Launching a Network Leadership Institute

March 10, 2017 1 Comment

“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

Photo by sagesolar, shared under terms of Creative Commons 2.0 license

The past twelve months I had the pleasure of working with a team from Food Solutions New England to design and facilitate its first Network Leadership Institute. This initiative grew out of FSNE’s ongoing commitment to cultivating thought leadership and network leadership “to support the emergence and viability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” Another impetus for the Institute was a year spent doing system mapping and analysis that revealed four leverage areas for advancing a just, sustainable and democratically-owned and operated regional food system, including cultivating and connecting leadership.

“Value is created when people are connected and trust what’s going on.”

Seth Godin

The first cohort included 18 individuals, selected with overall geographic, cultural/racial and sectoral diversity in mind. All are active in food system efforts locally and/or regionally, committed to FSNE’s values and eager to contribute to the FSNE network.

Design of the Institute was guided by a few high level learning objectives and desired outcomes:

  • Greater understanding among participants for how to use the network to advance their work
  • Skills in collaborative and network leadership, systems thinking, stakeholder engagement and work for inclusion and racial equity
  • Shared understanding of the emerging food system and FSNE’s strategy for advancing the New England Food Vision (“50 by 60”)
  • Connectivity with a cohort of leaders and the broader FSNE network

“Long-term prosperity is primarily a function of healthy human webs.”

Dr. Sally J. Goerner, The Capital Institute

In terms of the curriculum, emphasis was on five primary strands of activity:

  1. Creating and deepening relationships amongst the cohort (through storytelling, circle time, one-on-ones, informal hang out time, etc.), with the assumption is that would form the most solid foundation for personal development and aligned action towards the vision
  2. Concrete and practical skills development including systems thinking and analysis, facilitation, process design, coaching, collaborative decision-making, public engagement strategies, disaggregated data analysis, etc.
  3. Meeting with and learning from other diverse leaders in the food system to hear about challenges and innovations (panels, informal lunch and dinner discussions)
  4. Doing field visits to places of relevance in both rural and urban settings (teaching kitchen, public market)
  5. Advancing some aspect of the systemic change framework by identifying tangible actions in different leverage areas to share with the network

Based on formal evaluations, personal correspondence and anecdotal evidence, the cohort seemed to gain a lot from the 5 month experience, including:

  • valued professional connections,
  • relevant and applicable skills,
  • inspiration and new ideas for their work,
  • a deeper understanding of inequities and patterns of exclusion working in our food system,
  • a more holistic understanding of the food system and a sense of being a part of something larger.

In addition, we have seen cohort members self-organize and support one another during and beyond the official close of the Institute (collaborating on a conference proposal, sharing resources, doing joint strategizing), and a number have become active in the FSNE systemic strategy groups focused on (1) creating a new food narrative, (2) mobilizing people/democratic empowerment, and (3) making the business case for a just and sustainable regional food system.  

Furthermore, in offering this deep dive exploration of networks and network leadership as a basic requirement for systemic change, a working definition of “network leadership” emerged, which we will no doubt continue to play with, as we prepare for a second cohort this fall:

Network leadership operates from the understanding that connection is fundamental and that the nature and pattern of connection in a system underlie its state of health (including justice, prosperity, resilience). Network leadership strives to understand, shift and strengthen connectivity, facilitate alignment and resources flows, and create conditions for action in the direction of greater health at all systemic levels.

Photo by Adam, shared under terms of Creative Commons 2.0 license

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