Posted in Networks

April 1, 2020

Bringing a Network Theory Perspective to These Times, Part 1

“While a network, like a group, is a collection of people, it includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties, and the particular pattern of these ties, are often more important than the individual people themselves. They allow groups to do things that a disconnected collection of individuals cannot. The ties explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And the specific pattern of the ties is crucial to understanding how networks function.”
Nicholas A. Christakis

At the Interaction Institute for Social Change, we have a collaborative change lens that includes the facets of (1) naming and building power and working for equity and inclusion; (2) seeing and advancing networks as the unit of action and analysis and (3) embracing love as a force for social transformation. With respect to networks, we have noticed that there are a lot of different takes on what networks are, why they matter, and how to “leverage” them for positive social change. Part of this may be due to the fact that network science and approaches span a variety of schools of thought and practice, including sociology, psychology, mathematics, political science, communication, anthropology, economics, and epidemiology.

I recently came across an article by Nancy Katz, David Lazer, Holly Arrow, and Noshir Contractor (2004) that names some of the commonalities that exist across these different schools and approaches that we’ve been experimenting with to advance social change networks, support resilience, and to shift patterns and flows in “systems as networks” to create regenerative communities and equitable wellbeing. The article, entitled “Network Theory and Small Groups,” refers to the work of Barry Wellman (1988), which lifts up five core principles of network theory that might provide some more coherence and alignment to “network approaches.”

  1. People’s behavior is best understood and predicted by the web of relationships in which they are embedded. These webs present opportunities and impose constraints on people’s behavior. So working with connections and flows can facilitate, inhibit and shape possibility.
  2. Nothing can be properly understood in isolation or in a segmented fashion. The focus of analysis should be the relationships between people or groups, rather than the units themselves or their intrinsic characteristics. So the quality of relationship matters and needs tending.
  3. Methods of “analysis” should not assume independence, but rather interdependence. People should be understood relationally. So think in terms of “collisions and ripples” as one network we are working with likes to say, characterizing network effects.
  4. The flow of information and resources between two people depends not simply on their relationship to each other but on their relationships to everybody else. Or in network science speak, “Understanding a social system requires more than merely aggregating the dyadic ties.” So focus not just on one-to-one exchanges, but one-to-many and many-to-many (scale-linking).
  5. Groups have fuzzy rather than firm boundaries. The building blocks of organizations and communities are not discrete groups but rather overlapping networks. Individuals generally have crosscutting relationships to a multitude of groups. So focus not simply on the impacts of bonding within groups but bridging across, and what this manifests.

Webs, relationships, flows, interdependence, intricacy, scale-linking, bonding and bridging. This is certainly not a full list of what network mindsets make visible to us, but hopefully lifts up some of what can help us better understand and work with reality, in these and at all times.

And more to come on this …

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March 20, 2020

Network(ed) Adaptations: A Regional Food System Network Responds to COVID19

Image from K. Kendall, “Fragile Resilience,” used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Yesterday I was on a call with the Food Solutions New England Network Team, meeting virtually instead of in-person, to do some checking in and also to move forward ongoing efforts focused on strengthening our collective work towards the FSNE Vision. This included talking about ways to use the current moment to strengthen resilience, even as so many in-person convenings, including the FSNE 2020 Summit, are being cancelled or postponed.

Many of us feel like there is an opportunity to take the network to another level in this time, to deepen connectivity, to ramp up exchanges, to facilitate greater alignment, to engage in much more mutual support. Evidence of this came from a round of sharing announcements, updates, requests and needs (riffing on the “network marketplace” that we have adapted from Lawrence CommunityWorks), among the nearly 20 participants on the call (representing all 6 New England states, different sectors and perspectives in the food system). I think we were all heartened to hear about the adaptations, creativity, and care happening in so many places amidst COVID19.

Image by sagesolar, “Mesmerized by murmuration,” used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Examples of emerging activity, which came up during our call and in email exchanges since, include:

  • Various mutual aid initiatives (see Big Door Brigade for resources on this front)
  • A coordinated call for stimulus funds to invest in communities to build out critical infrastructure between local and regional food producers and families in need of healthy food
  • More robust activity around the upcoming 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge to advance equity considerations and actions especially in these times (see and register here)
  • Advancing research and work on regenerative food and economic hubs in western Massachusetts and in Connecticut (see Regenerative Communities Network)
  • Rapid response grassroots funding (see The New England Grassroots Environment Fund and opportunities to donate)
  • Farmers opening up farm stands, home delivery, etc.
  • Food delivery route adjustments to ensure people who are most vulnerable have food
  • Rapid responses around work visas for farm workers to keep farms working
  • Work to reimburse private childcare centers for caring for the children of essential workers, including grocery store workers
  • Just and sustainable food organizers digitizing campaigns (see Migrant Justice and Real Food Challenge)
  • Efforts to meet current needs amidst COVID19 with needs to address climate change (see some reflections from Otto Scharmer on this front, which have been making their way through the network)
  • Food funders revising guidelines and getting money out the door quickly and for general operations
  • Innovations around education in food system programs through universities
  • Rallying support for small food-related businesses
  • Re-galvanized food policy council activity
  • Getting food to children who are now out of school and otherwise depend on schools for breakfast and lunch
  • Open forums on institutional needs around providing food during COVID19 (see Farm to Institution New England)
  • Collecting COVID related resources and reporting on impacts on the food system (see this Google doc started by FSNE Network Leadership Institute alum Vanessa García Polanco)
  • Free virtual/video cooking demonstrations
  • Leveraging online platforms to connect people across geographies and systems to talk about taking action around systemic alternatives (see Now What? 2020)
  • Utilizing virtual tools creatively to advance strategic thinking under changing and challenging conditions (there was also good discussion about the importance of considering issues of inclusion and equity, given uneven access to certain tools, dependable wi-fi, and supports that allow more focus when working virtually, etc.)

There are others that I’m sure we did not hear. That said, beyond the warmth of the personal connection time during our call, which we always make time for, and the emails of mutual support since, there is a hopeful sense that in what we are sharing are the seeds of systemic alternatives to the system that is failing some more than others and all of us in the long run. All of this needs more tending, more care, more connecting, more inclusion, always more considerations of equity, and more coordination. And more time and space for wisdom and innovations to emerge …

Please share with us what else you are seeing emerge and adapt for the good and the better in these times!

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February 20, 2020

Network Analysis for Change: Collaborations, Clusters, Champions and Coach-Weavers

“Thinking in terms of networks can enable us to see with new eyes.” 

– Harold Jarche

A couple of years ago I teamed up with Bruce Hoppe, a very skillful and savvy network mapper, to do a network capacity building and analysis engagement with a national education organization comprised of a growing number of member schools. While the organization referred to itself as a “network,” leadership recognized that it did not necessarily intentionally leverage itself as such, or do so with great consistency. Furthermore, there was reported unevenness of understanding among member schools of what it meant to be a member of this network. So Bruce and I were invited in to work with the leadership team to see what might be done to grow network awareness, intention and activity.

In addition to doing some “thinking like a network” training and coaching with the core leadership team, we put together a network survey that yielded some interesting results. The survey was intended to surface how people in the network currently took advantage of the network, what they valued about it, and what other value they would like to see come from their membership and participation.

In analyzing both the pattern of responses and the network map that Bruce constructed, we were interested to see stories emerge of mediated and self-organized collaborations between schools. This included reports of information sharing, staff exchanges, and coordinated learning. This raised a few questions – Was network leadership aware of these collaborations? Were others in the network familiar with them? The answer was that there was some awareness, but this was not at all widespread. The hypothesis emerged that if examples of collaboration were more widely shared and celebrated, this might become both license and motivation for others to do so.

Something else that emerged from the network map were signs of various geographic clusters of schools where there was relatively robust and/or growing communication and coordination. At the same time, there were schools that were in relatively close geographic proximity (in a state or sub-region of a state) where there was little if any interaction and exchange. Clusters in a network can become very powerful engines of collaboration, innovation and influence, both for members of the cluster and also the rest of the network. Leadership was invited to look more closely at the conditions that might be supporting interactivity in some clusters as opposed to others, and also to share examples of robust cluster activity with the rest of the network to inspire curiosity and connectivity.

Another take-away from the survey analysis was that there were clear (what we called) “champions” in the network, individuals who participated in many different virtual and in-person network activities at a relatively high degree of frequency. These super-users were identified as an asset to be further engaged to the extent that they might be ambassadors for the network as a whole, given their apparent enthusiasm. In addition, we raised the idea of creating a cluster of the champions, or a community of practice, that might exchange and prototype promising practices for network engagement.

Also related to this notion of champions was the discovery that the formal school coaching role that existed within the network could play a potentially powerful weaving function within the network. That is, coaches worked with multiple school leaders and often saw opportunities to make connections for the sake of peer exchange. However, this was not a formally condoned aspect of the coaching role. Leadership was invited to consider what it might look like to move coaches out of the role of highly customized support for individual schools and to do more generalized workshops and connecting of peers to ramp up interactivity, and support capacity, in the network.

Collaborations, clusters, champions and coaches-as-weavers – helpful isights from a network survey and map that we look forward to continuing to build upon and learn from, including how to leverage both virtual and in-person convenings to energize the network.

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February 17, 2020

The Evolving Story of a Network Innovation: FSNE’s 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge

“I believe that the struggle for racial and social justice provides an unparalleled lens through which to visualize – and achieve – more honest, just, and positive interrelationships in all aspects of our lives together.”

– john a. powell, from Racing to Justice

On March 30, 2020, the 6th Annual Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge will launch. IISC is excited to continue our partnership with FSNE in offering the Challenge as a tool for advancing the conversation about and commitment to undoing racism and white supremacy in our food and related systems.

The FSNE Challenge is a remixed and more sector-specific form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore (founder of the Privilege Institute), Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White), and Dr. Marguerite W. Penick-Parks (Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh). After FSNE formalized its commitment to racial equity in its sustainable food system work about 7 years ago (more on our journey in this article), a small design team saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread (networked!) conversation about the connection between race, racism and food systems and ultimately greater action for racial and food justice.

We also see the on-line version of the Challenge as a way of creating “network effects” around the justice work that many are already doing in our region and beyond through small world reach, rapid dissemination, adaptation, etc. Participation in and the complexity of the Challenge continue to grow – in 2015 we had 200 participants, mainly from the six state region of “New England,” and in 2019 we had some 5,000 people participate from all 50 states in the US, Canada, Mexico and other countries outside of North America.

The point of the Racial Equity Challenge is not simply to spread but also deepen the commitment to racial equity and food justice. So we hope that participants return each year, and many do, and also continue the work in between. Because of this, we make sure that the Challenge continues to evolve in content and format, increasingly with a bias towards action. A couple of years ago, seeing how things were developing, we created the “ladder of engagement” below to think about how to continue to move people along a continuum from “not paying attention” to “organizing.”

It has been inspiring to see numerous organizations self-organize to take the Challenge in-house, convening colleagues, fellow congregants, community members and classmates to reflect together on learning and making commitments to action. This has included groups such as Health Care Without Harm; the Wallace Center at Winrock International; Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems; Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; Southside Community Land Trust (Providence, RI); Agricultural Sustainability Institute at University of California-Davis, Georgia Organics and many others who have convened around the Challenge.

Last year we responded to these organic efforts and some specific requests by creating a discussion guide for facilitators to design and steward conversations in their organizations/communities. In 2019, the Challenge also went deep in the home institution of Food Solutions New England, the University of New Hampshire (the Sustainability Institute serves as the network’s “backbone”). With the support of a Professorship that I shared with Karen Spiller, we did considerable “in-reach” to staff, faculty and students, including a launch event and campus presentations, which resulted in more than 500 people participating in the Challenge from UNH. We also turned the Challenge into workshops that we offered at gatherings such as the White Privilege Conference.

Last year, we heard for months after the Challenge many appreciations from different parts of the country and how participation is moving people from learning to action

  • to create a community equity summit
  • to bring equity centrally into organizational strategy
  • to shift one’s job so that they can focus more centrally on issues of injustice
  • to bolster people’s courage to have courageous conversations
  • to bring an equity focus to food policy work

We hope these ripples will continue to be amplified this year!

So what exactly is the Challenge?

It is a self-guided learning journey examining the history and impacts of racism how it is connected to our food systems, examples and tools on how to undo racism and build racial equity and food justice.

How does the Challenge work?

People sign up (YOU can register here) and then starting March 30th, they receive daily email prompts focused on a different theme along with links to related resources (readings, video, audio) that take about 10-15 minutes each day. In addition, there is a robust Resource List for people to look through and continue their learning. Those who register also have access to an online discussion forum for those who want to talk and think out loud about the daily prompts and other learning along the way.

How is the Challenge evolving in 2020?

To meet the growing demands of participants and the expressed desire for many to go deeper and to replicate and extend the Challenge in different ways, we have developed a variety of additional supports.

  • In addition to an orienting webinar for participants, this year we will offer a webinar specifically for people who want to facilitate groups around the Challenge. This will happen on May 9th.
  • We will also offer a one day in-person training for people who are interested in facilitating groups to prepare themselves for that undertaking.
  • Another feature this year is a more robust Outreach Kit that has been pulled together by FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes. The Kit includes sample communications that can be used to recruit others to participate in the Challenge through email, social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), as an outreach flyer.
  • Related to outreach, and a late-breaking development, a US Representative in our region (whose name we cannot reveal yet) has agreed to tweet out daily prompts to her constituents via social media. How about inviting your elected officials to do the same!
  • New this year – in collaboration with the New England Grassroots Environment Fund and the Garfield Foundation, we are excited to offer mini-grants up to $1,000 to organizations and groups based in any of the six New England states who need some financial support to meaningfully convene discussions or group conversations around this year’s Racial Equity Challenge. Funding can be used to cover expenses such as printing, room rental, refreshments, childcare and travel reimbursements for attendees of session(s), language translation/interpretation, etc. More information is available here.
  • Also new this year, organizations (such as non-profits, agencies, schools, businesses and other groups) can register to be listed as “organizational participants” of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge! Each individual should still register with their own email address in order to receive the daily prompts during the Challenge, but organizations can now indicate to the world their support for the work of building equity and dismantling racism in our food system! Contact FSNE with any questions about this.

All of this is in line with how FSNE sees itself evolving as a network into its next decade, creating accessible and supportive resources that might be shared and easily adapted through aligned, diverse and robust connections in the region and beyond.

What next?

Please join us, and spread the word, the invitation, the conversation and the commitment to others!

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December 2, 2019

As a Network Matures: Brushfires, Bake Boxes and (Calling) B.S.

A couple of months ago we had a meeting of the Food Solutions New England Network’s Process Team, and we spent part of our time checking in around our perceptions of where the network is heading in its next stage of development. For the past 8 years, FSNE has moved through a series of stages that have roughly correspond with the following:

  1. Building a foundation of trust and connectivity across the six states in the region as well as across sectors, communities and identities.
  2. Fostering alignment around a cohering vision (the New England Food Vision) and a set of core (non-negotiable) values, including a commitment to racial equity and food justice
  3. Facilitating systemic analysis of the regional food system, which resulted in the identification of four leverage areas where the network sees itself as poised to contribute most:  (1) engaging and mobilizing people for action, (2) connecting and cultivating leaders who work across sectors to advance the Vision and values, (3) linking diverse knowledge and evolving a new food narrative, and (4) making the business case for an emerging food system that encompasses racial equity and food justice, healthy food for all, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.
  4. Developing and beginning to implement a set of systemic strategies to encourage the continued emergence of this values-aligned regional food system, including a narrative and messaging guide; food, farm, and fisheries policy platform; set of holistic metrics to gauge the state of the regional food system; and people’s guide to the New England food system.

All of this effort, including the work of other regional networks (Farm to Institution New England, New England Grassroots Environment Fund, Northeast Farm to School Collaborative, Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, a community of practice of state-level food planning efforts, among others), has moved the region from a state of relative fragmentation, or disconnected clusters, to more of a multi-hub network.

With greater intricacy and diversity in this network of networks, the Process Team talked about the work of the next several years as being the following:

  • Continuing to support foundational connectivity and alignment
  • Moving from rooting to branching by creating more visible actions and assets beyond the underlying connectivity and alignment
  • Shifting and sharing “backbone functions” currently held by one entity (the UNH Sustainability Institute)
  • Cultivating a “brushfire approach” where, through greater density and diversity of connection, information and calls to action are spread in more timely ways
  • Making the periphery more of the norm, by moving from just bringing people into the network to making sure we support their aligned efforts “out there”
  • Moving from “seeding thoughts and cultivating commitments and leaders” to “managing the whole garden,” including supporting a growing team of people who are committed to creating conditions in the region for the Vision and core values to be realized
  • Creating “bake boxes” that can readily be used and adapted by people and organizations in the region (examples include the regional Vision, the core values, the recently endorsed HEAL policy platform, a soon to be launched narrative/messaging guide, racial equity design toolkit and discussion guide, etc.)
  • Calling B.S. on those who are “Vision and values washing” (saying they are aligned but acting in contrary ways) or are off point – see for example these recent letters in response to a Boston Globe editorial.

We also talked about what we see not changing:

And of course all of this is subject to adjustment and adaptation given complexity, uncertainty and the network nature of emergence. #humility

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October 7, 2019

Participatory Methods and Approaches for Equitable Food Systems Work

“Nothing about us without us is for us.”

South African slogan

“What is missing from the policy analyst’s tool kit – and from the set of accepted, well-developed theories of human organization – is an adequately specified theory of collective action whereby a group of principals can organize themselves voluntarily to retain the residuals of their own efforts.”

Elinor Ostrom (1996) Governing the Commons

“…there’s no real evidence that one can become expert in something as broad as ‘decision making’ or ‘policy’ or ‘strategy.’ Auto repair, piloting, skiing, perhaps even management: these are skills that yield to application, hard work, and native talent. But forecasting an uncertain future and deciding the best course of action in the face of that future are much less likely to do so. And much of what we’ve seen so far suggests that a large group of diverse individuals will come up with better and more robust forecasts and make more intelligent decisions than even the most skilled ‘decision maker.’”

James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds

Last week I had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop for one of the sub-networks of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network focused on food access (including food justice and racial equity). Farm to Plate is moving into a second decade of work and looking to refresh its strategic work and structure (version 2.0). As part of this move, various members are interested in how they can engage others more robustly and/or responsibly in their work, including those who are negatively impacted by the current system (those living with hunger and in poverty, struggling farmers, farm workers, indigenous people, etc.). The workshop was designed around some core IISC collaborative frameworks, which participants applied to their work in pairs and small groups, and it also elicited different participatory methods that those in the room were already using or aware of.

One of the operating assumptions in the workshop was that engagement and participation can and should look different in different situations, and that more is not necessarily better. Rather, it is important to get clear on the aims of an initiative, carefully consider who the key stakeholders are, weigh various factors (time, complexity, readiness, power dynamics, etc.) and think about timing and different phases of the work. Doing this kind of due diligence can help to clarify when and where on a spectrum of engagement options different individuals and groups might fall (see below for some examples).

For the last segment of the workshop, we explored a variety of participatory models and methods, and here is some of what came up (specifically considering the context of Vermont food systems work).

Organizational/Network Models:

Tools, Techniques, Roles:

Governance/Decision-Making:

Participatory Planning and Assessment Approaches:

Of course there are many others out there. Please feel free to suggest additional models, examples, techniques and tools!

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July 27, 2019

Getting With the Flows: “Net Work” As Change

For a number of years now I have been digging into network approaches to social change, including supporting collaborative network formation and development at national, regional, state and local levels around a number of issues, from food insecurity to health inequity to environmental conservation to economic decline and stagnation. While there have been promising advances made in many spaces and places to build trust and connection across various lines of difference (geographic, sectoral, cultural, ethnic, racial) and also to achieve alignment around shared goals and shared identity, significant change has been slow to come and while I know it is important to be realistic about time, I keep feeling that there is a missing link between the work of network development and what is often held up as the goal of “system change.”

I will admit that increasingly I find the stated goal of “system change” a bit hollow and too big, too abstract. Change from what to what? For the sake of what and whom? Increasingly I am more interested in looking at the work of system change as being about working with living systems (neighborhoods, communities, organizations, economies, democracies, etc.) to be equitable, salutogenic (health-promoting) and regenerative (self-renewing). Arguably many of the systems that change agents are focused on are in a state of crisis and/or impending collapse, putting significant portions of the human population, if not the entire species, at risk.  And, of course, the extent to which many of these systems have been “functional,” it has often been at the expense of certain people and the planet (parts or the entirety thereof).

As I hear more talk about the need to come together, connect and collaborate across boundaries (build networks), I keep wanting the conversation to get to another step. Instead of saying that we are here to build networks to work on systems, I want more people to realize that the networks that we are trying to create and that already exist are part and parcel of those systems. That is, neighborhoods, communities, economies, political and health systems, are also networks, or networks of networks – patterns of connection and of flow. They are characterized not just by elements (including people) that are in relationship (that we might see in a typical network map) but also by the resources that move through those channels of relationship (money, information, nutrients, etc.). This realization takes us into the realm of what are called the “energy network sciences” and the idea that evolving patterns and the quality of connection and flow changes and/or creates new systemic possibilities.

Image from Marco Nuernberger, “Flow,” used under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

“New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”

My friend and mentor Sally J. Goerner, quoted above and throughout the rest of this post, recently published a paper entitled “The Collapse of Oligarchic Capitalism and the Rise of Regenerative Learning: How the science of energy systems clarifies what’s happening today and what comes next.” In this paper she builds on her previous and robust work to illustrate how “flow networks” have a lot to say about our current political, economic and climate disruptions and crises.

She begins by reframing our view of evolution from one that is mechanical and accidental to one that is dynamic and quite intelligent. As she writes – “The new logic of life comes most clearly from the new story of growth, development and evolution emerging from an energy-driven process called self-organization.” Self-organization, a phenomenon that is recognized and valued by many network weavers, occurs through the ongoing process of life meeting life and creating new patterns of vitality. Sally writes –

“Instead of improbable accidents in a universe running downhill, we are probable products of energy-flow and binding forces … that connect us in an all-embracing ever-evolving web moving inexorably toward increasing intelligence, complexity, integration and balance.”

In order for this process of complex evolution to occur, there is a need to keep energy flowing and cycling and recycling through an “ever-growing meshwork of connective tissue” so that new patterns of organization can form that are resilient in an ever-changing environment. This flowing energy can exist in the form of information, learning, money, and other crucial resources. When this flow is stunted or fails to happen, certain parts of the system in question can be put at risk, and over time, especially if energy makes it to only a small part of the overall system (through disconnection, blockage, hoarding, extraction) the whole system faces the prospect of collapse. What this means is that the system loses its capacity to regenerate.

Image from tinyfroglet, “Energy Flows,” used under conditions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

“Regenerative systems maintain their existence by constantly channeling critical flows back into nourishing their internal processes and organization and other forms of revitalization.”

Sally spends the bulk of her paper showing how non-regenerative patterns apply to the logic and playing out in the US and globally of economic neoliberalism and oligarchic capitalism. “Neoliberal economies under-invest in human capacities, encourage extractive and speculative practices, promote concentration over circulation; and extol corporate gigantism instead of proper balance.” This is all exacerbated by the accompanying dynamic of the concentration of significant influential decision-making power in fewer and fewer hands (elites) that are self-serving. And this makes the entire system (economy, political system, organization, community) unstable because it violates the rules of “regenerative vitality” – it is less “intelligent” in its ability to respond through diverse sensors and actors to environmental signals.

The counter to where we are and are heading is to be found, in part, through bringing an energy or flow networks perspective which encourages us to keep evolving “constructive, synergistic human networks, linked by mutual benefits, energized by common-cause, and fueled by the robust circulation” of energy/resources. This means embracing a different set if values than those offered by neoliberalism, for example – uplifting a full accounting of human and planetary “externalities” (oppression, theft, pollution, ecological degradation); the care, inclusion and feeding of entire and diverse networks of interconnected individuals, organizations, businesses, communities, cities, governments and the biosphere; and a commitment to robust social learning across all kinds of difference.

This is where I want to take the conversation with more and more social change agents and network weavers going forward. Let’s not focus simply on the structural form of our networks and net work. Let’s focus on what is moving and what facilitates flow through those connections; from where and from whom, to where and to whom; as well as what and who flow supports in terms of resilience, thriving, as well as adaptive and regenerative capacity.

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March 24, 2019

A Networked Racial Equity Challenge Grows Up, and Out

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are [people] who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.”

– Frederick Douglass

On April 1, 2019, the 5th Annual Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge will officially launch. We at IISC are excited to once again partner with FSNE in offering the Challenge as a tool for advancing the conversation about and commitment to undoing racism and white supremacy in our food and related systems.

The FSNE Challenge is a remixed and more topically focused form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore (founder of the Privilege Institute), Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White), and Dr. Marguerite W. Penick-Parks (Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh). A small design team saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread conversation about the connection between race, racism and sustainable food systems and ultimately greater action for racial and food justice.

Furthermore, we saw an enhanced on-line version of the Challenge as a way of creating “network effects” around the justice work that many are already doing in our region and beyond. Participation in and the complexity of the Challenge have grown significantly and organically over time. In 2015 we had 200 participants, mainly from the six state region of “New England.” Last year we had over 3,000 people participate from most states in the US and some places in Canada. As of the writing of this post, we already have over 2,000 people registered.

The point of Challenge is not simply to spread but also deepen the commitment to racial equity and food justice. As such, we hope that participants return each year, and many do. Accounting for this, no two Challenges are exactly alike in terms of content, and we are continuously nudging people to go from learning to action. See the image below as one way that we have thought about encouraging people to move up a “ladder of engagement” through their involvement.

Over time, numerous organizations have self-organized to take the Challenge in-house, convening staff colleagues, fellow congregants, community members and classmates to reflect together on learning and making commitments to action. We have heard from groups such as Health Care Without Harm; the Wallace Center at Winrock International; Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems; Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; Southside Community Land Trust (Providence, RI); Agricultural Sustainability Institute at University of California-Davis, Georgia Organics and many others who have convened around the Challenge and are planning to do it for the first time or again.

This year the Challenge is being widely promoted in a variety of places, including through sessions that Karen Spiller and I offered at the White Privilege Conference in Rapids City, Iowa, and at the New Hampshire Food Alliance state-wide gathering. In addition, the Challenge is being promoted campus-wide to students, faculty and staff at the University of New Hampshire, where FSNE’s convening team, the UNH Sustainability Institute, is located.

So what exactly is the Challenge?

It is a self-guided learning journey examining the history and impacts of racism, different kinds of racism, how it is connected to our food systems, examples and tools on how to undo racism and build racial equity and food justice.

How does the Challenge work?

People sign up (YOU can register here) and then starting April 1st, they receive daily email prompts focused on a different theme along with links to related resources (readings, video, audio) that take about 10-15 minutes each day. In addition, there is a robust Resource List for people to look through and continue their learning. Those who register also have access to an online discussion forum for those who want to talk and think out loud about the daily prompts and other learning along the way.

How is the Challenge evolving?

To meet the demands of a growing number of participants and the expressed desire for many to go deeper and to replicate the Challenge in different ways, we have developed a variety of additional supports. This year we again offered an orienting webinar that featured Drs. Moore, Jr. and Penick-Parks along with testimonials to the value of the Challenge, including perspective from Sister Anna Muhammad who works for NOFA/Mass and is on the FSNE Network Team and the FSNE Racial Equity Challenge Committee.

In addition, this year we have produced a Discussion Guide to support groups at schools, colleges, businesses, churches or other organizations that may want to do the Challenge together. The Guide along with the Resource List essentially form a ready-to-use “bake box” that groups could use to run their own exercise if they would like, or to keep the Challenge going 365 days a year!

Another feature this year is a robust Outreach Kit that has been pulled together by FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes. The Kit includes sample communications that can be used to recruit others to participate in the Challenge through email, social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), as well as a one page information flyer.

All of this is in line with how FSNE sees itself evolving as a network into its next 8 years, creating resources that might be shared easily through aligned, diverse and robust connections and adapted by others in the region and beyond (stay tuned for a New Food Narrative Messaging Guide).

What next?

Please join us, and spread the word, the invitation, the conversation and the commitment to others!

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February 19, 2019

Networks for Social Change: A Love Story

Photo by tracydekalb, “Redbud Love,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

The following post was originally published in 2014, and has been edited. In many ways it feels even more relevant five years later … 

Over the past dozen years or so at IISC (our half-life as an organization, and my whole life as a member of this amazing community), we have seen and experienced some interesting progressions. In our Facilitative Leadership for Social Change trainings and consulting work, we talk about the “interior condition” of effective collaborative and network leadership. When I first joined the organization, we used to say that collaborative leaders and change agents embraced an ethic of “service, authenticity and respect.” Then we made the move of changing “respect,” which came across to some as a bit weak, to LOVE. For the first couple of years after making this switch, when we asked “What’s love got to do with it?” with respect to effective leadership and work for social change, there were definitely some uncomfortable silences. Some participants would ultimately want to rename love as “respect” or “passion.”

Then in 2009 we started noticing a change. More heads nodded in rooms when we mentioned the “L-word,” less nervous laughter and shifting in seats. In one particularly striking instance, during a training with health care and public health professionals, a senior and very respected physician responded,

“What’s love got to do with it? Everything! Beyond my technical skills, I am effective in so far as I am able to really see my patients, students, and colleagues, to make them feel seen for who they are.”

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January 7, 2019

The Rising of the 10-25%: Weaving Critical and Love-Bound Connections for Change

“That which counts, can rarely be counted.”

-Albert Einstein

Image by garlandcannon, used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

In a couple of articles that have been re-cycling in different social circles, the reminder is offered that tipping points for social change do not need anywhere close to a majority of actors.

A few years ago, scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute explored what it takes for an idea to spread from few to many, for a minority opinion to become the majority belief. According to their study, the RPI researchers said that the answer is 10%. When one in ten people adopt a stance, eventually it will become the dominant opinion of the entire group, they say. What is required is commitment.

More recently, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of London conducted an experiment that suggests that for activists to achieve a tipping point around change, 25% of a given population is required. They published their study in the journal Science.

Of course there are complicating factors, including the fact that there are often competing factions each vying for their own 10-25% and with social media and disinformation campaigns, confusion can rein and commitment may require an additional degree of diligence. Nonetheless, we might take more heart in the power of the few.

And this is clearly not just about numbers and counting.

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December 17, 2018

Weaving Webs of Possibility: The Moral Imagination in Social Change

Image by Graylight, used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

As I was just starting work at IISC, back in 2005, our founding Executive Director Marianne Hughes, introduced the staff to the work of John Paul Lederach, and specifically his book The Moral Imagination. As I recall, she did this as a result of a sabbatical during which she explored the power of networks and of art in social change. These two things show up centrally in Lederach’s work. Lederach has spent years doing peace and reconciliation work in some of the most intense and entrenched conflicts in the world. And he writes not really as a master technician, but as a poet, which is very much by intention.

I thought of The Moral Imagination a couple of months ago, when I began to realize how starved many people I meet seem to be for alternatives to what we currently have as mainstream systems in this country. Many are speaking up against and resisting what is not working, has long been unjust, and is fundamentally sustainable, which is crucial. And in the absence of clear alternatives (see “reimagine” and “recreate” in Spirit in Action’s image below), what can ensue is … conflict. Entrenched conflict, with no creative point of release.

I also thought of Lederach’s book, because he writes how central networks, human webs, and authentic human connection is to the work of peacebuilding and reconciliation. Up until recently I had thought about peacebuilding as a field as having more to do with what goes on in “other places” like Ireland, Sudan, Colombia, Tajikistan. If nothing else, these past couple of years have provided a need to adjust that understanding – peacebuilding is needed at home.

So I’ve been scouring Lederach’s writings, and there is a lot that resonates. Lederach was recently featured on a powerful program of On Being with actress and activist America Ferrera (no doubt another reason he has been on my mind). There is much to say about The Moral Imagination, but for now I am offering some passages and quotes that struck a chord and I’m curious to hear what reactions those reading have … Read More

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December 10, 2018

Change Is About Letting Go, Creating Space … and Connecting

What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.
 
When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible. …
A fire
grows
simply because the space is there,
with openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

–  “Fire,” Judy Sorum Brown

 

Change does not tend to happen through piling on, through simply adding to what we are already doing or whatever heap we have in front of us.

Change happens, say scientists and sages, through some kind of release, through letting go. Not of everything, but of something. Something that will create enough space for creativity (something else!) to happen.

Changing the way we do work, behave, and treat one another and the planet doesn’t mean dumping new techniques on top of old ways of working. It means carving out creative niches that are given space for the breath of life to reach them. So they can grow. So that they can find their way.

Change does not tend to happen in isolation (the proof of re-treat is ultimately in re-engagement). It happens through connection, through webs (no one is an island). It happens through collective care and nurturing. Too much space – distance, disconnection – can kill the spark of change.

Sharon Salzberg and Ethan Nichtern ask an important question –

“What are we holding onto about this system [ways of doing and being] that, if we trusted the other people around us, we actually could practice letting go of?”

Image by Orchids love rainwater, shared under provisions for Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

 

Connection, deep connection, also helps us to let go. … And to let something else come.

Connect. Let go. Create space. Connect. Let come.

Like breathing.

How are you connecting (and to what and to whom) in order to let go of what no longer serves?

What are you letting go of in order to create spaces for the new and desperately needed?

What new connections (and old) are you making to fuel the fires of possibility?

 

Image from Daniel Christian Wahl, The adaptive cycle (adapted & expanded from Gunderson & Holling 2001)

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