Deepening Network Practice for Social Change

December 8, 2015 2 Comments


Last week, we held an internal learning session for staff and affiliates entitled “Advancing Equitable Networks.” IISC Affiliate Kiara Nagel and I presented some thoughts about our ever evolving practice of supporting network development for social change, including situating our current approach in IISC’s mission and vision, and our collaborative change lens (see above), which lifts up the importance of understanding and shifting power dynamics for equitable outcomes, embracing love as a force for social transformation and seeing networks as the underlying infrastructure of change.

We then elicited and shared some questions that are at the growing edge of our network consulting practice, including these three:

1) How do we mitigate the “power curve” that creates and exacerbates inequity?


The impetus for this question was in part a report from the The Aspen Institute, entitled “POWER-CURVE SOCIETY: The Future of Innovation, Opportunity and Social Equity in the Emerging Networked Economy.”  This paper grew out of a convening pulled together by the Institute’s Communications and Society program of twenty-eight experts from the worlds of information technology, venture capital, economics, government policymaking, philanthropy, academia and management consulting in 2012. Among other topics, these individuals addressed the concern on the part of some about the displacement of jobs, stagnant middle class income, and wealth disparities in an emerging “winner-take-all” network economy.

One of the participants, Kim Taipale, Founder and Executive Director of the Stilwell Center for Advanced Studies, talks about the paradoxical implications of “network effects” in the new economy – “Freedom results in inequality. That is, the more freedom there is in a system, the more unequal the outcomes become.” The reason given for this is a so-called “power-law distribution” that often manifests on open platforms, whereby wealth flows to “super-nodes.” This phenomenon is apparently sometimes called “preferential attachment.”

While there is ongoing debate about the inevitability of this kind of future, there is both a cautionary tale and a virtual extension of preferential phenomena that we know to be true about the in-person realm of groups and networks.  As Jo Freeman wrote in her classic paper, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” “When informal elites are combined with a myth of ‘structurelessness,’ there can be no attempt to put limits on the use of power. It becomes capricious.” In other words, while openness can certainly be opportunity, it can also reinforce existing dynamics of power and privilege.  Openness does not in and of itself undo complex and historical amalgamations of structural inequities nor the human proclivity towards implicit bias. Which is reason to pay close attention to and explicitly address dynamics of power, privilege and exclusion.

2) How can we create and deploy platforms that equitably and efficiently support self-organizing and resource mobilization?


Image from Movement NetLab

Some we know in the field of network building for social change see this as the holy grail. And there are various interesting experiments out there looking to create easily accessible and trustworthy platforms to allow a diversity of actors to share resources and self-organize. A recent webinar hosted by the Leadership Learning Community featured lessons learned by Occupy Sandy and the People’s Climate March around supporting large scale self organized strategies and leadership focused on complex problems. Some insights include the importance of creating:

  • a network structure featuring a decentralized and supportive core, strong periphery of actors closest to “the action,” and overlapping clusters of coordination
  • shareable and scalable systems and processes

Many examples out there highlight the intelligent and creative use of existing platforms to coordinate action, resource mobilization and communication. And there is need for more integrated mechanisms that allow for greater, equitable and more consistent flows of information and resources.

3) How can we scale intimacy and trust?

“The challenge is to replace practices that distance and disconnect with ones that evoke empathy, caring, and creativity. . . . It is difficult to experience caring for other beings without connecting to them directly and seeking a deep understanding of their uniqueness.”

Carol Sanford

Image from Ji Lee

There is a lot of talk about scaling impact of social change efforts. One quandary is how we do this without sacrificing trust and essential regard for one another’s humanity, or lapsing into the damaging stereotypes and abstractions that come from distanceSherry Turkle and others point to the importance of not losing more intimate touch with one another and spaces for the original impulse and inspiration that bring people together. Some ideas:

  • Go beyond abstraction to interaction  – go to and meet in real places with real people, explore/get to know them, consider how life happens there/for them (see for example Story of Place)
  • Leverage and lean on storytelling to ground experiences of and with one another
  • Connected to the above, cultivate practices that lead to a shared sense of inhabiting and belonging 
  • Encourage curiosity by inviting people to interview one another about their experiences and to lead with listening and inquiry.
  • Develop awareness of the “empathy gap” that can come from distance, privilege, socioeconomic, racial, and cultural divides

While this one did not come up in our internal conversation, it is related and one that I carry with me …

How can we leverage inter-disciplinary network science to structure more just and sustainable societies?

As I mentioned in a previous post, the pioneering work of Sally J. Goerner and others is helping us to see networks as fundamental to our understanding of what makes for healthy systems. From this view, networks are not simply a strategy, a tactic, a means to an end. They are an invitation to understand and act in the world that aligns better with life, a more expansive definition of health and human identity, and an important step in social evolution.

In this sense, practices such as connecting diverse perspectives; deepening trust; distributing decision-making (“subsidiarity“); supporting self-determination and self-organization; developing in-person and virtual platforms for collaboration; sharing openly and equitably … are not passing fads but the foundation for more just and sustainable societies.

Eager to hear your questions and reflections on those above!



  • Curtis – I spend a lot of time pondering the above questions as well, and appreciate your thoughts here. It’s very helpful.

    Re: ‘going beyond abstraction to interaction’, Yes! And even further than interaction – in the past year or so, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for something June Holley said to me awhile back – ‘I always say -start with micro-collaborations.’

    In my own experience, being in a small group (a pair or trio), with small but tangible work tasks, in a relatively safe-fail context, that requires a level of clear & intentional communication (beyond all the professing of values & beliefs that fledgling communities/networks sometimes circle around endlessly), and the opportunity to rely on one another & prove our own reliability to another in some small, safe way – that leads to trust faster than any amount of talk, and that trust leads to love a lot quicker than other approaches.

    And once love is there, we can, and we tend to, start bigger projects and take bigger risks together than we would on our own. (In fact, I can easily trace every single thing I work on today, back to the seed of a micro-collaboration sometime in the past – and the love that developed.)

    And when shared-work falters, we get to practice crucial skills (better communication, discovering what needs to change). And if that fails – then we know our work efforts are better spent elsewhere, and we’re free to pursue greater effectiveness with someone else. Without testing bonds by putting a little weight on them, we often spend a lot more time circling than changing.

    I agree that love is A, if not THE, crucial leverage point – or, it’s the thing that can mitigate the power-curve. And yet, to people high on the power curve, a cozy sense of connection, mutual respect, & recognition is often adequate. But for people low on the power curve – ‘connection’ & ‘love’ are inherently built on some kind of mutual support & attending to shared material/worldly vulnerability. Love doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t help to ameliorate your unnecessary suffering. Which means actually changing something.

    I guess what I’m saying is that moving love down the power curve requires co-creating new conditions for those at the lower end. Warm fuzzies are lovely, but not enough. And micro-collaborations are a good way to begin that journey.

    Thanks for writing this. I love your posts.

  • Curtis Ogden says:


    Wow. Thanks so much for your beautiful response. It is a powerful blog entry of its own that I am tempted to post. Would you be amenable to that?


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