“What is at stake with quantum theory is the very nature of reality. Should reality be understood as something completely impervious to our interventions, or should it be viewed as something responsive to the very existence of human beings?”
O’Brien’s book makes the case for bringing a quantum physics lens to the social sciences and to thinking about social change, even as she acknowledges the doubters and detractors who see this as an inappropriate move. Indeed, in posting about the book on LinkedIn recently, I was a little surprised to see a couple of comments attacking the idea of importing quantum considerations into the human realm. In anticipation of this, O’Brien notes that while quantum and classical physics, as well as the “hard” and social sciences, may have different applications, they are not totally separate from each other. Furthermore she writes:
“… given the nature of global crises, maybe this actually is an appropriate time to consider how meanings, metaphors and methods informed by quantum physics can inspire social change, and in particular our responses to climate change.”
So I have been doing what she invites – playing with these different ideas and concepts from the quantum realm and seeing what they stimulate. One I want to lift up here is the notion of subjectivity versus objectivity, and specifically that we are always participants in the world, never simply “detached observers.” This is not simply meant in an emotional sense, but that our very act of observing is actually an embodied intervention and can change what we see and also how we see the world. This “entanglement” (meant more metaphorically here, rather than in the formal scientific sense) asks us to consider how we are already connected, or part of a larger whole.
O’Brien spends some time exploring beliefs as being central to both what is possible and what is actually realized in our lives and world. If we believe we are completely separate from one another, for example. what do we and don’t we consider possible or worth while? If we believe we are more tied or woven, then what might we be inclined to do? The work of Karen Barad is referenced in this respect, pointing out the difference between talking/thinking about “inter-actions” of separate entities versus “intra-actions” among entangled elements within a larger whole. This is not just about a difference in language, but a difference in perceived and acted upon futures.
What comes to mind is a mantra of sorts that Valarie Kaur puts forward in her justice work focused on addressing the dynamics of othering and oppression, as well as in her book See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love –
“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.”
“Time and again, where in small or larger ways the shackles of violence are broken, we find a singular tap root that gives life to the moral imagination: the capacity of individuals and communities to imagine themselves in a web of relationship even with their enemies.”
If we treat the so-called “other” (whether human, other animals, plants … ) as apart from us, or as in some sense fundamentally threatening (“the enemy”), then where does that lead? The point here is that reality is not just “reality out there,” it is also what we make of it. We have a say. We matter. What we believe matters. What we do matters. Embracing “a bigger WE” matters. We can “bring forth worlds,” (to quote Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s Santiago Theory of Cognition) at least to a certain extent. And whether this is about imagining or re-membering, acting “as if” we are joined in something larger can seemingly create tangible results, while also acknowledging that dynamics of power and privilege are important to consider in terms of who may be inclined to make first gestures and how these will be received.
“Between me and not-me there is surely a line, a clear distinction, or so it seems. But, now that I look, where is that line?
This fresh apple, still cold and crisp from the morning dew, is not-me only until I eat it. When I eat, I eat the soil that nourished the apple. When I drink, the waters of the earth become me. With every breath I take in I draw in not-me and make it me. With every breath out I exhale me into not-me.
If the air and the waters and the soils are poisoned, I am poisoned. Only if I believe the fiction of the lines more than the truth of the lineless planet, will I poison the earth, which is myself.”
A few years ago I was diagnosed with a benign tumor on my left acoustic and balance nerve (an acoustic neuroma). As the tumor continued to grow, albeit slowly, I made the decision to have radiation treatment two years ago (six months into our new COVID reality). What was presented as a fairly straight-forward outpatient procedure turned into quite an ordeal as I had a strong reaction to the treatment. What followed was dizziness, terrible tinnitus, poor sleep, muscular pain, headaches and occasional “nerve storms” in other parts of my body. After a few months of extreme discomfort I went to see a very adept acupressurist and holistic healer who made the observation that I seemed to be trying to separate myself from that part of my body, tensing against it, rejecting it, and the result was further exacerbation. With her help, over several months, I gradually got reacquainted with that sensitive area (really getting to know it for the first time), and through slow and steady integrative body work, began to relax and reclaim that part of me in a way that has brought greater ease to my overall system and life.
The very energizing thing about that work with this healer is that it has helped not simply to address discomfort in one area of my body, it has positively impacted other parts that I did not even realize were misaligned and/or listless until this crisis occurred. I take it as ontological truth that I am all of my body (though not simply my body), yet for many years (and especially recently) I had not been acting like that (consciously and unconsciously), with real health-related ramifications. Extend this metaphor (separate –> connected, inter-action –> intra-action) to other “bodies” of different sizes. scales and dimensions, and where might that lead?
What excites me here is acknowledging the entanglements that we do not yet know, or cannot possibly hold in our minds alone given the immensity of the world. This is where “thinking and acting in a networked way,” with some faith and conviction, comes into play for me, along with an orientation towards equity. In particular, I think of the encouragement offered in these words from the late long-time community organizer and political educator Grace Lee Boggs:
“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.”
What critical connections and small moves might we make in this intricate, [vast/intimate] and mysterious world that could yield big and needed changes in our communities and lives?
“i think of movements as intentional worlds, or perhaps more accurately as worlds designed by and for intentional people, those who are able to feel the world not as an unfolding accident of random occurrences, but rather as a massive weaving of intention. you can be tossed about, you can follow someone else’s pattern, or you can intentionally begin to weave and shape existence. and yes, the makeup of your web is the same matter as all that already exists, but your direction and pattern can be new, unexpected, agitating new growth. what results from your efforts depends on your intention.”
– adrienne maree brown
I recently returned from a week-long vacation with family to the so-called Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and a particular location that is deeply nourishing and meaningful for its landscape, its link to family history on my wife’s side and (perhaps for these times) an unusual sense of community. I count myself privileged to have had the time and the opportunity to be in that place with those loving people, with that sense of multi-generational connection.
Heading back “home,” I could feel the tension mounting as my wife and I talked about re-entry. Before thought, my body tightened in anticipation of the return to the mundane daily tasks, to-do lists and un-answered emails/phone messages. The morning after our return, I somewhat absent-mindedly dipped toes into social media and felt my blood pressure rise. “What am I doing?” I wondered, even as I continued to wade in, pulled by questions about what happened while we were away and what new opportunities might be presenting themselves – FOMO (“fear of missing out”) in full effect. When I closed the laptop, perhaps 30 minutes later, I was aware of my stiff neck, shallow breathing, hunched shoulders, and whirling brain. Saved by a 12 year old daughter almost yelling, “Dad, c’mon, let’s get outside and play ball!”
As much of a proponent as I am of collaboration and networks, I am struck by how I can get a bit caught in the approach/avoid loop of connection, and mired in questions of “How to connect?” and “How much is enough connection?” and “What kinds of connection do I really need?” As I engage with others, I realize that these are pretty fundamental ponderings for navigating a more viscerally entangled world.
“When our ancestors spoke about a web of life, they were describing what Western science calls quantum entanglement. They understood that we all originated from the same seed of life, and when that seed exploded and carried life across our universe, we remained connected. Quantum entanglement tells us that any matter once connected physically can never be disconnected energetically (or spiritually).”
– Sherri Mitchell (Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset, “She Who Brings Light)
More and more is being written, spoken and (re)-presented about the fundamentally interconnected nature of our lives, and of Life writ large. In a beautiful essay in Emergence Magazine (“When You Meet the Monster, Anoint Its Feet”) , which weaves connections between climate change, race, racism, evolutionary biology, ecology, myth and narrative, Bayo Akomolafe offers …
“Perhaps most important about this time is that the image of the human is being composted—or, we are experiencing great difficulty determining where the nonhuman stops and the human begins. Everything touches everything else in the Anthropocene—an observation that is supported by, say, current thinking about ‘holobionts,’ assemblages of bodies within bodies within bodies, or intersecting communities that toss out notions of separable individuality. We are holobionts.We live and are lived through; we are composite beings, companion species, emerging within and among assemblages.”
And, as Akomolafe later shares from his indigenous and experiential knowledge, bodies and beings transcend time. More recent research into intergenerational trauma (see the work of Resmaa Menakam and Thomas Hubl) shows that our bodies indeed know the score, not only of our own individual pain, but the suffering passed through our ancestral lines. Husband and wife, and astrophysicist and physician, team Karel and Iris Schriyver, in their book “Living With the Stars,” add that our bodies are always in dynamic exchange with … the wider universe! Our cells die and are replaced by new ones, renewing our entire biological makeup, using food and water as both fuel and construction material. This rebuilding happens by using elements captured in our surroundings and cycled through geological processes, all extensions of galactic explosions and ripples and atoms that formed through collisions with our planet’s atmosphere eons ago.
We are entangled in a multiplicity of ways, containing and residing within multi-dimensional multi-scalar multitudes. I find this simultaneously liberating, dizzying, humbling and dumbfounding. Knowing that everything is interconnected can inspire a profound sense of belonging and ease, yes, and sometimes it can make it a bit hard for me to plan or get through the day!
And so here we are, exquisitely entwined, and yet also individuals, or at least bounded organisms with a sense of individuality, of distinction, of the need to preserve the integrity and dignity of something called “me” or “self.” And the question of these times would appear to be how we can honor a healthy sense of self/individual, whole communities, and Life, all at once.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activity neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
– Thomas Merton
While there have been understandable and important pushes to get beyond the individualistic and atomistic view, I have the feeling that some of this emphasis, as with all pendulum swings, can go a bit too far. Seeing the world as profoundly interconnected might drive a strong desire to reclaim a kind of forgotten birthright, and in my experience, it can also result in getting lost, especially if it is guided by an underlying desire to fully understand, grasp and/or control it all (colonial mindset?). Or if that drive is purely to belong to something, anything, no matter its underlying values, to spare the pain of felt/perceived separation.
A certain view in contemporary physics holds that the world, the universe, is entirely made up of an infinite amount of information, a vast expanse of sensory inputs that all taken together would be utterly overwhelming to our individual apparatus. And so we have our human senses as filters to sift through, make sense and identify/assemble what is most … useful, interesting, advantageous. The point is, there is always more than meets (or at least is taken in by) our eyes, ears, nose, tastebuds, touch, etc. This calls to mind the ladder of inference, a framework we teach at IISC that helps people remember that we are often recycling conclusions we have drawn from a very partial understanding of reality, and that it might behoove us to expand our “view” to reach more helpful (just, prosocial, sustainable) conclusions and actions.
That said, simply taking in more, or making more connections, may not lead to a better place, if it results in overwhelming nervous systems. So it seems there is a balancing act here. Just as we often can’t do something new without letting go of something old, there is a need to modulate what one takes in – news, ideas, people, and possibilities. Connection and flow management. Energetic discernment. Intentional dis-connection and dis-entanglement.
What might this look like in this networks upon networks networked world? A few thoughts …
“Between you and me, now there is a line. No other line feels more certain than that one. Sometimes it seems not a line but a canyon, a yawning empty space, across which I cannot reach.
“Yet you keep reappearing in my awareness. Even when you are far away, something of you surfaces constantly in my wandering thoughts. When you are nearby, I feel your presence, I sense your mood. Even when I try not to. Especially when I try not to. . . .”
– Donella Meadows
In a previous post, I shared some of 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 a person has. Connectivity and related flows can be ruled by a relentless growth imperative(capitalism?)that is not strategic or sustainable. More connections require more energy to manage, meaning there may ultimately be fewer substantive ties if one is spread too thin. Instead, the invitation is to think about how to mindfully maintain a certain number of manageable and enriching strong and weak ties, and think in terms of “structural holes.” For more on this social network science view, visit this VNL blog post “We want to let you in on a network science secret – better networking is less networking.”
Over the last several years, I have been playing with a set of about a dozen principles (give or take) for network thinking and action. One that seems quite helpful here is the saying, “Do what you do best and connect to the rest.” As ecosystems become more robust and complex, individual participants are invited to carve out more specific niches, and be oriented towards synergistic and supportive relationships with others. In other words – stop trying to do it all, or connect to it all! It’s not possible, it can create unnecessary competition, overwhelm and inhibit “collaborative efficiencies.” This also aligns with a metric of energy network and systems science (see below), which focuses on the importance of a diversity of roles in healthy living systems. Share and spread the wealth!
As just alluded to, the emerging field of “energy systems science” points to a number of different factors or indicators that contribute to long-term living system (including human systems) health and thriving. Four of these indicators fall under the heading of “measures of flow.” Thinking about how these apply to our own and/or collective in-take and sharing of information/energy might be helpful for knowing what is “sufficient:”
Robust cross-scale circulation: How rapidly (too fast?/too slow?) and well do a variety of resources reach all parts of an individual/social body?
Regenerative return flows: To what extent does the individual/social body recycle resources into building and maintaining its internal capacities? Is there too little (depletion)? Is there excess (hoarding)?
Reliable inputs: How much risk and uncertainty is there for critical (health promoting) resources upon which the individual/social body depends?
Healthy outflows: What impacts do the individual/social body’s outflows have externally?
On a more personal tip, I have been married for almost 20 years. What has perhaps been one marriage from the outsider’s perspective has been many from the inside, as other long-standing intimate partners can surely appreciate. We have learned and grown over the years. One important lesson has been knowing when we are too enmeshed and need to separate for some time. There is a point of diminishing returns in many of our heated discussions/ arguments, and if we do not dis-entangle or dis-connect, we have learned, we can do damage to the relationship.
Along the same lines, two of our daughters are identical twins, now twelve-years old. What we have observed about them is what we have heard about many twins – they are truly uniquely connected. There are many times when we quietly watch with fascination as they, seated on opposite ends of the room, engage in similar gestures (scratching their heads with the same hand at the same time, for example) seemingly without direct awareness. Quantum entanglement in full effect! And they can get themselves enmeshed at times and in ways that drive each of them, and the entire family system, to the edge. They are learning that they need and how to differentiate and take space, even as they have a natural gravitational pull to their other half.
Knowing when to create a bit of a boundary (what Buckminster Fuller once called, “a useful bit of fiction”), a separate amniotic sack if you will, and when it is optimal to connect more fully often requires attention and discernment, for all kinds of relationships.
“Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.”
– Ben Okri
The movie The Social Dilemma and the work of Douglas Ruskhoff (see Team Human) both point to the perils of getting caught up in our increasingly socially mediatized world. The algorithms behind these powerful tools are designed to capture our attention, pressing our buttons oriented towards hedonism (“likes”) and fear/outrage. A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly(“You Really Need to Quit Twitter”) points to how difficult it can be to break this habit. This is not to say that these tools are inherently bad or evil. They are certainly formidable, and require considerable attention and intention. Social media fasts and limited dips can help, as well as being mindful about what and why we are both sharing and consuming (see this other recent post for some considerations on this – The Wisdom of W.A.I.T.ing: Mindful Sharing in a Network Age.
If dis-engagement is not an option or ideal, there are a number of practices I have been learning and using that can help to manage energy exchanges, both in-person and virtual:
From the Rockwood Leadership Program, I learned the practice of imagining that my body is like meshwork (think a fishing net), when something intense is coming at me, so that it can pass through me, and I don’t use too much energy resisting or having it get stuck in my body/psyche.
From a couple of local trauma therapist who focuses on racialized trauma, I have learned the practice of using imaginative “shields” (in my mind’s eye) on the outside and inside of my body, to allow for energy coming in or going out. Silver shields on the exterior repel unwanted energy, and on the inside they keep precious energy in. Grey shields allow some energy in or out.
From a number of practitioners, I have learned the practice of slowing my breath to manage energy flow, in-take and circulation.
From Qigong Master Robert Peng I have learned how to use a “circuit breaker” for the life force (or “chi”) moving through me by enclosing my thumbs with the fingers on each hand, which can diminish intense energy flows when engaged with others.
Also from The Weston Network, I have learned about the practice of embodied energetic balance when reaching out to make contact with others, while not over-extending, and also maintaining a firm sense of grounding and dynamic flexibility. I have also been reminded, helpfully, that balance is never static. We are constantly in motion, if we are alive, and when “most balanced,” are actually able to recover quickly from being extended or engaged in some way. So a question to carry is “What supports my ongoing ability to recover?”
From Harold Jarche, I have learned many ways of managing personal knowledge development through mindful connection to different networks in ways that ideally make them all “smarter” and don’t simply ask them/me/us to work “harder.” Of particular help is knowing what one can reasonably expect in terms of energetic flow and return from work teams versus communities of practice versus one’s wider social networks (see image above).
And in general, I am embracing and making space for more silence, solitude and stillness, challenging some of my deep seated anxieties about losing connection and a sense of belonging in the world (what some would say FOMO is really about – for more about this, see this informative talk by Tara Brach).
And there are SO MANY teachers out there and much wisdom to glean that I certainly welcome others to share! It is my hope that many more of us can become adept energy and flow scientists/artists/healers/workers as we intentionally weave patterns that are the basis of the better world we sense is possible and know is necessary.
“The point of solitude is to give yourself time to grow in your own way, while the ultimate goal remains the difficult task of love and connection.”
– Damion Searls (from the introduction to a new translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet)
Ever since I started working formally with networks of various kinds, some 17 years ago, and started blogging on a regular basis, about 11 years ago, Harold Jarche has been a teacher and an inspiration. Both the content and method of his writings have helped me to better appreciate the importance of living into uncertainty and playing with networked ways of thinking, learning and doing.
I had the pleasure of taking Harold’s Personal Knowledge Mastery course several years ago, and just finished savoring Perpetual Beta 2020, a collection of his writings generated through 2019 and 2020. As Harold says in the forward to his book, “Now we need to connect, adapt, and find our new normal.” In the spirit of working and learning out loud, and Harold’s Friday’s Finds that he offers on his blog, I am sharing some of the nuggets of wisdom I took from my reading of Perpetual Beta 2020 over the past month, in the form of 20 of Harold’s quotes and 4 quotes from others he references, and certainly invite readers to check out Harold’s work in more of its fullness.
“The great work of our time is to design, build and test new organizational models that reflect our democratic values and can function in an interconnected world.”
“Radical innovation only comes from networks with large structural holes, which are more diverse.”
“It will only be through our collective desire to learn with others and build networked organizations that we can build a better world.”
“Intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivation is necessary for complex and creative work.”
“The primary perspective in social networks should be empathetic. … From this perspective of trying to understand others, our actions in these networks should be driven by curiosity.”
“So it is important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all philosophy in terms of successful innovation. The one constant is that you able to be open to change and new points of view.”
– Shaun Coffey
“Social networks provide a fertile environment to share ideas. But we need a safer place to test ideas, so we turn to our trust communities of practice.”
“In the network era, learning and working are tightly interconnected.”
“Organizations need to understand complexity instead of adding more complication.”
“Trust emerges over time through transparency and authenticity, practiced by people working out loud. Credibility is earned through collective intelligence, developed through an active questioning of all assumptions. Finally, a focus on results is enabled through both collaboration and cooperation, and is further enhanced by subsidiarity- the promotion of the furthest possible distribution of all authority.”
“Learning faster is not about taking more courses or consuming more information. It’s about having better connections.”
“We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!”
– Donella Meadows
“Change the business models and change the world.”
“Without Autonomy we are disengaged. Without Competence we are ineffective. Without Relatedness we are aimless.”
“Research shows that work teams that need to share complex knowledge need tighter social bonds.”
“Meta skills [learning how to learn, working in networks] require ‘meta time.’”
“Network leaders understand that first we shape our structures, and then our structures shape us.”
“We are innately a friendly species, but we need environments which allow us to optimally express our inclination to be friendly.”
– Nicholas Christakis
“In networks, it is best not to inflict too much power on individuals and instead learn how to distributed power to help the whole network make better decisions.”
“The more diverse our networks, the more diverse our thinking can be.”
“You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice.”
“With increasing chaos, creativity is becoming even more important. Look for the misfits and find a way to work with them.”
“As individuals, there is one thing we can all do, without anybody’s permission. We can become better learners.”
“How can we listen to tomorrow if we have yet to clarify what belongs to yesterday? We don’t just need new maps that order the world in the same old ways. New vision is required. New ontologies reshape the map and reshape us. So we should listen to the future. Whose voices do we hear? [Ursula] Le Guin writes, ‘which is farther from us, farther out of reach, more silent – the dead, or the unborn?’ To listen, we must first be present.”
Image by Clearly Ambiguous, “Solar System,” shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
Last week, I was invited to a convening held by the Social Impact Exchange to do some work with funders who are considering and/or investing in systems change (as opposed to say programmatic) strategies. The invitation was to kick the convening off by helping to “open minds and hearts to new ways of thinking and doing.”
At IISC, we have been playing with what it means to “think,” given what can tend to predominate in many maintstream settings is highly analytical, disembodied and heart-dismissing approaches. Our belief is that we need to (re)claim the fullness of our intelligence in order to create the more beautiful world we know is possible. As our friends at Management Assistance Group have written:
“Too often, we stay in generalized and practical knowing, rarely dipping into foundational knowing or artistic knowing in meaningful ways. By not intentionally drawing on these, our theories and action plans are often disconnected from our values and beliefs, and the bedrock experiences of our lives.
Moreover, privileging one way of knowing over others marginalizes and ignores other truths that people bring from other ways of knowing. This marginalization often lies at the core of conflicts, systemic barriers to change, and inequity.”
To support people in this direction of more holistic knowing, we are creating more space to explore our individual and collective interiors, sit in and with spaciousness and silence, explore reality and possibility in more embodied ways (movement!) as well as engage in deeply relational interactions that can be heart and soul expanding.
At one point during our opening, I offered a collection of systems-oriented quotes and sayings and invited people to do a self-organized group read of them (whoever felt so moved to speak, though only one quote to a person). People were asked to pay attention to what moved inside of them as they read and heard these quotes. This was done, in part, to help dislodge people from unexamined thought patters. I was explicit about this and introduced the exercise with these words from quantum physicist David Bohm:
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
When the group was over, and after a moment of silence, people were invited to share with a partner what they were most struck by and why. You are invited to do the same with the words below, to read in silence or aloud, to share any reactions and resonance and also to offer other systems-focused quotes/sayings that you have found to help open and expand some aspect of your thinking.
Image by Matthias Ripp, “Planetary System,” shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
“A system cannot fail those it was never intended to protect.”
– W.E.B. DuBois
“The problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint.”
“We act as if simple cause and effect is at work. We push to find the one simple reason things have gone wrong. We look for the one action, or the one person, that created this mess. As soon as we find someone to blame, we act as if we’ve solved the problem.”
– Margaret J. Wheatley
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
I recently re-read portions of Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows. This second update to the original 1972 report from the Club of Rome affirms that current business-as-usual resource usage globally has our socioeconomic systems headed toward collapse shortly after the year 2050. The update reiterates the necessity of taking the impending crisis seriously and mobilizing quickly to adopt strategies such as:
While all of this serves as a strong wake-up (or stay awake) call, what most caught my attention was the concluding chapter, where the authors move from discussion of the technical fixes required to get us on the right track to a serious appeal to more adaptive approaches.Read More
How focusing on diversity, flow and structure in human networks can be a foundation for great change.
Over the past couple of years, we at IISC have partnered with a few different social change initiatives that have engaged in system mapping to both align diverse stakeholders and surface leverage points for collective intervention. In looking back at these different mapping processes, it is striking the similarities of the areas of focus that have been identified, despite the variety of issues being addressed (food system fragility to educational disparities to public and environmental health). Across these efforts, common areas of leverage have surfaced around:
One of my mantras around network building and social change is that creating greater (and new forms of) connectivity is not simply a “so that” or a “nice to have” but is really an “as” and critical to the work of systems and structural change. This is echoed is some way, shape or form in many of the posts that appear in this space, and I think it bears repeating. Consider the following:
“Whether we learn how to love ourselves and others will depend on the presence of a loving environment. Self-love cannot flourish in isolation.”
Isolation can kill. Science shows how loneliness and social isolation can ravage the body and brain. As noted in an article in The New Rebublic – “A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer.” And who are the lonely? In many cases the poor, the bullied and oppressed, the “different.” When we consider how isolation can impact genes, we see how the cycles of poverty and oppression can play out at a fundamental psychobiological level. What this calls for, in part, is work that reconnects those who are currently in isolation and on the margins from/of myriad social goods including emotional support, tangible services and other critical resources.
Disconnection breeds irresponsible behavior and prejudice. Science is helping us to understand the role of implicit bias in all of our lives and in society. Furthermore, the work of people like Paul Piff shows how those with considerable privilege who isolate from the rest of society (and keep to their own) tend to lose touch with empathy and any sense of egalitarianism. As my colleague Cynthia Parker notes, “Engaging with people unlike ourselves in situations that involve meaningful activity [and] counter-stereotypic experiences” helps to eliminate biases. In other words keeping and strengthening direct connection is a key part of the work for equity and democracy.
“If you bring the appropriate people together in constructive ways with good information, they will create authentic visions and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of the organization and community.”
In our work at IISC, we occasionally reference David Chrislip’s “collaborative premise” (see above) as a way of orienting people to some of the key components of effective collective and net work. Given our emphasis on effective stakeholder engagement and process design, we generally focus on the first two elements more so than the last around good information, which does not mean we think it doesn’t matter. In fact, recently I’ve been observing some interesting dynamics around the data conversation in various network building and collective impact projects that we support.
Invariably, it seems that there are those who are quite concerned about ensuring that a given collective effort has the “right data” and that people are being “rigorous” in their approach to problem/opportunity analysis and solution generation. While understanding the need to have and use good data, we also think that it’s important to ask the question – Data for what? People often say they want data to ensure that they are not making uninformed and overly subjective judgments. Understandable. Furthermore it is sensible to want to seek out a baseline to be able to measure progress as a change effort moves forward. This said, I see a number of pitfalls in what can sometimes become the drumbeat for data.
At this point a couple of networks with which I am working have reached or are reaching the three year mark in their formalized existence. By many accounts, this is a milestone and inflection point worth noting, as these initiatives have built significant connectivity (depth and breadth) and alignment (shared sense of common identity and direction) among key and diverse actors. Furthermore, there has been a real proven capacity of these networks to meet individual self/ organizational interests in terms of learning, new partnerships, and a broader community/marketplace of support. And there is a growing appetite for and interest in how this all adds up to significant system change. Another way of framing this is people are wondering how they can activate the next level of the system to bring all of their interactions to a place where there is greater abundance, opportunity, and impact. Read More
The other day I was working with an emerging inter-institutional collaboration of universities looking to move the needle on “transitioning to sustainability.” Like so many other conversations that I am a part of these days, there were bold visions tempered by structural realities, including robust conversation about internal constraints to the kind of progress people are striving to realize. These constraints are not simply internal to our organizations in the form of protocols and politics, but also to our thinking. As David Bohm once wrote,
“Thought is creating divisions out of itself and then saying that they are there naturally.”
And so there is a call to constantly “mind the lines” that are not simply “out there,” but that are conscious and unconscious projections of our thoughts, and that do not serve our intensions. Perhaps no one says it better than the late Donella Meadows in a piece from which I read the other day and have pulled extracts below. For the entire essay, visit the Donella Meadows Institute.
From “Lines in the Mind, Not in the World” by Donella Meadows (December 24, 1987)
The earth was formed whole and continuous in the universe, without lines.
The human mind arose in the universe needing lines, boundaries, distinctions. Here and not there. This and not that. Mine and not yours.
That is sea and this is land, the mind thinks, and here is the line between them. See? It’s very clear on the map.
But, as the linguists say, the map is not the territory. The line on the map is not to be found at the edge of the sea. . . .
Between me and not-me there is surely a line, a clear distinction, or so it seems. But, now that I look, where is that line?
This fresh apple, still cold and crisp from the morning dew, is not-me only until I eat it. When I eat, I eat the soil that nourished the apple. When I drink, the waters of the earth become me. With every breath I take in I draw in not-me and make it me. With every breath out I exhale me into not-me. . . .
Between you and me, now there is a line. No other line feels more certain than that one. Sometimes it seems not a line but a canyon, a yawning empty space, across which I cannot reach.
Yet you keep reappearing in my awareness. Even when you are far away, something of you surfaces constantly in my wandering thoughts. When you are nearby, I feel your presence, I sense your mood. Even when I try not to. Especially when I try not to. . . .
I have to work hard not to pay attention to you. When I succeed, when I have closed my mind to you with walls of indifference, then the presence of those walls, which constrain my own aliveness, are reminders of you.
And when I do pay attention, very close attention, when I open myself fully to your humanity, your complexity, your reality, then I find, always, under every other feeling and judgment and emotion, that I love you.
Even between you and me, even there, the lines are only of our own making.
|Image from Pegasus Communications|http://www.pegasuscom.com/course_preview/gettingstarted/whyiceberg.htm|
Systems thinking is in the air. This past weekend I was delighted to have the opportunity to teach an introductory course on the topic with John McGah of Give Us Your Poor. Together we took 17 graduate students in the UMass-Boston MSPA program through an intensive and interactive look at the world through the systems lens. Even before we got things rolling on Saturday morning, the pre-reading (Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems) had provoked two people to say that they were already seeing the world differently (and more clearly). By the end of our 36 hour romp, which included guest presentations by David Peter Stroh and Paul Plotczyk, students were saying that all public sector employees, nay EVERYONE, should be required to take a systems thinking course. All of this enthusiasm comes just a week in advance of Pegasus Communications’ annual systems thinking conference here in Boston, which has a focus on “Fueling New Cycles of Success.” I am very excited to attend, and look forward to building upon the wisdom I’ve gleaned thus far about surfacing and living with systems (human and otherwsie), which includes these gems: Read More