Traditional management has run its course. At IISC and in our network of clients and equity practitioners, we’re trying to create something new in its place. We don’t have all the answers, but we know it’s time to discover another way.
As a Generation X’er who worked “under” bosses trained in traditional command and control leadership, I saw the poor results of “do what I say” or “do as I do” leadership. In the 80s and 90s, management strategies were based on military and manufacturing leadership practices which relied on top-down hierarchies, rigid routines, and long work hours.
Obedience of the workforce was paramount. And it was suffocating.
A natural product of the system of racialized capitalism, management was – and in many cases still is – about dominion over people and making sure they work harder and faster to amass money and resources for those “at the top.” It’s too often about quantity and output over people and quality, rather than what you ultimately accomplish.
Fortunately, collaboration as a critical proposition for team effectiveness, and equity and wellbeing as vital strategies for organizational success, are now in play in more workplaces. And yet, if we’re honest, we’re still churning out work and people like generations before us. The pandemic tried to teach us otherwise, but now that we’ve moved from pandemic panic to endemic acceptance, we’ve fallen back into old habits. We’ve defaulted to management practices that are rooted in the anxiety that comes from living in a world of systems which perpetuate oppression, political chaos, and climate catastrophes. Anxiety compels us to micromanage, remove employee autonomy, and revert to workplace disciplinary practices,
At IISC we’re working hard to stay true to our values and practices by approaching our organizational structure and practices with intention. We’re moving away from traditional management to transformational leadership that is based in shared leadership and the facilitative leadership and equity practices we bring to others.
So what are we doing? Here are three strategies we’re trying:
We’re decentering ourselves as “managers.” We’re developing a new leadership and decision-making structure that envisions each of us as leaders in a network, offering our contributions individually and collectively to move the whole. People closest to their areas of work and the impact of the work will be entrusted with decisions in those domains. Multiracial and multigenerational leadership will be a core principle as we undo work norms that stem from cultures of white supremacy.
We’re creating a workplace that is about preserving dignity and wellbeing. We believe that policies that promote wellbeing help us approach our work with greater focus and creativity. And having more time outside of work to rest and connect enables us to see the world more clearly and better understand our organization’s role in making the world a better place. We have implemented a four-day work week to give people a greater balance between work and personal time, and we’ve launched a compensation pod to explore how to increase our wages through an equity lens. We’re repackaging some of our functions so they fit better within each person’s job and hiring more people to share those responsibilities. We avoid booking meetings before 10am so people have time to plan their days, do solo work, and attend to caregiving responsibilities.
We’re building new practices for holding each other accountable to our work goals and values by navigating the conflict that naturally arises in an organizational setting. We’ve had a dominant culture of “niceness” that allowed tensions to stay buried, leading to work inefficiencies and resentment. To address that, we’ve worked with transformative justice practitioners to learn to step into more radical candor with each other. We’ve learned it’s possible to have hard conversations and hold people with dignity by engaging in truth-telling that emphasizes impact over intent. And, last but not least, we’re piloting mechanisms for sharing feedback that are not based on a supervision model but rather on coaching and mutual accountability sessions.
I’m relieved that future generations may be spared the problematic management practices of the past that treated us like widgets instead of precious humans. But we need a lot more people and leaders who are willing to stand with us and our allies. And who are ready to lead us forward into this new way of working.
We want to hear from you! How are you trying to replace traditional management practices with transformational leadership? How do you want to take a stand?
This is something that I put into a digital journal as I was traveling home to capture what was moving through me:
“Just leaving Jackson, Mississippi, where I was for three days, co-facilitating and participating in a gathering convened by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future of food policy councils from around the country (US) that are trying to advance social equity in their work. It was incredibly powerful to me to gather in Jackson, for all its history; to meet the likes of Reena Evers-Everette (daughter of Medgar and Myrlie Evers), Charles Taylor (head of the NAACP-Mississippi), Savi Horne (Land Loss Prevention Program), Ed Whitfield (Seed Commons) and Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott(founder of Foot Print Farms); and also to learn more from colleagues there about the network weaving and healing work they are doing in and around food systems, which is about so much more than food – community, local economy, and culture.
As I was walking through the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum about two hours after we closed the convening, I was hit in the forehead and heart (literally had to sit down) by the messages from both the history I was taking in and also what I had just experienced in Jackson. And I should add that it links to the work we at IISC have been supporting through Food Solutions New England for over a decade. To distill “success” (or encouraging movement) in the Civil Rights movement (especially in Mississippi) and what is happening now in Mississippi and in New England around food systems change, much seems to come down to this:
Grounding in the anchoring power of faith, which may or may not be religiously-sourced, and nonetheless is about having humility in the face of Life’s gifts and grandeur, which is complex and awe-inspiring, and asks us to both never give up but also to let go …
On top of this, or infused with this, comes the work for policy change, creating new civic infrastructure, and the like, and never losing sight of the list above.
One peril, over and over again, in social/system change work, seems to be the pitfalls of abstraction – making what we are doing too intellectual and inaccessible to most, not to mention unactionable; not addressing the abstractions that people make of one another in systems (seeing someone only as their role, or other aspects of identity); inappropriately “scaling” or “franchising” efforts and not shaping the work to real places where there may be some familiar patterns but always uniqueness in terms of history and culture.
Another peril is perpetuating fragmentation – not working with living breathing wholes, siloing our “knowing” to overly intellectual/analytical thinking, failing to integrate/weave strategies and perpetuating unhelpful competition (playing into the oligarchic capitalist narrative and way of doing things).”
Now reflecting on this a few days later, something else comes up, which is the importance of ongoing work on ourselves as “change agents,” care-fully watching our own automatic tendencies, biases, and inclinations (including towards groupthink), and especially being careful of the rearing of the overly pride-full ego in the forms of fear, envy, greed and striving for control. Much seems to come down to the abiding power of Love (and from it the expression when necessary of “holy rage”) and the never-ending practice of making room for regenerative flows …
Still sitting with it all, and curious to hear reactions, resonances and other reflections …
This year, we are again excited to partner with Food Solutions New England on the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge. This will be the 9th offering of what began as an experiment to bring a region together in exploration of the connection between race, racism and the food system, and what can be done to ensure equity and fairness across all lines of identity. Each year the Challenge has evolved, including more and different resources, topics, tools, and features. And the number of participants has grown from roughly 250 in the first year to several thousand over the last five years, with a total of more than 30,000 people signing up from all 50 US states and over 30 other countries. For more on this evolution, see this post.
What we wanted to highlight this year is that we are framing everything under the theme of “Moving to equitable wellbeing and belonging in food systems and beyond.” Why wellbeing and belonging? Because most everyone can relate to the ideas of wellbeing and belonging. Also because this phrase can help to answer the question regarding what some of the big goals are of doing racial and other forms of “equity work.”
At a time when we might feel confused about what it means to work for equity and justice, and when many words have become political footballs, we find that focusing on the core values and destinations of equitable wellbeing and belonging can help to ground and focus people. This is especially so when we focus on definitions of wellbeing and belonging that (1) most if not all people across identities can relate to, (2) emphasize the systemic, structural, and social nature of these terms, and (3) help us better understand how racism and other forms of bias and oppression can get in the way and ultimately impact everyone. We are especially fortunate to be able to turn to our partners in and experts on wellbeing at The Full Frame Initiative and on othering at the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California at Berkeley.
“We are all wired for wellbeing.” So say our friends at the Full Frame Initiative (FFI). And while this may be the case, they go on to say, “We do not all have a fair shot at wellbeing.”This ends up being due in large part to different kinds of treatment and opportunities that can fall along lines of identity, including race and ethnicity. While this clearly impacts the victims of racism and other -isms, it also ends up impacting everyone in society.
So what is wellbeing? According to FFI,
“Wellbeing is the set of needs and experiences essential, in combination and balance, to weather challenges and have health and hope.”
Wellbeing here is not the same as “wellness,” which often is used in very individualistic kinds of ways – for example, whether or not you are “well” is because of the choices you have made.
The work of FFI around wellbeing also points to five key factors or domains in play, which are largely socially determined:
Social connectedness to people/communities that allows us to give and to receive, and spaces where we experience belonging to something bigger than ourselves.
Stability that comes from having things we can count on to be the same from day to day and knowing that a small bump won’t set off a domino-effect of crises.
Safety, the ability to be ourselves without significant danger or harm.
Mastery, that comes from being able to influence other people and what happens to us, having a sense of purpose and skills to navigate and negotiate our life.
Meaningful access to relevant resources like food, housing, clothing, sleep and more, without shame, danger or difficulty.
The first domain above has clear connections to social location and connection. Being embedded and engaged in supportive social networks is a great contributor to individual and collective wellbeing. Beyond this, being connected to others in authentic, caring, and mutually rewarding webs of relationships can contribute to a sense of stability, safety, and purpose, and it can create access to resources (financial and otherwise) that sustain and enliven us.
To learn more about these “five domains of wellbeing” and why they matter for everyone, you can check out the interactive graphic at this link and/or watch the short video below with FFI’s Tanya Tucker.
Belonging. This is a powerful word, feeling, and condition/situation. It is more than inclusion, simply “feeling or being included.” It is about being fundamentally “seen” and “respected.” The concept of belonging has been explored and expressed by many over time, and with great depth, nuance, and relevance more recently by the staff at the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California-Berkeley (OBI). OBI contrasts belonging to “othering,” a process which fundamentally denies certain people recognition of their full or even partial humanity. You can watch or listen to a roughly five minute segment of a talk that OBI founder john a. powell gave in 2019 about othering and belonging (see below – start at 9:10 and end at 13:45).
As with the concept of wellbeing, belonging is understood here as being directly connected to power dynamics. According to OBI,
“Belonging means having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of political, social, and cultural structures that shape one’s life — the right to both contribute and make demands upon society and political institutions.”
Belonging then requires power, access, and opportunity among all groups and individuals within a given social structure, such as a society, organization, business, club, etc. And as Brian Stout, ever curious explorer of “building belonging,” writes, “Belonging is a felt sense in our bodies of safety, power, wholeness, and welcome. It is a relational quality that can be cultivated and practiced.”
With this relational and systemic understanding of belonging, we can see how the different “levels of racism,” in food and other systems, can create othering in interpersonal, institutional, and also individually internalized ways, which can and do ripple through the broader fabric of our shared social body, or what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called as our “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
If you are interested in further exploring these topics and engaging in this conversation about giving everyone a fair shot at wellbeing, repairing, healing, and building belonging in food systems and beyond, join us for this year’s 21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge. Registration information can be found here.
“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.”
This post is a continuation of the one that appeared earlier this week (Tuesday, November 29th), and together both form an extended article that was written for participants of this month’s Wellbeing Summit, hosted by the Full Frame Initiative.
What is network weaving?
“A network weaver is someone who is aware of the networks around them and works to make them healthier.”
June Holley (writer, activist, network consultant)
Network weaving is an umbrella term for the practice of network leadership/stewardship, and it refers to a specific role. If you think about weaving with fabric, it is about bringing different strands together to create a tapestry or cloth of some kind. This can create beautiful patterns, functional garments, and also strength where individual fibers might otherwise be relatively weak. The same goes for weaving connections between people, places and ideas. This is what network weaving is about!
Network weaving is not necessarily the same thing as networking. Networking is generally about putting oneself at the center and making connections to others that create what is called a hub-and-spoke network (see middle image below).
“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 (author, social activist, philosopher)
A core activity in network weaving is what is called “closing triangles.” This happens, for example, when we connect people we know who do not already know each other. This effectively creates a triangle of connection (see the many triangles created through the connections in the left hand image above). These triangles, by extension, can bring the connections that those three people know together, potentially creating more diversity, intricacy and robustness in a larger network (see image below). This is how we can begin to realize a sense of abundance, if these many connections are actively engaged, sharing, contributing and caring for each other and the whole network.
The work of network weaving is also about strengthening existing connections, keeping them warm and engaged. This can happen through activities such as asking questions, making requests and offers, and sharing resources of different kinds. Beyond this core function of supporting greater connectivity, network weaving can also be about supporting greater alignment and coordinated or emergent/self-organized action in networks. Other key moves for weaving and activating networks can include:
designing and facilitating processes to achieve a sense of shared identity/destiny
curating a variety of resources for and diverse communication pathways between members
creating conditions for self-organized and emergent action
helping to coordinate joint ventures
What do networks and network weaving have to do with having a fair shot at wellbeing?
“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 (wellbeing/justice advocate, Full Frame Initiative founder)
Wellbeing, as defined by the Full Frame Initiative (FFI), is “the set of needs and experiences that are universally required in combination and balance to weather challenges and have health and hope.” FFI notes further that everyone is wired for wellbeing, but we do not all have a fair shot at the core determinants of wellbeing, or what FFI uplifts as the 5 Domains of Wellbeing.
Social connectedness to people/communities that allows us to give and to receive, and spaces where we experience belonging to something bigger than ourselves.
Stability that comes from having things we can count on to be the same from day to day and knowing that a small bump won’t set off a domino-effect of crises.
Safety, the ability to be ourselves without significant danger or harm.
Mastery, that comes from being able to influence other people and what happens to us, having a sense of purpose and skills to navigate and negotiate our life.
Meaningful access to relevant resourceslike food, housing, clothing, sleep and more, without shame, danger or difficulty.
The first domain above has clear connections to networks and network weaving. Being embedded and engaged in supportive social networks is a great contributor to individual and collective wellbeing! Beyond this, being connected to others in authentic, caring and mutually rewarding webs of relationships can contribute to a sense of stability, safety, purpose, as well create access to resources (financial and otherwise) that sustain and enliven us. So let’s notice the networks around us, who is in them and who is not, who has access to the five domains (see above) and who does not, and invite others to do the same. Ask, “What systemic changes need to be made for greater inclusion, equity and belonging?” And then together, let’s weave our way to everyone having a fair shot at wellbeingll!
“i think of movements as intentional worlds … 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.”
The following post was written for those who will be attending the Full Frame Initiative’s (FFI) Wellbeing Summit in Charlotte, North Carolina December 11-14. The Interaction Institute for Social Change has been supporting FFI staff and signers of the Wellbeing Blueprintin developing network ways of thinking and doing as they work to equitable wellbeing in systems ranging from health care to transportation to housing to education to legal aid to food and beyond. Feel free to sign the Wellbeing Blueprint by going to the link above and join the movement to ensure that everyone has a fair shot at wellbeing.
“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. (minister, activist, civil rights leader)
What are networks, and why should we care?
Networks are collections of “nodes and links,” different elements that are connected to each other. These nodes or elements could be people, places, computer or airport terminals, species in an ecosystem, etc. Together, through their connections, these nodes create something that they could not create on their own. This is what some might call “collective impact” or what network scientists call “net gains” and “network effects.”
“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.”
– Nicholas A. Christakis (sociologist, physician, researcher)
Network effects and net gains can include the following (see image below):
Resilience – The ability for a network to weather storms of different kinds, literal and metaphorical, and to bounce back from adversity. Healthy networks can bend without breaking.
Adaptation – The ability for a collective to change with changing conditions. Healthy networks can rearrange themselves to adjust and respond to disruptions and perturbations.
Small World Reach – The ability to reach others relatively quickly, across different lines of separation or difference (geography, culture, sector, etc.) . Healthy networks have a diversity and intricacy of pathways, so there are a variety of ways to reach many different nodes/members efficiently.
Rapid Dissemination – Related to reach, this is about the ability to get crucial resources out to a wide variety of nodes in a timely manner. Healthy networks can ensure that different members can get the nourishment (information, ideas, money, food, etc.) they need to survive and thrive.
“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, ideas.”
-Nilofer Merchant (entrepreneur, business strategist, author)
Other “network benefits” can accrue to individual nodes or members of a network. For example, when surveying members of different kinds of social change and learning networks, some of what often gets mentioned as benefits include:
Being with other people who inspire and support me
Learning about topics relevant to my work
Understanding the bigger picture that shapes and influences my work
Gaining new tools, skills and tactics to support my work
Having my voice and efforts amplified
Accessing new funding and other resources
Forming new partnerships and joint ventures
What is a healthy network?
“We are the 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.”
A healthy network is one that is able to achieve its collective purpose/core functions, while also addressing the interests of its members, and continuing to be adaptive to changing circumstances. Some key features of these kinds of networks include:
Intricacy of connections(many pathways between nodes)
Common sense of purpose or mutuality; a sense of a “bigger we”
Robustness of flowsof a variety of resources to all parts of the network
Shared responsibility for tending to the health and activity of the network
Resilient and distributed structure(s)with a variety of shared stewardship roles
A sense of equitable belonging and ability to give to/benefit from the network
Ongoing learningand adaptative capacity
Like any kind of living organism, networks require care and feeding to keep them vibrant. This is where network weaving comes into play! More on this in the post to follow on Thursday, December 1st …
“We now know what each other is made of. We can start weaving this beautiful tapestry, this community.”
“I don’t want to wait another 8 months until we are back in person!”
“I want others to know about this. I’ve never experienced anything like this. Others should know about this.”
The three quotes above came from participants in the newest Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Network Leadership Institute cohort, at the close of our opening session two weeks ago. After a year of doing an on-line only Institute, we made the decision to move to a hybrid model for this sixth annual offering, launching and concluding in-person during the warmer months (September and June) and going on-line for five sessions during the colder months late fall through early spring 2023.
Like so many, we weighed many considerations before making this choice. As one participant said during the session, “Many of us had to push through vulnerabilities to be here.” Ultimately we felt we really needed to tap into the power of the in-person gathering to ground people and set an energetic tone for the rest of the program. Many conversations were had about COVID protocols that would ensure safety without being overly onerous. This ended up including a wrist band system (see photos below), testing the day before, at arrival and after upon returning home (tests provided by the program), meeting for the bulk of the time outdoors in a tent with plenty of ventilation, light and spacing, and making masks available for those who wanted them, when we met or ventured indoors.
The tone we aimed to set from the outset was one of community care and belonging, acknowledging that for some this would be a new and welcome experience, and others may well be feeling anxious and uncertain. Hosting is always a spirit we aim to bring to the Institute, whether in-person or virtual, and includes working to ensure that everyone feels welcome and that their well-being is front and center. This included providing clear information on the front end around expectations and supports, a warm welcome upon arrival, a care package of local/regional food items (appropriate to our common work), keeping food and beverages available and setting a tone of ease and enjoyment (fidget items on tables, art supplies and a diverse music playlist).
More recently, the network has honed its focus on four overlapping impact areas as its unique and essential contribution, complementing those of its partners in the region, to bringing the FSNE vision and values for food system transformation to life. The Network Leadership Institute (NLI) is an outgrowth of both Network Building & Strengthening as well as Racial Equity & Values Leadership, but also touches on the other two areas as well in its content.
From the start, we knew that the main value of any kind of leadership development program would be in the people that came together and the relationships they built with one another. You only need to read about the current cohort to feel how much potential there is in simply creating opportunities for these individuals to connect and identify as more of a collective! From there, we were interested in connecting those involved in the program with other values-aligned change agents in the region. In addition, we looked at giving people an experience of different and diverse places in our region (rural, urban, coastal) and to see their work in a regional context. Lastly, we wanted to offer an opportunity for participants to hone their skills as collaborative/network leaders and social (especially racial) equity champions.
This year’s program integrates all of these elements, again with a particular theme of care and welcome. What we heard from this year’s cohort was how this was very much appreciated and built over the course of the more than 24 hours we were together. Here are some highlights of the programmatic progression that were intended to contribute to our themes of care, trust, truth and belonging:
We began by breaking bread together, at small tables, in the tent. Good food, relaxing music and informal introductions were meant to help people land softly.
We formally opened, as we generally do during FSNE gatherings, with an offering and a grounding exercise. The offering might be a poem, a quote, a song, a short story, a dance …. We read one of our favorite stanzas of poetry from William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” (see below), again to set a tone for the session, and then led people who were interested (making sure to let people know it was voluntary) through an embodied exercise to ground bodies/nervous systems, honor feelings and any thoughts people might be having as we got going.
We were joined by NLI alum Rachel Sayet, a Mohegan tribal member, Indigenous educator, essential oil crafter and Reiki practitioner, to provide some background on the land on which we were meeting and the history and present of Indigenous peoples who have stewarded them. This included the terrible and truthful telling of the actions of Lord Jeffrey Amherst, for whom the town in which we were meeting is still named, as well as efforts by indigenous educators and students in the area to reclaim their foodways and advance food sovereignty.
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.
We introduced everyone to the Welcome Table ritual, through which people share objects that are meaningful to and say something about them, and share a bit of that story. At the end of our session, participants are invited to take their object back and say what they have gained during their time with the group. People always remark how “deep” this goes very quickly in helping people get a sense of one another.
We collaboratively built community care agreements, by consensus, first by inviting people to consider their self-care practices and then inviting them into conversation with one another about what might support the entire “village.” We guided them through one of the Liberating Structures practices known as 1-2-4-All for this.
We introduced people to a brief history of the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Institute, the Backbone Organization (convenor, coordinator, communicator and fundraiser) for Food Solutions New England, how it defines “sustainability” broadly (including cultural diversity and social equity) as well as the history and current reality of FSNE. In presenting this, we made clear that this new cohort was already a part of FSNE and we welcomed their contributions not just to the Institute, but its various other programs and initiatives.
We started our second day by sharing a land acknowledgment in the form of a poem (another favorite – “Being Human” by Naima Penniman) that personalizes our connections to the Earth).And we shared an offering with some of the same themes in the form of a quote by Penobscot educator and advocate Sherri Mitchell ((Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset) from her book Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change(see below), which encourages the reader/listener to attune to the rhythms in the natural world for greater ease and alignment.
“When we merge our internal rhythms with the rhythms of creation, we develop grace in our movement, and without thought or effort we are able to slide into the perfectly choreographed dance of life.”
On our second day we also invited offeringsfrom the cohortmembers, whoever felt moved to do so. There were three – a short personal story, a reading and a poem. We look forward to more over the course of our next six sessions!
We invited people to get artistically expressive through illustrating their River of Life– with crayons, pencils, markers – and naming where they are in their leadership/change agency journeys. They then were invited to share these in trios and talk about how they want the Institute to support them moving forward, and what their intentions were for learning from and contributing to the program and one another’s journeys.
We delved into Facilitative Leadership for Social Change, our collaborative skills curriculum for the program, and led off with the practice of “Balancing Dimensions of Collaborative Success: Results, Process, Relationship.” This practice includes a small group challenge exercise (building a tower) that tends to bond people (lots of laughter) and helps them think about the trust, care, truth and belonging that is needed to ensure long-term “success” in collaborative change work.
Mutual trust, holistic care, truth-telling and equitable belonging. Those words were expressed throughout our first session in one form or another, in word and in deed, by the hosting team, guests and by the participants. It was evident how these were not just ideas, but becoming part of the collective body that will carry this program and network forward, as we move into an on-line season. “That’s okay,” said one participant,” as some bemoaned going back to more life on Zoom, “we know each other now. That will stay with us.” And we are delighted to already see one subset of the group looking to meet in person soon in the southeast of our region.
This is how we do and will do it, as the poet Marge Piercy writes in two stanzas of her poem “Seven of Pentacles” (see below image) …
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses. Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving. Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in, a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.
Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen: reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in. This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always, for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.
“Your generosity is more important than your perfection.”
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.
“If you want it, thenyou 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.
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.
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.
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 (!).
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.
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.
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?
Over the course of the last few years I have been delving deeper into the trans-disciplinary science of energy systems, largely thanks to my colleague and mentor Dr. Sally J. Goerner. Earlier in 2022, Dr. Goerner and I offered a session to The Weaving Lab on energy systems science for network weavers. A summary of that session can be found here. Since then I have been working with a few others to explore,identify and build out resources, practices and tools at different “levels” (individual, group/organization, and larger system), all within the context of the planet that sustains us, in the four different domains of Energy System Science. Together, these domains support systemnic saluto-genesis – the capacity of living systems to reproduce resilience and wellbeing. The four domains are:
resilient and balanced structures
common cause culture
The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all “living” systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like:
investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources,
healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning “the host”),
the velocity and spread of resources in the system,
cross-scale circulation, etc.
The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways.
The image above offers a sample collection of resources, practices and tools, that transcend specific sectors (economics, education, etc.) and that I look forward to bringing to a group later this fall. Certainly incomplete, these practices also do not all neatly fit into one category, even where they appear to in the graphic – that’s life! If you go to this link, you will find the above image as a clearer PDF document that has hyperlinks for some of what is listed (items that are underlined) that will take you to additional information. And I am always eager to hear what others would add!
I am grateful for the many teachers and collaborators, in addition to Dr. Goerner, who have guided my thinking and practice along the way: Joe Weston, Gwen McClellan, john a. powell, Eve Capkanis, Melinda Weekes-Laidlow, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Joel Glanzberg, June Holley, Resmaa Menakem, Katya Fels Smyth, Tanya Tucker, Verna Allee, Carol Sanford, Robert Peng, Maya Townsend, Father Richard Rohr, Dorn Cox, Sherri Mitchell, Harold Jarche, Nora Bateson, Marty Kearns, Tara Brach, John Fullerton, Marilyn Darling, Daniel Christian Wahl, Anne Marie Chiasson, Dr. Chris Holder, Tyson Yunkaporta and Steven C. Hayes, among others.
For the past few months I have been seeing an integrative acupressurist who has been practicing her craft for some 35 years. I am blown away and grateful for the extensive knowledge she brings to the inner workings of my body, including the interrelationships between different “parts” as well as the impact of the “environment” on my “internal” systems.
She has been particularly adept at helping me to understand that presenting and relatively superficial aspects of dis-ease or dis-comfort have longer standing and deeper contributing factors. Peel back one layer, with great care and re-spect, and you are likely to find something else. “Wonderful!” she will often say, marveling at how the body intelligently adapts to stress and other demands upon it. “While this may not feel good, it is actually a very wise and creative response!”
This has me reflecting on our dominant health care system in the US and what it tends to pay attention to and how it responds. How does that compare/contrast with and how is it complemented by what an integrative acupressurist does? What lessons and metaphors lie there for guiding me in my thinking about approaching other systemic challenges – in organizations, communities, economies … ?
First and foremost, an integrative acupressurist assists with body’s structural integrity (muscles, bones, organs), flow management and bio-logical co-operationand communication. Sometimes that is about tending to areas in the body where blood or lymph or chi (all vital flows) are not circulating in optimal ways. Sometimes that is about helping to stimulate parts of the body (organs and muscles) that have become guarded, tense or listless as an intelligent defense response (this often calls for treating those areas indirectly, to bypass defenses and stimulate areas that are impacted referentially). Sometimes this is about reintroducing different parts/regions of the body to one another with careful touch and stimulation. Sometimes it is about helping the entire body process new information and sensations more optimally, including the introduction of various healing and fortifying herbs.
As I have been experiencing these interventions, and learning from this remarkable healer/teacher (she loves narrating what she is doing and entertains all questions), I have been thinking about how this knowledge and wisdom translates into efforts to shift and heal other kinds of living systems. As I have written elsewhere, I am a proponent of not just simply talking about and working on “system change,” but supporting the inherent regenerative (self-renewing) capacity of living systems, social and ecological. My friend Daniel Christian Wahl turned me on to the notion of “saluto-genesis” when it comes to working with living systems, which means tending to the long-term and ongoing ability of systems to produce wellbeing.
Thinking as a systemic health promoter, or “systemic saluto-genarian” (thanks to Freya Bradford for helping to coin this phrase), isn’t what my integrative acupressurist does also our work? Supporting change in organizations, communities, economies, ecosystems is not simply about mechanically plunging in, but sensing the whole, connecting and working at the speed of trust and with great re-spect (of diverse and wonderful bodies – minds, hearts, guts, spirits ….), tending to the four key areas of focus of energy systems science:
structural integrity – optimal connectivity, resilience, flexibility, balance of “sizes”
regenerative flows – optimal movement (volume, velocity, directionality, reach) of enlivening resources
collaborative learning – timely sharing and exchange of information and co-creation of knowledge
common cause/collective culture – valuing and actually working together with an understanding of mutuality
This a metaphor and framework that is proving rich for practice and conversation with others. What do you think, feel, sense?
– Rowen White, Seed Keeper, activist and farmer from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne
“It’s all about how things are flowing.”
– Gwen McClellan, acupressurist and holistic healer
“A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool.”
– Alan Watts, philosopher and writer
“Seeing energy flows so that we can engage with them in positive ways is not some mystical, esoteric art, but the role of engaged human beings.”
– Joel Glanzberg, permaculturist and sustainable builder
Last week I teamed up with Dr. Sally J. Goerner, who stewards a transdisciplinary team of researchers and practitioners in the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics, to offer an interactive session to The Weaving Lab on the Energy System Sciences and how they might support network weavers working for social change in a variety of contexts. Energy System Sciences (ESS) is “an umbrella term for disciplines that use the study of energy flow networks to understand the laws of systemic health, growth and development in living, nonliving and supra-living systems.” ESS disciplines include: Chaos, Complexity, Resilience, Ecological Network Analysis, Self-Organization Theory, Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics, Panarchy, and others. It was a lot to present and absorb and process during our short 2 hour session, and so I have made an effort here to summarize and simplify …
Everything is made up of energy, so says “western” science and also many wisdom traditions (think spirit or chi) and indigenous peoples (see Sherri Mitchell), but many of us often don’t like to use the word “energy” (too woo woo). And perhaps that is to our detriment! Switching from a “matter” orientation about everything to an “energy” view can help us see and do things differently.
Systems are complex networks of interconnected “parts” that work together. Flows of energy of different kinds are crucial for a system to function (carbon in the biosphere, traffic in cities, supplies and information during a disaster response, ideas and emotions in a social group, nutrients on a farm, money and other resources in economies).
The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like: investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources, healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning the ecosystem), the velocity and spread of resources in the system, cross-scale circulation, etc. The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways.
ONE BIG PROBLEM now is that there is a dominant narrative stemming from the power and influence of oligarchy (rule of and for the few) and oligarchic capitalism (economies that are run by and support the few), which seeks to increase the wealth of “elites” at the expense of most people and the planet. Narrative, in contrast to story, is a way of looking at the world. In a sense, it’s a big story that influences thought, meaning and decision-making. The dominant oligarchic narrative and view is grounded in things and beliefs like “the divine right of capital and kings,” a master/slave mentality, dominance, supremacy ( based on race, gender and other markers of identity), narcissism, coercive hierarchies, “survival of the fittest,” and self-interest.
The oligarchic view cuts against the evolutionary promise of the Energy System Sciences in that it gets in the way of the kinds and qualities of flows needed to keep the whole body of humanity healthy and in right relationship with the planet. It prevents pro-social and pro-ecological evolution. For example, at a smaller scale, if we only privilege a certain part of our physical bodies (our heads or brains) over and at the expense of other parts of our bodies (for example, our hearts, our guts), this can have damaging impacts for the neglected parts and our entire bodies, and diminish our intelligence. Science is increasingly showing that our hearts and guts give us access to important information about the world around us. And our health and development are being shown to rest upon more integration and coherence between the different biological systems that make us up (digestion, vascular, nervous, etc.).
Against the oligarchic capitalist view is another view of humanity as being a collaborative learning species that can ground itself in common-cause and cooperative culture (including values of equity, justice, fairness, trust, transparency, mutualism) and seek resilient and regenerative economies and other systems that guarantee long-term human thriving for the many and for the diverse and not just the few and the alike. This narrative and set of beliefs aligns with the Energy Systems Sciences. Together they suggest that to support healthy and health-promoting webs and flows, it is important for groups of people to integrate the following core pillars, economically (especially in the etymological sense of the word – “household management”) and culturally:
Circulate diverse resources regeneratively, at and between different scales/levels
Create and sustain flexible and resilient structures of different and balance sizes
Ground in common-cause values such as mutuality, trust, transparency, equity, justice, fairness, accountability
Engaged in collaborative learning that supports intelligently adaptive responses and actions
For example, as Sally Goerner lifts up the following (it may be helpful to click on the image below):
We can also bring attention back to our own selves and how we interact with others to see how the energy system sciences can guide us. We can have stagnant energy if we are not inviting new ideas in or not releasing emotions. We can quickly get overwhelmed if we open ourselves to too much energetic flow of information or emotion, especially if it is negative or challenging. If our bodies are not structurally strong and flexible, they can be more prone to dis-ease. If our social organizations are overly rigid, they can be un-responsive to change and unable to adapt accordingly. If we are not having honest conversations with one another, that “clear the air” (and move energy through as it needs to), we can get bogged down in unhealthy interpersonal dynamics. The emotional body language and tone we convey energetically can impact our interactions with others (and flow widely in larger networks!). If we are not attending to what is otherwise sealed away in our insides (which equates with dissociation) this can also have impacts on how we are with ourselves and one another.
Bottom line: We share a hope that many more of us can become adept energy and flow scientists, artists, healers, weavers and workers as we intentionally create patterns that are the basis of the better world we sense is possible and know is necessary.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 areas – racial 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 workof reaching out and exchange!
What other questions have you been asking and small moves have you been making to promote a culture of weaving?