“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.
Recently, Anne Heberger Marino tweeted something about translating “stakeholders” to “careholders” in her/their mind to get beyond “detached objectivity.” I really like and resonate with that! And playing with that term seems to raise some interesting possibilities. In general, when we at IISC work with partners to consider who might been engagd in collaborative social change work, we uplift the following categories/criteria (applied to individuals and groups) with respect to a given initiative:
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?
I can also see “Cares deeply about the effort/decision” as being 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 makes me wonder what otherwise 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?
Last week (which already feels like last month) was very rich with learning and interaction, including the opportunity to share space with indigenous leaders, elders, and diverse network weavers as we explored what it means to create pathways to just and regenerative futures (to me and others with whom I partner, regenerative futures must be just by definition, but I separate them here as there is much conversation about regeneration that seems to bypass considerations of injustice and marginalization).
In a gathering hosted during the Catalyst 2030 Catalysing Change week on indigenous wisdom, network weaving and regenerative futures, colleagues and I shared about our own rites of passage that have opened us up to feeling the pain and potential in the world. Elder Joshua Konkankoh shared the powerful story of his childhood initiation in the “spiritual forest” in Cameroon, through which he came to understand how to live into his name, along with his current banishment from his homeland because of his work on alternative education models and eco-villages. Others of us, raised in North America and Europe, spoke to initiations in the form of political awareness and conflict, personal (family and health) challenges, cultural encounters, and being broken open by Mother Nature. And we invited participants, which included those joining from Asia and South America, to share about the ways in which they have been called to align their lives with Life and liveliness.
As we were engaged in this heartfelt exploration, I thought of Tyson Yunkaporta’s reflections on the power of rites of passage in indigenous cultures, and what has been lost in Westernized development and education. Yunkaporta once described initiation as helping young people to find their place in the world by first letting them know “they are not that special.” That said, they are guided to understand that “they are part of something special.” And within that sacralized context, young people are shown that they have something unique to offer in service of that larger whole (what I think of “essence” as I have learned from one of my teachers, Carol Sanford). This is what results, according to Yunkaporta, in an indigenous progression of encounter with the world that goes from “Respect to Connect to Reflect to Direct.” In non-Indigenous cultures, without initiation and this sense of the sacred, the progression is reversed – first Direct, then Reflect, then Connect, then Respect (if at all), often with dire consequences!
Then towards the end of the week, I continued work with a state-wide conservation organization, partnering with Andrea Akall’eq Burgess, a Yup’ik educator and activist. During our session, Andrea spoke beautifully to the work of “decolonizing” and “indigenizing” conservation (and really many other systems – education, food, health, politics, etc.) in order to get to equitable resilience and thriving (my words). While there is no blueprint or checklist for this work, she shared that it must begin with truth-telling about the history of oppression and the ongoing policing and criminalization of indigenous ways. This reckoning, along with respect and repair, is part of what it means to establish “right relationship,” which is in itself an ongoing regenerative practice. And this reminds me of the work of the First Light initiative in this region, to “build awareness and understanding about Wabanaki land loss in Maine, to develop and practice equitable principles for Native engagement, and to create new tools to share land and resources.” All of this moving at the speed of sacred trust.
So much to consider, and let move through our bodies, emotions and thinking … and always curious to know what is moving for you!
Return-on-investment (ROI) is not a term that I love, especially given how militantly utilitarian and narrowly it is often considered and applied. My friend, mentor, business consultant and holistic thinker Carol Sanford refers to ROI as “the future increase in value that is expected when the initial capital contribution is made.” Carol is quick to point out that capital can take many forms (financial, intellectual, social, spiritual, natural, etc.), and for network participants (or let’s call them “co-creators”) this often takes the form of investments of time, money, knowledge, creativity, and social connections.
Why would co-creators in networks take the time and risk to make such an investment? What is the expected return? Presumably, when we are talking about networks for social change, the principle driver is the desire to make a meaningful difference for people, places and purposes they care about and that they sense will be more positively impacted through network activity. Co-creators are also “kept in the network game” if participation enhances their own capabilities, grows and deepens their connections, and gives them increased opportunities to be creative, and perhaps even find a place of belonging!Read More
I am saddened to learn that Mila Baker passed away recently. While I did not know her personally, she was a mentor from a distance. A few years ago, I read her book about peer-to-peer leadership and found it both enlightening and validating as I continued my journey to uncover more about the promise of seeing and doing in networked ways.
Mila N. Baker
Mila Baker was a writer, teacher, philanthropist, cross-sector leader and artist. At the time of her passing, she served on the Board of Directors for the Berrett-Koehler Foundation, was a member of the adjunct faculty at Columbia University Teachers College, as well as a Principal Research Investigator at the Institute for Collaborative Workplaces, and Visiting Professor at Kuwait University. The following is a post I wrote after reading her book published in 2014.
I just finished reading Mila Baker’s Peer-to-Peer Leadership: Why the Network is the Leader, which adds to the growing case for more widespread network thinking, foregrounding of human relationships, and shifting traditional conceptions (and myths) of leadership in business and beyond. Baker’s book echoes the spirits of Margaret Wheatley, Clay Shirky, Carol Sanford, Nilofer Merchant, Kevin Kelly, and Harold Jarche, and I appreciate how she couches her writing in the evolving leadership and organizational development literature and thinking.
“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”
– Toni Morrison
Once again, I’ve been re-reading Niels Pfleaging’s short book Organize for Complexity(and eager for the release of the English version of Complexitools) amidst the growing demand we are hearing at IISC from people who want to liberate their organizations and themselves to be able to intelligently respond to change and to come back to life! Here’s the gist – as things shift more, and more rapidly, some people’s inclination may be to try to exert greater control or dig in to what is familiar, but does not work. The more one does so, the worse things can get. As Pfleaging writes, we see a “high price for the illusion of control.” Within organizations this takes the form of various gaps – social, functional, and temporal – that make them increasingly irrelevant, ineffective and irresponsible.
Responding to complexity requires (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Eric Kim) new muscles and mindsets.
The following is a slightly edited re-post from a couple of years ago. The impetus for both the re-posting and editing was a recent conversation on On Being with Brother David Steindl-Rast, Benedictine monk, writer/speaker on the topic of gratitude, and known for his participation in interfaith dialogue and his work on the interaction between spirituality and science.
In a recent interview with Brother David Steindl-Rast, On Being host Krista Tippett introduces the topic of gratitude, by saying that at times it can come across as fairly cerebral or precious without much gravitas. Case in point, writer Barbara Ehrenreich, approaches gratitude with considerable skepticism, seeing it as another “feel good” way to be self-satisfied and unconcerned with the world and people who are suffering and oppressed. Yet Brother David, who has lived through war, the end of an empire, and the fascist takeover of his country (Austria), teaches what he calls “gratefulness” as a deep and important spiritual practice.
Gratefulness in Brother David’s view and experience is not at all superficial, or a practice purely for the privileged. It allows for and leans into the very real anxieties of life, and when invoked in “full-bodied ways” can help prevent those anxieties from becoming disabling fear. Brother David acknowledges the tragedies and injustices of the world, while saying: Read More
The following is a slightly modified post from a little over a year ago. In recent months, the notion of puttingcare at the center of “net work” – to ground it, make it real and people accountable – has surfaced a number of times and strengthened. The original post included the phrase “the empathic turn.” Since that time I’ve come to see “caring” as a more appropriate word, rather than “empathy,” as it evokes for me not simply feeling but action. This re-post is inspired by the activists and thought leaders who are about to gather in Oakland, CA for the “Othering and Belonging” Conference, hosted by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.
In an essay that I continue to revisit, the poet/essayist/novelist/farmer/ conservationist and champion of sanity, Wendell Berry, talks about 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 both deep rooted connection and . . . imagination:
“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.”
In other words, by his assessment, imagination thrives on contact, on an intimate form of knowing that is not simply intellectual, but intimate and holistic. For Berry it is only this kind of knowing that can lead to truly “responsible” action.
Others, past and present, hold the truth and power of this kind of fuller bodied knowing to be self-evident, in environmental conservation and social justice efforts and in what it means to be a responsible human. Professor john a. powell writes in his book Racing to Justice:
“There is a need for an alternative vision, a beloved community where being connected to the other is seen as the foundation of a healthy self, not its destruction, and where the racial other is seen not as the infinite other, but rather as the other that is always and already a part of us.”
“Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge.”
Spring seems to have finally arrived in New England after a long and very hard winter. For me this brings with it gratitude and utter amazement at the regenerative power of life. To have seen the mounds of snow and ice only a month ago, and along with it many frozen hearts and souls, I find it amazing as I watch the colors and sounds and spirit of this new season come forward with what almost feels like reckless abandon. Such is life and its regenerative nature, the ever present “growing edge.”
This is cause for me to reground in the teachings of mentors I’ve had who have introduced me to the power of “regenerative thinking,” an approach that aligns with a living systems view of life. Regenerative thinking can stand in contrast to mechanical approaches, which assume a rather linear, predictable and controlled environment. The very notion of regeneration is an invitation to examine some of the underlying assumptions of our actions, to lift up for closer inspection how our thinking may or may not be in alignment with what we are really after, what we are trying to bring to life, in the realm of social change. Read More
“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”
– Toni Morrison
I’ve been re-reading Niels Pfleaging’s short book Organize for Complexity and appreciating how it succinctly captures the current challenges for many groups and organizations trying to navigate complexity while clinging to old tools and beliefs. This can also be the nature of social change work amidst the significant shifts we are seeing. Here’s the trick – as things shift more, and more rapidly,people’s natural inclination may be to try to exert greater control or dig in to what is familiar but does not work. The more one does so, the worse things can get. As Pfleaging writes, we see a “high price for the illusion of control.” Within organizations this takes the form of various gaps – social, functional, and temporal – that make them increasingly irrelevant and ineffective. Responding to complexity requires (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Kim) new muscles and mindsets.
If I could summarize my own reading of Pflaegings’s book, I would put it this way – the world we are living into requires more integrated ways of seeing and doing, and this is hard to do (if not impossible) if people maintain highly differentiated ways of organizing themselves. There is really a baseline call for self-awareness and mindfulness so that one is able to respond not by default or fear, but with perspective and intention, which connects to the idea of “strengthening the network within” at the individual level. And it is important to reach out and connect this self-awareness to others . . .
“Problem-solving in a life-less system is about instruction. Problem-solving in a living system is about communication.”
There is growing awareness that current organizational structures can breed irresponsibility. That is, arrangements are created where people are less able to be responsive in helpful ways. This happens, for example, when accountability is bottlenecked in hierarchies and decision-making is distanced from where the action is most timely and relevant. Read More
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
― David Bohm
I have learned a tremendous amount over the last several years from practitioners associated with the Regenesis Group – Carol Sanford, Bill Reed, Joel Glanzsberg, and Pamela Mang. Specifically, they have pushed my own thinking about my own thinking, and how this kind of awareness is key to supporting successful system change. I recommend all readers of this blog to check out the wealth of resources on the Regenesis website. And I want to highlight a blog post from Pamela Mang, a segment of which I have included below, that points to how our dominant ways of thinking can undercut our stated aims. The full post can be found here on the edge:Regenerate site.
“The way we think is shaped by patterns that we’ve been taught or picked up over the course of our lives, patterns that are deeply embedded in our culture and institutions. Over time, these patterns have become increasingly interdependent and self-reinforcing and, most problematic, increasingly habitual because they are invisible to us. If we want to change how we think, the first step must be to make visible the patterns that currently shape our thinking. Only then can we decide which are useful when, and which condemn us to degenerative outcomes. . . . Read More
Last week I had the privilege of being part of faculty for the launch of the Presidio Institute’s Cross-Sector Leadership Program in San Francisco. My role in representing IISC was to lead conversation around core concepts and frameworks related to the design and facilitation of complex multi-stakeholder changeprocesses. The last day I partnered with Jennifer Splansky Juster from the Collective Impact Forum to do a deeper dive around collaborative process design, with Jen offering more guidance around the specifics of taking a “collective impact” approach. During this session, I invited Fellows to step back and take a deeper view of their cross-sector change work by reflecting on the framework above, the essence of which I have inherited from the thinking and work of Carol Sanford.
This framework offers that our chosen change methods are always grounded in an underlying belief system about what we hold to be true about humanity, the world and what constitutes “knowing.” Not being aware of or transparent about this can get us into difficulty when it leads to mixing and matching techniques/methods that may contradict one another, or when we are not operating from the same system of beliefs as others. Here are some questions I offered the CSL Fellows in consideration of their cross-sector work: Read More