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.
In an earlier post in this series on networks and education, we explored the underlying vitality of connection and flow in our world and how this can create opportunity and health in our lives and in learning. According to network theory and practice, it can make a big difference when we are aware of who is and is not connected and then act intentionally to build and leverage relationships in both number and quality. Stories from a variety of fields illustrate the phenomenon of small and great change being rooted in creating ties and flows between different actors and elements in a system.
Now let’s take a step back and ask, “What is a network?” A basic definition is that networks are nodes and links. That is, they are elements of different kinds (people, schools, other kinds of organizations) that are tied together (consciously or unconsciously) in some larger pattern by one or more types of connectedness–values, ideas, friends and acquaintances, likes, exchange, transportation routes, communications channels. Social networks, comprised of individual people or groups, can be experienced in person and also virtually.
In the world of education and learning, here are some of the ways networks show up:
Open classrooms – Digital technology is used to connect students to a wide array of information and a diversity of community partners and real-world learning experiences both within and beyond a classroom’s walls. (e.g., CommunityShare)
Communities of practice – Students, teachers, and school or district leaders connect their learning, engage in inquiry, and refine practice through learning webs within or across schools and districts.
Community schools/schools robustly connected to local community ecosystem – Connections create opportunities for authentic learning, job readiness, and student resilience; wrap-around services ensure fuller suite of supports for students. (e.g., Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative)
Networks of schools – Schools are connected by their alignment to a model or philosophy, influencing a culture shift within the broader field of education.
Movement networks/”networks of networks” – Collectives of schools or education organizations push for transformation in the field toward greater equity, democracy, “education as a public good” (e.g., National Public Education Support Fund).
You (yes, you!) as a network (student, teacher, leader … all learners) – As individuals, we are (or can be) internally connected to multiple intelligences and ways of knowing–analytical/intellectual, embodied/somatic, emotional, spiritual.
The Value of Networks for Education and Learning
So what is the big deal about networks? Is there really anything new here? These are questions that come up, though seemingly less often over the past five years or so with the proliferation of various social media. On the one hand, networks have always existed as long as life has existed, so there is not anything new here. On the other hand, the various digital tools and technologies that have evolved to rapidly and dramatically shrink the world are showing us what more intricate and efficient forms of communication and exchange can make happen.
And while it is true that virtually all collaborative forms of social organization meet the basic definition of being a network (coalitions, alliances, organizations, communities), not all such forms leverage to the same extent what are called “network effects.” … To continue reading this post on the Education Week website, go to this link.
“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”
I am becoming pretty good at compartmentalizing – focusing on the work that is right in front of me, even as more tragedy surrounds us and more outrage wells up within me. It’s certainly functional to be able to do that. But I don’t know that it’s always good. Part of me despairs. How many more people – and especially children – have to die needlessly? How is it that in other countries, people experience mental illness, firing from a job, expulsion from school, and all manner of personal tragedy without turning to mass killings? I want to be in the streets. I want to raise my voice with others in ways that will make a big and immediate difference. I want an end to politicians offering “thoughts and prayers.” I know there is power in prayer, and I also know that powerful prayer motivates powerful, compassionate action.
In a workshop the other day, we were exploring the ways that collaborative leadership practices support organizations and networks in pursuing broader diversity, deeper inclusion, and expanded equity and justice. Someone asked me if I really thought we would ever get closer to justice in this country, given the recent sharp turn we’re taking in the opposite direction. I offered two thoughts in response: (1) I think things are getting much better and much worse at the very same time. There is an expanding consciousness of the sacredness of human life and the interconnectedness of people and the planet; and many people who suffer under oppression are finding ways to resist and to build alternatives. That is all advancing and it’s good. And, the forces of racism, sexism, homophobia, zealotry, and more are also advancing, most recently with tacit and explicit support from the White House. (2) As a woman of faith, what keeps me going is anticipating that in 50 years, when people look back on this era, they will see it as the last moments of flailing by a dying beast. May it be so!
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out, and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
In the late spring, we had an unseasonably sticky stretch of days where I live, and after school one day, my wife and I took our girls to a local swim hole to cool down. As we eased into the cold water, one of our seven-year-old twins clutched desperately to my torso, not yet willing to put more than a toe or foot in. As the sun beat down, I began to feel both the weight of her body and the ebb of my patience, and I managed to negotiate her to a standing position in water that came to her waist. She continued to clutch my arm vice-like with both of her hands.
After another few minutes it was definitely time for me to go under water. But Maddie was unwilling to release me. I continued to encourage her to let go first, to get her head and shoulders wet. Initially totally reluctant, she got to a point where she was in just up to her neck but was still anxiously squeezing my hand. We did a bit of a dance for a few minutes where she would get to the end of my finger tips with her right hand, seemingly ready to take the plunge, and then the same part-anticipatory part-terrorized expression came to her face and she was back against me.
I kept coaxing her, and then let her know that whether she let go or not, I was going under, and if she was still holding on to me, that she would be doing the same. “Okay, okay!” she yelled, stamping her feet and once again got to the tips of my fingers while breathing rapidly. And this time … she let go. She pushed off and immersed her entire body in the water. She came up shrieking but with a big smile on her face, a bit shocked but also more at home in the water, moving around quite gracefully, actually. She splashed me and laughed and then I dived in. A few minutes later she was swimming along next to me.
“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”
– Toni Morrison
Once again, I’ve been re-reading Niels Pfleaging’s short book Organize for Complexity(and eager for the release of the English version of Complexitools) amidst the growing demand we are hearing at IISC from people who want to liberate their organizations and themselves to be able to intelligently respond to change and to come back to life! Here’s the gist – as things shift more, and more rapidly, some people’s inclination may be to try to exert greater control or dig in to what is familiar, but does not work. The more one does so, the worse things can get. As Pfleaging writes, we see a “high price for the illusion of control.” Within organizations this takes the form of various gaps – social, functional, and temporal – that make them increasingly irrelevant, ineffective and irresponsible.
Responding to complexity requires (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Eric Kim) new muscles and mindsets.
Systems thinking as a field has been around for a few decades, but its direct application to structural racism has not been widespread. Even where racism has been discussed systemically, activists have often craved practical skills and tools to identify and align strategically around areas of intervention that will yield the greatest return for effort.
In our session in Atlanta, we spent some time talking about and exploring the “thinking” side of systems thinking. We presented a few systems thinking sayings and quotes from different writers and practitioners, and invited participants to read and reflect on them and talk with others about the ones that most caught their attention. A specific request was to pay to attention to how the words impacted their thinking and perspectives. There were, in just the span of about 10-15 minutes, some remarkable insights reported. And so I invite you to do the same, to share any impacts, and also to add your own favorite systems thinking sayings. Read More
In 2015, the Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Network Team began a year-long process to better understand how we could support the region in achieving the New England Food Vision. The Vision describes a future in which at least 50% of our food is grown, raised, and harvested in New England and no one goes hungry. It looks ahead to the year 2060 and sees farming and fishing as important regional economic forces; soils, forests, and waterways cared for sustainably; healthy diets as a norm; and racial equity and food justice promoting dignity and well being for all who live in New England. Read More
Over the recent Thanksgiving break, I had the opportunity to meet with friends of extended family members, a couple who are engaged in both disaster relief and community planning work. She is from Nepal and he is from the U.S., and together they relayed a story about their time visiting Nepal during the devastating earthquake of 2015.
The two of them were hiking in the mountains when the 7.8 magnitude quake struck. Shaken but not hurt, they made their way back to Katmandu as quickly as possible to check in on family members and then to offer their assistance to others. Originally assigned the task of loading water jugs on trucks, they then volunteered and were enlisted for their translation skills, and headed out to some of the hardest hit villages with international relief workers. Read More