“i think of movements as intentional worlds, or perhaps more accurately as worlds designed by and for intentional people, those who are able to feel the world not as an unfolding accident of random occurrences, but rather as a massive weaving of intention. you can be tossed about, you can follow someone else’s pattern, or you can intentionally begin to weave and shape existence. and yes, the makeup of your web is the same matter as all that already exists, but your direction and pattern can be new, unexpected, agitating new growth. what results from your efforts depends on your intention.”
– adrienne maree brown
I recently returned from a week-long vacation with family to the so-called Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and a particular location that is deeply nourishing and meaningful for its landscape, its link to family history on my wife’s side and (perhaps for these times) an unusual sense of community. I count myself privileged to have had the time and the opportunity to be in that place with those loving people, with that sense of multi-generational connection.
Heading back “home,” I could feel the tension mounting as my wife and I talked about re-entry. Before thought, my body tightened in anticipation of the return to the mundane daily tasks, to-do lists and un-answered emails/phone messages. The morning after our return, I somewhat absent-mindedly dipped toes into social media and felt my blood pressure rise. “What am I doing?” I wondered, even as I continued to wade in, pulled by questions about what happened while we were away and what new opportunities might be presenting themselves – FOMO (“fear of missing out”) in full effect. When I closed the laptop, perhaps 30 minutes later, I was aware of my stiff neck, shallow breathing, hunched shoulders, and whirling brain. Saved by a 12 year old daughter almost yelling, “Dad, c’mon, let’s get outside and play ball!”
As much of a proponent as I am of collaboration and networks, I am struck by how I can get a bit caught in the approach/avoid loop of connection, and mired in questions of “How to connect?” and “How much is enough connection?” and “What kinds of connection do I really need?” As I engage with others, I realize that these are pretty fundamental ponderings for navigating a more viscerally entangled world.
“When our ancestors spoke about a web of life, they were describing what Western science calls quantum entanglement. They understood that we all originated from the same seed of life, and when that seed exploded and carried life across our universe, we remained connected. Quantum entanglement tells us that any matter once connected physically can never be disconnected energetically (or spiritually).”
– Sherri Mitchell (Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset, “She Who Brings Light)
More and more is being written, spoken and (re)-presented about the fundamentally interconnected nature of our lives, and of Life writ large. In a beautiful essay in Emergence Magazine (“When You Meet the Monster, Anoint Its Feet”) , which weaves connections between climate change, race, racism, evolutionary biology, ecology, myth and narrative, Bayo Akomolafe offers …
“Perhaps most important about this time is that the image of the human is being composted—or, we are experiencing great difficulty determining where the nonhuman stops and the human begins. Everything touches everything else in the Anthropocene—an observation that is supported by, say, current thinking about ‘holobionts,’ assemblages of bodies within bodies within bodies, or intersecting communities that toss out notions of separable individuality. We are holobionts.We live and are lived through; we are composite beings, companion species, emerging within and among assemblages.”
And, as Akomolafe later shares from his indigenous and experiential knowledge, bodies and beings transcend time. More recent research into intergenerational trauma (see the work of Resmaa Menakam and Thomas Hubl) shows that our bodies indeed know the score, not only of our own individual pain, but the suffering passed through our ancestral lines. Husband and wife, and astrophysicist and physician, team Karel and Iris Schriyver, in their book “Living With the Stars,” add that our bodies are always in dynamic exchange with … the wider universe! Our cells die and are replaced by new ones, renewing our entire biological makeup, using food and water as both fuel and construction material. This rebuilding happens by using elements captured in our surroundings and cycled through geological processes, all extensions of galactic explosions and ripples and atoms that formed through collisions with our planet’s atmosphere eons ago.
We are entangled in a multiplicity of ways, containing and residing within multi-dimensional multi-scalar multitudes. I find this simultaneously liberating, dizzying, humbling and dumbfounding. Knowing that everything is interconnected can inspire a profound sense of belonging and ease, yes, and sometimes it can make it a bit hard for me to plan or get through the day!
And so here we are, exquisitely entwined, and yet also individuals, or at least bounded organisms with a sense of individuality, of distinction, of the need to preserve the integrity and dignity of something called “me” or “self.” And the question of these times would appear to be how we can honor a healthy sense of self/individual, whole communities, and Life, all at once.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activity neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
– Thomas Merton
While there have been understandable and important pushes to get beyond the individualistic and atomistic view, I have the feeling that some of this emphasis, as with all pendulum swings, can go a bit too far. Seeing the world as profoundly interconnected might drive a strong desire to reclaim a kind of forgotten birthright, and in my experience, it can also result in getting lost, especially if it is guided by an underlying desire to fully understand, grasp and/or control it all (colonial mindset?). Or if that drive is purely to belong to something, anything, no matter its underlying values, to spare the pain of felt/perceived separation.
A certain view in contemporary physics holds that the world, the universe, is entirely made up of an infinite amount of information, a vast expanse of sensory inputs that all taken together would be utterly overwhelming to our individual apparatus. And so we have our human senses as filters to sift through, make sense and identify/assemble what is most … useful, interesting, advantageous. The point is, there is always more than meets (or at least is taken in by) our eyes, ears, nose, tastebuds, touch, etc. This calls to mind the ladder of inference, a framework we teach at IISC that helps people remember that we are often recycling conclusions we have drawn from a very partial understanding of reality, and that it might behoove us to expand our “view” to reach more helpful (just, prosocial, sustainable) conclusions and actions.
That said, simply taking in more, or making more connections, may not lead to a better place, if it results in overwhelming nervous systems. So it seems there is a balancing act here. Just as we often can’t do something new without letting go of something old, there is a need to modulate what one takes in – news, ideas, people, and possibilities. Connection and flow management. Energetic discernment. Intentional dis-connection and dis-entanglement.
What might this look like in this networks upon networks networked world? A few thoughts …
“Between you and me, now there is a line. No other line feels more certain than that one. Sometimes it seems not a line but a canyon, a yawning empty space, across which I cannot reach.
“Yet you keep reappearing in my awareness. Even when you are far away, something of you surfaces constantly in my wandering thoughts. When you are nearby, I feel your presence, I sense your mood. Even when I try not to. Especially when I try not to. . . .”
– Donella Meadows
In a previous post, I shared some of the wisdom of network science as taught by Danielle Varda and colleagues at Visible Networks Lab. They make the point that when it comes to creating strong (resilient and regenerative) networks, more can be less in terms of the connections a person has. Connectivity and related flows can be ruled by a relentless growth imperative(capitalism?)that is not strategic or sustainable. More connections require more energy to manage, meaning there may ultimately be fewer substantive ties if one is spread too thin. Instead, the invitation is to think about how to mindfully maintain a certain number of manageable and enriching strong and weak ties, and think in terms of “structural holes.” For more on this social network science view, visit this VNL blog post “We want to let you in on a network science secret – better networking is less networking.”
Over the last several years, I have been playing with a set of about a dozen principles (give or take) for network thinking and action. One that seems quite helpful here is the saying, “Do what you do best and connect to the rest.” As ecosystems become more robust and complex, individual participants are invited to carve out more specific niches, and be oriented towards synergistic and supportive relationships with others. In other words – stop trying to do it all, or connect to it all! It’s not possible, it can create unnecessary competition, overwhelm and inhibit “collaborative efficiencies.” This also aligns with a metric of energy network and systems science (see below), which focuses on the importance of a diversity of roles in healthy living systems. Share and spread the wealth!
As just alluded to, the emerging field of “energy systems science” points to a number of different factors or indicators that contribute to long-term living system (including human systems) health and thriving. Four of these indicators fall under the heading of “measures of flow.” Thinking about how these apply to our own and/or collective in-take and sharing of information/energy might be helpful for knowing what is “sufficient:”
Robust cross-scale circulation: How rapidly (too fast?/too slow?) and well do a variety of resources reach all parts of an individual/social body?
Regenerative return flows: To what extent does the individual/social body recycle resources into building and maintaining its internal capacities? Is there too little (depletion)? Is there excess (hoarding)?
Reliable inputs: How much risk and uncertainty is there for critical (health promoting) resources upon which the individual/social body depends?
Healthy outflows: What impacts do the individual/social body’s outflows have externally?
On a more personal tip, I have been married for almost 20 years. What has perhaps been one marriage from the outsider’s perspective has been many from the inside, as other long-standing intimate partners can surely appreciate. We have learned and grown over the years. One important lesson has been knowing when we are too enmeshed and need to separate for some time. There is a point of diminishing returns in many of our heated discussions/ arguments, and if we do not dis-entangle or dis-connect, we have learned, we can do damage to the relationship.
Along the same lines, two of our daughters are identical twins, now twelve-years old. What we have observed about them is what we have heard about many twins – they are truly uniquely connected. There are many times when we quietly watch with fascination as they, seated on opposite ends of the room, engage in similar gestures (scratching their heads with the same hand at the same time, for example) seemingly without direct awareness. Quantum entanglement in full effect! And they can get themselves enmeshed at times and in ways that drive each of them, and the entire family system, to the edge. They are learning that they need and how to differentiate and take space, even as they have a natural gravitational pull to their other half.
Knowing when to create a bit of a boundary (what Buckminster Fuller once called, “a useful bit of fiction”), a separate amniotic sack if you will, and when it is optimal to connect more fully often requires attention and discernment, for all kinds of relationships.
“Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.”
– Ben Okri
The movie The Social Dilemma and the work of Douglas Ruskhoff (see Team Human) both point to the perils of getting caught up in our increasingly socially mediatized world. The algorithms behind these powerful tools are designed to capture our attention, pressing our buttons oriented towards hedonism (“likes”) and fear/outrage. A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly(“You Really Need to Quit Twitter”) points to how difficult it can be to break this habit. This is not to say that these tools are inherently bad or evil. They are certainly formidable, and require considerable attention and intention. Social media fasts and limited dips can help, as well as being mindful about what and why we are both sharing and consuming (see this other recent post for some considerations on this – The Wisdom of W.A.I.T.ing: Mindful Sharing in a Network Age.
If dis-engagement is not an option or ideal, there are a number of practices I have been learning and using that can help to manage energy exchanges, both in-person and virtual:
From the Rockwood Leadership Program, I learned the practice of imagining that my body is like meshwork (think a fishing net), when something intense is coming at me, so that it can pass through me, and I don’t use too much energy resisting or having it get stuck in my body/psyche.
From a couple of local trauma therapist who focuses on racialized trauma, I have learned the practice of using imaginative “shields” (in my mind’s eye) on the outside and inside of my body, to allow for energy coming in or going out. Silver shields on the exterior repel unwanted energy, and on the inside they keep precious energy in. Grey shields allow some energy in or out.
From a number of practitioners, I have learned the practice of slowing my breath to manage energy flow, in-take and circulation.
From Qigong Master Robert Peng I have learned how to use a “circuit breaker” for the life force (or “chi”) moving through me by enclosing my thumbs with the fingers on each hand, which can diminish intense energy flows when engaged with others.
Also from The Weston Network, I have learned about the practice of embodied energetic balance when reaching out to make contact with others, while not over-extending, and also maintaining a firm sense of grounding and dynamic flexibility. I have also been reminded, helpfully, that balance is never static. We are constantly in motion, if we are alive, and when “most balanced,” are actually able to recover quickly from being extended or engaged in some way. So a question to carry is “What supports my ongoing ability to recover?”
From Harold Jarche, I have learned many ways of managing personal knowledge development through mindful connection to different networks in ways that ideally make them all “smarter” and don’t simply ask them/me/us to work “harder.” Of particular help is knowing what one can reasonably expect in terms of energetic flow and return from work teams versus communities of practice versus one’s wider social networks (see image above).
And in general, I am embracing and making space for more silence, solitude and stillness, challenging some of my deep seated anxieties about losing connection and a sense of belonging in the world (what some would say FOMO is really about – for more about this, see this informative talk by Tara Brach).
And there are SO MANY teachers out there and much wisdom to glean that I certainly welcome others to share! It is my hope that many more of us can become adept energy and flow scientists/artists/healers/workers as we intentionally weave patterns that are the basis of the better world we sense is possible and know is necessary.
“The point of solitude is to give yourself time to grow in your own way, while the ultimate goal remains the difficult task of love and connection.”
– Damion Searls (from the introduction to a new translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet)
Networks are fundamental to life, to liveliness and to livelihood. There is growing recognition of this fact. And at the same time, the frame through which one views networks has a lot to say about how one might be living out and into their potential, or not. For example, I still see people a bit enamored of “social network analysis” (SNA) in a way that concerns. It is the equivalent of pinning an insect to a board and dissecting it. The vitality of any living creature does not lie in understanding its “parts” alone, and pinning anything down does not allow “the observer” to see it in action, in its vitality. This is not to say that SNA cannot be helpful, but to keep in mind that anything frozen is not a true representation of life, and that the very observation of something changes it, as in living systems we are constantly engaged in the making “and bringing forth of worlds” through our interactions (see the work of the late Humberto Maturana) .
Which brings me to the use of “it” in referring to a network, or the idea of “building a network.” A network is not simply an it, it is an “us,” at least when we are referring to social and social-ecological webs. And a network is not simply a means to an end, a “so that,” if you will. Networks always “are” in some sense, in light of the myriad and often invisible connections that exist in our world. And as I have written before, the very nature of networks in terms of their patterns of connection and flow, has a lot to say about human and ecological health and resilience.
The use of “it,” which I certainly fall into, can create a degree of false and, in some cases, dangerous separation. A case could be made that much of what ails mainstream society and the human world is a severe case of distance and abstraction. As Andreas Weber has pointed out, this false separation in mainstream biological sciences can lead to the cutting off of something vital – our feelings and emotion! In The Biology of Wonder, Weber makes the case that far from being superfluous to the study of organisms (including social and and social-ecological networks), feelings (and I would add our bodies below the neck), are the very foundation of Life!
Which is why, increasingly, I am playing with full-bodied ways of engaging people in “network ways of thinking, doing and being” – at individual (internal to our selves – yes, we are networks!), group, and larger systemic scales. Whether it be poetry, music/song, meditation, storytelling, somatic practice, there is an apparent need to enlist people in a “poetic ecology” (in Weber’s words) of net work. This to me is key to helping to realize the regenerative potential of networks, and requires dedicated and deep practice.
What changes, what possibilities arise, when you shift towards “seeing” a given network as an “us” and an “as”?
“We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”
— Zeno of Citium
The other day I was reminded of the group working agreement “W.A.I.T.” (which stands for, “Why am I talking?”) as a guideline for people to be mindful of sharing air time in discussions. Since then I have been taking fresh note of my own inclinations and motives to not only talk in discussions, but also to share on social media. And as I have done this, I have also been more curious about what motivates others to share, verbally, in written and other forms. What are they thinking? Are they thinking about other people? If so, who? Have they thought through possible impacts? What do they care about?
I am a big fan of and subscriber to The Christian Science Monitor, which publishes a weekly digest of updates and perspectives on things happening around the globe, including (perhaps radical for these times) “bright spots” and “points of progress.” The editors and writers of Monitor articles also have a wonderful practice of publishing a little blurb for each offering under the heading “Why we wrote this.” How refreshing! What if all “news outlets” were to do this, or at least pause and ask this before writing and publishing/speaking?
And what if we were to do this in our different networks and communities? Might this help to break some of the spirals of othering and outrage (not to mention challenge the algorithms behind our growing social dilemma)? And shy of this, might the practice of W.A.I.T.ing or mindful and intentional sharing (viewed perhaps more generatively as “nourishing”) help people deliver on the promise of “network effects” to take communities and societies in a more prosocial direction?
I am currently working with two organizations over the course of 2021 to help staff and partners develop more networked ways of thinking and acting/being. Recently we had a discussion about how to keep the staff more up to date with respect to one another’s network weaving activities (connections made, crucial take-aways, immediate next steps) and also share other interesting content and connections. Trying to strike the right balance between radio silence and deluge, we started exploring how implementing the W.A.I.T/S. (Why am I talking/sharing?) prime might help. Along the way, a couple of people said that W.A.I.T/S. might also stand for “Why aren’t I talking/sharing?” and encourage the otherwise less inclined (for various reasons) to reconsider. This is stimulating rich conversation about how to tend and modulate important flows in various systems (organizational, community, school, etc.) to support learning, resilience, alignment, equity, emergence, coordinated action …
All this to say, whatever our goal(s) may be, it could be important to … W.A.I.T for it. This is how less conscious and helpful sharing (and silence) might become a practice of care-full curation (making thoughtful offers to and requests – sharing and caring can also include asking questions! – of one’s communities).
Last week (which already feels like last month) was very rich with learning and interaction, including the opportunity to share space with indigenous leaders, elders, and diverse network weavers as we explored what it means to create pathways to just and regenerative futures (to me and others with whom I partner, regenerative futures must be just by definition, but I separate them here as there is much conversation about regeneration that seems to bypass considerations of injustice and marginalization).
In a gathering hosted during the Catalyst 2030 Catalysing Change week on indigenous wisdom, network weaving and regenerative futures, colleagues and I shared about our own rites of passage that have opened us up to feeling the pain and potential in the world. Elder Joshua Konkankoh shared the powerful story of his childhood initiation in the “spiritual forest” in Cameroon, through which he came to understand how to live into his name, along with his current banishment from his homeland because of his work on alternative education models and eco-villages. Others of us, raised in North America and Europe, spoke to initiations in the form of political awareness and conflict, personal (family and health) challenges, cultural encounters, and being broken open by Mother Nature. And we invited participants, which included those joining from Asia and South America, to share about the ways in which they have been called to align their lives with Life and liveliness.
As we were engaged in this heartfelt exploration, I thought of Tyson Yunkaporta’s reflections on the power of rites of passage in indigenous cultures, and what has been lost in Westernized development and education. Yunkaporta once described initiation as helping young people to find their place in the world by first letting them know “they are not that special.” That said, they are guided to understand that “they are part of something special.” And within that sacralized context, young people are shown that they have something unique to offer in service of that larger whole (what I think of “essence” as I have learned from one of my teachers, Carol Sanford). This is what results, according to Yunkaporta, in an indigenous progression of encounter with the world that goes from “Respect to Connect to Reflect to Direct.” In non-Indigenous cultures, without initiation and this sense of the sacred, the progression is reversed – first Direct, then Reflect, then Connect, then Respect (if at all), often with dire consequences!
Then towards the end of the week, I continued work with a state-wide conservation organization, partnering with Andrea Akall’eq Burgess, a Yup’ik educator and activist. During our session, Andrea spoke beautifully to the work of “decolonizing” and “indigenizing” conservation (and really many other systems – education, food, health, politics, etc.) in order to get to equitable resilience and thriving (my words). While there is no blueprint or checklist for this work, she shared that it must begin with truth-telling about the history of oppression and the ongoing policing and criminalization of indigenous ways. This reckoning, along with respect and repair, is part of what it means to establish “right relationship,” which is in itself an ongoing regenerative practice. And this reminds me of the work of the First Light initiative in this region, to “build awareness and understanding about Wabanaki land loss in Maine, to develop and practice equitable principles for Native engagement, and to create new tools to share land and resources.” All of this moving at the speed of sacred trust.
So much to consider, and let move through our bodies, emotions and thinking … and always curious to know what is moving for you!
Ever since I started working formally with networks of various kinds, some 17 years ago, and started blogging on a regular basis, about 11 years ago, Harold Jarche has been a teacher and an inspiration. Both the content and method of his writings have helped me to better appreciate the importance of living into uncertainty and playing with networked ways of thinking, learning and doing.
I had the pleasure of taking Harold’s Personal Knowledge Mastery course several years ago, and just finished savoring Perpetual Beta 2020, a collection of his writings generated through 2019 and 2020. As Harold says in the forward to his book, “Now we need to connect, adapt, and find our new normal.” In the spirit of working and learning out loud, and Harold’s Friday’s Finds that he offers on his blog, I am sharing some of the nuggets of wisdom I took from my reading of Perpetual Beta 2020 over the past month, in the form of 20 of Harold’s quotes and 4 quotes from others he references, and certainly invite readers to check out Harold’s work in more of its fullness.
“The great work of our time is to design, build and test new organizational models that reflect our democratic values and can function in an interconnected world.”
“Radical innovation only comes from networks with large structural holes, which are more diverse.”
“It will only be through our collective desire to learn with others and build networked organizations that we can build a better world.”
“Intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivation is necessary for complex and creative work.”
“The primary perspective in social networks should be empathetic. … From this perspective of trying to understand others, our actions in these networks should be driven by curiosity.”
“So it is important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all philosophy in terms of successful innovation. The one constant is that you able to be open to change and new points of view.”
– Shaun Coffey
“Social networks provide a fertile environment to share ideas. But we need a safer place to test ideas, so we turn to our trust communities of practice.”
“In the network era, learning and working are tightly interconnected.”
“Organizations need to understand complexity instead of adding more complication.”
“Trust emerges over time through transparency and authenticity, practiced by people working out loud. Credibility is earned through collective intelligence, developed through an active questioning of all assumptions. Finally, a focus on results is enabled through both collaboration and cooperation, and is further enhanced by subsidiarity- the promotion of the furthest possible distribution of all authority.”
“Learning faster is not about taking more courses or consuming more information. It’s about having better connections.”
“We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!”
– Donella Meadows
“Change the business models and change the world.”
“Without Autonomy we are disengaged. Without Competence we are ineffective. Without Relatedness we are aimless.”
“Research shows that work teams that need to share complex knowledge need tighter social bonds.”
“Meta skills [learning how to learn, working in networks] require ‘meta time.’”
“Network leaders understand that first we shape our structures, and then our structures shape us.”
“We are innately a friendly species, but we need environments which allow us to optimally express our inclination to be friendly.”
– Nicholas Christakis
“In networks, it is best not to inflict too much power on individuals and instead learn how to distributed power to help the whole network make better decisions.”
“The more diverse our networks, the more diverse our thinking can be.”
“You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice.”
“With increasing chaos, creativity is becoming even more important. Look for the misfits and find a way to work with them.”
“As individuals, there is one thing we can all do, without anybody’s permission. We can become better learners.”
“How can we listen to tomorrow if we have yet to clarify what belongs to yesterday? We don’t just need new maps that order the world in the same old ways. New vision is required. New ontologies reshape the map and reshape us. So we should listen to the future. Whose voices do we hear? [Ursula] Le Guin writes, ‘which is farther from us, farther out of reach, more silent – the dead, or the unborn?’ To listen, we must first be present.”
The FSNE Challenge is an enhanced and more sector-specific form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore (founder of the Privilege Institute), Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White), and Dr. Marguerite W. Penick-Parks (Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh). After FSNE formalized its commitment to racial equity in its sustainable food system work about 8 years ago (more on our journey in this article), a small design team saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread (networked!) conversation about the connection between race, racism and food systems and ultimately greater action for racial and food justice.
“America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.”
– Isabel Wilkerson (from Caste)
We also saw the on-line version of the Challenge as a way of creating “network effects” around the justice work that many are already doing in our region and beyond through small world reach, rapid dissemination, adaptation, and creating new patterns of connection and flow. Participation in and the complexity of the Challenge continue to grow – in 2014 we had 200 participants, mainly from the six state region of “New England,” and last year we had some 8,000 people participate from all 50 states in the US, and some 20 different countries.
The point of the Racial Equity Challenge is not simply to spread but also deepen the commitment to racial equity and food justice. So we hope that participants return each year, and many do, and also continue the work in between. Because of this, we make sure that the Challenge continues to evolve in content and format, increasingly with a bias towards action. Four years ago, seeing how things were developing, we created the “ladder of engagement” below to think about how to continue to move people along a continuum from “not paying attention” to “actively organizing.”
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
Can make it out here alone.”
It has been inspiring to see many organizations and communities self-organize to take the Challenge in-house, convening colleagues, fellow congregants, neighbors, family members and classmates to reflect together on learning and making commitments to action. This has included groups such as Health Care Without Harm; the Wallace Center at Winrock International; Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems; Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; Southside Community Land Trust (Providence, RI); Agricultural Sustainability Institute at University of California-Davis, Georgia Organics and many others who have convened around the Challenge.
Two years ago we responded to these organic efforts and some specific requests by creating a discussion guide for facilitators to design and steward conversations in their organizations/communities. In 2019, the Challenge also went deep in the home institution of Food Solutions New England, the University of New Hampshire (the Sustainability Institute serves as the network’s “backbone”). With the support of a Professorship that I shared with Karen Spiller (and which Karen continues to hold), we did considerable “in-reach” to staff, faculty and students, including a launch event and campus presentations, which resulted in more than 500 people participating in the Challenge from UNH. We also turned the Challenge into workshops that we offered at gatherings such as the White Privilege Conference. That work has continued to grow and flourish this year.
Over the last few years, we have heard how participation is moving people from learning to action:
to create a community racial equity summit
to bring racial equity centrally into organizational strategy
to shift values in an organization to put racial equity front and center
to shift one’s job so that they can focus more centrally on issues of racial disparities and injustice
to bolster people’s courage to have courageous conversations about race, racism and white supremacy
to shift hiring practices and leadership structures
to bring a racial equity focus to food policy work
We hope these ripples will continue to be amplified this year!
So what exactly is the Challenge?
It is a self-guided (individual and group) learning journey examining the history and impacts of racism, how it is connected to our food and related systems, examples of and tools for how to undo racism and build racial equity and food justice.
How does the Challenge work?
People sign up (YOU can register here) and then starting April 5th, they receive daily email prompts focused on a different theme along with links to related resources (readings, video, audio) that take about 10-15 minutes each day. In addition, there is a robust Resource List for people to look through and continue their learning. Those who register also have access to an online discussion forum for those who want to talk and think out loud about the daily prompts and other learning along the way.
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
– Arundhati Roy
How is the Challenge evolving in 2021?
To meet the growing interest and demands of participants and the expressed desire for many to go deeper and further and to replicate and extend the Challenge in different ways, we have developed a variety of additional supports.
New this year we will host a facilitator debrief to hear and share about progress and challenges. This will happen on May 21, 2021 from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm Eastern Time.
Another feature is a more robust Outreach Kit that has been pulled together by FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes. The Kit includes sample communications that can be used to recruit others to participate in the Challenge through email, social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), as an outreach flyer.
This year like last, organizations (such as non-profits, agencies, schools, businesses and other groups) can register to be listed as “organizational participants”of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge. Each individual should still register with their own email address in order to receive the daily prompts during the Challenge, but organizations can now indicate to the world their support for the work of building equity and dismantling racism in our food system! Contact FSNE with any questions about this.
An addition this year is an optional #FSNEEquityChallengeregistration question about what indigenous traditional lands people reside upon (see below for a word cloud of answers as of a few days ago).
Also this year like last, we will host a Friday drop in discussion on Zoom for participants who would like to meet others, share what they are learning and doing and hear this from others.
A new addition this year is a crowd-sourced playlist of musical selections that move and motivate participants in their pursuit of justice and liberation. People are invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org with tunes to add to the list.
And as was the case for the past few years, we will have guest bloggersthroughout the Challenge, the numbers of which have steadily grown.
All of this is in line with how FSNE sees itself evolving as a network into its next decade, creating robust, accessible and supportive resources that might be shared and easily adapted through aligned, diverse and robust connections in the region and beyond.
Please join us, spread the word, the invitation, the conversation and the commitment to others. These are daunting times, that are laying bare the damaging and deadly patterns that have existed for some time. It is beyond time to lean in, get real, bond together, and weave the better world we know is possible!
“We are all tied to a lineage of love that has existed since time immemorial. Even if we haven’t had a direct experience of that love, we know that it exists and has made an indelible imprint on our souls. It’s remarkable to think that the entire span of human life exists within each one of us, going all the way back to the hands of the Creator. In our bodies we carry the blood of our ancestors and the seeds of the future generations. We are a living conduit to all life. When we contemplate the vastness of the interwoven network that we are tied to, our individual threads of life seem far less fragile. We are strengthened by who we come from and inspired by the those who will follow.”
“We must create civilization(s) for equitable human wellbeing within a healthy biosphere. Since our thinking produced self-inflicted existential threats, the main challenge is to find a practical way to reconcile our thinking with the logic of life.”
– all-women Emerging New Civilization(s) panel. United Nations
In ongoing work with a group of practitioners dedicated to advancing the study and practice of “energy systems science,” for the sake of resilient and regenerative futures, we continue to come back to the primacy of seeing and working in networked ways as being key to charting a course to a regenerative future. In fact, in some ways we might see energy systems science as being energy network science.
As Dr. Sally J. Goerner articulates, Energy System Sciences (ESS) is “an umbrella term for disciplines that use the study of energy flow networks to understand the laws of systemic health, growth and development in living, nonliving and supra-living systems.” ESS disciplines include: Chaos, Complexity, Resilience, Ecological Network Analysis, Self-Organization Theory, Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics, Panarchy, and others.
We are clearly in a moment of needing to take more seriously the human prospect on the Earth, and whether we will continue to reclaim and maintain a place as a stewardship species. Much of this comes down to being able to “think like an ecosystem” and align with Nature’s regenerative capacities. As mentioned in another post, regeneration points us to the self-feeding, self-renewing processes that living systems (including human beings and communities) use to nourish their capacity to thrive for long periods of time, as well as their ability to adapt to unexpected, sometimes threatening, circumstances.
From an energy systems/networks perspective, long-term human thriving is rooted in large part in healthy social and socio-ecological webs that are diverse, intricate and dynamic. And more specifically, as Dr. Goerner and other colleagues in the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics highlight, aspects of social systemic health are grounded in:
Collective and adaptive learning – sharing information, working out loud, group inquiry and processing, prototyping, systemic sensing …
Collaborative culture – practicing facilitative leadership, weaving and coordination, designing for and engaging in collective innovation, linking and leveraging assets, collective decision-making, aligning practice to values such as trust, transparency, generosity …
Regenerative circulation – monitoring and tending to velocity, directionality, quality and quantity of flows of different resources …
Each of these four aspects links to network thinking and action, and can be further strengthened and guided by core principles (see this evolving list).
In the months to come, we will be fleshing out more of the practices around ESS/ENS to support network convenors, coordinators, facilitators, and weavers of all kinds, including those within organizations, to support systemic saluto-genesis (ongoing health creation).
As a number of networks I am supporting are settling into the lingering reality of operating within our COVID19 context (“2020 still feels like it’s with us!”), uncertain of what resolution will look like or mean, we have been having more conversations about how to maintain momentum around key goals (food justice, health equity, equitable conservation, climate adaptation and mitigation) and also lead with care, supporting collective regenerative capacity. Through explicit asking and reading what is coming up through people’s engagement, here are some ideas for how to keep movement going over this lengthening haul in sustaining fashion.
Put movement into the movement (literally invite people to move their bodies during and in-between on-line and phone meetings)
Leverage the power of one to one conversations (they can often be more nimble and dynamic, including having people walk and talk to one another)
Keep some meetings agenda-free (and follow the emergent energy)
Share stories, music, recipes, jokes, games
Stay open to spontaneity
Lean into humor!
Do a meditation, be silent together
Give grace – “It’s okay to not be okay”
Make space for teach-ins and knowledge sharing
Invite people to not look at screens, and to look out windows
Schedule long meetings as multiple meetings with a shared agenda over time to break it up
Remember this is not ours alone to do or solve and that there are others out there, including those we do not know
What would you add?
“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.“
Over the past couple of years, I’ve worked with a state-wide health equity network, comprised of smaller coalitions, that has been looking at living into being more of a network in thinking and action. After some conversation and consideration, we decided to use a framework that derives from the writings of Madeleine Taylor and Pete Plastrik.
The Connectivity-Alignment-Coordinated Action/Production framework (see graphic above) lifts up three different network modes, through which value and impact is created. First of all, network value and impact is grounded at a fundamental level in creating connectivity, by building linkages and trust between key stakeholders and perhaps unusual bedfellows. This can be done by convening people; closing triangles, sharing stories, data and other forms of information; co-creating knowledge; learning together, etc. Part of the value of this connectivity is that it can lead to orthogonal thinking and bolster individual network participants’ efforts in the shared domain where the network is focused. What also might happen is self-organized action between those who are meeting one another for the first time or getting to know one another better.
“Healthy networks measure their impact, in particular by establishing the links between decentralized network action and outcomes.“
Up a level, networks may be compelled to create some kind of collective and aligned commitment or value proposition in the form of shared vision, values, public statements, etc. This can create greater impact/ripples, and provide additional value to individual participants and self-organized efforts, as they are more prone to head in the same general direction or with some kind of deeper shared understanding of context.
And then there are those instances when there is a call to some form of collective action, such as advocacy, a communications campaign, fundraising, or some other co-produced venture. This can happen even as smaller self-organized action continues (really, from a network perspective, most collective action should be about creating the conditions for those self-organized efforts, which is what is meant by “making the periphery the norm” in network building lingo).
With all of this in mind, after doing interviews, some observation, as well as evaluations and other documentation from the sub-networks of this state-wide advocacy network, a few patterns seemed to surface that suggested ways for the network to strengthen itself and leverage network effects.
Here is a list of what was surfacing as opportunities seen through the C-A-CA/P lens:
In the calls that the network does with its members, there appeared to be more of a one-directional download of information from staff (the hub) to its members (the periphery). And in various documents there appeared to be some suggestion that people were not connecting except through the hub. Furthermore, an annual report said that state partners expressed a desire to know more about one another’s capabilities, constituencies, and connections. All of this suggested an opportunity for creating greater CONNECTIVITY, especially member-to-member.
In an interview the observation was made that on membership calls there were often the same people speaking while others were silent. This suggested that greater CONNECTIVITY could be created for those who were less outspoken and silent. There appeared to be some correlation between those who were longer standing members (more outspoken) and those who were new to the network (more quiet).
In assessments of meetings, comments were made that while people appreciate the great information and education they receive, they were also eager to meet, learn from and strategize with one another. This again suggested an opportunity to strengthen member-to-member CONNECTIVITY.
Questions had come up about whether relationships with state and county lawmakers, behavioral health experts, and others might be better maximized for trust and information sharing. Another area to explore strengthening CONNECTIVITY to and among those stakeholder groups.
Related to the above, while the network’s political capital was appreciated by many members, there were also questions about democratizing that power, and helping members to be more involved in the legislative process. This suggested that beyond creating greater CONNECTIVITY among members, there might be some opportunity to provide COORDINATION support to enhance access.
“Clusters” of members in certain parts of the state had been mentioned in interviews and documents. It was observed that in one region, there is some evidence of people getting tighter and that in another region, organizations were using lists to get together. This lifted up the question about more intentional CONNECTIVITY and ALIGNMENT that the network might suggest or provide to those existing and other potential clusters to strengthen their advocacy work.
An annual report identified some expressed concern about the challenge with creating alignment among collation partners on behavioral health priorities, and that “collective buy-in” and “intentional relationship building” will be key to establishing alignment. This is another reason to keep building that trust and CONNECTIVITY and also to explore actively facilitating ALIGNMENT around core priorities.
It was shared in staff interviews that there have been questions from members about the network’s long-term vision – “Where are you trying to go?” This raised some possible opportunities to facilitate ALIGNMENT around a shared, guiding and galvanizing vision with members.
Related to the above, the suggestion was raised around exploring he coalescing of sub-networks to consolidate and create more ALIGNMENT and COORDINATION between those separate coalitions.
And here is what was offered as a set of initial recommendations:
Consider the points above and if there is agreement among staff about where to weave greater connectivity, facilitate alignment and/or coordinate activity in different domains. Specifically: Who needs to be better connected and what would that achieve? Would alignment around a shared vision and high-level goals be helpful? Who would need to be aligned?
As these opportunities are identified, consider existing network (staff) capacity to provide weaving, facilitation and coordination support. Where and how might this capacity be added or developed?
Think about ways to create greater connectivity within existing calls, meetings and trainings. For example, have a check-in question; invite people to share news, victories, needs; break people into pairs and smaller group discussions; create open space for people to explore interests and opportunities to work together.
Consider creating a toolkit and perhaps a training for building relationships and maximizing connections in networks.
Reach out to less out-spoken and newer coalition members to see if there is anything that would support their participation. Related to this, make sure there is an on-boarding process for new members so that they feel up-to-date and know how to participate.
To gauge “network impact,” follow up with members to see what they do with the content, capacity and connections they get from calls. Are they able to leverage these for greater impact in their communities and regions to create “ripple effects”?
Reach out to other networks to see how they go about democratizing power and opportunity in a network. In addition, look to other groups across the state to see how they are working with grassroots groups to mobilize around policy.
Consider having an open conversation with member organizations about how to strengthen the sub-networks (coalitions) as a network. What ideas do they have? This might include giving them some overview of networks and network effects/impacts.
Consider conducting an assessment to find and leverage “network champions.” Are there certain members who are particularly enthusiastic about and active in network activity and might be ambassadors for the collective work? Might they be more formally enlisted as network weavers?
Consider the virtual tools currently used for keeping members connected (virtual meeting platforms, shared files and documents, archives, private group pages). Are they working? Are people taking full advantage of them? Is there additional value they are looking for that might be provided by other tools?
Consider using a more formal network assessment to look for strengths and areas for growth and improvement in the network’s structures and practices. This could be conducted among staff alone and also include key partners. Examples include “Network Effectiveness: Diagnostic and Development Tool”, “Partnership Self-Assessment Tool” and “Network Health Scorecard.”
Recently a long-time member of the Food Solutions New England (FNSE) Network Team let us know that they would be transitioning out of their current job and needing to leave the network, at least the core role they have played. FSNE is entering its second, and critical, decade of work, and going through a transition itself as it strives to better weave together a regional food system that is grounded in racial justice, ecological sustainability and democratic principles. It has been quite the journey, 2020 not withstanding.
This person, and real FSNE champion, gave a tremendous gift in their email, laying out how meaningful their experience has been these last several years. In so doing, there is also a wonderful articulation of what being in a network can be all about. Here is a taste of what was so generously offered:
“What stands out to me when looking back is how many aspects of FSNE’s work are challenging: communicating complex concepts; making the most of limited time when such a rich network of folks gets together; putting up with ambiguity when structure and linearity are so comforting and in demand.
But the rewards from the process are on an equal scale with the challenge: building lasting and meaningful relationships with diverse folks from across the food system; being able to think and strategize about that system in entirely new ways; learning new ways to think and to go about work and life. … in offering this to participants, FSNE is very unique among organizations. …
I’m looking forward to what’s coming next, sensing and hoping that the world at large is more ready to support FSNE’s values now, than it was even a year ago.”
So well said! And we know FSNE is not alone.
Even as the network (along with so many others) navigates complexity and disruption and continues to make “progress” around its “impact areas” (including more dense and diverse connectivity; greater advancement of the vision and values; increased regional alignment around a new food narrative; more collaboration on regional food, farm and fisheries policy; more wide-spread commitment to anti-racism in the food system), it can be hard to “see” all of this in the moment. Like so many things in life, it is only in retrospect that we can get a sense of how far we have come. And also like so many things in life, as our transitioning FSNE colleague expressed so beautifully, it is not just what we can most tangibly measure that matters, but also (and perhaps more so) qualitative change and the nature of our experiences (processes, relationships) along the way.
I am struck by how the network building and weaving field has really mushroomed over the past several years, and with it, so much learning around approaches, structures, roles, strategy, etc. I regularly hear myself say that there is no one right way to go about “net work” for change (which is why I regularly reference this compendium of thoughts on networks – “A Network Way of Working”). That said, I have found that “principles” (for lack of a better word) for network thinking and action have been helpful in a number of different contexts to support people in finding ways to leverage the promise of networks (or “network effects”).
This is a list that I continue to play with, expanding and contracting given new learning and different contexts. I recently offered the following version to a food system network. Always open to riffs and improvements …
Come First as Givers, Not Takers – Of course people should think about their self-interest, but if everyone holds out for what they are going to get, then nothing gets created in the first place. Generosity leads to generativity.
Support Intricacy & Flow, Beyond Bottlenecks & Hoarding – Many kinds of connection and robust movement of resources of all kinds is what contributes to the adaptive and regenerative capacity of networks.
Make the Periphery the Norm, Don’t Get Stuck in the Core – In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. … Big, undreamed-of things–the people on the edge see them first.”
Work with Others and/or Out Loud, Not in Isolation – Otherwise, what is the point of creating a network?! Connect, cooperate, coordinate, collaborate, and for God’s sake, share!
Value Contributions Before Credentials – Valuable contributions come from all kinds of places and people. Credentials and holding out for a certain kind of “expertise” can get in the way of seeing the greater abundance around you, and benefitting from it.
Lead with Love and a Sense of Abundance, Not Fear and Scarcity – Fear and scarcity narrow our view, shrink our thinking about what is possible, and inhibit our willingness to share. Love is love and does what love does.
Think Spread and Depth Before Scale – Because it’s easier in many ways, can avoids mechanical/replication thinking, and helps to establish a more firm foundation (think roots under the tree).
Support Resilience and Redundancy Instead of Rock Stardom – Because we aren’t all that special and because its not strategic to put all eggs in one basket, however shiny. And then there’s the ego thing …
Trust in Self-Organization & Emergence, Not Permission & Predictability – COVID19 is driving this lesson home, big time. We are not in control. Life is complex, and beautifully so. Evolution is real, and so is people’s capacity to be response-able when they are trusted.
Say “We’re the Leaders!” Instead of “Who is the Leader?” – Who and what are you waiting for? And why?
Do What You Do Best and Connect to the Rest – Stop trying to do it all. It’s not possible, it creates unnecessary competition and it inhibits collaborative efficiencies (yes, they exist).
Attract a Diverse Flock, Not Birds of a Feather – Homophily (like being attracted to like) is a strong tendency in people. In network speak, we should not simply bond, but also bridge. This is important for the wok of equity and inclusion, tapping creativity and innovation, and and tasting spice in Life.
As you review the framework, would you share your responses to the questions below in the comments?
What does it bring up for you?
Where do you find yourself focusing your thinking and efforts?
What might you want to explore, start, continue or further develop, or stop doing in any of the stages?How does the framework help you prioritize and perhaps find empowering areas for action and partnership?
As you navigate the complex times of COVID-19 and racial uprising, consider what it would take to transition through these four dimensions, what needs to be in place, what is already in place, and what we need to reimagine and rebuild.
1 – In the Trauma Dimension: How are we responding to the impact of trauma from COVID, racism, and other shocks?
Racial Equity & Justice:
Are we removing racialized barriers to emergency resources?
Are we using a racial equity impact analysis tool to understand and evaluate our response? Even when we feel rushed?
Are we recognizing deep racial harm in our organization and networks?
Are we pausing and engaging in quick and meaningful stakeholder engagement to guide our responses and ensure less harm?
Are we attending to both relationships and results as we carry out our work?
Are we acting and responding with humility, empathy, and transparency?
Are we practicing presence and accountability?
Are we connecting with diverse networks to gather and share information and foster flows to address critical needs?
2 – In the Reckoning Dimension: How are we grappling with deep distress and the reality of shifting resources? How are we embracing racial uprisings for change? How are we embracing uncertainty?
Racial Equity & Justice:
Are we acknowledging inequities revealed by crisis?
Are we acting to undo the racialized impacts of our actions?
How are we recognizing the leadership of Black people and what are the lessons for our organizations?