Mission Affirmed

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

I want to thank Susan Wright of Wright Momentum for spurring on this post, which is in essence a response to a thoughtful dialogue we have had going for a few months.  My thoughts here are further inspired by a training my colleague Melinda and I did at the historic Penn Center on St. Helena’s Island in South Carolina, a site where the first school was built in the US to educate freed slaves.  It was also an important site for people to come together across racial lines to do strategy work during the Civil Rights movement.  Melinda and I had the good fortune to spend three days with the amazing Gulf Coast Fellows, a diverse group of grassroots leaders from Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas.  Our time with the Fellows affirmed for me the strategic direction IISC has recently adopted.  Specifically, in considering the next three years (2010-2012), our IISC”s staff has collectively committed to concentrating more of our efforts around: (1) helping to build power and collaborative muscle at the grassroots, and (2) supporting social change work that bridges sectors and organizations (including building networks).

Though we are occasionally thought of as organization development professionals, IISC staff see ourselves more as supporters (and members!) of movements for social change that are rooted at the roots and expand across boundaries.  I have appreciated the work of L. David Brown in helping to distinguish between organization development/change and what must shift when focus and these techniques are brought to societal change efforts.  Something I find myself saying with increased frequency is that in the social sectors we risk mistaking the raft for the shore when we concentrate our efforts on building up organizations.  This is evident in research findings and experiences that indicate how institutions can quickly become distanced from the interests of communities they were built to serve.  Furthermore, relying upon individual organizations to tackle complex social issues is understood now as being rather misguided.  From the Obama administration, to researchers on social innovation, to growing numbers of activists, the case is being made for both greater localism and more expansive network-centric activity.  That’s where IISC wants to be.

This is not to say that there isn’t a case to be made for strengthening individual organizations or individual leadership, and no doubt we will continue to do some of this work.  And we want our actions to be in alignment with our understanding that action must happen between and across actors and agencies, and that our ultimate commitment is to those stakeholders who have the most to lose from continuing to be overlooked or not fully engaged in processes that directly impact their lives.  In the end, their losses are ours.  There are no others.

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