel Christian Wahl, Anne Marie Chiasson, Dr. Chris Holder, Tyson Yunkaporta and Steven C. Hayes, among others.
I love frisbee and have for as long as I can remember. Recently, as I was entering into a few weeks of sabbatical time away from work, a friend asked me what I thought would be most regenerative of my mind, body and spirit during this time. In addition to rest, slowing down, being generally mindful, and taking a break from screens, social media and the news, one of the things that came top of mind was playing frisbee. I have memories of my teenage and twenty-something self in utter bliss and a sense of timelessness, hurling a disk across a vast expanse at a corner lot in our neighborhood in Flint, Michigan or at a lakeside park in upstate New York with my dad or a friend, feeling the breeze, watching the frisbee glide and rotate against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky and feeling the grass massage my bare feet as I ran to make a catch. Heaven.
This is a love that I seem to have successfully instilled in my three daughters. And one of them, our eldest, has taken it to another level this season through her involvement in her high school varsity ultimate frisbee team. I have only played “ultimate” a couple of times, and very informally, in my lifetime. Growing up in the Midwest US, this was not “a thing” the way that it is here in the northeast. And it turns out that at the high school level in this community, it is taken quite seriously and is played with great skill. Having said that, the culture and success of the ultimate frisbee boys’ team here has been particularly striking in that it seems so different from what one usually thinks about in terms of high performance athletics. The more I have learned and experienced this current high school ultimate frisbee season, especially in the context of these times, the more I have appreciated what is happening right under my nose, forall that it gives to the teenagers involved and would seem to offer a mainstream culture hurting for lack of alternative ways of being, well, more human(e), especially in adolescent and competitive contexts.
My oldest daughter, Annabel, also plays varsity volleyball, which takes up a lot of her time in the fall. When she got involved in frisbee during the spring, one of the first things I noticed was her overall upbeat attitude and holistic appreciation for her teammates and the ultimate culture. “There just isn’t much drama,” Annabel explained to me at one point, “and people are really kind, supportive and frankly mature.” In a sense, ultimate to her is not just a sport, but a way of life. She went on to explain how in ultimate games there are no referees, that players take responsibility for calling fouls and then talking it out if there are any differences of perspective. I’ve witnessed this a number of times in games and have been impressed that even when there is clearly tension and disagreement, the players manage to work it through – some beautiful self-organization and respectful confrontation/ fierce civility on display!
I also came to appreciate early on in this recently completed spring season, the joy-full, heartfelt, and creative expression that comes up during and around games. After one memorable game, the two competing teams sang songs they had composed to one another, conveying appreciation for the adversary. In another case, after one team scored, the other team gave them a standing ovation as a salute to the level of play and skillfulness on display. In a recent tournament finale, the boys’ team was down a couple of points with not much time remaining and called a timeout. Instead of getting down on one another or into a heated strategic conversation, they played music and engaged in a playful dance circle for a couple of minutes, then went on to win the game. And when someone accidentally hurts someone else during play, they make sure to stay engaged with the injured person, showing genuine care and making sure the person gets the support they need.
The camaraderie and respect on display is really remarkable. The boys’ and girls’ teams come to one another’s games and cheer each other on. “You just don’t see this in other sports at the school,” says Annabel. Each time someone scores from either team there is an outburst of celebration from whoever is cheering from the sideline. If someone makes a mistake on the field they are supported by players on and off the field, and the invitation is for everyone to move on. It is not unusual to see the boys come together in a game to hold hands and take a deep breath together to gather themselves, and for both teams to engage in a mindful moment before a game. Annabel says to me, “We genuinely love each other and enjoy being with one another.” This shows and comes through time spent outside of practice and games building relationships and rapport, including through community service projects. (the most recent being at the local survival center).
There is also a core element of mindful inclusion and paying attention to privilege. The boys’ team recently made the decision not to go to a “by invitation only” national conference because of its exclusivity and tendency to only include mostly white teams and privileged schools. The girls’ team, in light of its multi-racial make-up, has had open conversations about anti-racism and anti-sexism. And there has been an attempt to create across programs an authentic and welcoming community for LGBTQ+ team members, including an open embrace of trans athletes.
One last point worth making. There is a very mature invitation by members of the ultimate teams to take personal responsibility and, as Annabel explains it, “focus on controllables, not uncontrollables.” In other words, to enact the serenity prayer, knowing when to push for change and when to let go and just flow with what is. I can see how this is impacting my daughter and her teammates in a time that begs for this kind of discernment.
In a world that can seem at times so unmoored, this spring ultimate frisbee season and the remarkable leadership of these local teens has given me hope for the present and future.
For the past few months I have been seeing an integrative acupressurist who has been practicing her craft for some 35 years. I am blown away and grateful for the extensive knowledge she brings to the inner workings of my body, including the interrelationships between different “parts” as well as the impact of the “environment” on my “internal” systems.
She has been particularly adept at helping me to understand that presenting and relatively superficial aspects of dis-ease or dis-comfort have longer standing and deeper contributing factors. Peel back one layer, with great care and re-spect, and you are likely to find something else. “Wonderful!” she will often say, marveling at how the body intelligently adapts to stress and other demands upon it. “While this may not feel good, it is actually a very wise and creative response!”
This has me reflecting on our dominant health care system in the US and what it tends to pay attention to and how it responds. How does that compare/contrast with and how is it complemented by what an integrative acupressurist does? What lessons and metaphors lie there for guiding me in my thinking about approaching other systemic challenges – in organizations, communities, economies … ?
First and foremost, an integrative acupressurist assists with body’s structural integrity (muscles, bones, organs), flow management and bio-logical co-operationand communication. Sometimes that is about tending to areas in the body where blood or lymph or chi (all vital flows) are not circulating in optimal ways. Sometimes that is about helping to stimulate parts of the body (organs and muscles) that have become guarded, tense or listless as an intelligent defense response (this often calls for treating those areas indirectly, to bypass defenses and stimulate areas that are impacted referentially). Sometimes this is about reintroducing different parts/regions of the body to one another with careful touch and stimulation. Sometimes it is about helping the entire body process new information and sensations more optimally, including the introduction of various healing and fortifying herbs.
As I have been experiencing these interventions, and learning from this remarkable healer/teacher (she loves narrating what she is doing and entertains all questions), I have been thinking about how this knowledge and wisdom translates into efforts to shift and heal other kinds of living systems. As I have written elsewhere, I am a proponent of not just simply talking about and working on “system change,” but supporting the inherent regenerative (self-renewing) capacity of living systems, social and ecological. My friend Daniel Christian Wahl turned me on to the notion of “saluto-genesis” when it comes to working with living systems, which means tending to the long-term and ongoing ability of systems to produce wellbeing.
Thinking as a systemic health promoter, or “systemic saluto-genarian” (thanks to Freya Bradford for helping to coin this phrase), isn’t what my integrative acupressurist does also our work? Supporting change in organizations, communities, economies, ecosystems is not simply about mechanically plunging in, but sensing the whole, connecting and working at the speed of trust and with great re-spect (of diverse and wonderful bodies – minds, hearts, guts, spirits ….), tending to the four key areas of focus of energy systems science:
structural integrity – optimal connectivity, resilience, flexibility, balance of “sizes”
regenerative flows – optimal movement (volume, velocity, directionality, reach) of enlivening resources
collaborative learning – timely sharing and exchange of information and co-creation of knowledge
common cause/collective culture – valuing and actually working together with an understanding of mutuality
This a metaphor and framework that is proving rich for practice and conversation with others. What do you think, feel, sense?
– Rowen White, Seed Keeper, activist and farmer from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne
“It’s all about how things are flowing.”
– Gwen McClellan, acupressurist and holistic healer
“A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool.”
– Alan Watts, philosopher and writer
“Seeing energy flows so that we can engage with them in positive ways is not some mystical, esoteric art, but the role of engaged human beings.”
– Joel Glanzberg, permaculturist and sustainable builder
Last week I teamed up with Dr. Sally J. Goerner, who stewards a transdisciplinary team of researchers and practitioners in the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics, to offer an interactive session to The Weaving Lab on the Energy System Sciences and how they might support network weavers working for social change in a variety of contexts. Energy System Sciences (ESS) is “an umbrella term for disciplines that use the study of energy flow networks to understand the laws of systemic health, growth and development in living, nonliving and supra-living systems.” ESS disciplines include: Chaos, Complexity, Resilience, Ecological Network Analysis, Self-Organization Theory, Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics, Panarchy, and others. It was a lot to present and absorb and process during our short 2 hour session, and so I have made an effort here to summarize and simplify …
Everything is made up of energy, so says “western” science and also many wisdom traditions (think spirit or chi) and indigenous peoples (see Sherri Mitchell), but many of us often don’t like to use the word “energy” (too woo woo). And perhaps that is to our detriment! Switching from a “matter” orientation about everything to an “energy” view can help us see and do things differently.
Systems are complex networks of interconnected “parts” that work together. Flows of energy of different kinds are crucial for a system to function (carbon in the biosphere, traffic in cities, supplies and information during a disaster response, ideas and emotions in a social group, nutrients on a farm, money and other resources in economies).
The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like: investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources, healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning the ecosystem), the velocity and spread of resources in the system, cross-scale circulation, etc. The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways.
ONE BIG PROBLEM now is that there is a dominant narrative stemming from the power and influence of oligarchy (rule of and for the few) and oligarchic capitalism (economies that are run by and support the few), which seeks to increase the wealth of “elites” at the expense of most people and the planet. Narrative, in contrast to story, is a way of looking at the world. In a sense, it’s a big story that influences thought, meaning and decision-making. The dominant oligarchic narrative and view is grounded in things and beliefs like “the divine right of capital and kings,” a master/slave mentality, dominance, supremacy ( based on race, gender and other markers of identity), narcissism, coercive hierarchies, “survival of the fittest,” and self-interest.
The oligarchic view cuts against the evolutionary promise of the Energy System Sciences in that it gets in the way of the kinds and qualities of flows needed to keep the whole body of humanity healthy and in right relationship with the planet. It prevents pro-social and pro-ecological evolution. For example, at a smaller scale, if we only privilege a certain part of our physical bodies (our heads or brains) over and at the expense of other parts of our bodies (for example, our hearts, our guts), this can have damaging impacts for the neglected parts and our entire bodies, and diminish our intelligence. Science is increasingly showing that our hearts and guts give us access to important information about the world around us. And our health and development are being shown to rest upon more integration and coherence between the different biological systems that make us up (digestion, vascular, nervous, etc.).
Against the oligarchic capitalist view is another view of humanity as being a collaborative learning species that can ground itself in common-cause and cooperative culture (including values of equity, justice, fairness, trust, transparency, mutualism) and seek resilient and regenerative economies and other systems that guarantee long-term human thriving for the many and for the diverse and not just the few and the alike. This narrative and set of beliefs aligns with the Energy Systems Sciences. Together they suggest that to support healthy and health-promoting webs and flows, it is important for groups of people to integrate the following core pillars, economically (especially in the etymological sense of the word – “household management”) and culturally:
Circulate diverse resources regeneratively, at and between different scales/levels
Create and sustain flexible and resilient structures of different and balance sizes
Ground in common-cause values such as mutuality, trust, transparency, equity, justice, fairness, accountability
Engaged in collaborative learning that supports intelligently adaptive responses and actions
For example, as Sally Goerner lifts up the following (it may be helpful to click on the image below):
We can also bring attention back to our own selves and how we interact with others to see how the energy system sciences can guide us. We can have stagnant energy if we are not inviting new ideas in or not releasing emotions. We can quickly get overwhelmed if we open ourselves to too much energetic flow of information or emotion, especially if it is negative or challenging. If our bodies are not structurally strong and flexible, they can be more prone to dis-ease. If our social organizations are overly rigid, they can be un-responsive to change and unable to adapt accordingly. If we are not having honest conversations with one another, that “clear the air” (and move energy through as it needs to), we can get bogged down in unhealthy interpersonal dynamics. The emotional body language and tone we convey energetically can impact our interactions with others (and flow widely in larger networks!). If we are not attending to what is otherwise sealed away in our insides (which equates with dissociation) this can also have impacts on how we are with ourselves and one another.
Bottom line: We share a hope that many more of us can become adept energy and flow scientists, artists, healers, weavers and workers as we intentionally create patterns that are the basis of the better world we sense is possible and know is necessary.
“Long term prosperity is primarily a function of healthy human webs.”
– Sally J. Goerner
“Networks are a thing.” That statement was made by the member of a partner network that we at IISC have been supporting for several years. The comment was meant to convey how increasingly people are recognizing the need to become more network literate as they work for social change, and also to put a finer point on the complexity of doing “net work.” Indeed, as intentional or impact networks evolve, they can often become much more “involved” and this is both good and challenging.
Food Solutions New England is a regional network that has moved into its second decade of work as a formally recognized multi-stakeholder collaborative, and along the way, participants have seen a constant evolution in how it understands itself and its work, as well as how it is organized and carries out its activities in the direction of its vision and grounded in a set of shared values. During a core team retreat last week, and a subsequent Steering Committee discussion, we did some stock taking and also projecting into the future, as uncertain as the latter may be. Where we came to rest is an appreciation of what has been built, much very emergently, over the last 10 years, and upon which the Network can build and certainly will continue to iterate.
So what does a 10 year old regional food systems network have to show for its efforts? Here is a (not quite complete) list, in case it is helpful to others as they evolve:
New EnglandFood Vision/Update planning/scaffolding – The New England Food Vision is a collaborative report that examines the history and considers the future of the region: a future in which food nourishes a social, economic, and environmental landscape that supports a high quality of life for everyone, including generations to come. The Vision was formally published in 2014 as a way of spurring the imagination of people around the region. It has helped to catalyze many conversations around what is possible and must to be done to ensure an equitable and resilient food future, and has helped to create alignment amongst efforts at local, state and regional levels. The Network has recently initiated a participatory process to bring the Vision up to date, both in terms of the data and potential scenarios presented in the original 2014 Vision, but also in response to our evolving world.
Annual 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge – The Challenge is an enhanced and more sector-specific form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore, Debbie Irving, and Dr. Marguerite W. Penick-Parks. After FSNE formalized its commitment to racial equity in its sustainable food system work about 8 years ago (more on this journey in this article), a small design team saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread conversation about the connection between race, racism and food systems and ultimately greater action for racial and food justice. This past April, the Challenge had 10,000 participants from around the region, country and world. Reports are that it has spurred many organizations to do DEIJ work internally, and has inspired Equity Summits and other organizing efforts in communities.
Network Leadership Institute – FSNE launched its first Network Leadership Institute in 2016 to support food system advocates and leaders through skill-building, connect them with one another and the larger Network, and to engage them in the growing alignment around the FSNE Vision and Values. Each year, FSNE selects a diverse cohort who demonstrate deep engagement with and commitment to the New England food system for an immersive, experiential program designed to maximize learning and growth, reflection and connection, and inspiration and renewal. With this year’s (virtual) cohort, roughly 85 people will have been through the NLI, and many alumni have joined the Network Team and been guest faculty in the NLI.
Winter Series – For the first six years of its existence, FSNE hosted an in-person regional Food Summit, which moved around the region to each of the six states. These were paused in 2017 in the name of doing deeper strategy development and implementation work, which resulted in the four Impact Areas to guide the network’s activities (see image above). Earlier this year, given the pandemic, the decision was made to host a series of virtual sessions where people could join together with others across the Food Solutions New England network to connect, learn, and get inspired. Each Friday morning in February 2021 featured a four hour gathering on one of the four impact areas.
Narrative Toolkit and Communicators Community of Practice – As a result of a system mapping process in 2016-2017, the FSNE Network Team identified changing dominant narratives about food and food systems as a leverage point for moving the region in the direction of the Food Vision and Values. Since then, a Communications Director has been hired, a Narrative Toolkit has been developed, and a regional community of practice of food system communicators has been initiated to share resources and discuss aligning and coordinating efforts.
Regional Policy Work – Since elevating regional food policy coordination to one of its four key “impact areas” in 2020, the FSNE network has been convening conversations about the role of the network in helping to move meaningful, collaborative and values-based food policy forward in the region. In addition to hosting online events in late 2020 and beginning work on a draft regional policy platform, FSNE hired a part-time Policy Analyst to help move this effort forward.
The FSNE Pledge – The Network has created an opportunity for individuals and organizations to join and align with the FSNE Vision by signing the FSNE Pledge and demonstrating commitment to the Network’s values and the strengthening of the regional food system.
An expanded and more representative Network Team. The Network Team is made up of food system participants from across the six New England states who share common values and are strategic, networked, practitioners from key sectors and cultural perspectives. The Network Team serves as the principal steward of the FSNE regional network, while cultivating greater connectivity and alignment around the FSNE Vision and Values, and supporting collaborative action to advance our network goals. The team works together to: identify key resources to support the network; maintain and evolve the collaborative culture and capacity of the network; ensure ongoing engagement and participation; model and affirm our commitment to racial justice; and share learnings and FSNE’s work with other networks and organizations.
An expanded and more representative Steering Committee. The Steering Committee (formerly the Process Team) is a strategic “network stewardship” body that includes the Backbone staff as well as some current and former members of the Network Team. Specific responsibilities of the Steering Committee include: proposing and ensuring the integrity of the overall FSNE process; identifying and prioritizing key activities and opportunities with/for the Network Team; helping to draft documents related to network structure and governance; performing leadership duties assigned to the Steering Committee by the full network team, and helping to steward the FSNE network’s health overall.
New Ambassadors and an expanded Ambassador Team. The Ambassador Team takes the FSNE Vision and Values and its commitment to racial equity to communities across the region. The Ambassadors’ work was launched in January 2015 in the most populated and diverse geographic area, the southernmost states of our region: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. This team is expanding to all six states and works together to identify and make connections with new and diverse partners, organizations, and individuals; to create a space for more racially diverse leadership and mentorship opportunities for equity in the food system; and to ensure more connectivity between community efforts, the broader regional food system, and a racial equity agenda.
A close partnership with New England Feeding New England. In 2019, the New England State Food System Planners Partnership launched the New England Feeding New England: Cultivating A Reliable Food Supply Project, a 10-year initiative to prepare the region for system shocks such as climate-related weather events and public health emergencies. NEFNE’s aim is to increase regional food production for regional consumption, striving to improve the reliability of our regional food system by strengthening supply chains and our goal is for 30% of food consumed in New England to be produced or harvested in the region by 2030.
A close partnership with the Southern New England Farmers of Color Collaborative (SNEFCC). SNEFCC is a nascent organization of beginning farmers of color and collaborators who want to increase the success of farmers of color in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. SNEFCC hopes to position farmers of color for new opportunities, and to provide them with the necessary skills and resources to build and sustain successful farm enterprises now and in the future. There is overlap between participants in this Collaborative and the FSNE Network Team, Steering Committee, and Ambassadors.
Partnership and collaboration around holistic regional policy. Through a recent reconfiguration, a regional food policy network manager will work closely with staff at the Highstead Foundation, which serves as the coordinator backbone of Wildlands & Woodland along with the Harvard Forest. Both initiatives have strong collaborations with many NGOs as well as state and federal agencies across the six-state region.
Ripples into neighboring states and other countries – FSNE core team and Steering Committee members are often asked to present about the network’s work. This has resulted in initiatives being sparked in other areas, near and far. Recently, inspired in part by the New England Food Vision, the Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepreneurship began a 2050 Visioning process for the New York State food system. And other food systems initiatives and conversations attributed to the inspiration of FSNE have been occurring in Canada and the UK.
An evolving partnership with Mississippi food system advocates – Through relationships built leading up to, during, and following a national convening of state and regional food system planning efforts, a partnership and exchange has been evolving between advocates in Mississippi, particularly the Mississippi Food Policy Council and Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative, and FSNE. This has resulted in Mississippi advocates presenting during the recent Winter series (see below), FSNE contributing to capacity building efforts in Mississippi, and joint work on initiatives to advance racial equity and economic justice in and through food systems.
I have shared a few times on this blog about the Food Solutions New England Network Leadership Institute (NLI), something IISC has had a hand in co-designing and co-facilitating for four years (late 2016- early 2020). Last year, in light of COVID, the calls for reckoning and repair, and so much uncertainty, along with the very place-based nature of the Institute to that point, we elected not to jump into the virtual fray. Instead we took a step back, and with the generous support and understanding of the Angell Foundation, were able to have some deeper conversations about the future of the NLI, what we had learned over the past years, how we wanted to evolve the offering, and what new capacities we needed as a team and broader network.
Now we are poised to offer the 5th Institute over the next six months (September 2021-February 2022), anchored in 6 day-long virtual sessions, complete with many of the same components we have had in the past: (1) community and relationship building, (2) grounding in the history and present work of the Food Solutions New England Network, (3) meeting and hearing from other food system leaders and change agents in our region, (4) sharing practices to cultivate personal and collective resilience, and (5) developing deeper collaborative and networked capacity to realize justice, equity, sustainability, and democracy in our regional food system. In addition to these six sessions, we will offer a number of optional inter-session gatherings, in the early evening, with either a cooking demo, relevant movie (such as Gather and A Reckoning in Boston), or special speaker.
Through the summer, we were able to attend a number of different trainings to heighten the core team’s awareness and facility around issues of trauma and racialized trauma (thanks to Jerrilyn Dixson and team at Progressive Therapy, LLC out of Jackson, MS and Cultural Somatics Institute), dynamics of class and classism (thanks to Class Action) and intervening actively in harmful situations (thanks to Quabbin Mediation). This has also opened up more ground for us to explore, even as we bring some of these more enhanced sensibilities to our collective work for equity and well-being. More about learnings from our summer sessions will come in another post.
In addition, we have been considering ways in these continuing socially distanced times, and in light of our ongoing reliance on virtual means of connecting, to bring some more fun and a bit more of the tactile and multi-sensory to this year’s program. One step in this direction is a care package going out to our diverse 18 member cohort before the program officially starts. With a tip of the hat to the ever thoughtful and resourceful Jane d’Antonio and El Farrell (core members of the FSNE Backbone Team) and Karen Spiller (lead FSNE Ambassador and network weaver extraordinaire), here is the letter that will accompany goodies going out to this year’s participants, chosen in alignment with the network’s core values and commitments. Hoping it might inspire you in your creative and generous offerings as we head into a new season of opportunity and challenge:
Welcome to the FSNE Network Leadership Institute. We are thrilled to host your cohort during this unusual year. While our sessions will be virtual, we hope to foster a unique and supportive community amongst us all. To start, we wanted you to have these tactile, delicious treats from values-aligned producers across our region, many made by NLI alumnae or FSNE Network Team members. We hope that we can enjoy these together during some of our sessions, as a reminder of the vibrancy of our network and the ways we are all connected, even when physically apart.
NLI Alum Rachel Sayet is a member of the Mohegan Tribe and an Indigenous Educator, anthropologist, Reiki practitioner and essential oil crafter. She specializes in creating natural health and beauty products utilizing therapeutic grade essential oils. This smudging spray is an easy way to refresh your space.
The Passamaquoddy people have lived and flourished since time immemorial within their Aboriginal Lands primarily in Eastern Maine and Western New Brunswick, Canada. For millennia, the Passamaquoddy way of life was to hunt, fish, trap and gather food and medicine and to employ the natural resources of the environment to sustain their communities. One Passamaquoddy food gathering tradition is harvesting the sweet sap from the Mahgan (Sugar Maple). Passamaquoddy Maple is a MOFGA-certified economic development project meant to tap into this traditional natural resource. Since the operation began they have sustainably tapped over 10,000 trees and produced over a thousand gallons of maple syrup, as well as creating seasonal and full-time jobs for the Passamaquoddy people.
This Maine company was founded by Rwandan immigrant Mike Mwenedata who says: “In many ways, the coffee we share with you is the perfect symbol for my Rwandan home. Both prove that the richest lives are often shaped by the struggle to survive. This exceptional Bourbon Arabica varietal coffee crop perishes in other climates, but flourishes within the extreme alpine environment of our tropical land. Our Fifty Percent for Farmers program was inspired by the belief I inherited from my parents that education and compassion have the power to create richer, fuller lives. The direct aid these funds provide to support the health, education, clean energy, and operational needs of our farmers and their communities does just that.”
This woman-owned business in El’s hometown of South Berwick, Maine, features locally grown teas and herbal remedies. Her Apple Mint Sage Tea includes locally grown Apple Mint leaves, and will refresh you and leave you with a feeling of warmth and contentment. Add a small amount to a tea strainer, steep and enjoy!
This Black and Dominican immigrant-owned business in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood and in Newton is a favorite haunt of your co-facilitator Karen Spiller. She keeps our whole team running on chocolate covered pretzel deliveries, so we thought it only fitting that we share some with you.
NLI Alum Evan Mallet and his wife Denise founded this unique spice shop in Portsmouth. Stock + Spice strives to bring global flavors, local ingredients, and creative ideas to home cooks, and to serve as a place to learn about, discuss and engage in our local food community. Their Wicked Hot Salt is made with 100% local chiles, including Ghost, Jalapeno, and Capperino chiles, mixed with pure Atlantic sea salt from the Maine Sea Salt Company. Sprinkle just a little (or a lot) on fried eggs, home fries, roasted veggies, and more.
This woman-owned Dover business is not far from the University of New Hampshire campus, where FSNE is based.Popzup popcorn is sustainably harvested and GMO-free. Try topping it with some of the Wicked Hot Salt! Stop by the FSNE hosted New England Village on the Greenway at the Boston Local Food Festival on September 19 to meet Julie Lapham!
Several NLI Alumnae are involved in the work of the African Alliance of Rhode Island, which is led in part by FSNE Steering Committee member Juilus Kolawole. This savory jam is one of their most popular value-added products made with their own carrots grown in their community gardens. Try it on a Castleton Cracker or visit the AARI website to find a Vegan Carrot Apple Jam Muffin recipe (on page 22 of AARI’s 2020 Report Card).
This woman-owned business was inspired by a traditional New England recipe for “hardtack”, a sturdy cracker that was an early staple, especially for sedafarers of our region. The crackers are all natural and handmade, making them a healthy base for any snack!
And last but not least:
We’ve also enclosed ourFacilitative Leadership for Social Change (FL4SC) Manual via the Interaction Institute for Social Change, and a favorite book: Sacred Instructions, by Sherri Mitchell (Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset). Sherri is based in Maine and is a Penobscot speaker and educator on issues of Indigenous rights, environmental justice, and spiritual change. We felt her writing would be grounding and inspiring to read on your own time. The manual will be a main text and resource during our six main sessions, and will be supplemented by other online materials as we work to build collaborative skill and will towards a more just, sustainable, resilient and democratic regional food system. Please make sure to have the manual with you during all sessions.
We hope you enjoy each of these special items, and find community in the shared experience of flavors and scents! We are able to support these businesses and share their products with you thanks to generous support from the Angell Foundation.
A couple of years after the Food Solutions New England Network officially published the New England Food Vision, and just after the network formally committed to working for racial equity in the food system, it formally adopted a set of four core values. On the FSNE website, a preamble reads: “We collectively believe that the food system we are trying to create must include substantial progress in all these areas, alongside increasing the consumption of regionally produced foods and strengthening our regional food economy and culture.” The four values are:
We celebrate and value the political power of the people. A just food system depends on the active participation of all people in New England.
Racial Equity and Dignity for All:
We believe that racism must be undone in order to achieve an equitable food system. Fairness, inclusiveness, and solidarity must guide our food future.
We know that our food system is interconnected with the health of our environment, our democracy, our economy, and our culture. Sustainability commits us to ensure well-being for people and the landscapes and communities in which we are all embedded and rely upon for the future of life on our planet.
We consider trust to be the lifeblood of collaboration and collaboration as the key to our long-term success. We are committed to building connections and trust across diverse people, organizations, networks, and communities to support a thriving food system that works for everyone.
In the last few years, these values have generated a lot of good discussion, both internal to the network and with others, and we are discovering that this really is the point and advantage of having values in the first place. They can certainly serve as a guide for certain decisions, and in some (many?) instances things may not be entirely clear, at least at first. What does racial equity actually look like? Is it possible for a white-led, or white dominant, institution to embody racial equity? Can hierarchical organizations be democratic? Are there thresholds of trust such that people are willing to not be a part of certain decisions in the name of moving things forward when needed?
Recently, FSNE received an email from a Network Leadership Institute alum who now works as a commodity buyer for a wholesale produce distributor in one of the New England states. They reached out to inquire who else in the network might be thinking about high tech greenhouse vegetable production in the region. Specifically their interest was talking about projects that use optics of being “community based,” but are financed by big multinational corporations. “What would a “just transition” framework look like in the context of indoor agriculture,” they wondered, especially in light of undisclosed tax deals happening as the industry rapidly grows.
As it turns out, a public radio editor recently reached out to FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes, about pretty much the same thing, also referencing other similar projects taking root in different parts of the region. What does FSNE think of these? Part of her response was that there are some good questions that not only the New England Food Vision (currently being updated), but also the Values, can raise to evaluate the potential role of some of these more tech-heavy food system projects and enterprises as the region strives to be more self sufficient in its food production. And this conversation is certainly growing.
These exchanges in our region have had me thinking about work colleagues and I have been doing with food justice advocates in Mississippi. A central part of this also lifts up values as being key to establishing “right relationships” between actors in the food system, and also between advocates and partners (including funders) from outside of the state. I have learned much from Noel Didla (from the Center for Ideas, Equity, and Transformative Change) and her colleagues about the importance of establishing what they call “cultural contracts,” which create a foundation of values-based agreements as a way of exploring possibilities for authentic collaboration. The signing of any contract is just a part of a process of ongoing dialogue and trust building. For more on these contracts and culture building, see the recording of a conversation Karen Spiller and I had with Noel and other Mississippi food system advocates during the FSNE Winter Series earlier this year in a session called “The Power of the Network.”
“Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.”
In a different series of workshops with those same Mississippi-based advocates, we introduced a values-focused tool from the PROSOCIAL community. PROSOCIAL is rooted in extensive field research (including the commons-focused work of Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom) and evolutionary and contextual behavioral science. PROSOCIAL offers tools and processes to support groups in cultivating collaborative skillfulness and the critical capacity of psychological flexibility, including the application of Acceptance and Commitment Training/Therapy (ACT) techniques.
The ACT Matrix (see below) is something that individuals andgroups can use to name what matters most to them (their core values), along with aligned behaviors (what are examples of living out these values?), as a way of laying a foundation for clarity, transparency, agreement, support and accountability. The Matrix also helps people to name andwork with resistance found in challenging thoughts and emotions that might move them away from their shared values. The upper left quadrant is a place to explore what behaviors might be showing up that move people away from their stated values. In essence, this helps to both name and normalize resistance and when used with other ACT practices (defusion, acceptance, presence, self-awareness), can encourage more sustainable, fulfilling (over the long-term), and mutually supportive choices.
An additional values-based tool we have lifted up both in New England and in our work in Mississippi is Whole Measures. Whole Measures is a participatory process/planning and measurement framework from the Center for Whole Communities). There is both a generic version of this framework, as well as one specifically focused on community food systems (more information available here). As CWC points out, “How the tool or rubric framework is used, how the community engagement is facilitated, who is represented in the design matters.” Whole Measures is about content, yes, and it is meant to be used for ongoing deep dialogue, especially amidst complexity, diversity and uncertainty, and when faced with the challenge of tracking what matters most that can also be difficult to measure.
When it comes down to it, these times seem be asking us what kind of people we really are and strive to be. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t know what you stand for, you’ll fall for anything.” And so the work of values identification and actualization is of paramount importance. I’ll leave it to the poet William Stafford to appropriately close this post with his poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” (something we often share with social change networks as we launch, especially the first and last stanzas):
If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind, a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail, but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park, I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: though we could fool each other, we should consider— lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe — should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
For the past 4 years IISC has supported the formation and evolution of a network of educators (the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition) across four school districts in western Massachusetts dedicated to diversifying the teaching profession with respect to race, with a leading strategy being to leverage the paraprofessional pipeline. And as the ParadigmShift initiative, as it is called, explains, “By helping Black and Latinx para-educators and teachers on waiver become licensed teachers, we are building a sustainable path for teacher diversity, increasing opportunities for students of color to thrive.”
Even in districts where over 80% of the student body is Black and Latinx, the teacher workforce still averages around 75% white in this region. By contrast, the para-educator pool is much more diverse, and many of these individuals come from the local community, yet there are numerous barriers preventing them from becoming fully licensed educators (stigma, stringent exams, lack of support, isolation, racism). A few years ago, educational leaders concerned about these structural barriers came together under the auspices of Five Colleges to explore the collaborative potential of working across institutional lines (school districts, teacher preparation programs, educator unions, workforce development initiatives). This ultimately led to the pursuit and receipt of an innovation grant from the local community foundation, which allowed for staffing and other supports to formally launch a collaborative network.
Over the last few years there have been tangible successes, with cohorts of paraprofessionals receiving mentoring and support to become classroom teachers. And there is clearly much more work to be done to work for educational inclusion and equity. That said, there have been several key lessons noted by the diverse Leadership Team of this initiative, and these have been laid out in a very rich report called “Leveraging the Power of Coalition for Teacher Diversity,” which tells many of the details of the Coalition’s development and discoveries.
Many of these lessons align with IISC’s core commitments around building collaborative capacity, processes and structures, including lifting up power dynamics and working for equity, leaning into the power of relationships and networks, and embracing love as a force for social transformation (see image above). Headlines for these lessons appear below, as they were shared with participants during an on-line conference on June 10, 2021 entitled “Leveraging the Power of Coalition for Teacher Diversity: New Perspectives, Practices, and Paradigm Shifts.” We are curious how these resonate with other system and equity change efforts, in education and beyond.
LESSON 1: Naming race is key because messages “for all” are not interpreted as “for me.”
LESSON 2: Crafting solutions based on participant inputbuilds trust, reinforces the message that the pathways are designed for the candidates, and fosters effectiveness. This is critically important when building pathways to attract teacher candidates from historically marginalized groups.
LESSON 3: When administrators and others pay authentic attention to—andbuild authentic relationshipswith—paraeducators of color, the paraeducators are more likely to make the decision to become teachers and to persevere through the process of obtaining licensure. Paying attention matters because paraeducators of color face both role-based and race-based inequities.
LESSON 4: Some teacher candidates who otherwise demonstrate teaching proficiency do not overcome the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL), which functions as a gatekeeping hurdle. The MTEL requirement reflects an assumption that competency is demonstrated solely through passing required tests. It is a barrier to diversification of the teacher workforce and should not make or break a career.
LESSON 5: Redesigning systems for racial equity requires change from the macro levels of policy to the many complex micro levels of practice, requiring leadership and resources. It is not a quick fix. Systems resist.
LESSON 6: Working in coalition leads to shared learning, pooling of resources, and regional solutions for regional problems while raising challenges of commitment, clarity, and communication.
LESSON 7: The contributions of supportive funding partners are fundamental to the genesis and growth of innovative initiatives, though the funder practice of awarding short-term grants impedes systems change.
LESSON 8: The concept of innovation provides a framework thatlegitimizes learning and adaptability, elements that are necessary for effecting systems change to promote teacher diversity.
And threaded through all of these lessons was the understanding that in many ways the core innovation in all of this was the collaborative network itself, with people going above and beyond their day-to-day work, breaking down walls and boundaries, and flipping what have often been traditionally siloed and/or competitive institutional arrangements.
For more resources and materials from the Coalition, including information about our ripple effects mapping process, see think link.