All along the way, there were messages of what the times are calling for in terms of practicing resilience and transformation. Each of these deserves a fuller unpacking, and I offer them here for now, with much gratitude to many teachers along the way. I begin each of these with the word “remember,” as that was a core teaching from our gathering on Haudenosaunee lands, that one of our greatest gifts is to remember, and that so much of this is about remembering …
Remember that everything is designed to work together through reciprocal relations.
Remember where you come from, what your “creation story” is, as there is great guidance there.
Remember what matters most to you, your values, and align with them in practice.
Remember what is yours to do in this lifetime and in/with Life.
Remember to go below the neckline (to the heart and gut), without throwing out what is above it (the head).
Remember to practice belonging and accountability (they go together and support one another).
Remember to do intergenerational work/learning, thinking of those living, those passed on, and those yet to come.
Remember to bring in “the periphery” (whatever that means in your particular situation – this generally relates to power and access). There is much wisdom and fresh insight here.
Remember the importance of putting in place a “resilience or transformation infrastructure” (think process, roles and relationships) – this does not necessarily happen on its own.
Remember when it makes sense to “institutionalize” and do so in ways that do not kill spirit, vitality and diversity.
Remember not to make assumptions and be prepared to be surprised.
Remember to have faith in the unseen, the power of “practical magic.”
Remember to break bread with one another, to talk with one another and to keep leaning in to the (apparent) differences. Learning awaits!
Remember to find what grounds and nourishes you (individually and collectively) and cherish/honor it.
Over the course of the last few years I have been delving deeper into the trans-disciplinary science of energy systems, largely thanks to my colleague and mentor Dr. Sally J. Goerner. Earlier in 2022, Dr. Goerner and I offered a session to The Weaving Lab on energy systems science for network weavers. A summary of that session can be found here. Since then I have been working with a few others to explore,identify and build out resources, practices and tools at different “levels” (individual, group/organization, and larger system), all within the context of the planet that sustains us, in the four different domains of Energy System Science. Together, these domains support systemnic saluto-genesis – the capacity of living systems to reproduce resilience and wellbeing. The four domains are:
resilient and balanced structures
common cause culture
The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all “living” systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like:
investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources,
healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning “the host”),
the velocity and spread of resources in the system,
cross-scale circulation, etc.
The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways.
The image above offers a sample collection of resources, practices and tools, that transcend specific sectors (economics, education, etc.) and that I look forward to bringing to a group later this fall. Certainly incomplete, these practices also do not all neatly fit into one category, even where they appear to in the graphic – that’s life! If you go to this link, you will find the above image as a clearer PDF document that has hyperlinks for some of what is listed (items that are underlined) that will take you to additional information. And I am always eager to hear what others would add!
I am grateful for the many teachers and collaborators, in addition to Dr. Goerner, who have guided my thinking and practice along the way: Joe Weston, Gwen McClellan, john a. powell, Eve Capkanis, Melinda Weekes-Laidlow, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Joel Glanzberg, June Holley, Resmaa Menakem, Katya Fels Smyth, Tanya Tucker, Verna Allee, Carol Sanford, Robert Peng, Maya Townsend, Father Richard Rohr, Dorn Cox, Sherri Mitchell, Harold Jarche, Nora Bateson, Marty Kearns, Tara Brach, John Fullerton, Marilyn Darling, Daniel Christian Wahl, Anne Marie Chiasson, Dr. Chris Holder, Tyson Yunkaporta and Steven C. Hayes, among others.
For the past few months I have been seeing an integrative acupressurist who has been practicing her craft for some 35 years. I am blown away and grateful for the extensive knowledge she brings to the inner workings of my body, including the interrelationships between different “parts” as well as the impact of the “environment” on my “internal” systems.
She has been particularly adept at helping me to understand that presenting and relatively superficial aspects of dis-ease or dis-comfort have longer standing and deeper contributing factors. Peel back one layer, with great care and re-spect, and you are likely to find something else. “Wonderful!” she will often say, marveling at how the body intelligently adapts to stress and other demands upon it. “While this may not feel good, it is actually a very wise and creative response!”
This has me reflecting on our dominant health care system in the US and what it tends to pay attention to and how it responds. How does that compare/contrast with and how is it complemented by what an integrative acupressurist does? What lessons and metaphors lie there for guiding me in my thinking about approaching other systemic challenges – in organizations, communities, economies … ?
First and foremost, an integrative acupressurist assists with body’s structural integrity (muscles, bones, organs), flow management and bio-logical co-operationand communication. Sometimes that is about tending to areas in the body where blood or lymph or chi (all vital flows) are not circulating in optimal ways. Sometimes that is about helping to stimulate parts of the body (organs and muscles) that have become guarded, tense or listless as an intelligent defense response (this often calls for treating those areas indirectly, to bypass defenses and stimulate areas that are impacted referentially). Sometimes this is about reintroducing different parts/regions of the body to one another with careful touch and stimulation. Sometimes it is about helping the entire body process new information and sensations more optimally, including the introduction of various healing and fortifying herbs.
As I have been experiencing these interventions, and learning from this remarkable healer/teacher (she loves narrating what she is doing and entertains all questions), I have been thinking about how this knowledge and wisdom translates into efforts to shift and heal other kinds of living systems. As I have written elsewhere, I am a proponent of not just simply talking about and working on “system change,” but supporting the inherent regenerative (self-renewing) capacity of living systems, social and ecological. My friend Daniel Christian Wahl turned me on to the notion of “saluto-genesis” when it comes to working with living systems, which means tending to the long-term and ongoing ability of systems to produce wellbeing.
Thinking as a systemic health promoter, or “systemic saluto-genarian” (thanks to Freya Bradford for helping to coin this phrase), isn’t what my integrative acupressurist does also our work? Supporting change in organizations, communities, economies, ecosystems is not simply about mechanically plunging in, but sensing the whole, connecting and working at the speed of trust and with great re-spect (of diverse and wonderful bodies – minds, hearts, guts, spirits ….), tending to the four key areas of focus of energy systems science:
structural integrity – optimal connectivity, resilience, flexibility, balance of “sizes”
regenerative flows – optimal movement (volume, velocity, directionality, reach) of enlivening resources
collaborative learning – timely sharing and exchange of information and co-creation of knowledge
common cause/collective culture – valuing and actually working together with an understanding of mutuality
This a metaphor and framework that is proving rich for practice and conversation with others. What do you think, feel, sense?
“Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. … Big, undreamed-of things – the people on the edge see them first.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
I have used the above quote in a number of cases to illustrate a network principle of thinking and action – Don’t get stuck in the core, make the periphery the norm. As we come to the end of 2020 (as arbitrary as that calendrical designation may be), I am thinking about Vonnegut’s words in different and perhaps more expansive ways.
Seemingly many of us have been asked to live (in some cases, even further out) on any number of edges over the past several months – political, economic, psychological, social, spiritual. While exciting in certain cases, it has also been quite exhausting and for some it has been a push to and over the brink.
It is also the case that many have woken or are waking up to the realization that life can only continue in some form or fashion at various edges, especially in times of considerable change. The Aboriginal artist and complexity scientist Tyson Yunkaporta reminds us that from an indigenous perspective –
“Sedentary lifestyles and cultures that do not move with the land or mimic land-based networks in their social systems do not transition well through apocalyptic moments.”
And it would seem we are at an apocalyptic moment, if we take that term to mean a great revelation, along with a call for reckoning, healing and re-creation. “The Great Turning,” maybe, allowing that transitions take us to the edge, because that is where qualitative growth lies.
“Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge.”
– Dr. Rev. Howard Thurman (philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader)
Earlier this year I joined a beautiful community stewarded by Joe Weston, which has been brought together by a common desire to cultivate deeper shared capacity among people for what Joe calls “respectful confrontation” and “fierce civility.” The Weston Network is grounded in a set of practices drawn from martial arts, mindfulness and somatics, which help practitioners cultivate four core pillars – grounding, focus, strength and flexibility. These pillars support people to express and get their needs met in ways that can contribute to co-evolution (my word, not Joe’s), or mutualistic growth in groups and communities. I can really vouch for the power and the personal test of the practice!
A helpful concept that Joe introduced back in March at an in-person workshop, just before things started to close down because of COVID, was the idea that our individual and collective growth is found at “the resilient edge of our resistance.” The idea is that people tend to be resistant at the edges of their comfort zones, for some good reasons. And yet it is also true that staying hunkered down is not always helpful, and may even be dangerous. People also have the capacity to become more resilient at and over the edges of their perceived comfort zone. Life, in fact, requires this!
“Evolution is what happens when patterns that used to define survival become deadly.”
– Nora Bateson (filmmaker, writer, regenerative thinker and educator)
Through the Weston Network, I have been learning more about how to read resistance and sense its invitations beyond, “Don’t move. stay safe!” … feeling these messages in my body and a complex mixes of emotions, along with the dynamism of dancing on different edges. Resistance when met with a combination of respect, rootedness, receptivity, and recreation can build muscle, confidence, and open up new possibilities. How many people have I heard say that one thing they have learned this year is that they are in fact stronger and more adaptive than they might have thought? Or that they have found meaningful connection in struggle and disruption?
“We don’t have to resist entropy … or push the river. We just need to learn how to get out of the way and cooperate with the direction.”
As I have gone and been pushed to my growing edges this year, seen myself and the world from new vantage points, and tasted “resilient power” (Joe Weston’s words), I’ve been contemplating what this looks like as collective practice. And I’ve been dabbling a bit with both the Weston Network practices as well as those of the PROSOCIAL community in a few different groups and networks.
The ACT Matrix (see above) is a tool that individuals andgroups can use to name what matters most to them, along with aligned behaviors, as a way of laying a foundation for transparency, agreement, support and accountability. The Matrix also helps people to name andwork with resistance found in challenging thoughts and emotions that might move them away from their shared values. In essence, this helps to normalize resistance and when used with other ACT practices (defusion, acceptance, presence, self-awareness), can encourage more sustainable, fulfilling (over the long-term), and mutually supportive choices.
I’m eager in the new year to lean more into these different practices with others, knowing that more of us are moving with intention into the “omega” (release) and “alpha” (reorganize) phases of the adaptive cycle (see below). While letting go and stepping into the unknown may not be a very compelling invitation to everyone, I’m hoping that the prospect of finding our resilient power and cultivating regenerative futures will be incentive to keep moving to meet, greet and play on our edges.
As you review the framework, would you share your responses to the questions below in the comments?
What does it bring up for you?
Where do you find yourself focusing your thinking and efforts?
What might you want to explore, start, continue or further develop, or stop doing in any of the stages?How does the framework help you prioritize and perhaps find empowering areas for action and partnership?
As you navigate the complex times of COVID-19 and racial uprising, consider what it would take to transition through these four dimensions, what needs to be in place, what is already in place, and what we need to reimagine and rebuild.
1 – In the Trauma Dimension: How are we responding to the impact of trauma from COVID, racism, and other shocks?
Racial Equity & Justice:
Are we removing racialized barriers to emergency resources?
Are we using a racial equity impact analysis tool to understand and evaluate our response? Even when we feel rushed?
Are we recognizing deep racial harm in our organization and networks?
Are we pausing and engaging in quick and meaningful stakeholder engagement to guide our responses and ensure less harm?
Are we attending to both relationships and results as we carry out our work?
Are we acting and responding with humility, empathy, and transparency?
Are we practicing presence and accountability?
Are we connecting with diverse networks to gather and share information and foster flows to address critical needs?
2 – In the Reckoning Dimension: How are we grappling with deep distress and the reality of shifting resources? How are we embracing racial uprisings for change? How are we embracing uncertainty?
Racial Equity & Justice:
Are we acknowledging inequities revealed by crisis?
Are we acting to undo the racialized impacts of our actions?
How are we recognizing the leadership of Black people and what are the lessons for our organizations?
Note: This blog was authored as a framework to assist leaders moving people and organizations through COVID-19. Shortly after it was written, the racial uprisings of 2020 began after the many deaths of Black people in the United States. We have since updated this framework to bridge the approaches we believe are necessary for navigating both COVID-19 and racial injustice. Please view this blog and new resource.
As we find ourselves rowing in uncharted, uncertain, and scary waters, feeling like we’re up against waves of deep tension and crisis, we know that we need to row together in new and deeply collaborative ways. Yet under current conditions, many leaders are overwhelmed with concern about their own organizations; their staff, volunteers, Board, constituencies, and networks. We are all problem solving minute-to-minute and facing many critical decisions – decisions which could determine if people have a source of income, if they will receive essential services, and, indeed, even if they will remain healthy and alive.
We need to support leaders at all levels – individually, organizationally, and at the level of the ecosystem of networks around them – to work strategically and collaboratively in this critical moment. We are using IISC’s Collaborative Change Lens, to harness the power of collaboration by focusing on love, racial equity, and networks. We are supporting leaders online, and will eventually support them in-person (yes, that day will come), to plan and move through the stages of transformation offered in this framework during the pandemic and beyond.
Organizations, communities, networks, and even individuals may experience these stages in linear ways. Or, they may dip in and out of the stages at different times as they move through challenges and opportunities. We are supporting them to shift from emergency responses to creating conditions for resilient futures that create regenerative and equitable systems that are sustainable for the longer-term. This includes helping individuals and groups “do what they do best and connect to the rest,” and to act in networked ways to strengthen response and movement.
As you review the framework, would you share your responses to the questions below in the comments?
What does it bring up for you?
Where do you find yourself focusing your thinking and efforts?
What might you want to explore, start, continue or further develop, or stop doing in any of the stages?How does the framework help you prioritize and perhaps find empowering areas for action and partnership?
Facilitate rapid problem-solving and decision-making in the face of immediate needs, heightened risk, chaos, and/or uncertainty.
Focus on relationships and results for rapid decision-making and crisis management
Engage in quick and meaningful stakeholder engagement of those impacted by critical and consequential decisions to generate effective responses.
Ground all decisions in what is best for our shared humanity and fate.
Act and respond with love, humility, empathy, and transparency.
Let those in critical need know they are not alone.
Show up with and model presence and focus.
Avoid “savior syndrome” and respect the dignity and voice of those most in need in the moment.
Recommit to racial equity practices and approaches from the organization’s past that can build resiliency.
Anticipate and remove racialized barriers to accessing emergency resources and uniquely tailor responses to account for historic inequities to eliminate disparities in the emergency response.
Foster connectivity and flows between leaders in various sectors and ecosystems to gather and share information, understand the current reality, and respond to complex problems.
Tap into diverse networks to address critical needs and discover new possibilities.
Eliminate bottlenecks and liberate the flow of critical resources.
Grapple with the reality of fewer resources and more distress within the organization/community.
“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 schoolswhere 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.
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.
“New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”
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.
“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.
Very recently I brought this poem to a group of community organizers from a state-wide political action network, and after hearing it, many said they were really touched by this notion of there being a vastness they do not enter, and are therefore limited by. References were made to systems of oppression, to antagonism, to fear and lack of love. There is so much more to this world and by extension to ourselves that we do not tap into that keeps us repeating patterns of behavior and systems that do not serve our fuller humanity.
“We use language not so much to convey factual information as to construct worlds.”
– Barbara A. Holmes
Image by NASA Goddard, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
Holmes’ book extends this same theme of vastness, drawing from the fields of quantum physics, cosmology and ethics as a way of inviting a broader perspective and creating new language and thinking that points in the direction of a world where everyone belongs. She writes, for example, about “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which is pervasive and cohesive in the universe, the essentially creative energy that holds things together. Considering this profound and primordial force, Holmes says, we can only wonder at and celebrate “darkness,” not fear or denigrate it.
Holmes also invites us to consider that physics and cosmology point to the fundamental nature of reality as existing in relationship and interdependence and that systems of oppression go against the grain of the unfolding cosmos. She writes, “Our desire for justice is deeply rooted in systems that are holistic and relational. We have not forced, created, or dreamed this shared destiny; it seems to be the way of the universe.”
In times of breakdown and cynicism, both Ortiz and Holmes tell us that creativity and hope are to be found by looking more deeply into nature and more widely into the heavens to re-member who we are and that there are so many more possibilities than what we have created and perpetuate.
What vastness have you not yet entered, what wonders in our world and beyond have you not allowed to grab hold of you that might liberate and generate new possibilities in your change agency?
IISC exists to bring the best of collaborative practice to the work of social justice and sustainability. In the early years, some of our detractors felt we were too apolitical, that our call to “get the whole system in the room” was naïve at best and dangerous at worst. Without a power analysis, collaboration across traditional lines of authority, role and identity was of limited interest to some of the organizers and activists we knew. Collaboration might be a good idea for the allies, they thought, but it was silly to think that bringing the power brokers or counterproductive actors in the system into the room with those most affected would lead to meaningful results. That was the early and mid 1990s.
In some ways, our critics were right and we knew it. By the late 1990s, we began to bring diversity and cultural competency explicitly into our framework. After all, collaboration is about working together, and working together across race, class, culture, and role are part and parcel of that kind of work. We stretched our core methodology. We expanded the boundaries of cultural competency to include understanding historic and present-day structural dynamics of oppression and taking action to address structural factors. By the early 2000s we were crystalizing an understanding of power, network theory, and love as critical dimensions of collaboration. Since the late 2000s, we’ve been building tools and methods to bring power, equity, and inclusion into the center of our practice. The next stage of this evolving practice has been an increasingly sharp focus on racial justice in particular, to the point where the pursuit of racial equity is part of our stated mission. And, I’m excited to see how many people see the value of bringing that enriched understanding of collaborative practice to their work for racial justice. At the same time, I’m struck by the continuing importance of protest and civil disobedience to the pursuit of justice.
In this particular moment brings a question into sharp relief in this particular moment. When is it necessary to completely disrupt life or business as usual in order to shine a light on injustices and pursue justice? Can that kind of disruption be done in a collaborative way? What’s the role for confrontation?
I am indebted to Linda Stout and her colleagues at Spirit in Action for their 4Rs approach to social change. They recognize that there are times for Resisting violations of shared values and human rights; Reforming existing systems; Reimagining alternative futures; and Reinventing communities, organizations, and societies from the ground up to reflect the kinds of values we hold dear. If ever there was a time to resist, it’s now. And those who are resisting courageously in ways large and small need spaces of refuge and restoration. It’s exhausting and dangerous work. Reimagining is often led by artists, and the movie Black Panther highlighted the power of reimagining alternative futures. I think that much of our work centers on reforming existing systems, supporting people who are working to transform their institutions from the inside out. And, in a few cases, there are genuine efforts to focus energy and attention on recreating ways of being and doing together that bring the imagined future into reality.
I’ve been sensing a growing desire for a lot more reimagining and recreating. What’s the mix in your work and your world?
Many articles have been devoted to running effective meetings that build collaboration among teams, yet many fail to discuss the hidden element that can destroy a meeting almost without fail.
Power dynamics – the ways in which power works in a setting – can either sink a meeting and negatively impact relationships for years, or produce more shared power and capacity to get things done. A lot of the difference comes down to how we attend to power dynamics in meetings, how well we plan our meetings, how well we determine what happens within and outside of meetings, and how well we facilitate in the moment.
In every organization, there are people who hold formal power and informal power. Formal power is attributed to someone by virtue of their title or position in the organization. People carry informal power if they have influence over others or their organization, either because of their experience, force of personality or persuasion, unearned privilege, or because they have strong relationships with decision-makers and peers. Power is also deeply influenced by diversity and equity dynamics. In most Western societies today, many decisions in organizations are still controlled by people with certain backgrounds: over 40, male, white/European, heterosexual, and middle class and wealthy people. Many feel empowered to lead, speak, and make decisions by virtue of the standing society gives to them on the basis of their background. They get a lot of practice leading and people are acculturated to following and respecting them.
Power — the capacity to get things done — is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. It’s all about how we construct, reconstruct, and practice power. Individuals can exercise their power in healthy ways if they stay focused on making space for others and growing power to achieve positive outcomes by building “power with” others. Individuals and groups can exercise their power in unhealthy ways if they are focused on establishing “power over” others or concentrating power in a few.
At IISC we have made some key observations about power in meetings:
Power dynamics are always present in meetings whether we see them or not.
Every meeting is a chance to build a group’s power and transform power dynamics. It’s important to design and facilitate meetings to create opportunities for power to be shared and openly discussed.
Meeting designers and facilitators must attend to formal and informal power and the dynamics that come along with it.
Meeting facilitators should be mindful of and acknowledge their own power and enact it in a way that builds the power of the group.
Every element of meetings needs preparation to make power and decision-making transparent. Consider questions like: Who is at the meeting and who is not? Why or why not? What’s on the agenda and what’s not on the table for discussion that should be? Who will be making the decisions that flow from what will be discussed (both in the room and beyond)? Who plays which roles and why? What work will happen outside of the meeting? What information from the meeting should be shared and with whom?
So, what are some ways to attend to power dynamics in meetings?
Assume power dynamics are always present in meetings. Design your meeting agenda to include multiple voices and perspectives. Lightly encourage people to step forward to lead and participate, especially if they have less power in the organization either because of role, positional status, race, gender, or other factors. Encourage people with traditional forms of formal power to do more listening than speaking.
Build a culture of collaboration in meetings. Think of meetings as an opportunity for a team to build relationships, learn leadership, design good processes, and counteract unhealthy uses of power. Design your meetings for relationships, joy, and creativity. Good things will follow! Always build an agenda that allows people to first interact on a human basis, such as starting with opportunities for people to do a “check-in” to share how their day or week is going or to learn more about each other on a personal level. Ask people a question that surfaces their personal and professional purpose. Encourage honesty, vulnerability, and calling people “in”, instead of calling people “out”. Spread a little business love around the room, creating openings for people to feel heard and noticed, and to experience a sense of belonging and interconnectedness.
Openly discuss power in meetings. Discuss openly with your team the question, what would be the benefits to our group if we shared power? Remind them that power is not a finite pie; rather, it can be infinite, expanded, and shared among people and leaders. Prompt them to explore how they can share “power with” each other instead of “power over.” Make a list of meeting agreements the group will use to share power. Ask people to monitor the agreements and be brave enough to intervene if people are not practicing them. Make a list of “power over” moves, so people learn the behaviors that reinforce dominant voices and power and exclude others. Have people take mental note of who is speaking the most and who is not. Make sure your discussions of power go beyond yourselves as colleagues to the people or communities you serve. How are they “at the table?” How are their priorities, assets, and skills driving the discussion?
Remember that power is a social construct. We can design spaces where individuals and groups experience their own and others’ power differently. Be proactive about ways to amplify the power of people who are typically at the margins of the conversation. Challenge the group to pay at least as much attention to the expertise that comes from lived experience (say, of poverty) as from formal theories and data. Flip questions on their head by asking “why not do things differently?” instead of “how can we work within given boundaries?” Ensure that people who are affected by the issues you’re working on are at the center of the conversation and have meaningful roles in the work over time (inside meetings and beyond).
Use your role intentionally and thoughtfully if you’re the meeting facilitator. Don’t dominate the discussion. Don’t come up with all the ideas. Stay as impartial as possible, even though you can never truly be completely neutral. If you want to contribute an idea or experience, tell the group you are switching from facilitator role to express your view as an individual and then step back into your facilitator role. Examine who gets to facilitate meetings and who doesn’t. Meeting facilitators can change the outcome of the meeting just by how they design and run it. Rotating facilitation and supporting people to learn how to facilitate and run meetings distributes power and makes meetings more dynamic.
The skills of meeting facilitation with a lens to share power are teachable and replicable. At IISC, we share some of those skills through training and consulting. We have learned that meetings that are both well facilitated and that attend to power dynamics can transform groups into highly functioning teams with deeper purpose and intention for social change.
Pursuing racial equity and systems change is a forever equation. I am noticing that our clients and friends believe that if we just implement racial equity, diversity, and inclusion “the right way,” our organizations, movements, and networks will immediately become effective multiracial ecosystems that produce transformative results.
We will always be undone. People and systems – the very world we live in – are ever changing and reverting and that’s why I have to be honest that the work of racial equity will always be unfinished.
People are always coming in and out of our organizations, some with knowledge of our path to create racial justice and others completely unknowing and beginning the discovery of systemic racism. Even if we root out systems of injustice and racism in specific institutions or sectors, they will exist in other places and invariably slip back into our ecosystem. The world is encased in racial stratification. We can dismantle racism in one territory and it can spread elsewhere as people and their ideas travel.
Oppression cannot be fixed. It’s not a linear proposition. It swarms, grows, gets attacked at moments, dissipates, and then finds its way back into our systems as fearful ways of thinking and unproductive ways of doing. And because we are a species and planet dependent on each other, the chronic patterns of racism can reenter our minds and societies. We are imperfect people in deeply imperfect systems.
We are making progress but it’s not the kind where there’s a clear end in sight. We’re learning together. We’re trying new practices of shared power. We’re rooting out racist policies in our laws and organizations. Our systems are feeling the pressure because of our joint actions.
But we won’t do it “right” and we won’t get it “right.” We will be undone.
But don’t let this disappointment get in the way of persistent bold action.
We will have moments of clarity. Moments of seeing new possibilities. Months of progress in our leadership for equity and justice. Years of growth and learning. Examples of power shifting and sharing all around us. Detrimental laws defeated. It will feel like freedom, like less damage is around and inside of us.
Let’s see ourselves as equilibrium makers, re-introducing people to see the problem of racism once again, re-balancing power as the dynamics return, re-calibrating systems when they revert, revisiting change in ourselves and others with humility, and re-birthing our best nature and ideas toward liberation.
Each of us are needed to extricate the roots of racism. We can still be a constant catalyst for change all the while knowing that we will be undone.