Traditional management has run its course. At IISC and in our network of clients and equity practitioners, we’re trying to create something new in its place. We don’t have all the answers, but we know it’s time to discover another way.
As a Generation X’er who worked “under” bosses trained in traditional command and control leadership, I saw the poor results of “do what I say” or “do as I do” leadership. In the 80s and 90s, management strategies were based on military and manufacturing leadership practices which relied on top-down hierarchies, rigid routines, and long work hours.
Obedience of the workforce was paramount. And it was suffocating.
A natural product of the system of racialized capitalism, management was – and in many cases still is – about dominion over people and making sure they work harder and faster to amass money and resources for those “at the top.” It’s too often about quantity and output over people and quality, rather than what you ultimately accomplish.
Fortunately, collaboration as a critical proposition for team effectiveness, and equity and wellbeing as vital strategies for organizational success, are now in play in more workplaces. And yet, if we’re honest, we’re still churning out work and people like generations before us. The pandemic tried to teach us otherwise, but now that we’ve moved from pandemic panic to endemic acceptance, we’ve fallen back into old habits. We’ve defaulted to management practices that are rooted in the anxiety that comes from living in a world of systems which perpetuate oppression, political chaos, and climate catastrophes. Anxiety compels us to micromanage, remove employee autonomy, and revert to workplace disciplinary practices,
At IISC we’re working hard to stay true to our values and practices by approaching our organizational structure and practices with intention. We’re moving away from traditional management to transformational leadership that is based in shared leadership and the facilitative leadership and equity practices we bring to others.
So what are we doing? Here are three strategies we’re trying:
We’re decentering ourselves as “managers.” We’re developing a new leadership and decision-making structure that envisions each of us as leaders in a network, offering our contributions individually and collectively to move the whole. People closest to their areas of work and the impact of the work will be entrusted with decisions in those domains. Multiracial and multigenerational leadership will be a core principle as we undo work norms that stem from cultures of white supremacy.
We’re creating a workplace that is about preserving dignity and wellbeing. We believe that policies that promote wellbeing help us approach our work with greater focus and creativity. And having more time outside of work to rest and connect enables us to see the world more clearly and better understand our organization’s role in making the world a better place. We have implemented a four-day work week to give people a greater balance between work and personal time, and we’ve launched a compensation pod to explore how to increase our wages through an equity lens. We’re repackaging some of our functions so they fit better within each person’s job and hiring more people to share those responsibilities. We avoid booking meetings before 10am so people have time to plan their days, do solo work, and attend to caregiving responsibilities.
We’re building new practices for holding each other accountable to our work goals and values by navigating the conflict that naturally arises in an organizational setting. We’ve had a dominant culture of “niceness” that allowed tensions to stay buried, leading to work inefficiencies and resentment. To address that, we’ve worked with transformative justice practitioners to learn to step into more radical candor with each other. We’ve learned it’s possible to have hard conversations and hold people with dignity by engaging in truth-telling that emphasizes impact over intent. And, last but not least, we’re piloting mechanisms for sharing feedback that are not based on a supervision model but rather on coaching and mutual accountability sessions.
I’m relieved that future generations may be spared the problematic management practices of the past that treated us like widgets instead of precious humans. But we need a lot more people and leaders who are willing to stand with us and our allies. And who are ready to lead us forward into this new way of working.
We want to hear from you! How are you trying to replace traditional management practices with transformational leadership? How do you want to take a stand?
Folks who know me as a facilitator know that one of my first and favorite questions in planning a meeting is “who’s deciding?” It’s a question that can be counter-cultural for groups that are unaccustomed to clearly defining the decision-making process. And yet, leaving the question unanswered or unclear is one of the fastest ways I have seen to erode trust and to drive people away from working together.
Tips for doing better
Answering a few simple questions can help to avoid a great deal of frustration and prevent the fracturing of collaborative work:
WHAT decision is being made? What information will we need to make the decision? What criteria will guide the decision?
WHY is this the decision we’re making? Is there something else that we need to address first?
WHO is the final decision maker? Is it the group that’s meeting now or is it actually some other group or individual?
HOW will the final decision be made? If the group is making the final decision together, do they have an understanding of what consensus is and how to reach it? What will they do if they can’t reach a consensus? If an individual is making the final decision, will they gather input from others or proceed alone? How will they share the factors that will be considered as the decision is made? How will people be informed about the final decision? (Check out our Levels of Involvement in Decision Making framework for many more details about options for how to involve people in decision making.) What constraints will shape the decision-making process (e.g., time available, resources needed, etc.)?
Using the Questions in Sticky Situations
Do any of these situations, which we’ve seen repeatedly in our work, sound familiar to you? Here are some ideas about how applying our tips could have helped.
A team receives a task with minimal guidance about constraints, other than when the project is due. They complete their task and are told, “No, we don’t have time or money to do all of that.” or “That’s not actually what we thought you’d do with the task.” The team is asked to go back to the drawing board but many members feel disrespected and frustrated, and are reluctant to continue working on the project.
The leader who set the team up with the project could have named specific time and resource constraints to help both the leader and the team set clear expectations, and could have indicated what would happen next if the group couldn’t make its decisions within those constraints.
A coalition is meeting to decide on its goals for the year. A few priorities rise to the top, but there is no moment when the group clearly affirms the choices. Everyone goes away feeling good, but thinking differently about what was actually decided. A few days later, members read the meeting notes, which sound to some participants like they were from an entirely different meeting. Frustration ensues as individuals jockey to get the items they thought were agreed upon onto the final list of goals.
The meeting facilitator could have explicitly checked for consensus as priorities began to emerge, and clearly identified where there was/was not agreement. The note taker could have recorded on chart paper or used a computer and projector (in an in-person meeting) or screen sharing or a shared online document (in an online meeting) so that everyone could see what was happening with the information in real time.
A team receives a meeting agenda saying that the outcome of the meeting is an agreement on a solution to a pressing organizational problem. During the meeting, people spend all of the time exploring the problem. Some people are frustrated that they didn’t even begin to move towards a solution. Others are frustrated with the stated meeting outcome, since there hadn’t been any problem analysis. The meeting ends without a clear sense of what to do next and what to say to those who are waiting for the solution.
Typically, if a group is deciding on solutions, they first need to understand the problem they are trying to solve so they can identify solutions that effectively address root causes. The facilitator and meeting planners could have designed pre-meeting work or discussions to build understanding of the problem before getting into solutions. Or, they could have shifted the timeline so the group could explore problems during this meeting and solutions later.
People leave a staff meeting thinking they have reached agreement on organizational priorities. A few days later, the CEO announces priorities, which are slightly different, thanking the group for the way the meeting helped her to make her final decision on priorities. Staff members are confused and frustrated because they thought they were all making the decision together. Some team members begin to wonder if they can trust the CEO.
The leader could have first asked herself whether this is a decision the team should actually make together. If the situation really did call for her to make the final decision after consulting with the team, she could have started and closed the discussion by clearly stating why she is the final decision maker and how this discussion gives the team a chance to inform her final decision.
A colleague sends you an email, assigning you a task that you didn’t know about and asking you to do it in a way that doesn’t make sense to you. They don’t invite any questions and do not appear willing to discuss your ideas about how to get the job done. You wrestle with how much energy you want to put into asking questions and whether you have the energy to deal with a potential conflict if you just do the task in a way that makes most sense to you.
The colleague could have explained who decided that the task needed to be done in this particular way and why, spelling out important factors that led to this decision. They could have asked for your questions, concerns, or ideas about how to proceed. And they could have explained any degrees of flexibility around how the task was to be accomplished.
While clarity about decision making isn’t magic, it will make many collaborative ventures much smoother. It will grow the precious resource of trust, without which your efforts to work together are destined to fall short. It will also give you new ways to explore and expand power, which is so often experienced through the act of decision making. Questions about who decides on things like priorities and strategy; the allocation of time, money, and other resources; involvement in designing and implementing activities; and who decides who gets a seat at the decision-making table are fundamentally questions about power. Clarity around decision making will create space to address power dynamics more directly and grow more shared power to accomplish together things that you could never accomplish on your own.
Let us know how these tips are helping your efforts to collaborate for social justice and racial equity.For more on power and power dynamics, check out our series Bringing Facilitative Leadership for Social Change to Your Virtual Work, which includes sessions on Managing Power Dynamics in Virtual Meetings and Collaborative Decision Making and Shared Leadership.
What these and many other networks that I am working with, have in common, is a commitment to social (and particularly racial) equity, characterized in large part by a vision of equitable wellbeing and a deeply rooted sense of belonging for all people, in food, public health, legal aid, and related fields. The Full Frame Initiative has developed a robust body of work, that brings nuanced attention to what supports individual and collective wellbeing, systemically. This includes focused attention on different domains of wellbeing, as well as a set of principles that are meant to help people design systems that give everyone access to wellbeing.
Inspired by FFI’s work, I took their set of principles and turned some of what was presented as a set of descriptive statements into questions that might help different kinds of social service providers and policymakers integrate wellbeing into their work. Curious to know which of these catch people’s attention, and what they might and or adjust for their particular system change work.
Principle 1: Start with what matters to people: wellbeing.
Are our decision-making processes being informed by the lived experiences and expertise of people receiving services/most negatively impacted?
Are we defining people by the issues they are facing? Are we seeing them as whole people with their own strategies for navigating systems?
Are we asking people, and especially those who have been historically marginalized, to make unsustainable tradeoffs in our service models/policy work?
Are our services trauma-informed and culturally responsive, recognizing the different challenges and values at play in people’s lives?
Are we focusing on the level of the family and/or community, not just the individual?
Principle 2: Design and implement with, not for.
Are we partnering with community to vision and frame issues, rather than engaging community for feedback around solutions designed by others?
Are we ensuring that those most impacted dictate what matters, rather than externally determining what “should” matter?
Are we shifting power to community and shift risk and burdens out of community?
Are we allowing communities to be complex and non-monolithic?
Are we valuing- not exploiting- people’s and communities’ vulnerability and shared experience?
Principle 3: Push against harms in communities already facing the greatest adversity; support healing and regeneration.
Are we reaching/considering the least resourced/capitalized communities in our area?
Are we respecting Indigenous and informal cultural norms and values?
Are we collecting data on structural/systemic barriers and how people receiving services/most negatively impacted work around these barriers?
Are we addressing biases in expectations for the outcomes of those receiving services/most negatively impacted?
Are we explicitly supporting healing and tying our work to shifting harmful patterns of the past?
Are we supporting and creating space for creative solutions, including from those receiving services?
Principle 4: Foster and build on social connections and social capital.
Are we supporting people helping people before adding programs to help people, including removing obstacles to family/community members helping one another?
Are we enabling and enhancing social networks in our policy work, especially for those receiving and providing services/most negatively impacted?
Are we building on and not undermining social connectedness, belonging and social capital in community?
Are we supporting bridging and linking capital (relationships that connect us across differences of identity, experience and power), not just bonding capital (relationships with those most like us)?
Are we focusing less on individual change and considering how changes in relationships between and among people might be more useful?
Principle 5: Span boundaries.
In our services/policy work, are we leveraging different and diverse aspects of the human experience, including arts, culture and joy?
Are we seeking out uncommon partners and solutions?
Are we Integrating with and advocating across other systems, leveraging other fields and sectors?
Are we identifying and illuminating when policies of one system (including the one in which we work) create barriers in other systems for those receiving our services?
Principle 6: Build (on) assets and innovation.
Are we striving to preserve innovations sparked by the pandemic and/or other crises?
Are we ensuring that our services/policies we are advancing do not require (further) financial sacrifice and that they do support or connect to others supporting financial wellbeing?
As we provide direct services, are we also attending/connecting to anti-poverty work and programs?
Are we addressingpolicies that undermine people’s and communities’ ability to accumulate wealth, knowledge, data and other kinds of capital?
Are we starting with what communities already have and diligently seek ways to avoid circumventing what works well, as defined by the people who are impacted?
Are we hiring/compensating people with lived experience in navigating structural challenges?
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.
In previous posts (see “Life (and Power) on the Resilient Edge of Resistance” and “At the Heart of Regeneration is … the Heart (and the Gut”), I have written about my experiences with the Weston Network and the Respectful Confrontation training and apprenticeship program and more recently with the Fierce Civility teacher training program, which I began in March of this year. This most recent experience, including a 5 day retreat with a small and racially diverse group of skillful practitioners from around the US, again drove home the importance for me of embodied practice generally, and specifically to manage our nervous systems and engage in interpersonal “co-regulation.” To me, Joe Weston is a true magician, a masterful teacher and coach, and someone that hashelped me to develop deeper reverence for my body and its wisdom (along with very adept healers, Dr. Eve Capkanis and Gwen McClellan).
A few weeks ago, Joe gave me a draft of his forthcoming book, currently titled Fierce Civility: Transforming Our Global Culture from Polarization to Lasting Peace, and asked that I do a critical review. I came away with more appreciation for what he and The Weston Network are trying to achieve in these fractured and fractious times. “Civility” has (almost) become a dirty word, seen as naive and impossible by some (at least when considering certain cultural and political divides), and as harmful by others, if “being civil” means not speaking or hearing truths or working for social justice. Joe appreciates all of this (writing at one point – “Even our passivity has taken on a tone of aggression”), and holds the concept of civility in dynamic tension with fierce-ness.
Fierce civility is not about “chronic niceness” or conflict avoidance, but rather advocates for stances of assertiveness (as opposed to aggression) and receptivity (as opposed to passivity). Fierce civility is not about glossing over systemic and structural injustice and oppression, even as it does not shy away from promoting personal responsibility and accountability. This delicate and sometimes difficult balancing act was definitely a topic of conversation this past weekend when our Fierce Civility cohort (whom Joe has dubbed “love ninjas”) gathered on the heels of Friday’s US Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade. That is a discussion that will continue, no doubt. Joe writes in his book, “We are technologically overfed and spiritually malnourished,” and encourages people to intentionally change their diets (quality and quantity) as a means of effectively making both personal and systemic change. And best if this is work is done with supportive community.
There is much more to say about the book, as well as the practices that the Weston Network teaches (though better to actually read the book and engage in the practices), but for now, I wanted to share (with Joe’s permission) some particular quotes that struck while reading the draft and that have stayed with me.
“True martial artists would say that they learn how to fight so that they can pivot away from conflict and aggression and prevent fighting, and that is true power.”
“Imagine in a conversation if the goal on both sides was to protect yourself, the other and the conversation itself from unconscious reactivity and the lack of civility that can unexpectedly seep in.”
“When we give the extremes all of our attention, our focus is turned towards them and away from the larger majority of people who hold more nuanced, less reactive views of the same issues.”
“What if the most courageous, revolutionary and impactful thing you could do at this time is to cultivate a daily practice of aligning with your humanity, embody a deeper level of resilience, avoid burn out, as well as maintain and deepen authentic relationships?”
“This is what true freedom is: freeing yourself of unexamined beliefs and biases; gaining confidence to stay regulated in challenging situations; opening your heart in safe and empowered ways, and protecting against any threats to civility and non-violence.”
“Many of us have forgotten that debating issues can be fun, not a life-or-death experience. We have become frightened and turned off by the messiness of human interaction and the process of creating something new.”
“The two halves of the heart pump with and against each other. This dynamic interplay might look pretty volatile to the human eye, but the body knows that that level of assertiveness is necessary to keep the system healthy and vital.”
“We are seeing a shift to cyber and economic warfare. The techniques may change, but the primitive impulse for war has not. And while we may have peace treaties, we are not seeing the global cooperation needed to sustain life.”
“If only hanging out with people who already agree with you were going to solve our problems, we would have already solved them.”
(Quoting Gabor Maté): “Safety is not the absence of danger; safety is the presence of connection.”
Over the course of the last few years I have been delving deeper into the trans-disciplinary science of energy systems, largely thanks to my colleague and mentor Dr. Sally J. Goerner. Earlier in 2022, Dr. Goerner and I offered a session to The Weaving Lab on energy systems science for network weavers. A summary of that session can be found here. Since then I have been working with a few others to explore,identify and build out resources, practices and tools at different “levels” (individual, group/organization, and larger system), all within the context of the planet that sustains us, in the four different domains of Energy System Science. Together, these domains support systemnic saluto-genesis – the capacity of living systems to reproduce resilience and wellbeing. The four domains are:
resilient and balanced structures
common cause culture
The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all “living” systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like:
investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources,
healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning “the host”),
the velocity and spread of resources in the system,
cross-scale circulation, etc.
The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways.
The image above offers a sample collection of resources, practices and tools, that transcend specific sectors (economics, education, etc.) and that I look forward to bringing to a group later this fall. Certainly incomplete, these practices also do not all neatly fit into one category, even where they appear to in the graphic – that’s life! If you go to this link, you will find the above image as a clearer PDF document that has hyperlinks for some of what is listed (items that are underlined) that will take you to additional information. And I am always eager to hear what others would add!
I am grateful for the many teachers and collaborators, in addition to Dr. Goerner, who have guided my thinking and practice along the way: Joe Weston, Gwen McClellan, john a. powell, Eve Capkanis, Melinda Weekes-Laidlow, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Joel Glanzberg, June Holley, Resmaa Menakem, Katya Fels Smyth, Tanya Tucker, Verna Allee, Carol Sanford, Robert Peng, Maya Townsend, Father Richard Rohr, Dorn Cox, Sherri Mitchell, Harold Jarche, Nora Bateson, Marty Kearns, Tara Brach, John Fullerton, Marilyn Darling, Daniel Christian Wahl, Anne Marie Chiasson, Dr. Chris Holder, Tyson Yunkaporta and Steven C. Hayes, among others.
I love frisbee and have for as long as I can remember. Recently, as I was entering into a few weeks of sabbatical time away from work, a friend asked me what I thought would be most regenerative of my mind, body and spirit during this time. In addition to rest, slowing down, being generally mindful, and taking a break from screens, social media and the news, one of the things that came top of mind was playing frisbee. I have memories of my teenage and twenty-something self in utter bliss and a sense of timelessness, hurling a disk across a vast expanse at a corner lot in our neighborhood in Flint, Michigan or at a lakeside park in upstate New York with my dad or a friend, feeling the breeze, watching the frisbee glide and rotate against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky and feeling the grass massage my bare feet as I ran to make a catch. Heaven.
This is a love that I seem to have successfully instilled in my three daughters. And one of them, our eldest, has taken it to another level this season through her involvement in her high school varsity ultimate frisbee team. I have only played “ultimate” a couple of times, and very informally, in my lifetime. Growing up in the Midwest US, this was not “a thing” the way that it is here in the northeast. And it turns out that at the high school level in this community, it is taken quite seriously and is played with great skill. Having said that, the culture and success of the ultimate frisbee boys’ team here has been particularly striking in that it seems so different from what one usually thinks about in terms of high performance athletics. The more I have learned and experienced this current high school ultimate frisbee season, especially in the context of these times, the more I have appreciated what is happening right under my nose, forall that it gives to the teenagers involved and would seem to offer a mainstream culture hurting for lack of alternative ways of being, well, more human(e), especially in adolescent and competitive contexts.
My oldest daughter, Annabel, also plays varsity volleyball, which takes up a lot of her time in the fall. When she got involved in frisbee during the spring, one of the first things I noticed was her overall upbeat attitude and holistic appreciation for her teammates and the ultimate culture. “There just isn’t much drama,” Annabel explained to me at one point, “and people are really kind, supportive and frankly mature.” In a sense, ultimate to her is not just a sport, but a way of life. She went on to explain how in ultimate games there are no referees, that players take responsibility for calling fouls and then talking it out if there are any differences of perspective. I’ve witnessed this a number of times in games and have been impressed that even when there is clearly tension and disagreement, the players manage to work it through – some beautiful self-organization and respectful confrontation/ fierce civility on display!
I also came to appreciate early on in this recently completed spring season, the joy-full, heartfelt, and creative expression that comes up during and around games. After one memorable game, the two competing teams sang songs they had composed to one another, conveying appreciation for the adversary. In another case, after one team scored, the other team gave them a standing ovation as a salute to the level of play and skillfulness on display. In a recent tournament finale, the boys’ team was down a couple of points with not much time remaining and called a timeout. Instead of getting down on one another or into a heated strategic conversation, they played music and engaged in a playful dance circle for a couple of minutes, then went on to win the game. And when someone accidentally hurts someone else during play, they make sure to stay engaged with the injured person, showing genuine care and making sure the person gets the support they need.
The camaraderie and respect on display is really remarkable. The boys’ and girls’ teams come to one another’s games and cheer each other on. “You just don’t see this in other sports at the school,” says Annabel. Each time someone scores from either team there is an outburst of celebration from whoever is cheering from the sideline. If someone makes a mistake on the field they are supported by players on and off the field, and the invitation is for everyone to move on. It is not unusual to see the boys come together in a game to hold hands and take a deep breath together to gather themselves, and for both teams to engage in a mindful moment before a game. Annabel says to me, “We genuinely love each other and enjoy being with one another.” This shows and comes through time spent outside of practice and games building relationships and rapport, including through community service projects. (the most recent being at the local survival center).
There is also a core element of mindful inclusion and paying attention to privilege. The boys’ team recently made the decision not to go to a “by invitation only” national conference because of its exclusivity and tendency to only include mostly white teams and privileged schools. The girls’ team, in light of its multi-racial make-up, has had open conversations about anti-racism and anti-sexism. And there has been an attempt to create across programs an authentic and welcoming community for LGBTQ+ team members, including an open embrace of trans athletes.
One last point worth making. There is a very mature invitation by members of the ultimate teams to take personal responsibility and, as Annabel explains it, “focus on controllables, not uncontrollables.” In other words, to enact the serenity prayer, knowing when to push for change and when to let go and just flow with what is. I can see how this is impacting my daughter and her teammates in a time that begs for this kind of discernment.
In a world that can seem at times so unmoored, this spring ultimate frisbee season and the remarkable leadership of these local teens has given me hope for the present and future.
As mentioned in a previous post (see “A Network Leadership Institute Goes Virtual With an Appeal to the Senses”), this summer, the core convening team of Food Solutions New England was able to attend a number of different trainings to heighten the team’s awareness and facility around issues of trauma and racialized trauma. This was made possible through the generosity and understanding of the Angell Foundation, which has supported FSNE in offering the Network Leadership Institute since 2016. Last year, in light of COVID, the calls for reckoning and repair, and so much uncertainty, along with the very place-based nature of the Institute to that point, we elected not to jump into the virtual fray. Instead we took a step back, and had some deeper conversations about the future of the NLI, what we had learned over the past years, how we wanted to evolve the offering, and what new capacities we needed as a team and broader network.
Now we are poised to offer the 5th Institute over the next six months (September 2021-February 2022), anchored in 6 day-long virtual sessions, complete with many of the same components we have had in the past: (1) community and relationship building, (2) grounding in the history and present work of the Food Solutions New England Network, (3) meeting and hearing from other food system leaders and change agents in our region, (4) sharing practices to cultivate personal and collective resilience, and (5) developing deeper collaborative and networked capacity to realize justice, equity, sustainability, and democracy in our regional food system. In addition to these six sessions, we will offer a number of optional inter-session gatherings, in the early evening, with either a cooking demo, relevant movie (such as Gather and Homecoming), or special speaker.
We enter into this year’s offering knowing that the baseline for our work is connection and care. And thanks to Jerrilyn Dixson and team at Progressive Therapy, LLC out of Jackson, MS, Cultural Somatics Institute, Class Action and Quabbin Mediation, we have more enhanced sensibilities related our collective work for equity and well-being. What appears below are some of the lessons that we are bringing to this year’s Institute, and all the on-line gathering work of FSNE.
3 Realms of ACEs (sources of child trauma)
Important overall learnings and take-aways…
Class is not just wealth; class is about a combination of resources + culture (status/power/education, etc.)
Class can be a driver for anxiety, stress, comparison, confusion, shame, inner resistance …
The levels of classism can mirror and connect to the levels of racism (internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural).
Harm-doing can take many different forms, including: racism, sexism, misgendering, aggression, unpaid labor, miscommunication, exploitation, abuse …
At least 70% of people have had at least 1 traumatic experience; thus, trauma is the norm, not the anomaly
6 core principles of trauma informed care: safety, trustworthiness and transparency; peer support and mutual help; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice and choice; attention to cultural, historical and gender issues
“Trauma happens when people feel disconnected,” not seen, heard or valued.
Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and values and when they give and receive without judgment.
Challenging behaviors are almost always about creating connection and/or safety, even if that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on to the outside observer of the behavior
The concept of “protest behaviors” — these are things people do to get what they need to feel connected, when not getting their needs met. These show up in all different kinds of ways — be on the lookout.
Make sure to offer assistance with technology and do not assume, or convey the assumption, that everyone is comfortable with any given technology or technique.
Build community agreements collaboratively and by consensus.
Ask people to name any accessibility needs, discomforts and triggers (this could be done in a survey and/or during group activity).
Create safe and soothing space (white noise to drown out distracting noise or to let people know that what they are sharing is not carrying beyond the room, soft/relaxing music, natural imagery, calming scents)
Be aware of your own triggers as a trainer/facilitator/coach – realize it isn’t the person, it is the action andthe interaction. Recognize, take a break. Have a code between facilitators for when one of us is triggered and needs to step out to re-regulate.
Consider having a “3rd party” (not one of the facilitators) that a participant can talk toif there is a perception that the challenge lies with the facilitation approach.
Use a grounding/re-connecting exercise or opportunity after a challenging moment or episode of disconnection in a group (breathing, movement, shaking, tapping, etc.).
Use a scale of 1-10 for mood check/how people are entering or leaving space. Use a scale of 1-10 on how connected you as facilitator feel to [the group or the topic we are working on today.
Invite people to make themselves feel comfortable as participants (bring fidget toys, food, water, something that makes them feel at home).
Pay attention to the choices of colors, images, etc, in the slides that you use.
Create some predictability and transparency by sharing goals and the agenda of a session in advance, along with timeframes, roles, expectations and any supplies/materials needed.
Stay online 15-30 minutes after a session for anyone who would like to talk more.
Agree on a hand gesture signal that allows people to take space as needed (i.e. when they want to leave the room to use restroom or take an unscheduled break).
Consider structuring in identity-based caucuses. Give them topics and structure. Use when needed or desired.
Use entry passwords, and make sure everyone in the group can get easy access to them, for virtual settings, ensuring that all feel it is literally a safe space
Apprise guest speakers of group agreements, before they show up and brief them on the vibe/pet peeves. Let the group know this is being done to demonstrate you value the trust-based environment you are trying to create.
Have mental-emotional-spiritual health and support resources information available.
Should things get volatile with someone who is triggered, reflect back (name the behavior), create space for them to be heard, do not take it personally and check your privilege …
Be ready to recognize if an individual is not ready for the group or program (and vice versa) after employing all of these practices. No one person is bigger than the mission/goal. Have procedures in place for non-compliance that maintain the dignity of all.
Have a “consent/agreement” about actions that will be taken should challenges arise, including the possibility of determining the program is not the right fit for participant. “In the event of a conflict or a feeling of harm being done, here are [2-3] ways to start the process of addressing or resolving the issue. If, even after these efforts, the challenges remain, we may collectively decide that this program is not a good fit for your needs….”
“Non-violence is the constant awareness of the dignity and humanity of oneself and others. Non-violence is a courageous acceptance of active love and goodwill as the instrument with which to overcome evil and transform both oneself and others.”
Wally Nelson, African American civil rights and peace activist (1909-2002)
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
The Food Solutions New England 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge for 2021 is moving into its last week and shifting from the theme of “Reckon and Repair” to “Regenerate.” And it just so happens that the Revolutionary Love Conference happened this past weekend, providing amazing array of speakers, deep wisdom, inspiration and what feels like a rich transition that aligns with where the Challenge is heading (both thematically and in its encouragement of learning and action that takes its thousands of participants from 21 days to 365). This year’s theme of Revolutionary Love was “The Courage to Reimagine,” and while I was not able to attend all of the gathering, what I did catch was nourishing, and the social media stream (#RevLove21 on Twitter) was on the best kind of fire. What follows is a harvest of 21 quotes from the presentations and conversations.
“We have become a people who accept racism and poverty as conditions, when they are actually crises.” – Rev. Traci Blackmon
“We all know someone who is more outraged by Colin Kaepernick’s knee than Derek Chauvin’s… No one hates like a Christian who’s just been told their hate isn’t Christian.” – John Fugelsang
“Public confession without meaningful transformation does nothing.” – Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
“Too often, our framing of God prevents us from moving toward a just society—just as capitalism uses theological vocabulary but centers predatory self-interest.” – Otis Moss, III
“How can we retrain the eye to see all others as part of us, one human family. We can train our eyes to look upon the face of anyone and say, ‘You are a part of me I do not yet know. I will open myself to your story. I will let your grief into my heart.” – Valarie Kaur
“White people need to stop being white and start being ethnic again. When you leave the US no one is seeing you and saying “Oh hey you’re white!” They’ll want to know where you’re from, ethnicity carries stories – what is your STORY?” – Otis Moss, III
“I would like to get rid of words like inclusion and say democratization. I’d like for us to get rid of words like diversity and say democratization.” – Ruby Sales
“We must demand a society that will not withhold from others that which we would not want withheld from ourselves.” – Dean Kelly Brown Douglas
“I want white evangelicals to stop talking about reconciliation and talk about justice and repair.” – Robert P. Jones
“I want to stand as a bulwark that things can be different, even in the most stalwart, white supremacist, bigoted families.” – Rev. Rob Lee
“Change is possible when we stop seeing others as needy and start seeing each other as necessary.” – Rev. Traci Blackmon
“Speaking truth to power isn’t only about taking on the President or the GOP, it’s also about taming the power of our own ego.” -Irshad Manji
“Too often, our acts of moral courage go unacknowledged—even by ourselves. We don’t realize the impact we have on others who observe us, and benefit from small mundane acts of resistance in the face of unimaginable daily horror.” – Wajarahat Ali
“I love my enemies for purely selfish reasons. It moves me toward a cure for the life-denying disease of returning hate for hatred. Love may lead to defeat. It may lead to death. But it will not let hatred have the final word.” – Dr. Miguel De La Torre
“White relatives, we’re not asking for a handout of charity. This [reparations] is an invitation—a lifeline to your own humanity and liberation.” – Edgar Villaneuva
“This is a time of reckoning and reconstruction, and policy is my love language. . . . There’s been hurt and harm legislated for generations. Long before our pandemic, our nation was already in crisis.” – Ayanna Pressley
“What would you do? What would you risk, if you truly saw no stranger? How will you fight with us? … It is the practice of a community, and we all have a different role in the work at any given time.” – Valarie Kaur
“Love is always asking: How do I tell this truth and still stay in relationship?” – Krista Tippett
“Think of how much change we leave on the table when we assume that the other will never see things from our point of view, so we must get in their face and humiliate them. Think of how much social change we may be leaving on the table.” – Irshad Manji
“There are so many awesome people in every political party, every demographic of age, sexuality, gender, etc. – these awesome people have GOT to find each other.” – Van Jones
“Racism is a putrid, festering hole in our nation’s soul, and that will only change when we have the courage to love a different way. That love must become an everyday spiritual practice, like flossing or brushing our teeth.” – Dr. Rev. Jacqui Lewis
“America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.”
– Isabel Wilkerson, from Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Institutional racism shows up in both formalized and informal ways, from human resources policies that privilege white-dominant norms of “professionalism” to cultures that instill a sense of belongingto those who feel more comfortable in norms of whiteness. We invite you to watch this 3-minute video summing up institutional racism in the US, and to read this article on equity and inclusion as the basis of organizational well-being.