This is something that I put into a digital journal as I was traveling home to capture what was moving through me:
“Just leaving Jackson, Mississippi, where I was for three days, co-facilitating and participating in a gathering convened by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future of food policy councils from around the country (US) that are trying to advance social equity in their work. It was incredibly powerful to me to gather in Jackson, for all its history; to meet the likes of Reena Evers-Everette (daughter of Medgar and Myrlie Evers), Charles Taylor (head of the NAACP-Mississippi), Savi Horne (Land Loss Prevention Program), Ed Whitfield (Seed Commons) and Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott(founder of Foot Print Farms); and also to learn more from colleagues there about the network weaving and healing work they are doing in and around food systems, which is about so much more than food – community, local economy, and culture.
As I was walking through the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum about two hours after we closed the convening, I was hit in the forehead and heart (literally had to sit down) by the messages from both the history I was taking in and also what I had just experienced in Jackson. And I should add that it links to the work we at IISC have been supporting through Food Solutions New England for over a decade. To distill “success” (or encouraging movement) in the Civil Rights movement (especially in Mississippi) and what is happening now in Mississippi and in New England around food systems change, much seems to come down to this:
Grounding in the anchoring power of faith, which may or may not be religiously-sourced, and nonetheless is about having humility in the face of Life’s gifts and grandeur, which is complex and awe-inspiring, and asks us to both never give up but also to let go …
On top of this, or infused with this, comes the work for policy change, creating new civic infrastructure, and the like, and never losing sight of the list above.
One peril, over and over again, in social/system change work, seems to be the pitfalls of abstraction – making what we are doing too intellectual and inaccessible to most, not to mention unactionable; not addressing the abstractions that people make of one another in systems (seeing someone only as their role, or other aspects of identity); inappropriately “scaling” or “franchising” efforts and not shaping the work to real places where there may be some familiar patterns but always uniqueness in terms of history and culture.
Another peril is perpetuating fragmentation – not working with living breathing wholes, siloing our “knowing” to overly intellectual/analytical thinking, failing to integrate/weave strategies and perpetuating unhelpful competition (playing into the oligarchic capitalist narrative and way of doing things).”
Now reflecting on this a few days later, something else comes up, which is the importance of ongoing work on ourselves as “change agents,” care-fully watching our own automatic tendencies, biases, and inclinations (including towards groupthink), and especially being careful of the rearing of the overly pride-full ego in the forms of fear, envy, greed and striving for control. Much seems to come down to the abiding power of Love (and from it the expression when necessary of “holy rage”) and the never-ending practice of making room for regenerative flows …
Still sitting with it all, and curious to hear reactions, resonances and other reflections …
For the past month I’ve been checking in with a dozen or so networks that I support and participate in in various ways, looking at how best to navigate these times when in some cases it feels there may be a need to ratchet down or right size expectations. With so much in flux and uncertain, with many new challenges and barriers to how people may have operated in the past, when the impulse might be to pull back or bunker down, what can weavers/coordinators do, what are they doing, to keep their networks and net/collective work vital?
Below is a list of some ideas and practices that I am seeing, hearing, and trying myself, in the name of maintaining baseline connectivity, alignment and coordinated momentum. No one of them is necessarily the “right answer” in every situation, everything being context-dependent and also needing to suit the particular nature and situation of specific networks. And having shared some of these with others, I’ve heard these can be helpful for anyone now working virtually or in-person in times of greater stress. Curious to know what resonates, and what you would add!
Bring an open heart to network interactions. People are feeling a lot in these times. It can be important to allow for and acknowledge this.
Let people know you are thinking of and appreciate them. One of the practices out there that I’ve seen and am leaning into is people sending “love notes” to others in their networks.
Create more frequent, optional and informal opportunities for people to connect. I’ve been seeing and participating in “coffee chats” that happen weekly, bi-weekly and monthly for those who are interested to drop by (virtually), check-in and share gifts and needs. This includes setting up phone calls where people can walk and talk instead of being glued to a screen for videoconferencing.
Release your grip on certain standards of performance and accomplishment. This can often create more frustration and exhaustion. Model patience and grace with yourself and others.
Allow for, and maybe even celebrate, messiness, malfunctions, and “mistakes.” This is not just about cutting people slack and reducing stress, but also inviting ongoing experimentation, improvisation, creativity and playfulness.
Shore up the core of your network. With some coordinating teams working virtually for the first time or much more often, while juggling many other balls, it can be important to establish some basic expectations around communications and other working agreements. What minimally do people need from one another in order to function well in these times? What are they able to give?
Find time to disconnect and replenish. From Zoom overload to balancing needs of home and work simultaneously, it can be crucial to find time to disconnect from conversation and interaction.
Lean back into alignment. This can be a good time to put a network’s mission, vision and values back in front of its members, to remind people what holds them together and what might ground them more deeply amidst the tumult of the times. How can these values and larger goals provide ballast and guidance?
Create more slowness, stillness, spaciousness and even silence in your network interactions. Even when connected, we can practice different kinds of pacing and spacing that can help people to restore, maintain or increase their energy.
Stem degenerative flows. The 24 hour news cycles, social media wars, and spirals of outrage can conspire to overwhelm us and suck us dry, especially when there is an insidious fear of missing out. Other than simply disconnecting, we can ask what actually nourishes us in terms of connections and flows of information, interactions and other resources. Be mindful of what you consume, as well as what you send out and communicate with others.
Lead with joy and laughter. Because it feels good and can be so radical and welcomed in these times.
Really practice shared leadership. All the time, and especially now. Do what you do best and connect to the rest. Remember you are not indispensable and that networks benefit from redundancy of role and function. I was recently in a call with 8 other facilitators to develop both an agenda and executive memo for an important meeting, and while in the past I would have dreaded these kinds of endeavors, in this instance we really needed each other given the complexity of the situation and constrained capacity of each of us.
Keep an eye towards bridging. While comfort and care are important, watch the tendency to fall back into familiar patterns and relationships that can bolster bonding (birds of a feather flocking together) in your networks at the expense of bridging to those who are different in some way, shape or form, where those differences are vital to the health of the network and its work. On this front, see this resource, “On Bridging,” from the Othering and Belonging Institute.
Keep listening for and helping to meet needs, fill gaps, and leverage opportunities. What are the critical connections and flows that the network is asking for right now? Who can help to create and support these?
Ask yourself the following question and see where it takes you:
“What is something I/we can do today that our future network (and collective work) will be grateful for and benefit from?
“While a network, like a group, is a collection of people, it includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties, and the particular pattern of these ties, are often more important than the individual people themselves. They allow groups to do things that a disconnected collection of individuals cannot. The ties explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And the specific pattern of the ties is crucial to understanding how networks function.” – Nicholas A. Christakis
At the Interaction Institute for Social Change, we have a collaborative change lens that includes the facets of (1) naming and building power and working for equity and inclusion; (2) seeing and advancing networks as the unit of action and analysis and (3) embracing love as a force for social transformation. With respect to networks, we have noticed that there are a lot of different takes on what networks are, why they matter, and how to “leverage” them for positive social change. Part of this may be due to the fact that network science and approaches span a variety of schools of thought and practice, including sociology, psychology, mathematics, political science, communication, anthropology, economics, and epidemiology.
I recently came across an article by Nancy Katz, David Lazer, Holly Arrow, and Noshir Contractor (2004) that names some of the commonalities that exist across these different schools and approaches that we’ve been experimenting with to advance social change networks, support resilience, and to shift patterns and flows in “systems as networks” to create regenerative communities and equitable wellbeing. The article, entitled “Network Theory and Small Groups,” refers to the work of Barry Wellman (1988), which lifts up five core principles of network theory that might provide some more coherence and alignment to “network approaches.”
People’s behavior is best understood and predicted by the web of relationships in which they are embedded. These webs present opportunities and impose constraints on people’s behavior. So working with connections and flows can facilitate, inhibit and shape possibility.
Nothing can be properly understood in isolation or in a segmented fashion. The focus of analysis should be the relationships between people or groups, rather than the units themselves or their intrinsic characteristics. So the quality of relationship matters and needs tending.
Methods of “analysis” should not assume independence, but rather interdependence. People should be understood relationally. So think in terms of “collisions and ripples” as one network we are working with likes to say, characterizing network effects.
The flow of information and resources between two people depends not simply on their relationship to each other but on their relationships to everybody else. Or in network science speak, “Understanding a social system requires more than merely aggregating the dyadic ties.” So focus not just on one-to-one exchanges, but one-to-many and many-to-many (scale-linking).
Groups have fuzzy rather than firm boundaries. The building blocks of organizations and communities are not discrete groups but rather overlapping networks. Individuals generally have crosscutting relationships to a multitude of groups. So focus not simply on the impacts of bonding within groups but bridging across, and what this manifests.
Webs, relationships, flows, interdependence, intricacy, scale-linking, bonding and bridging. This is certainly not a full list of what network mindsets make visible to us, but hopefully lifts up some of what can help us better understand and work with reality, in these and at all times.
I just finished reading Douglas Ruskoff’s Team Human and found it very provocative and timely. As I find myself in more spaces where it feels like there is a tendency towards breaking as opposed to bridging, I and others with whom I work are asking, (1) What is really going on here? and (2) What we can do to better hold things together, while respecting diversity and difference? Team Human offers some insights by lifting up how the digital-age technologies in which many of us are engaged are making dangerously simplistic abstractions of our world (and of people) and appealing to the worst of our humanity.
Rushkoff uses 100 aphoristic statements in what amounts to a manifesto that speaks to how forces for human connection have turned into ones of isolation and repression. This includes algorithms that constantly direct our attention to what outrages us and sound bite biased social media undermining democracy by encouraging people to spread incendiary partial and untruths (because they outrage us!).
The book is certainly a wake up call to understand the manipulation behind digital media and to go beyond false appearances and reductionist reactivity to embrace prosocial behavior and make contributions towards regenerative patterns and flows. I highly recommend the book and have pulled some of my favorite quotes, which you will find below:
“Whoever controls media controls society. … Social control is based on thwarting social contact and exploding the resulting disorientation and despair.“
“Engineers at our leading tech firms and universities tend to see human beings as the problem and technology as the solution.”
[Under capitalism] “people are at best an asset to be exploited, and at worst a cost to be endured.”
“We’ve got a greater part of humanity working on making our social media feeds more persuasive than we have on making clean water more accessible.”
“The internet reinforces its core element : the binary. It makes us take sides.”
“Memetic warfare, regardless of the content, discourages cooperation, consensus, or empathy.”
“If we don’t truly know what something is programmed to do, chances are it is programming us. Once that happens, we may as well be machines ourselves.”
“There is no ‘resistance’ in a digital environment/ only on or off.”
“We reduced ideas to weaponized memes, and humankind to human resources. We got carried away with our utilitarian capabilities, and lost touch with the reasons to exercise those capabilities in the first place.”
“The long-term danger is not that we will lose our jobs to robots. … The real threat is that we lose our humanity to the value system we embed in our robots, and that they in turn impose on us.”
“We must learn that technology’s problems can’t always be solved with more technology.”
“Might the apparent calamity and dismay around us be less the symptoms of a society on the verge of collapse than those of one about to give birth?”
“The first step toward reversing our predicament is to recognize that being human is a team sport.”
“Happiness is not a function of one’s individual experience or choice, but a property of groups of people.”
“Evolution may have less to do with rising above one’s peers than learning to get along with more of them.”
“Challenging the overt methods of separation is straightforward: reject that hate speech of racists, zero some economics of oppression, and the war mongering of both tyrants and neoliberal hawks.”
“We can be utterly in charge of the choice not to be utterly in charge. We can be fully human without being in complete control of our world.”
“It’s neither resistance nor passivity, but active participation: working in concert with what’s happening to make it down river in one piece.”
“New experiments have revealed that after just a few moments of awe, people behave with increased altruism, cooperation and self-sacrifice.”
“True awe is timeless, limitless, and without division. It suggests there is a unifying whole to which we all belong – if only we could hold onto that awareness.”
“If we are not going to follow the commands of a king, a CEO, or an algorithm, then we need unifying values in order to work together as a team to work toward mutually beneficial goals.”
“Unless we consciously retrieve the power inherent in our collective nature, we will remain unable to defend ourselves against those who continue to use our misguided quest for individuality against us.”
“The future is not a discontinuity or some scenario we plan for so much as the reality we are creating through our choices right now. We just need to observe the flows, recognize the patterns, and apply them everywhere we can.”
“Find the others. Restore the social connections that make us fully functioning humans, and oppose all conventions, institutions, technologies, and mindsets that keep us apart.”
“Life moves toward other life… If we trusted more in these cohering motions, we could move into an essential role … supporting the system to explore new connections, new information, new ways of being. It means focusing on opening the system in all ways.”
“Bridging” in the work of network development speaks to the act of creating connections between socially heterogeneous groups (or putting it a bit more crassly, building bridges between “us” and “them”). The benefits of bridging include making it possible for diverse groups to share and exchange information, creating new forms of access, as well as leveraging new ideas and spurring innovation between groups representing different interests and/or backgrounds. Bridging widens social capital by increasing the “radius of trust.” Unlike “bonding,” or more in-group relationship building (think “birds of a feather flocking together”), bridging can help create more inclusive structures that can have implications for long-term resilience and more equitable development. The following is a story of a network engaging in intentional bridging work for more robust connectivity, flows and opportunity …
Food Solutions New England (FSNE) is a regional, collaborative network organized to “support the emergence of a New England food system that is a resilient driver of racial equity and food justice, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” FSNE is convened byFor the past 5+ years, IISC has worked with the convening “backbone organization,” UNH Sustainability Institute, to launch and structure itself as a formal network, as well as to concretize and evolve its core commitment to racial equity as it has become more diverse and inclusive and worked for systemic change.
Eighteen months ago, FSNE was faced with making a decision about where to hold its annual Food Summit. The Summit was originally conceived to bring together delegates from across New England to strengthen collaboration for regional food system sustainability. The commitment was made early on by the convenor to move the Summit around the region, holding it in each of the six New England states once before going to any of them for a second time.
Delegates to the 2015 New England Food Summit gathered in Boston, MA.
In 2016, Connecticut was the last state to host the New England Food Summit. The network’s backbone organization was faced with a decision about the specific location within the state. Previous Summits had been held in prominent hubs in the other states – Portsmouth (NH), Burlington (VT), Portland (ME), Pawtucket/Providence (RI) and Boston. While places like Hartford and New Haven might have been natural considerations given their respective amenities and relative centrality in the state, the choice was made to bring the Summit to Bridgeport. This decision was spurred in no small part by the leadership of State Senator Marilyn Moore, who hails from that city and is a member of the FSNE Network Team. Senator Moore pointed out that not only would it be significant for Bridgeport to play host, given it is often overlooked in favor of its more well-known and regarded neighbors, it would also be enlightening for Summit delegates to see reality on the ground. Furthermore, this choice was viewed as an expression of FSNE’s commitment to racial equity and food justice.