Making the Invisible Visible

December 22, 2014 Leave a comment

“As long as it remains invisible, it is guaranteed to remain insoluble.”

Margaret Heffernan, from Willful Blindness

Photo by Marie Aschehoug-Clauteaux

As I look back on 2014 through the lens of the work we have done at IISC supporting networks and movements for social justice and system change, one of the most significant themes that I’ve distilled is the value of “making the invisible visible.” This month I’ve facilitated a number of reflection sessions with diverse groups to gauge the development and impact they have felt and observed from our work over the course of the year. I tend to ask people how they see change happening at different levels: self, group, larger systems (organization, neighborhood, community, state, region, etc.). I also like to ask them to reflect via the use of stories, which I find often help to capture and convey developmental processes.

What has come from this sharing is that even though some of the big goals around equity and sustainability remain elusive, there has been movement and a significant part of this development comes down to seeing what had previously been unseen. While the methods for getting to this recognition have varied – from system mapping and analysis to network mapping to structural and power analysis to learning journeys to dialogue and tackling difficult conversations – by creating ample space to see, share and suppose, there has been significant deepening of relationships (to self, other, the work), change processes, and potential impact.

So what is being made visible?

  • What our change models are and how they align (or do not) with one another and our own stated intentions.
  • How we shape our structures and then how our structures shape us (to paraphrase Winston Churchill).
  • How we are shaped and influenced by implicit biases and dynamics of power and privilege.
  • The existence of differing “social situatedness,” opportunity structures and divides.
  • Shared values despite differing places in and perspectives on the system.
  • An understanding of how our successes do and could connect.

And why does this matter?

In her book, Willful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan profiles examples of people seemingly choosing to remain oblivious to deleterious and damning conditions – in banks that sold mortgages to people who could not afford them, in the run up to unjustified wars, in communities that accept toxic conditions as a trade-off for economic gain, in poor health care or educational environments. in our country as we overlook racial and socio-economic disparities. In unconscious and conscious ways, walls are built and lines are drawn, and even those who are aware of the existence and dangers of these can choose to be silent.

“Silence is the language of inertia.”

Margaret Heffernan

And then there are those who choose to break the silence, who choose to see or look more closely, including looking at their own contexts and chosen approaches with greater scrutiny, as well as being open to the perspectives and legitimacy of others. This is the choice of movement, of development, of breaking inertia. Making the invisible visible is not simply some airy fairy notion of “consciousness raising,” it is about achieving greater strategic and moral courage, connection and clarity. And I am hearing that it is what is giving many in the efforts I am a part of hope that we are getting somewhere.

Here’s to more care-full seeing, compassionate listening, and significant movement/#results in the coming year.


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