Posted in Networks

July 13, 2022

Getting to the Goods (and Beyond “Folded Arms” Syndrome) in Impact Networks

“Your generosity is more important than your perfection.”

Seth Godin

Over the past 20 years of working with a variety of social change networks, I have observed a common dynamic surface after the initial enthusiasm and launch phase. As happened recently with a place-based network about a year into its development (navigating COVID and political uprisings along the way), some members started to bang the “What have we actually done?” drum. Contextual crises notwithstanding, this is not an inappropriate or unhelpful question. As important as relationship and trust-building is, there can come a time when people want to know … “So what?” Sometimes this comes from what we might call more “results-oriented” people in the network. Or it may come from the more time-strapped and stressed, those from smaller organizations, or those who just genuinely don’t see the return on their investment. When this has come up, and people are either holding back (“folded arms”) or threatening to walk, I have witnessed and facilitated several different ways of moving through the real or perceived lack of progress.

  1. “If you want it, then you better put a ring around it” – In one instance, the convening team of a state-wide network essentially drew a line around all of the network participants and started claiming their successes as network successes. This might sound a bit shady, though it was not done in that spirit. By celebrating “your success as our success,” people felt appreciated and started to turn towards one another and see themselves as a bigger we. They didn’t have to wait to get to mass action. Smaller subsets having success counted.
  2. Get a quick win – In another state-wide network, fraught at the outset by folded arms despite the fact that people would regularly physically show up for meetings, a network coordinator seized upon a timely policy advocacy opportunity that surfaced, which resulted in a mass outpouring and a legislative win. Nothing sells like success. That early victory got people eager to see what else they might be able to accomplish and they settled in for some more relationship-building.
  3. Collect and share connection stories – We know that relationship-building is not just about the relationships. It can lead to new partnerships and projects. Often this happens at the start of a network, but is not tracked. We worked with another place-based network that intentionally set out to track the results of connections made in and through the network, and then shared these with the network as a whole. More about connection stories here.
  4. Highlight the unusual and adjacent conversations – What makes many of the networks we work with unique is that they bring together people who do not often work with each other. Highlighting this and also what emerges out of novel interactions across fields can make “just talking” into exciting explorations and engines of innovation. For a little inspiration on this front, see “Why the most interesting ideas happen at the borders between disciplines” from Steven Johnson at Adjacent Possible (!).
  5. Pump people up, individually and collectively – Let’s face it, in these times (and really all times), expressing genuine appreciation can go a long way. We work with a network convenor who does this wonderfully, tracking and celebrating people for their individual contributions outside of network gatherings, and constantly speaking to the power and potential of the collective. She just makes people feel good! This can make the proverbial “marathon, not a sprint” more enjoyable.
  6. Get a super weaver going – Having a really adept and energetic network weaver can make all the difference in the early stages of a network. We have seen the impact this can have when ample capacity is created to regularly check in with people, listen to them, make connections between different needs and offers in the system, and encourage people to share more with one another. When those exchanges start happening, the “there” there is often more apparent.
  7. Lift up the network champions – Generally there is a small group of people who really appreciate and lean into the value of the network from the get go (gratefully receiving and using resources that are shared, following up with new connections, testing out new ideas, leveraging the network as a platform), making it happen and not waiting for it. Observing this, capturing it, and sharing it with the network can help make the point that the network is what people make of it and give ideas for how to make this happen.

What have you done to successfully navigate impatience and intransigence in impact networks?

Image by Sylvain Raybaud, shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
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June 11, 2022

Energy Systems Practice (ESP) for Long-Term Human Thriving

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. Sally and I recently 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 exploring, identifying and building out resources, practices and tools at different “levels” (individual, group/organization, and larger system) in the four different domains of Energy System Science that support saluto-genesis (the capacity of living systems to reproduce resilience and wellbeing). The four domains include:

  • regenerative flows
  • resilient and balanced structures
  • common cause culture
  • collaborative learning

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 starter 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 summer. 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 practice along the way: Joe Weston, Gwen McClellan, john a. powell, Eve Capkanis, Rev. Howard Thurman, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Joel Glanzberg, June Holley, Resmaa Menakem, Katya Fels Smyth, Tanya Tucker, Robert Peng, Maya Townsend, Father Richard Rohr, Melinda Weekes-Laidlow, Dorn Cox, Sherri Mitchell, Harold Jarche, Donella Meadows, Marty Kearns, Tara Brach, John Fullerton, Marilyn Darling, Daniel Christian Wahl, Anne Marie Chiasson, Tyson Yunkaporta, Kelly Bates and Steven C. Hayes, among others.

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March 4, 2022

Energy Systems Science and Practice: Thinking and Acting Like an Integrative Acupressurist

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-operation and 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?

For more on acupressure, I recommend Sam McClellan’s book, Integrative Acupressure: A Hands-On Guide to Balancing the Body’s Structure and Energy for Health and Healing.

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January 13, 2022

Energy System Science for Network Weavers: A Summary

Image by lwtt93, “Flow,” shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

“Culture is a verb.”

– 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:

  1. Circulate diverse resources regeneratively, at and between different scales/levels
  2. Create and sustain flexible and resilient structures of different and balance sizes
  3. Ground in common-cause values such as mutuality, trust, transparency, equity, justice, fairness, accountability 
  4. 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.

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January 5, 2022

Steps for Network Evolution in Ever Uncertain and Pregnant Times

Image by snowpeak, “Connections,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons attribution license 2.0.

We just completed a third year of providing coaching support to a state-wide health equity network. We began our partnership before the pandemic and have spent the last couple of years checking in as life with the pandemic and intersecting crises have evolved, working with both staff and key partners. It has been interesting to see how there has been a natural inclination to build on recommendations from our first year, as people have appreciated the power of and need for leaning into more networked ways of thinking and acting (spending more time connecting organically and getting to know one another, providing mutual support in light of intersecting crises, staff operating as more of a gate-opener for and facilitative leader with partners, creating stronger alignment around shared policy priorities across the state and between communities).

In our first year report we used the Connectivity-Alignment-Coordinated Action framework to assess gaps, strengths and possibilities for the network. What this framework suggests is that  movements for social change and advocacy organizations can be more effective when they bring a network lens to their work and intentionally cultivate diverse, intricate and robust connections and exchanges of various kinds through those connections to advance their goals. 

This includes:

  • creating stronger connectivity and trust between people, organizations, and communities;
  • facilitating greater alignment amongst those who are connected around shared purpose, values, and/or common goals;
  • coordinating action and also creating conditions for/supporting self-organized initiative among aligned people, organizations and communities.

In conversations with organizational staff who steward the network throughout 2020 and into 2021, it was clear that much had moved on different fronts with respect to all three realms. Some examples include:

  • Virtual retreats seeking maximizing network connections and deepen relationships.
  • More care and attention given to onboarding for new members.
  • Mindfulness being given to tech tools regarding how best to use virtual spaces so that they are accessible, allow for equitable engagement, and do not distance or marginalize participants. 
  • Staff working to facilitate connection and alignment between partners working on advocacy for the state budget and organizing in local communities. 
  • Advocacy work that has included more network mobilization and in a way such that staff is less protective of connections to lawmakers.
  • Community partners have been invited to bring along a community member and there was an opportunity to work with relatively high level staffers. 
  • Virtual retreats have featured an activity around “contribution mapping,” to look at, appreciate and celebrate how the network more broadly was engaged in action. 

The report also included a set of recommendations, many of which we feel could be applied to many different networks in these times, especially as people grapple with issues of capacity and the need to front and center care and wellbeing. And so we offer this slightly edited list for wider consideration, with an invitation to add:

  1. Keep doing what you are doing! Continuing to facilitate deeper trust and connection, stronger alignment and broader network action will only help to support the overall movement for justice and sustainability. 
  2. With respect to creating new and strengthening existing network connectivity going forward, ask what few key connections would really bolster the overall network and its work. As Grace Lee Boggs puts it, “Movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass.”
  3. Consider how you might continuously cultivate a set of “network weavers” (and weaving behavior overall). Look for who is already engaged as “network champions” and consider supporting their capacity to do what they might naturally be inclined to do. 
  4. Consider deepening values work with staff and key partners. As there continues to be tumult in many places and spaces, helping people to ground in and be accountable to shared values can be of tremendous benefit in strengthening alignment. More on this here
  5. Pay attention to how you are spending your time and energy around network development, for the sake of all network members. There is so much overwhelm in so many systems now. Ask what brings life to the overall network and to participants and co-creators throughout and follow that. For more on connection, flow and energy management, see this.
  6. Related to the above, if you do not do this already, consider bringing in a trauma- and burnout-informed lens to your work with partners. Some guidance can be found in the context of this post
  7. And by all means, take time to celebrate your successes and recognize how you are changing and evolving in “small” ways as an organization and a network. Experience shows that his will go a long way to keeping people fueled and engaged. Keep telling the evolving story of networked change.
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November 19, 2021

Prompting Network Weaving: “Questions? Comments? Connections?”

“Movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass.”

― Grace Lee Boggs

Sometimes the small moves and tweaks we make can create significant change and opportunity. We are definitely being reminded of this as we facilitate this year’s Food Solutions New England Network Leadership Institute (NLI).

Having run the NLI for four years as an in-person offering, happening over three multi-day retreats in different parts of the region, we took a break during 2020, which we had considered doing before the pandemic, and recalibrated. The lingering uncertainties of COVID19 forced us into making the Institute virtual, and it is now a monthly day-long offering, that happens between September and February, with optional intersession opportunities (a movie – we have already watched “Gather”, a cooking demonstration – Wampanoag Chef Sherry Pocknett joined us earlier this month, a Liberating Structures evening, etc.).

Along the way we are doing what we can to encourage connections beyond our on-line gatherings, and doing this by making space for realtime connection, albeit on Zoom. This has stretched our creativity and also has us constantly thinking about how to balance presentation with discussion, form and void, whole group with small group and paired discussions, etc. One small practice that we have integrated that seems to be helping people connect during and between sessions is asking a few simple questions. Where this shows up most prominently is when a few of this year’s cohort members do short 10 minute presentations during each session about their work advancing just and sustainable food systems.

When people share, we prompt them not simply to talk about what they do, but also WHY IT MATTERS TO THEM. In addition, we may ask what they bring to the work they do and what excites and challenges them about this work. What we find is that this can create opportunities for connections that are not simply functional (You do what I do or something related to what I do), but also values-based and affective/emotional (Hey, we have some of the same experiences/motivations!) and mutuality (Hey, I have something that might be helpful for you, and you might have something that is helpful for me!). My colleague Karen Spiller and I ask these same questions during panels we have of food systems change agents in our region, before inviting small group breakouts for the cohort to be more intimate with the individual panelists (our recent session included Gaby Pereyra of Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, Anna Muhammad of NOFA-Massachusetts, Sarah Huang of The Grassroots Fund and Madeline Sarrow of Migrant Justice, all speaking to one of FSNE’s four core impact areasracial equity leadership).

Another simple but powerful question we ask, after someone presents is, “Questions? Comments? Connections?” It is interesting to see how many people jump on the last question, making connections between their work and that of the presenter, offering a name or resource that might be of support, or thinking about possibilities for collaboration. Of course some people might be inclined to do that without the prompt, but this refrain, “Questions? Comments? Connections? seems to be prompting regular weaving activity during and between sessions, reminding us that the questions we ask matter!

And we are checking in with people during each session about the connections they have made since our last time together, reminding them and ourselves that larger change and movement is built through and upon this work of reaching out and exchange!

What other questions have you been asking and small moves have you been making to promote a culture of weaving?

For more on small moves to advance networks, see 3 Mantras and 3 Small Moves for Advancing Networks and 25 Behaviors That Support Strong Network Culture.

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November 5, 2021

The Power of Networks, In So Many Words

Getting ready to host a session for the Connecticut Food System Alliance (CFSA) focused on “rethinking networks,” I am playing with a list of curated quotes from various people, which all have something to do with networks, connection and interrelatedness. I’ve found over the years that diving into theory first is not a way to bring participants in. Instead I begin with associations, stories and a set of quotes. Below are the ones that I plan on offering to the CFSA by way of volunteer readers, with an invitation for everyone to pay attention to what resonates – when are heads nodding, pulses quickening, smiles spreading, goose bumps rising … and asking readers here to do the same and to freely share your own favorites that do not appear on this list.

“It really boils down to this: all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

“Connections create value. The social era will reward those organizations that realize they don’t create value all by themselves. If the industrial era was about building things, the social era is about connecting things, people, and ideas.”

– Nilofer Merchant (entrepreneur)

“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.” It’s always about critical connections.”                                           

– Grace Lee Boggs (community organizer)

“Network intelligence is the ability to learn from a diverse group of connections. Wherever you work, look beyond your walls: there are more smart people outside than inside your organization.”

– Reid Hoffman (digital strategist)

“We can no longer rely upon traditional gatekeepers of information and knowledge. Each of us must engage with others and develop our trusted knowledge networks. None of us are smart enough to handle all the connections in our digital lives on our own. We need to use both our human networks and our machines in concert.”

  – Harold Jarche (personal knowledge management expert)

“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 (author, doula, activist)

“The key knowledge/abilities of an organization are found in individuals, teams, projects, and their interconnections. The value of the organization is in its network! … The structure of the organization can be viewed via the organization chart. But the ‘doing and learning’ of the organization happens in the ‘white space’ on the organization chart.”

– Valdis Krebs (network scientist)

“While a network, like a group, is a collection of people, it includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties are often more important than the individual people themselves. They allow groups to do things that a disconnected collection of individuals cannot. The ties explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

‐ Nicholas A. Christakis (sociologist and physician)

“Connectedness is a social determinant of health. The degree to which we have and perceive a sufficient number and diversity of relationships that allow us to give and receive information, emotional support and material aid; create a sense of belonging and value; and foster growth.”

‐ Katya Fels Smyth (advocate for equity and well-being)

“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 (Indigenous rights activist and spiritual teacher)

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October 14, 2021

Network Evolution: A Second Decade Brings More Diversity, Intricacy and Robustness

 “Long term prosperity is primarily a function of healthy human webs.”

– Sally J. Goerner
Image by Matthias Ripp

“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:

From the FSNE website
  • New England Food 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 MooreDebbie 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.
From FSNE website
  • 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. 
From FSNE website
  • 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.
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September 13, 2021

Weave Back Better: Investing in Network Weaving as Part of Core Infrastructure

I was recently in conversation about the creation of a systems change programmatic offering for funders and nonprofit leaders, and as the discussion turned to the “once in a generation” billions of dollars investment from the US federal government into states and towns, a thought occurred more clearly. Part of “building back better” is weaving back better, connecting and reconnecting the social and cultural fabric of places and communities. This work could fall to official and unofficial “network weavers,” in places that are so inclined, and perhaps there is a need to make this work more official, visible and well supported/compensated.

At a time when many are disengaged from work because of disenchantment, uncertainty and burnout, what could be more engaging than being paid to build trust, facilitate communication and learning, and weave more functional, equitable, resilient and democratic structures of all kinds? A Civic Weaving Corps (CWC)!!!

A few years ago I worked with a place-based multi-organizational collaborative initiative in Massachusetts with a focus on health and fitness. What they recognized is that there was not nearly enough interstitial tissue between organizations and agencies, so that beneficiaries of the system were dropping through gaps or confused about how to navigate. Relying on existing staff to do this was not realistic (except for the energetic few who then risked burnout, or not doing their “day job” well). The same came up in a national education network, where school coaches were discovered to be playing a crucial weaving role between schools within and across regions. This, however, was not what they were formally paid to do, and so it was the first thing to go when people got pressed.

So what if part of Build Back Better lifted up the strong suggestion that cities, towns, states and regions take seriously the importance of weaving activity, and officially supported the creation of network weaver positions (called that or something else contextually meaningful)? Isn’t this the time? What if we really took this opportunity to promote relational stewardship at different scales as being central to ensuring long-term human thriving? While there is some risk to institutionalizing anything, this seems to be worth doing so that it becomes more of a habit and value in systems. And certainly institutionalizing network weaving behaviors in many more positions might help to create the regenerative flows and resilient structures needed for a just and sustainable future.

There could be many models for this. One with which I am intimately familiar is the Food Solutions New England Racial Equity Ambassador Program. This team of passionate and skillful weavers takes the FSNE Vision and Values and its commitment to racial equity in food and related systems to communities across the region. They work 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. 

What do you think? Where is this happening already? How might we advance this as a cause collectively?

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August 29, 2021

A Network Leadership Institute Goes Virtual, With an Appeal to the Senses

Photo from Southside Community Land Trust (Providence, RI)

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.

Here is a guide to the treats in this box!

From Connecticut:

Rachel Beth’s Healing Therapies – Sage Smudging Spray

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.

From Maine:

Passamaquoddy Maple – Maple Drops

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.  

From Passamaquoddy Maple Facebook page

Rwanda Bean – Coffee Tasting Trio

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.” 

Little Linden Herbals – Apple Mint Sage Tea

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! 

From Massachusetts: 

Cacao Nuts and Chocolates – chocolate covered pretzels 

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. 

From cacao nuts & chocolates website

From New Hampshire:

Stock + Spice – Wicked Hot Salt

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.

Popzup – Popcorn 

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!

From Rhode Island:

African Alliance of Rhode Island – Savory Carrot Jam 

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).

From African Alliance of Rhode Island Facebook page

From Vermont:

Castleton Crackers – Simple Wheat Crackers 

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 our Facilitative 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. 

Please enjoy in good health!

Karen, Curtis, El and Jane

Photo from Housatonic Community College (Bridgeport, CT)
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August 15, 2021

Into the Matrix and Beyond: The Value of Network Values and Values-Focused Processes

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:

Democratic Empowerment:

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.

Sustainability:

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.

Trust:

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.”

Brene Brown

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 and groups 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 and work 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.

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August 10, 2021

Perspectives From a ParadigmShift: Lessons for Net Work, Racial Equity, Innovation and System Change

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 input builds 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—and build authentic relationships with—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 that legitimizes 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.

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