Back in 2019, I worked with lead organizer Mariana Velez Laris to support the design of the first convening, held in Bend, Oregon, but was unable to attend. Four years later, again working with Mariana and her team, we found ourselves in new territory, living in a COVID-rattled and fire-and-water-ravaged world with turbulence on many other fronts – political, economic and cultural. We also found ourselves in the midst of many promising developments, including advancements in the realm of braiding, “Indigenous knowledge” with the better practices of Westernized conservation.
This time around I was able to support the team as both a co-designer and co-facilitator with Mariana and the co-leaders of the IPLC, Andrea Akall’eq Burgess and Briannon Fraley, of a gathering that was hosted on Haudenosaunee lands in Buffalo, New York (which also happens to be my birthplace). The decision to hold it in this powerful location (think Niagara Falls, gateway to the Great Lakes, old industrial city experiencing a rebirth, the lands of the oldest standing confederacy in the world) was really the result of Mariana’s vision, and it would yield untold benefits.
We were clear from the outset that this convening was not meant to be a stand-alone event, but would build on the first VCA convening, along with all the work prior to and since that gathering in Oregon. We were also clear that to be in alignment with a “right relations” commitment, as embraced by our Haudenosaunee hosts and other Indigenous participants, we would need to operate in accordance with Haudenosaunee protocols. Much care was taken to establish trust and understanding, including with the host institution, the University of Buffalo, which is home to this country’s oldest Indigenous studies and environmental studies programs.
The agenda itself, under Mariana’s thoughtful and caring stewardship, became a story of spaciousness and flow, a slow moving river that carried us early on into a Haudenosaunee-led opening with the traditional Thanksgiving Address, or the Words Spoken Before All Else. During this time we were welcomed by faithkeeper Oren Lyons, who has seen such immense change in our world during his 93 years on this planet, and who declared our current situation as a deep spiritual battle. And we were greeted over the course of the first two of the four days by other Haudenosaunee leaders, including Gae ho Hwako Norma Jacobs, a Cayuga elder who writes in her recently released book, Odagahodhes, “We have forgotten about that Sacred meeting space between the Settler ship and the Indigenous canoe, where we originally agreed on the Two Row [wampum agreement], and where today we need to return to talk about the impacts of its violation.”
Much of our time made space to dig deeper into this violation, how it was perpetrated in different places in different though related ways, and how it is perpetuated through certain contemporary mainstream (Westernized) conservation practices. Importantly, we also pivoted towards what it would take to heal the rifts and divisions amongst the relations and the nations and to move forward together. Part of this occurred through a ritual that Mariana and I co-led, pulling from the practices of Fierce Civility and Respectful Confrontation, grounding people in their bodies and breath, and inviting us all to honor self, community, Mother Earth and future generations. This was intended to mark a “crossing of a threshold” to open up new possibilities in the community that was gathered. We framed this ritual around some of the teachings we had heard directly or indirectly from the Elders and other speakers to that point, including:
“One of the greatest gifts is to re-member.”
“Everything is built on reciprocal relationships.”
“Nature is one big family, working together to sustain Life.”
“The best way to learn is in ceremony; it pulls you together.”
“Feel our feelings. Feel the love of the Creator. Love ourselves.”
Participants also heard from a couple of powerful panels of Indigenous women leaders from around the world on their visions for reckoning and rematriation, which included these appeals:
Lead with care
Protect bio-cultural systems
Embrace networks and new structures
Support women’s participation and equality
Let Indigenous groups speak for themselves
Recognize more territories that pre-existed current boundaries
In addition, we participated in other Indigenous-led rituals for healing and joy (optional sunrise ceremonies, a Listening to Niagara Falls visit, a high energy Seneca-led social dance) and ultimately to a session on “planting seeds for the future.” It was not your usual conference, to say the least, and I can safely say that it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, in no small part because of our Haudenosaunee hosts, and the invitation to “see” (feel and sense) the world from an Indigenous perspective. And I was not alone.
A few months after the convening, Mariana and I held a couple of follow-up sessions, to share what was gleaned from post-gathering evaluations and learn what had moved for participants since we were together. What flowed from those conversations was quite inspiring and encouraging. In the image above you can see some of the major insights that emerged regarding pathways towards Indigenous and community-led conservation. Beyond this, as we listened to those participating in our two Zoom calls share about what they still carried with them and were committing to in terms of action, this is what I heard and noted on a piece of paper:
❤️ Expand the teachings, rather than simply repeating what and how they were given to us.
❤️ Protect and nurture endangered experiences, beyond endangered species.
“We now know what each other is made of. We can start weaving this beautiful tapestry, this community.”
“I don’t want to wait another 8 months until we are back in person!”
“I want others to know about this. I’ve never experienced anything like this. Others should know about this.”
The three quotes above came from participants in the newest Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Network Leadership Institute cohort, at the close of our opening session two weeks ago. After a year of doing an on-line only Institute, we made the decision to move to a hybrid model for this sixth annual offering, launching and concluding in-person during the warmer months (September and June) and going on-line for five sessions during the colder months late fall through early spring 2023.
Like so many, we weighed many considerations before making this choice. As one participant said during the session, “Many of us had to push through vulnerabilities to be here.” Ultimately we felt we really needed to tap into the power of the in-person gathering to ground people and set an energetic tone for the rest of the program. Many conversations were had about COVID protocols that would ensure safety without being overly onerous. This ended up including a wrist band system (see photos below), testing the day before, at arrival and after upon returning home (tests provided by the program), meeting for the bulk of the time outdoors in a tent with plenty of ventilation, light and spacing, and making masks available for those who wanted them, when we met or ventured indoors.
The tone we aimed to set from the outset was one of community care and belonging, acknowledging that for some this would be a new and welcome experience, and others may well be feeling anxious and uncertain. Hosting is always a spirit we aim to bring to the Institute, whether in-person or virtual, and includes working to ensure that everyone feels welcome and that their well-being is front and center. This included providing clear information on the front end around expectations and supports, a warm welcome upon arrival, a care package of local/regional food items (appropriate to our common work), keeping food and beverages available and setting a tone of ease and enjoyment (fidget items on tables, art supplies and a diverse music playlist).
More recently, the network has honed its focus on four overlapping impact areas as its unique and essential contribution, complementing those of its partners in the region, to bringing the FSNE vision and values for food system transformation to life. The Network Leadership Institute (NLI) is an outgrowth of both Network Building & Strengthening as well as Racial Equity & Values Leadership, but also touches on the other two areas as well in its content.
From the start, we knew that the main value of any kind of leadership development program would be in the people that came together and the relationships they built with one another. You only need to read about the current cohort to feel how much potential there is in simply creating opportunities for these individuals to connect and identify as more of a collective! From there, we were interested in connecting those involved in the program with other values-aligned change agents in the region. In addition, we looked at giving people an experience of different and diverse places in our region (rural, urban, coastal) and to see their work in a regional context. Lastly, we wanted to offer an opportunity for participants to hone their skills as collaborative/network leaders and social (especially racial) equity champions.
This year’s program integrates all of these elements, again with a particular theme of care and welcome. What we heard from this year’s cohort was how this was very much appreciated and built over the course of the more than 24 hours we were together. Here are some highlights of the programmatic progression that were intended to contribute to our themes of care, trust, truth and belonging:
We began by breaking bread together, at small tables, in the tent. Good food, relaxing music and informal introductions were meant to help people land softly.
We formally opened, as we generally do during FSNE gatherings, with an offering and a grounding exercise. The offering might be a poem, a quote, a song, a short story, a dance …. We read one of our favorite stanzas of poetry from William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” (see below), again to set a tone for the session, and then led people who were interested (making sure to let people know it was voluntary) through an embodied exercise to ground bodies/nervous systems, honor feelings and any thoughts people might be having as we got going.
We were joined by NLI alum Rachel Sayet, a Mohegan tribal member, Indigenous educator, essential oil crafter and Reiki practitioner, to provide some background on the land on which we were meeting and the history and present of Indigenous peoples who have stewarded them. This included the terrible and truthful telling of the actions of Lord Jeffrey Amherst, for whom the town in which we were meeting is still named, as well as efforts by indigenous educators and students in the area to reclaim their foodways and advance food sovereignty.
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
We introduced everyone to the Welcome Table ritual, through which people share objects that are meaningful to and say something about them, and share a bit of that story. At the end of our session, participants are invited to take their object back and say what they have gained during their time with the group. People always remark how “deep” this goes very quickly in helping people get a sense of one another.
We collaboratively built community care agreements, by consensus, first by inviting people to consider their self-care practices and then inviting them into conversation with one another about what might support the entire “village.” We guided them through one of the Liberating Structures practices known as 1-2-4-All for this.
We introduced people to a brief history of the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Institute, the Backbone Organization (convenor, coordinator, communicator and fundraiser) for Food Solutions New England, how it defines “sustainability” broadly (including cultural diversity and social equity) as well as the history and current reality of FSNE. In presenting this, we made clear that this new cohort was already a part of FSNE and we welcomed their contributions not just to the Institute, but its various other programs and initiatives.
We started our second day by sharing a land acknowledgment in the form of a poem (another favorite – “Being Human” by Naima Penniman) that personalizes our connections to the Earth).And we shared an offering with some of the same themes in the form of a quote by Penobscot educator and advocate Sherri Mitchell ((Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset) from her book Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change(see below), which encourages the reader/listener to attune to the rhythms in the natural world for greater ease and alignment.
“When we merge our internal rhythms with the rhythms of creation, we develop grace in our movement, and without thought or effort we are able to slide into the perfectly choreographed dance of life.”
On our second day we also invited offeringsfrom the cohortmembers, whoever felt moved to do so. There were three – a short personal story, a reading and a poem. We look forward to more over the course of our next six sessions!
We invited people to get artistically expressive through illustrating their River of Life– with crayons, pencils, markers – and naming where they are in their leadership/change agency journeys. They then were invited to share these in trios and talk about how they want the Institute to support them moving forward, and what their intentions were for learning from and contributing to the program and one another’s journeys.
We delved into Facilitative Leadership for Social Change, our collaborative skills curriculum for the program, and led off with the practice of “Balancing Dimensions of Collaborative Success: Results, Process, Relationship.” This practice includes a small group challenge exercise (building a tower) that tends to bond people (lots of laughter) and helps them think about the trust, care, truth and belonging that is needed to ensure long-term “success” in collaborative change work.
Mutual trust, holistic care, truth-telling and equitable belonging. Those words were expressed throughout our first session in one form or another, in word and in deed, by the hosting team, guests and by the participants. It was evident how these were not just ideas, but becoming part of the collective body that will carry this program and network forward, as we move into an on-line season. “That’s okay,” said one participant,” as some bemoaned going back to more life on Zoom, “we know each other now. That will stay with us.” And we are delighted to already see one subset of the group looking to meet in person soon in the southeast of our region.
This is how we do and will do it, as the poet Marge Piercy writes in two stanzas of her poem “Seven of Pentacles” (see below image) …
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses. Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving. Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in, a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.
Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen: reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in. This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always, for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.
“The challenge is to replace practices that distance and disconnect with ones that evoke empathy, caring, and creativity.”
In our collaborative change work with organizations and multi-sector networks, we at IISC are adamant about doing thoughtful stakeholder analysis at the start of an initiative, and returning to this work periodically, asking the question, “Who are we missing?” As important as this can be, not everyone loves the word “stakeholder.” It can sound somewhat wonky and impersonal, and I myself have been thinking about the word “stake” and what it says about people.
To have a stake means “to have a share, interest, or involvement in something or someone.” Going back to the early 1700s, a stakeholder was one to whom money was deposited when making a wager/bet. And in the colonizing of what is now the United States, stakes were literally placed on lands that were stewarded by indigenous peoples as a way of claiming ownership of them. What none of this conveys is a sense of care or caring. I don’t mean whether or not someone cares (or is indifferent), but whether there is a genuine heartfelt sense of connection or deep desire to protect, create and/or contribute. Increasingly, this sense of care and caring (along with reckoning and making amends) is showing up as a crucial factor in making the difficult work of complex collaborative (systemic and culture) change happen.
Is likely to be impacted by the outcome of the effort/decision
Voices unheard or typically marginalized perspectives
Functions as a connector in or across sector(s)/field(s)
Is in a position to implement the effort/decision
Is in a position to prevent it from being implemented
Has relevant information or expertise (including lived experience)
Has informal influence without authority
Is responsible for the final decision
Applying a lens of “caring” or (or even “loving”) to these criteria brings another level or nuance. Beyond functionality and/or positionality, who really connects to and cares about what we are trying to do? This can raise the bar for the analysis and also potentially expand possibilities for the initiative. Farmer, poet and essayist Wendell Berry has talked about the importance of what he calls “the turn towards affection.” Having spent many years reflecting on and pushing back against the unfortunate demonstrated human capacity to despoil landscapes and demonize “the other,” he takes a strong stand for deep connection, or affection:
“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. … By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.”
What if we asked ourselves and others what might be illuminated by people bringing their affection and/or love to the initiative, work, place and/or goal in question? Who already has this? How might we inspire it in others?
“Cares deeply about the effort/decision” might become its own worthy category/criterion. And in looking at the criterion from the list above, “Is in a position to prevent it from being implemented” (the proverbial “blocker(s)”), bringing a lens of care might help us wonder what perceived “adversaries” actually care about/love/connect to. Might this kind of curiosity help to build bridges and understanding from the outset?
In addition, recent conversations among a group of IISC staff and affiliates about these categories and criterion have raised important considerations of Indigenous peoples and perspectives. Increasingly we are seeing an interest in acknowledging and addressing harms done, validating indigenous ways of knowing, and working to establish “right relationships” and “decolonize” systems. So we might add another criterion/consideration: “Is indigenous to the lands we are on or where the work is happening.” And perhaps by extension of these notions of indigeneity and caring, we might also consider who: “Speaks for the land” (see the work and writings of Jeannette Armstrong, of the Okanagan people) and also “Speaks for the more-than-human realm.”
Finally, and relatedly, I am reminded of our IISC Collaborative Change Lens, which includes the facet of “love” as a force for social transformation and justice. As we say on our website, “We nurture the love that does justice: the desire for the wellbeing of others, which is central to every social change movement. Love infuses our power with compassion, reclaims our resilience, heals our wounds, causes us to see ourselves as connected, and enables our radical imagination.”
What might care and care-holding bring to your consideration of who and how to engage others in your social change work?
“New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”
– Sally J. Goerner, Robert G. Dyck, Dorothy Lagerroos, The New Science of Sustainability
This post builds on a post from a couple of weeks ago, looking at how in a time of pandemic, with viruses revealing other viruses (racism, othering, oligarchy, mechanical thinking run amok), and triggering viral responses of various kinds, this is prime time to cultivate network literacy and strength. In this post I want to highlight the importance of “flow network science” or the “energy network sciences.” These fields stretch across disciplines and look at how nutrients, information and other vital sources of energy move through the structures of living networks.
Dr. Sally J. Goerner and her colleagues (Dan Fiscus, Brian Fath, Robert Ulanowicz, and others) have looked at how certain features of systems-as-networks (communities, ecosystems, economies) contribute to their long-term health and thriving, including diversity, intricacy, adaptability and robustness. A key is to focus on those dynamics that support the self-renewing (regenerative) and saluto-genic (health promoting) capacities of living systems as and so that they evolve and adapt to disturbances in their environment (which is really an extension of their being!). A big part of this is not just focusing on the pattern of network connections, but what is moving through those connections, including quality and velocity of those flows, from whom and to whom.
At IISC, we are fielding lots of questions right now about what networks are doing or should do to not only to respond to the COVID19 emergency and achieve some semblance of stability, but also to build pathways to better, more resilient and equitable systems. Taking a cue from what we are observing and what we are learning from energy network sciences/flow networks, some of the things networks can do and are doing include:
Weaving and convening diversity to foster systemic intelligence and resilience
Distributing power and intelligence to enable rapid and timely responses in different parts of “the body”
Circulating accurate and accessible (curated) information in various forms (text, visual, audio) throughout “the whole” to support diverse learning and adaptation
Facilitating effective (clear, concise, well-timed and spaced) communicationand conversation to help people stay grounded, focused and moving on what matters
Disseminating elements of opportunity- and abudance-based narratives that encourage people to lean into these times and not flee from or freeze in the midst of them
Identifying and circulating a variety of nourishment (multiple forms of “capital”) widely (especially to those who are otherwise undernourished) in the form of money, ideas, in kind support, and other resources
Promoting robust exchange to support innovation, learning and systemic vitality at different levels
Creating safe and brave spaces for people to share their challenges and successes, get peer-assists, give and receive emotional support that encourages risk-taking and further venturing into uncharted terrain
Designing and carrying out network activity and engagement with an ethic of love (“seeing others as a legitimate others”), care, generosity, abundance, common cause, mutualism, transparency, inclusion, equity, and our full humanity (minds, bodies, hearts, spirits)
And we can “double click” on each of the above to delve deeper into the “who” (roles and relationships), “how” (processes), which we are actively doing with a variety of groups, and will share more of what we are learning in future posts and webinars.
And in that spirit of learning, please share what you are learning and would add with respect to what networks can do and are doing to create pathways to the new and the better.
Over the last few weeks I have fielded a number of calls from people who are interested in figuring out how to develop different kinds of networks. I’m always eager to have these conversations, precisely because there is no single right answer, and it really comes down to a process of discovery and experimentation based on the unique nature of the network and system in question. That said, I do like to ask people the question, “What are you doing to feed your network?”Read More
Last night we came together as IISC to bid farewell to the great Melinda Weekes; we are proud that she is moving on to be the Managing Director of the Applied Research Center. But today’s is not a post about Melinda. It is a post about community.
It’s my birthday today and a few nights ago my friend Malia asked me to reflect on a lesson I’ve learned over the last year. It was a BIG year for me! I got married and had a son! Lots and lots of lessons.