As a number of networks I am supporting are settling into the lingering reality of operating within our COVID19 context (“2020 still feels like it’s with us!”), uncertain of what resolution will look like or mean, we have been having more conversations about how to maintain momentum around key goals (food justice, health equity, equitable conservation, climate adaptation and mitigation) and also lead with care, supporting collective regenerative capacity. Through explicit asking and reading what is coming up through people’s engagement, here are some ideas for how to keep movement going over this lengthening haul in sustaining fashion.
Put movement into the movement (literally invite people to move their bodies during and in-between on-line and phone meetings)
Leverage the power of one to one conversations (they can often be more nimble and dynamic, including having people walk and talk to one another)
Keep some meetings agenda-free (and follow the emergent energy)
Share stories, music, recipes, jokes, games
Stay open to spontaneity
Lean into humor!
Do a meditation, be silent together
Give grace – “It’s okay to not be okay”
Make space for teach-ins and knowledge sharing
Invite people to not look at screens, and to look out windows
Schedule long meetings as multiple meetings with a shared agenda over time to break it up
Remember this is not ours alone to do or solve and that there are others out there, including those we do not know
What would you add?
“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.“
Transformative change in the food system will not happen unless we work towards racial justice and equity.
Anderson, S., Colasanti, K., Didla, N., and Ogden, C. (2020). A Call to Build Trust and Center Values in Food Systems Work. Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems.
In September of 2019, I was fortunate enough to be invited to co-facilitate a gathering of over 70 people from across the U.S. to learn from one other about the work of coordinating state and regional level food system plans. At least that was the initial idea. The gathering was convened by the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. I was joined in this work by the very generous and talented Noel Didla, Sade Anderson, and Kathryn Collasanti. As is the case with so many good things, the out of the gate vision for the convening gave way to a more emergent planning process that moved us away from purely technical practices and knowledge sharing to the more complex and adaptive work of bringing people together across various lines of difference to have “real talk” and wrestle with tough questions.
What became clear very quickly, with the leadership of Sade and Noel in particular, was that considerations of racial equity and economic justice had to be at the center of our design and facilitation. That included:
how we got in “right relationship” with one another as a team
how we framed the gathering for invitees
who was invited to attend and present at the gathering
the choice of where to have the convening
the way we designed both the agenda and the gathering space
the way we held what essentially became one rich two-day conversation
“I am taking away a lot of thoughts about meeting structure and facilitation from the overall convening planning, structure and flow. The structure of the agenda to put racial equity at the forefront and the structure of the conversations that allowed for honest discussion and audience participation was very effective and made for interesting conversations. These are techniques that would be helpful for us to use in our presentations and to share with food policy councils.”
2019 national gathering participant from the Mid-Atlantic
What we experienced during and heard after the event was pretty encouraging – how for many this was one of the best “conferences” they had ever attended, how people left challenged and inspired, how many of the conversations we started at Wayne County Community College stayed with people and continued.
Our original intent as a co-facilitation team was to write up a report of the event not long after we arrived back in our respective homes. Instead, things simmered for a while and the right time to wrap up the writing emerged during COVI19, as certain things that we had already been emphasizing were put into more stark view.
The linked publication, entitled “A Call to Build Trust and Center Values in Food Systems Work,” is meant to be a way to holding ourselves accountable to the work of racial justice by sharing our reflections on two practices to advance equity that anyone can incorporate into their life and work: building trust and centering values. Here we describe what these threads looked like in this national gathering—including both our personal experiences of the process, the practical event decisions we made, and more about what what participants had to say.
Our collective hope is to challenge readers (and ourselves) to consider the many ways in which food systems activity is either welcoming or exclusionary and either embodies equitable belonging or perpetuates “othering.” And because the conversation must continue, we welcome any reflections and reactions, including how you are leading with values, including racial equity, and trust in 2021.
I’m fInishing up David Fleming’s book Surviving the Future, and buzzing with ideas and questions about the role of networks, network weaving and energy network science in these times of “systemic release” (see the adaptive cycle above, and more about the cycle here).
Fleming’s book, a curated collection of essays from the heftier Lean Logic, offers some compelling thinking about the trajectory of globalized and national economies – at best de-coupling, de-growth, and regeneration, and at worst catastrophic collapse – and the ways in which intentional and more localized culture building and reclamation as well as capacity conservation, development and management, might steer communities to healthier and more whole places post-market economy.
One of my favorite quotes from Fleming is that large-scale problems do not require large scale solutions; they require small-scale solutions within a large scale framework. That resonated immediately, even if I didn’t know exactly what he meant when I first read it. Re-reading more carefully, I hear Fleming making the argument that to take on systemic breakdown at scale is a fool’s errand – too massive, too slow, too much rigidity to deal with, too much potential conflict, too abstracted from real places and people.
Instead what is required is more nimble small-scale solutions happening iteratively and quickly (relative to how slow things move at larger levels). This suggests that action for resilience must happen at more local and regional levels, connecting diverse players in place, helping to encourage more robust exchanges of all kinds (including multiple “currencies”) and culture building. David Fleming offers the following definition of the lean economy (as opposed to the taut perpetual growth economy): “an economy held together by richly-developed social capital and culture, and organized around the rediscovery of community.” How might we weave that fabric even as others unravel?
Lean (network) weaving (a new term?) would focus on helping to create more intricate, high quality/high trust and diverse connections as well as facilitating robust, nourishing flows in tighter and more grounded cycles and systems. Part of the lean weaving would entail ensuring that smaller systems remain alert, quick and flexible so as to experiment, learn and adapt. And it would also maintain connection and communication between these smaller systems/clusters (Fleming’s “larger framework”), to facilitate learning and feedback of various kinds between them (not unlike proposed bioregional learning centers).
“The more flexible the sub-systems, the longer the expected life of the system as a whole.”
This idea of “lean weaving” also brings to mind the wisdom of network science as taught by Danielle Varda and colleagues at Visible Networks Lab. They make the point that when it comes to creating strong (resilient and regenerative) networks, more can be less in terms of the connections we have. Connectivity, like so much else in our mainstream economy and culture, can be ruled by a relentless growth imperative that is not strategic or sustainable and can cheat us of quality in favor of quantity.
More connections require more energy to manage, meaning there may ultimately be fewer substantive ties if we are spread too thin. Instead, the invitation is to think about how we mindfully maintain a certain number of manageable and enriching strong and weak ties, and think in terms of “structural holes.” For more on this network science view, visit this VNL blog post “We want to let you in on a network science secret – better networking is less networking.”
The COVID19 pandemic along with other mounting challenges may already be presenting the mandate and opportunity to get more keen and lean in our network thinkingand weaving, not simply in the spirit of austerity and regression, but to cut an evolutionary path of resilience and regeneration (renewal). Network weavers of all kinds, what are you seeing and doing in this respect?
“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.
This is the first post I ever wrote for IISC and dates back to this day 11 years ago. I have edited it only a little, in light of Václav Havel‘s passing,and it seems telling that it could have very easily been written for these COVID19 times, which are an extension of the patterns that have been at play for a while in our world.
Former (and first) President of the Czech Republic Václav Havel told a little story that may provide a little guidance in these times. In 1989, only a few months before he completed an incredible journey from prisoner to president of his country, Havel found himself in a dire situation. The dissident-poet-and-playwright-turned-politician, who had risked his life numerous times in the fight against communism, was walking with a friend in the countryside outside of Prague.
In the near total darkness, he suddenly fell into a hole, a deep pit surrounded by cement walls, which he realized was a sewer. Disoriented and covered in muck, Havel tried to move but this only made him sink more deeply. His friend above was joined by a number of people who gathered around the rim of the hole and tried frantically to rescue Havel. It was only after someone managed to find and lower a long ladder, nearly thirty minutes later, that Havel was saved from an untimely ending.
From this freak accident, Havel climbed not just to dry land, but to the presidency, a truly amazing turn of events. Having lived through a number of seemingly hopeless circumstances, Havel continued to be a profoundly hope-full man. He saw hope as a state of mind that most often does not reflect the state of the world. Hope for him emerged out of the muck of absurdity, cruelty, and suffering, and reached not for the solid ground of what is certain, but for what is meaningful, for what fundamentally makes sense. Hope, in his view, was not the same as optimism. It was not the belief that something would ultimately work out, but that it felt true in a very essential way, beyond what was relayed in headlines, opinion polls, and prognostications.
Obviously we are now faced with circumstances that demand some faith on all of our parts. With the uncertainty of a volatile economy and a swirl of other forces, there is plenty to be pessimistic about. And if we consider Havel’s story, the antidote is not to be optimistic in the sense of desperately looking for something that tells us everything will be alright or return to being as it was. Rather, the more powerful response comes from within and attaches itself to what most deeply motivates us, what tastes most like truth.
Peter Forbes of Knoll Farm once said that, “New culture is formed by people who are not afraid of being insecure.” (maybe because they realized that security is over-rated or not really a thing). That may be the promise of this slowdown, if we can quiet the chatter, avoid panic and attune ourselves to what is waiting to grow out of the cracks in the foundation. The question is, in following those roots and shoots, how far are we willing to go? And who will be out fellow travelers?
How can we go from emergency response to stewards of emergence?
Yesterday I was on a call with the Food Solutions New England Network Team, meeting virtually instead of in-person, to do some checking in and also to move forward ongoing efforts focused on strengthening our collective work towards the FSNE Vision. This included talking about ways to use the current moment to strengthen resilience, even as so many in-person convenings, including the FSNE 2020 Summit, are being cancelled or postponed.
Many of us feel like there is an opportunity to take the network to another level in this time, to deepen connectivity, to ramp up exchanges, to facilitate greater alignment, to engage in much more mutual support. Evidence of this came from a round of sharing announcements, updates, requests and needs (riffing on the “network marketplace” that we have adapted from Lawrence CommunityWorks), among the nearly 20 participants on the call (representing all 6 New England states, different sectors and perspectives in the food system). I think we were all heartened to hear about the adaptations, creativity, and care happening in so many places amidst COVID19.
Examples of emerging activity, which came up during our call and in email exchanges since, include:
Various mutual aid initiatives (see Big Door Brigade for resources on this front)
Leveraging online platforms to connect people across geographies and systems to talk about taking action around systemic alternatives (see Now What? 2020)
Utilizing virtual tools creatively to advance strategic thinking under changing and challenging conditions (there was also good discussion about the importance of considering issues of inclusion and equity, given uneven access to certain tools, dependable wi-fi, and supports that allow more focus when working virtually, etc.)
There are others that I’m sure we did not hear. That said, beyond the warmth of the personal connection time during our call, which we always make time for, and the emails of mutual support since, there is a hopeful sense that in what we are sharing are the seeds of systemic alternatives to the system that is failing some more than others and all of us in the long run. All of this needs more tending, more care, more connecting, more inclusion, always more considerations of equity, and more coordination. And more time and space for wisdom and innovations to emerge …
Please share with us what else you are seeing emerge and adapt for the good and the better in these times!